Zimbabwe Crisis: No Solutions in Sight

By David Gorimbo

HARARE, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2007 (ENS) - As the sun rises on the new year in Africa, there seems to be no solution ahead to a disastrous political and economic situation in Zimbabwe that only deteriorates faster by the day.

The shameful state of the nation heaps dishonor on both the ruling ZANU PF party and the fractured opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, analysts argue.

With no respite in sight to the problems that have bedevilled the country for the past seven years, Zimbabweans were greeted in the early days of 2007 with the news that the official inflation rate had reached a new record high of 1,218 percent.

bank notes

These are Zimbabwe bearer cheques, so-called money that has an expiry date. (Photo courtesy Sokwanele)
That is far ahead of the world’s second highest inflation rate - about 60 percent in Myanmar/Burma. However, economists believe officials are understating a true inflation rate of near 2,000 percent, with the International Monetary Fund predicting that Zimbabwe’s inflation will exceed 4,500 percent before the end of the year.

Such runaway figures make it difficult for Zimbabweans to calculate their plight mathematically. But more than 80 percent of the workforce are only too aware that they are without jobs, as businesses lay off staff at an accelerating pace or simply close.

Meanwhile, the minority who are still in work have seen the real value of their incomes slashed by inflation as they watch prices of essential goods rise daily and as they grapple with rising transport costs, house rents, and medical and school fees.

They watch the public infrastructure crumbling as they suffer under constant electricity and water cuts and the flooding of their streets and back yards from broken sewer pipes that no longer get repaired.

The crisis, almost universally blamed on mismanagement by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF government, is fueling unprecedented political tensions in a country that for two decades after independence in 1980 was regarded as one of the most stable and prosperous in Africa.

Mugabe

President Robert Mugabe has been in power in Zimbabwe since December 31, 1987. (Photo credit unknown)
Public resentment is so great that most analysts now believe that unless Mugabe and his colleagues can address the country’s multiple problems they will face dangerous public unrest before the year is out.

Among a raft of grievances, there is massive anger over Mugabe’s plan to postpone a presidential election scheduled for next year until 2010, by when Mugabe will be 86 years old and will have been in power for 30 years.

The crisis has been made worse by a serious split in the Movement for Democratic Change, which until three years ago was seen as a real contender for power to lift Zimbabwe from the catastrophe that has engulfed it. The failure of the two shards of the splintered MDC to close ranks and come up with a united plan to alleviate the suffering of the majority of Zimbabweans has caused widespread disillusion.

"The whole economic decline will reach rock bottom this year and the social upheaval that will result from it can bring down the present government if it is not contained," said John Robertson, the country’s leading independent economic consultant.

evictees

People evicted from their homes by the government in 2005 shelter in overcrowded conditions in a church yard in Bulawayo. The government has since evicted these people from the church and transported them to the rural areas. (Photo courtesy Sokwanele)
Robertson spoke as the latest fuel shortage to grip Zimbabwe threatened to bring the entire southern African nation to a halt, with only a handful of garages in Harare and other centers still selling petrol and diesel to commercial transport companies and motorists.

Queues for food have also lengthened in recent weeks as more retailers have run out of basic commodities whose prices have been frozen by the government in what it says is an attempt to protect consumers from the soaring cost of living.

But manufacturers, hurt by the freeze on prices which they say are now below the cost of production, have scaled down production of controlled products, worsening the shortages that already characterized Zimbabwe’s economic crisis following mismanaged agrarian reforms.

The price controls have further stoked a black market in almost all products. The cost of goods has risen by more than 1,000 percent in the past year, making even basic foodstuffs unaffordable for most people.

men

Some of Harare's homeless young men get together to rehearse a play at the Streets Ahead drop-in center. (Photo courtesy Kubtana)
According to recent statistics, about 3.3 million Zimbabweans, more than a quarter of the population, need emergency food aid because of the land reform disaster and drought.

That figure is expected to shoot up because the few farmers still attempting to grow foodstuffs have received inadequate supplies of seed, fertilizer and machine spares as a consequence of the collapse in foreign exchange earnings by manufacturers, miners and farmers.

Political scientist Rangarirai Shereni predicted that the pressures building on the government because of the economic crisis would this year force it to re-engage with the international community and its opponents at home in order to avert a revolt by a population stretched to the limit.

"The economic situation has reached depressing levels and all the symptoms of a total collapse are now evident,” said Shereni. "This situation is unsustainable in the new year because it will cause a social explosion that can undermine the government."

But some analysts said Zimbabweans should not underestimate ZANU PF’s trump card - its iron control of the defence force and powerful legislation that it can wield to crush dissent. Laws such as the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act give the government near-dictatorial draconian powers that hamper free expression, freedom of the press and the right of assembly.

The web of oppressive laws, some of them retained from the days of white minority rule, have been used to haul government critics before the courts. The government is also putting new "terrorism" and spying laws on the statute books.

workers

The three young boys rest from their labors on an arid farm in Gutu Province, southern Zimbabwe. (Photo courtesy ACT International)
The country’s economic collapse is causing huge problems inside the ruling party. But the MDC is probably in even worse condition than the beleaguered ZANU PF.

The MDC will now either sink or swim on its ability to convince the nation that its ideas for resolving the country’s political and economic problems are achievable.

"In the past year, both MDC factions have managed to survive under repression, but the challenge they face now is how can they bring in a new dispensation to stem the economic crisis. It is high time they came together," said Robertson.

He said the proposal by the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai of a transitional government that would pave the way for internationally supervised elections was a realistic compromise and could be the starting point for re-establishing some kind of stability from which to launch a more general recovery. He said the proposal might be welcomed by ZANU PF moderates, who know Mugabe has to go sooner or later.

"The international community is not going to deal with Zimbabwe while Mugabe is still on board. Anyone else will do instead. The situation is desperate and every effort has to be made to avert a social upheaval this year," said Robertson.

The first sign of that upheaval is a countrywide strike by doctors demanding salary increases of 8,000 percent to compensate for earnings eroded by hyperinflation. The strike has worsened the situation at public hospitals, whose administrators were already grappling with shortages of critical drugs, wholesale breakdowns of equipment because of lack of funds to buy spares, and the flight of doctors to countries such of the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa for better pay and conditions.

hospital

Harare's Parirenyatwa Hospital (Photo courtesy Footsteps)
At Parirenyatwa, Zimbabwe’s biggest hospital in Harare, Rita Kamungeremu pointed to her 23 year old daughter, an AIDS patient lying motionless on the pavement near the hospital entrance, and said, “She can’t talk, eat or do anything, but there is no one attending to her.”

It could almost have been an epitaph for Zimbabwe itself as 2007 begins.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. David Gorimbo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.}