Anger Mounts in Zimbabwe As Crisis
by Michelle Faul
Zimbabwe is reaching the end game, witnessing
the last, desperate throes of a regime that has destroyed one
of Africa's few successful economies, plunged millions of people
into grinding poverty and led to the deaths of tens of thousands
from malnutrition and lack of medical care.
It may not happen Saturday, when President
Robert Mugabe celebrates his 83rd birthday with cake and champagne
at a $1.2 million party while hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans
struggle to survive on bread and water.
And it probably won't happen in the weeks
leading up to April 18, the 27th anniversary of an end to racist
white rule and Mugabe's ascension to power.
But years of abuse and neglect are culminating
in untenable crises.
"People's anger is mounting,"
said Zimbabwean political scientist John Makumbe. "They're
no longer afraid to go into the streets and I think the government
is growing very afraid of what may happen."
The world's worst hyperinflation is spiraling
out of control, bringing shortages of food, fuel, medication and
electricity. Police have banned demonstrations in opposition strongholds
in the capital, Harare, for three months. And criticism is mounting
within Mugabe's ruling party, which is divided over who will succeed
him and when.
"Each and every individual on the
upper echelons" is jockeying for his position, Mugabe complained
in an interview on his actual birthday, Wednesday, broadcast over
the country's sole and state-owned television station.
But, he announced categorically: "There
are no vacancies because I am still there."
Mugabe blames sanctions, drought and former
colonizer Britain for the collapse of an economy based on exports
of a wealth of agricultural and mineral products.
Others blame land grabs over the past
several years in which Mugabe encouraged blacks to violently force
out most of the 5,000 white commercial farmers who owned 40 percent
of all agricultural land and produced 75 percent of agricultural
White farmers had employed the country's
largest work force and their ejection led to the displacement
of 300,000 families. The farms, most given to Mugabe relatives,
allies and cronies, lie fallow today and Zimbabwe does not have
the foreign currency to import food.
The World Bank estimates it would take
more than 20 years for Zimbabwe's economy to return to levels
in 1980, when the country was considered the breadbasket of the
The ban on protests followed weekend clashes
in which police fired tear gas and turned water cannon on opposition
rallies. The opposition had planned to protest the high cost of
living and Mugabe's plan to extend his term to 2010.
Mugabe is "at war" with its
people, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai declared this week.
The National Constitutional Assembly,
a coalition of human rights, church and grass-roots organizations,
issued a statement Friday criticizing the police action.
"It's not a crime to defend oneself
from an unlawful attack, and if need be (people) should protect
themselves from a partisan, violent police force that aims at
perpetuating dictatorship and increasing the suffering of the
ordinary masses," the statement said.
Meanwhile, people are finding it increasingly
difficult just to survive.
The rate of hyperinflation -- running
at near 1,600 percent -- that economists say soon will be represented
by an upright line on a graph has the country in revolt. The number
of Zimbabwe dollars that bought a three-bedroom house with a swimming
pool and tennis court in 1990 will buy a brick today.
A lifetime public worker's monthly pension
can't buy a loaf of bread. Charities have reported depression,
suicide and malnutrition among retirees -- including a type of
vitamin deficiency affecting gums, bones and hair loss.
A hairdresser paid the minimum monthly
wage of $30,000 Zimbabwe dollars said her bus fare to work cost
more than her salary but she went anyway to get the tips from
clients that keep her and her daughter alive.
The list of deserters on the walls of
army barracks grows ever longer despite a 300 percent pay raise
in January, which fell short of the military's demand of a 1,000
percent increase. The police chief in Harare has said in a confidential
memo that he fears his constables will riot.
Doctors and nurses have been on strike
since December and the rest of the civil service is threatening
to join them.
Makumbe, the political scientist, said
an estimated 70,000 people have died this year because there are
no drugs in hospitals and medical equipment like dialysis machines
doesn't work any more.
He said one 16-year-old boy who broke
his collar bone falling out of a tree has lain at home in pain
for days because his widowed mother does not have the million
Zimbabwe dollars needed to have the bone set.
Bread disappeared off the shelves this
week after the government increased the price of grain sold to
millers by 10,000 percent but did not raise the controlled price
for bread. Water shortages have caused a cholera epidemic that
has killed dozens since November, medical officials said.
Children have been among the first to
suffer, with one in four Zimbabwean children orphaned and more
than 2 million at risk of starvation, the U.N. Children's Fund
The government has tried to control inflation
by printing money and setting the exchange rate. Last year, when
half a dozen eggs cost more than a million Zimbabwe dollars and
the poorest Zimbabweans were millionaires, the government simply
knocked three zeros off the currency. The minimum monthly salary
for a house cleaner went from $15 million to $15,000 Zimbabwe
dollars. The official exchange rate is set at 250 Zimbabwe dollars
to one U.S. dollar, but the real trading rate is 5,000 to one.
Some Zimbabweans are getting rich off
the misery. Party and government officials with access to foreign
currency buy it at the official rate and then resell it at the
real rate, making a huge profit.