Anger Mounts in Zimbabwe As Crisis Nears

by Michelle Faul, February 23, 2007


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 output.

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 region.

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 said.

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.

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