[Republished at PFP with Agence Global permission.]
In 1980, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (now 83) began with a working democracy, a sound infrastructure, and a healthy economy. The country has none of that anymore. Inflation is now the highest in the world. There is no work and little food. What food there is is used to control the population: Support Mugabe or starve.
When President Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, the country was thriving. Its health and education services were the envy of the region and, thanks to a first-class infrastructure and a healthy economy, the future looked bright. It doesnâ€™t look like that now.
One Friday morning, the ritual queuing began at first light in the centre of the capital, Harare. As dawn broke, two separate lines intertwined on the corner of Lake Takawira Street. The longest was motivated by a rumour that circulated around the city overnight that there was bread in town. Up and down the line people were on mobile phones, texting and calling friends to give them the latest information. Yet many people walked away empty-handed. When bread and flour do come on the market, they are often bought up in bulk and re-sold at inflated prices on the black market, which is the real market.
Itâ€™s not just bread. Those who have the purchasing power buy what they can: maize, cooking oil, or beans, often at government-subsidised prices. Instead of supplying the domestic market, they export the goods to neighbouring Mozambique or Botswana to earn precious foreign currency, although the poorest in Zimbabwe can barely afford one meal a day.
â€œIf I donâ€™t get the bread today, who knows, maybe I wonâ€™t be able to afford it tomorrow,â€ a woman in the bread queue told me. She was probably right. Within a month inflation, which already stood at 7,900%, the highest in the world, was widely reported to have jumped to 14,000%. For those lucky enough to have a job -- unemployment is about 80% -- inflation rates destroy their wages. Teachers are still being paid around 12m Zimbabwean dollars a month, about the cost of six litres of cooking oil.
Absence of cash
The second queue was for the Post Office Savings Bank where scores lined up to withdraw money. The value of the Zim dollar has fallen so sharply that the government canâ€™t print enough notes to keep up with demand. On a bad day, by the time the last in line reaches the cash dispenser the currency will once again have fallen in value.
The government further tightened the screw on the availability of hard cash by halving the daily limit one person can withdraw from an ATM. The queues on Takawira Street will lengthen.
The impact of this economic meltdown is much more serious than having to birdie the ninth to fill a fuel tank or being forced to stand in line for cash. Four million citizens will need food donations to make it through the next four months. Zimbabwe gets much of its electricity from South Africa but supply is at best sporadic a direct effect of the fact that Mugabeâ€™s government canâ€™t pay its electricity bills. All over the country, dams are drying up and people are digging their own wells or making do with foul water supplies.
The downward spiral of the economy even affects the dead. In rural areas people can no longer afford to buy coffins for their loved ones. Neither can they afford to register their deaths. Nobody knows exactly how many people are dying in Zimbabwe from hunger or disease. In Bulawayo, the state-owned newspaper, the Chronicle, regularly published the number of deaths from starvation until the government banned that.
Contaminated water, poor nutrition and a HIV/Aids rate of 15% would put heavy demands on any health service. But in Zimbabwe it is failing people when they need it most. Public hospitals are almost at a halt; if a patient needs a simple procedure, like a couple of stitches or an injection, the instruments or antiseptic might not be available. Two weeks ago, three of the main hospitals were without electricity for more than four days. Fires burned outside the kitchen doors so staff could cook to feed patients. Half of all medical posts are now vacant as doctors leave for London, Dublin or Sydney.
Absence of medicines
Dr. Andrew Fairbairn, a white Zimbabwean, whose family has been here for two generations, is one of the few who havenâ€™t left. He runs a private clinic on the outskirts of Harare. Every week he watches the gradual decay of the health system. â€œMedical care is almost not available to people who canâ€™t afford it, so that someone needing surgery or chronic medication cannot get it.â€ He was making plans to travel to Baghdad for two months as a doctor-for-hire to earn foreign currency before coming home. He is struggling to keep his clinic going because of the severe drugs shortages and the spiralling cost of treatment. â€œItâ€™s shocking to see some elderly people coming in here, wasting away, losing weight because they can barely afford to buy food,â€ he said. â€œMany people are cutting their medication in half, or not taking it at all. They come to me and ask me which of their medicines they can do without because they canâ€™t pay for them.â€
The shortage of medicines has placed pharmacists in the frontline of the battle to treat a population in desperate need of care. Restricted by price or unavailability, pharmacists occasionally stock medicines not registered by the Zimbabwean authorities. Friends of Fairbairn have been arrested and thrown in jail for days for attempting to supply their customers with drugs they need. â€œA couple of pharmacies have been closed down. Itâ€™s common for them to be arrested on a Friday so that they squirm in an overcrowded cell all weekend without access to a lawyer,â€ he said.
Fairbairn claimed he was determined to stay in Zimbabwe no matter how much conditions deteriorate. â€œI feel an obligation to stay until things come right again.â€ And when might that be? â€œI am thinking something might change after next yearâ€™s elections, but then I am a committed optimist.â€
â€™Support the ruling partyâ€™
Robert Gabriel Mugabe believes he knows the outcome of the presidential elections next March; he will win. In almost three decades in power, he has efficiently quelled dissent and outmanoeuvred all opponents. He has been consistent in ensuring his ruling party, Zanu-PF, always succeeds at the ballot box. And he uses every means: intimidation, torture, forced exile. Infiltration of communities and of the opposition, by his Central Intelligence Office (CIO), help him stay in total control.
But as the economy of Zimbabwe continues to disintegrate, his most effective tool is the manipulation of food for political ends. Through the state-controlled Grain Marketing Board, the government holds the sole right to import and distribute maize, the staple of millions of Zimbabweans. Throughout the country, as elections loom, the message is clear: Support the ruling party and you will not starve.
â€™Show your Zanu-PF cardâ€™
Jacob switched on the battered radio and his small, dilapidated shack was flooded with pounding hip-hop. His baby daughter lying on the couch woke with a start as our small group pulled a little closer together. â€œJust so they will not hear us talking,â€ Jacob said, explaining that CIO operations are common in the area. â€œNow you can go ahead and ask your questions.â€
His home is in Tafara, a huge township about 20km west of Harare. Jacob is a monitor with the Zimbabwean Peace Project (ZPP), a human rights NGO which tracks political violence and intimidation. On the couch beside him was Saveri Mafunga, 32, a victim of Mugabeâ€™s efforts to shore up support ahead of the 2008 elections. He was refused subsidised food because he does not support Zanu-PF.
Saveriâ€™s voice shook a little. He was nervous. He knew it was dangerous to talk to journalists or human rights groups. It is officially illegal to criticise the government. Unofficially, he could be beaten or tortured for doing so. One side of his face was lit by the sun streaming through the window and he looked gaunt and tired as he said he was sick with worry that he wouldnâ€™t be able to feed his wife and baby daughter.
Two weeks before, he went to a government food distribution point near his home. Officials were handing out maize, beans and cooking oil at subsidised prices, all that most people can afford now. He checked if his name was on the register and was relieved to see it was. For months he had hustled for part-time work, but there wasnâ€™t nearly enough to keep up with runaway prices.
â€œWhen I got to the top of the queue I was asked to show my Zanu-PF card,â€ he explained. â€œI do not have one and they told me that even though my name was on the list, that I was entitled to food, there would be nothing for me.â€ The government official told him that there was no record of his attendance at Zanu-PF meetings and if he wanted food, he should get it from Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition party in Zimbabwe. â€œI am also asked for a Zanu party card when I look for work and often there is no work without it,â€ he said. â€œI donâ€™t know what we are going to do now to survive. Anything I have, I get from friends and from good neighbours.â€
This has been declared a drought year in Zimbabwe and now is the beginning of the hungry season. Human rights organisations say the government is using food as a political tool against millions of people who are now at their most vulnerable. The ZPP has recorded hundreds of people being refused subsidised food because they donâ€™t support Zanu-PF. Their project director, Jestina Mukoko, fears this tactic will have the desired effect at the ballot box: â€œPeople might be forced to vote with their stomachs, simply because they want to guarantee their food. For many people it is a matter of survival.â€
The project has evidence of discrimination against those too young to vote. Some households, where both parents are dead and the eldest child is caring for younger siblings, are being denied food if the parents were suspected or known to have supported the opposition. â€œChildren are having to suffer for the â€˜sinsâ€™ of their parents,â€ Jestina claimed. â€œTo want to see somebody go hungry when food is available is inhuman. I think it is within the powers of the authorities to sort it out.â€
The government has free rein to manipulate its own subsidised food and has also attempted to interfere in the distribution of international food donations. Between now and next March, the UN World Food Programme will feed 3 million in Zimbabwe. When WFP officials first negotiated the distribution of donor food, there was a stand-off with the government. The ruling party wanted community chiefs -- most of them loyal to Mugabe -- to decide where the food would go. The WFP refused to go along with this but has occasionally been forced to suspend distribution because politicians have, to quote a WFP spokesman, â€œtried to make their presence feltâ€ at distribution points. â€œWe have a very rigorous and thorough process in place for handing out food, from registration all the way through to distribution. The beneficiaries get food strictly on the basis of need,â€ the spokesman said.
Justina Mukoko believes there is a low level of manipulation of international donations: â€œLists are compiled in the community and I think it takes the international organisations some time to realise that people are being left out.â€
Hope of exile
â€œI think it would be better if we were killing each other in the streets every night,â€ the owner of a small hotel in Bulawayo told me as we shared a beer on my last evening in the country. â€œThen perhaps the world would have to do something.â€ That day he had been forced to serve notice to half his staff and feared he would soon have to leave the country.
Instead, Zimbabweans suffer a slow strangulation of their society. Intimidation by the government is crushing them. Fear prevents most people from speaking out or rising up. If they can, they leave. Each week, more and more families are being ripped apart as husbands or wives, or both, leave their children behind and make for Mozambique, South Africa or Botswana.
Most people have two hopes: that they will make it safely across the crocodile-infested Limpopo river, which forms a natural barrier between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and find a way to survive in exile; or that their 83-year-old president will not live to inflict many more years of chaos and oppression on his people.
Aoife Kavanagh is an Irish journalist who regularly reports on Africa.
Â© 2007 Le Monde diplomatique
Released: 05 December 2007
Word Count: 2,256
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.
Released: 05 December 2007
Word Count: 2,256