'We have no food, no work and no money'
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
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
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
Journalists without accreditation risk being arrested
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
"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
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 Mois 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
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
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
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
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
The bridegroom was convicted last week of rape of a
minor. The girls 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Zimbabwes chiefs have benefited from
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 Mugabes 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
When the Mail & Guardian visited the area,
Nkomos 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
Residents said Nkomos 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,"
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
Sibanda said HIV/Aids
worsened the situation in his area. "We have an
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
"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 Zimbabwes skewed
exchange rate system. The Zimbabwean dollars 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
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
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
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
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 governments price controls on
foodstuffs mean that companies are forced to operate at
a loss and eventually they are also forced out of
"The problem is that Zimbabwes 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
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
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 Nationss latest report on the
humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe shows that 62% of the
countrys 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.