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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


       
     

'We have no food, no work and no money'

Date:     12 Feb 2003

In the city centre, where not many of the buildings — except the high-rise office blocks along the main streets — have seen fresh paint in the past decade, they stand in queues for the better part of the day.

There are mealiemeal queues, bread queues, cooking oil queues, salt queues and sugar queues. Some streets in the inner city are forever deserted. All one sees are parked cars (cars spend more time parked than on the road because of chronic fuel shortages) and random bits of rubbish blown in by the wind.

Most people I spoke to said life in Zimbabwe is a lot harder than it was a year or two ago. The collapse of the commercial farming sector has left tens of thousands of people destitute.

A Harare resident said the level of desperation among the people is very high. "The food situation here is very worrying indeed, and it is happening in a country that was once the bread-basket of Southern Africa," he said.

Last week Zimbabwean retail shop owners complained that poverty has led to a massive increase in shoplifting.

People are committing one offence after another. More than 20 new cases of shoplifting are recorded at most courts each day. Most cases reported involve theft of basic commodities such as soap, cooking oil, sugar, clothing and even building materials.

In Maphisa, about 100km outside Bulawayo, residents complained that they are forced to eat caterpillars and maggots because of the food shortage.

"We have no food, no work and no money. How are we supposed to feed our families now?" asked Mathews Sibanda. "If you walk around here, you will see that the stomachs of children are growing bigger and swollen by malnutrition.

"We have no food, no work and no money. How are we supposed to feed our families now?" asked Mathews Sibanda. "If you walk around here, you will see that the stomachs of children are growing bigger and swollen by malnutrition.

We often get food aid, but the distribution is inconsistent. Some people are also excluded from food aid because of their political affiliation," he said.

Sibanda said HIV/Aids worsened the situation in his area. "We have an HIV/Aids council in the area.

 

The council is supposed to organise food and clothes for people affected by the disease. But political differences have hindered that process. None of the 24 wards in Matobo have submitted their programmes to the district Aids coordinator.

"According to statistics about 200 people are dying of Aids every month and we have 400 to 500 new infections every month. Besides that we have orphans who are no longer attending school. There is a fund which is supposed to support them, but it is not," he said.

Sibanda said the people in his area also do not have access to proper health care. "The Maphisa Central hospital has collapsed. There are no drugs in the hospital, but you have to pay about Z$120 to be treated. People do not have any money to go to hospital. A lot of them die at their homes as they cannot afford to go to hospital."

Although a local mining operation in the area was providing jobs for the people, the majority is still unemployed, he said.

The acute shortage of fuel and the lack of foreign currency have led to a massive industrial crunch. It has also led to a massive boom of the so-called black market, which runs a parallel foreign exchange service.

At the centre of it all is Zimbabwe’s skewed exchange rate system. The Zimbabwean dollar’s official rate to the United States dollar stands at Z$55 to US$1. The official exchange rates for the British pound and South African rand, are Z$75, and Z$8 respectively.

The massive economic crisis is easy to notice. Industrial areas in Harare and Bulawayo resemble ghost towns as many companies have closed shop, shedding hundreds of jobs. In both cities most supermarket shelves are empty, but massive queues can still be found throughout the day. The people disperse only when the shops close for the day.

"You cannot leave the queue because you do not know when food will arrive. If you move, you will miss out," one woman said.

With inflation running at 198%, the incomes of the few who are still lucky enough to hold on to their jobs have been severely eroded. An average worker earns between $20 000 and $30 000, but has to spend about $500 on transport daily ($15 000 a month).

In addition, people have to cope with a transport system that has collapsed as a result of fuel shortages. Daily a steady stream of people can be seen walking and cycling along the road during rush hour in both Harare and Bulawayo. A number of them say they are tired of waiting long hours for buses, others say they simply cannot afford the exorbitant fares

ARCHIVE

 

'We have no food, no work and no money'

Date:     12 Feb 2003

Zimbabwe, as I allowed myself to imagine in the final days before I went there, would be rowdy and in the terrifying grip of a barbaric militia, brandishing long knives.

In my imagination there were images of thousands of frail Zimbabweans thronging the city streets and villages. The security forces, I imagined, would be stiffly military, tight-lipped and hostile; anxiously efficient on duty and abandoned when off.

Reality? A week in Zimbabwe reflected what I had envisaged and more: glaring mass poverty, a massive economic crisis and high levels of political intolerance from the ruling party and its security forces.

On my arrival last Friday, four foreign journalists, including a reporter for a local daily, were detained by the police. The following week two South African-based journalists were arrested for taking pictures of an empty grain silo.

The Zanu-PF militia also stepped up their reign of terror, torturing opposition members at Kuwadzana near Harare ahead of a by-election there.

Working as a journalist in Zimbabwe has become a risky business. The government has enacted new media laws that make it very hard for journalists, especially foreign ones, to cover the ongoing crisis in that country.

The laws require local journalists and newspapers to get an annually renewable "licence", at the discretion of the government. Foreign journalists are required to get accreditation before they leave their home countries.

Journalists without accreditation risk being arrested and deported.

Although I was a bit concerned about the consequences, I did not try to get the accreditation as it would have been a futile exercise.

Last year Zimbabwe Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo warned that "elements [journalists] who sneak into the country without accreditation are operating illegally.

"If caught they might take a long time to go back to their home country," he said.

Despite my initial qualms I agreed to go. My first stop was Harare, the capital. The plan was to spend three days there before I dashed off to Bulawayo.

I landed at Harare International airport with a scrap of paper in my pocket. On the paper was the name of a person I was supposedly visiting and his address. After a short interrogation at the checkpoint the immigration officer allowed me in.

It was about 8pm. The lights in the airport foyer did not provide much brightness, but one could still see a string of portraits of President Robert Mugabe hung on almost every wall in the airport building.

At the hotel a picture of Mugabe was hammered into the brickwork in the reception area. Almost every hotel and public institution has one or two photos of the 78-year-old president in black suit and large spectacles.

I had witnessed this phenomenon in Kenya last year. I wonder what the new Kenyan government has decided to do with former president Daniel arap Moi’s portraits, which were also a common sight in private and public buildings. The reader must excuse me for not doing my research on that one.

On my first day in Harare I woke up at 6am. By 7am I was on the streets. It was a wet and grey Saturday morning. A light drizzle was falling like confetti, melting into the empty pavements. There were few signs of life, just the occasional shriek of taxis and the blistering shunt of buses driving in and out of the city centre.

Each sound echoed briefly, then was swallowed by the silence. Some shops on Samora Machel Road were open, but there was nobody much about.

Harare is a drab city. It has a population of 1,6-million. The people here rise each day with a glare on their face and run out to the city, determined to succeed.

In the city centre, where not many of the buildings — except the high-rise office blocks along the main streets — have seen fresh paint in the past decade, they stand in queues for the better part of the day.

There are mealiemeal queues, bread queues, cooking oil queues, salt queues and sugar queues. Some streets in the inner city are forever deserted. All one sees are parked cars (cars spend more time parked than on the road because of chronic fuel shortages) and random bits of rubbish blown in by the wind.

Most people I spoke to said life in Zimbabwe is a lot harder than it was a year or two ago. The collapse of the commercial farming sector has left tens of thousands of people destitute.

 

One of those people is Abraham Banda (46). Banda used to work on a tobacco farm outside Harare before the white farmer was forced off the land. With no prospect of employment in the countryside, Banda, like many other people who once worked on commercial farms, has drifted to Harare.

He shares a single-bedroom flat with seven other people. He arrived in Harare eight months ago with the hope of finding a job. He has not found a position yet.

Banda said he relies on food aid to survive. Every morning, along with hordes of visibly frail Zimbabweans, he goes to various churches in Harare hoping to get a meal. He often does not get one.

"Sometimes I have spent more than three days without food. I am really suffering. I hope the government can do something about this problem," he said, adding that he had once collapsed from hunger while queuing for food.

"I pray every day that someone out there gives me food. People I know have died in the villages because of lack of food. I wish that I will not have to die due to hunger."

A Harare resident said the level of desperation among the people is very high. "The food situation here is very worrying indeed, and it is happening in a country that was once the bread-basket of Southern Africa," he said.

A recent case, in which a man married off his 10-year-old daughter, despite her protests and threats to commit suicide, to a 58-year-old friend in return for mealiemeal paints a stark picture of the level of desperation.

The bridegroom was convicted last week of rape of a minor. The girl’s father died in a prison cell.

Locals say such cases have become common in the country as the economic crisis continues to bite. Stories of people eating worms and grass have been common in the local media in the recent past.

Last week Zimbabwean retail shop owners complained that poverty has led to a massive increase in shoplifting.

People are committing one offence after another. More than 20 new cases of shoplifting are recorded at most courts each day. Most cases reported involve theft of basic commodities such as soap, cooking oil, sugar, clothing and even building materials.

In Maphisa, about 100km outside Bulawayo, residents complained that they are forced to eat caterpillars and maggots because of the food shortage.

"We have no food, no work and no money. How are we supposed to feed our families now?" asked Mathews Sibanda. "If you walk around here, you will see that the stomachs of children are growing bigger and swollen by malnutrition.

"People are starving here. It is not unusual here for a person to spend more than four days without food. Children are often given one meal a day," the 50-year-old said.

The food crisis has affected attendance at the local school. A teacher at Minda Primary School said some classes that used to have 100 pupils now have half that number.

Sibanda blamed politicians for the problems in his area. He should know: he is a former Zanu-PF councillor for Maphisa. He was fired from Zanu-PF at the end of his term last year for cooperating with the opposition in his area.

Maphisa is one of the 24 wards in the Matobo District. The governor of Matobo is Stephen Nkomo, younger brother of the late Zimbabwean vice-president Joshua Nkomo.

Stephen Nkomo is ill and has been in hospital for the past three weeks. Mugabe visited him last week, while in Bulawayo for a meeting with more than 200 traditional leaders.

At the meeting Mugabe promised to give each traditional leader a car.

"I guess it will not be difficult to buy 266 cars for our chiefs," the president said. It is not the first time Zimbabwe’s chiefs have benefited from Mugabe’s regime.

They were recently awarded allowances of Z$50 000 (about R6 250) a month. In addition to the cars, the chiefs will soon receive cellphones and homes with an electricity supply. Yet the same chiefs are often accused of worsening the conditions of the rural poor.

Last week a Zimbabwean daily newspaper carried a front-page headline: "Chief sells maize as the villagers starve". The daily claimed that food aid aimed at villagers was being sold by the chief on the black market. The chief apparently sold a 10 litre bucket of mealiemeal for Z$5 000.

After the meeting with Mugabe the chiefs pleaded with him not to retire before the end of his term. "Stepping down now will be a betrayal of the people," they said.

People in Maphisa disagree with the chiefs’ stance. They believe Zanu-PF has failed to rule the country. The hopes and aspirations that political independence promised have been shattered by Mugabe’s misrule, they say. They also slate Nkomo for failing to rise above the challenges facing his district.

Nkomo is not only a politician, he is also a businessman. He owns the only petrol station in the Matobo District.

When the Mail & Guardian visited the area, Nkomo’s petrol station was deserted. An old car battery was pushed neatly out of the way against a wall. There was little traffic on the road alongside the petrol station and, like so many other tiny roads snaking nearby, it led nowhere.

The road from Bulawayo to Maphisa was a marvel — it is so narrow it can only accommodate a single car. There are signs every 10km warning "deadly hazard".

The tarmac has been worn away in places, revealing the grey cobblestones of the road underneath. It is not worth repairing.

Residents said Nkomo’s petrol station has been without fuel for about seven days. However, they were quick to point out that the fuel crisis was not a major concern to them.

"People are unemployed and hungry. Every day they scavenge in the nearby woods for roots and fruit. People eat almost anything here, including worms," Sibanda said.

He added that food distribution to his area has been hampered by political infighting.

"We often get food aid, but the distribution is inconsistent. Some people are also excluded from food aid because of their political affiliation," he said.

Sibanda said HIV/Aids worsened the situation in his area. "We have an HIV/Aids council in the area.

The council is supposed to organise food and clothes for people affected by the disease. But political differences have hindered that process. None of the 24 wards in Matobo have submitted their programmes to the district Aids coordinator.

"According to statistics about 200 people are dying of Aids every month and we have 400 to 500 new infections every month. Besides that we have orphans who are no longer attending school. There is a fund which is supposed to support them, but it is not," he said.

Sibanda said the people in his area also do not have access to proper health care. "The Maphisa Central hospital has collapsed. There are no drugs in the hospital, but you have to pay about Z$120 to be treated. People do not have any money to go to hospital. A lot of them die at their homes as they cannot afford to go to hospital."

Although a local mining operation in the area was providing jobs for the people, the majority is still unemployed, he said.

The acute shortage of fuel and the lack of foreign currency have led to a massive industrial crunch. It has also led to a massive boom of the so-called black market, which runs a parallel foreign exchange service.

At the centre of it all is Zimbabwe’s skewed exchange rate system. The Zimbabwean dollar’s official rate to the United States dollar stands at Z$55 to US$1. The official exchange rates for the British pound and South African rand, are Z$75, and Z$8 respectively.

On the black market the US dollar trades at Z$1 500, the British pound fetches Z$2 200, and the rand sells at Z$150.

In Bulawayo locals have nicknamed Fort Street, where the black market operates, the "World Bank of Zimbabwe". Women operate the "bank". They sit all day on the pavements waiting for customers. Most of them carry more than Z$1-million (R125 000) at a time. The only acceptable foreign currencies are the US dollar, British pound and the South African rand.

Undercover police patrol the pavements, but they have failed to curb the activity. The black-market supplies businesses with foreign currency, which they use to import goods. In addition to providing a foreign exchange service, they also sell rare commodities such as mealiemeal and sugar. They also sell petrol and paraffin.

The black-market prices are, however, beyond the reach of millions of Zimbabweans. Petrol costs Z$1 000 a litre on the black market, while the official price is Z$74,47.

The price of petrol was last reviewed in 1999 despite movement in the price of crude oil, the steep decline of the Zimbabwean dollar against hard currencies and escalating inflation.

One car dealer in Harare had the following to say about the situation: "If you want to go by the formal sector and the official exchange rates in Zimbabwe, you will be out of business within minutes, if not seconds. The government’s price controls on foodstuffs mean that companies are forced to operate at a loss and eventually they are also forced out of business.

"The problem is that Zimbabwe’s exchange rate system is so distorted that for those who are forced to follow it they find themselves failing to sustain their business operations," the dealer said.

The massive economic crisis is easy to notice. Industrial areas in Harare and Bulawayo resemble ghost towns as many companies have closed shop, shedding hundreds of jobs. In both cities most supermarket shelves are empty, but massive queues can still be found throughout the day. The people disperse only when the shops close for the day.

"You cannot leave the queue because you do not know when food will arrive. If you move, you will miss out," one woman said.

With inflation running at 198%, the incomes of the few who are still lucky enough to hold on to their jobs have been severely eroded. An average worker earns between $20 000 and $30 000, but has to spend about $500 on transport daily ($15 000 a month).

In addition, people have to cope with a transport system that has collapsed as a result of fuel shortages. Daily a steady stream of people can be seen walking and cycling along the road during rush hour in both Harare and Bulawayo. A number of them say they are tired of waiting long hours for buses, others say they simply cannot afford the exorbitant fares.

Many people say they are forced to walk more than 40km a day to get to work because buses do not always show up. Fuel woes have also hit cross-border transport operators, who are forced to charge customers higher prices in order to sustain their businesses. A trip from Harare to Johannesburg costs between Z$16 000 and Z$30 000.

Accommodation is also extremely expensive. Rent in the inner city starts from about Z$10 000, while in the suburbs the minimum rental for a single room is between Z$3 000 and Z$4 000. These prices exclude water and electricity.

Houses for sale in the suburbs fetch between Z$20-million and $40-million. An old 1986 Mazda 323 will set you back between Z$3-million and Z$5-million and a decent meal for four people at a restaurant costs more than Z$4 000, without drinks.

A chicken burger, without chips, at a restaurant fetches about Z$1 600; a mixed grill at a Spur about Z$6 000 and a can of Coke about $500. A cup of coffee in Zimbabwe costs Z$400.

The United Nations’s latest report on the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe shows that 62% of the country’s population will be in need of food aid in March. This means that 7,2-million people in Zimbabwe will go hungry, an increase from the 6,7-million already surviving on food handouts.

One thing that is easy to find, however, is beer. A Bulawayo resident told me if beer runs dry, maybe ordinary Zimbabweans will know the economy has collapsed. He said it appears that in the past few years of political chaos and economic decline, the brewing industry has become the heart of the Zimbabwean economy.

It is a convincing claim. In almost every village, even the remotest, the liquor stores were stocked. Even though food is not reaching villages, beer is. Natisa Village, about 60km outside Bulawayo, has three liquor stores and one food store in one small shopping complex.