"My country is on life support," writes a Zimbabwean reporter in a vivid account on how impossible life has become in Zimbabwe. This is the first in a series of iWitness reports on the crisis there.
-- By a FRONTLINE/World
Empty Shelves and 400 Million Dollar Bars of Soap
Editor’s Note: Our correspondent is a Zimbabwean reporter based in Harare, the capital. Because of the government’s crackdown on the press, we are protecting the reporter’s identity. This is the first in a series of eyewitness accounts of the crisis there.
It’s hard to be positive when everything around you is crumbling. Hard to believe that my country, Zimbabwe, was once Southern Africa’s breadbasket. The prosperity we experienced is becoming a colorful, distant memory, as we sink further into the abyss.
The people, though, are amazingly resilient. They are warm and welcoming. Even in urban areas, the tradition of greeting visitors with an ice-cold glass of water remains. The weather continues to be something to smile about. In the middle of winter, it’s still beautiful.
But getting by day to day has become a nightmare.
Recently, independent finance houses told me that the country’s inflation rate topped 1 million percent. They predict it could be as much as 5 million percent by October. The numbers are almost incomprehensible, but I am not surprised. I have had to cut my meals. Many cannot afford even one meal a day now. Food prices are out of control.
On a Wednesday, I went into a Spar supermarket in Harare’s posh Greendale suburb to buy a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of laundry soap. I had run out. The price was ZW$400 million. I did not have half that amount and decided to return the Friday after my wages were paid to me. Two days later, when I returned, the same product cost ZW$1.5 billion.
Empty supermarket shelves are now the norm.
My employer has since resorted to paying me every week. It does not make sense to wait until the end of the month. At least my company is still in business. So many others have been forced to close. We get paid half our wages in groceries, whatever the manager can find: flour, salt, sugar, beans. The cost is deducted from our wages. Sometimes, he is compassionate and does not deduct anything.
The unemployment rate hovers above 80 percent. The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries reported in April that the manufacturing sector alone shrunk 60 percent. Most surviving companies are operating below 20 percent capacity. All this comes in the wake of the government’s chaotic land reform program, which started in 2000 and left the country unable to feed itself.
Dejected and hopeless, I walked around the once well-stocked grocery in search of items within my budget. I could not afford to spend the night with these Zimbabwe dollars. They were – and still are – losing value by the minute. But the shelves are empty. A long queue snaked out of the shop and onto the pavement. There must be a delivery of bread, I thought. I decided against joining the line. There’s not enough food to feed everyone. A man was killed last month in the city center during a stampede to buy sugar. The crowd ran over him, frantic for a pack of sugar. It’s survival of the fittest.
At that instant I made up my mind. I would join the trek of thousands of my fellow Zimbabweans to the neighboring country of Botswana to purchase the basic items I need to survive. Top among the necessities: soap, cooking oil, toilet paper and flour.
One Thousand Kilometers to Buy Food
The day I began my journey, the central bank – the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe – introduced higher denominations of notes to keep up with inflation. We now have a ZW$500 million bill. On that day, it could buy just two loaves of bread.
The recently introduced $500 million Zimbabwean note is Zimbabwe’s highest denomination. It’s worth about one U.S. dollar and can buy two loaves of bread.
To pay for my bus trip to Botswana, I nearly had to empty my backpack, which I’d filled with wads of cash. It costs ZW$15 billion to travel to Botswana. That’s the equivalent of 1,500 ZW$10 million bills. At least with the new ZW$500 million note, I can carry the money I need in my handbag instead of multiple backpacks and paper bags. But that, too, will be short lived. These new notes will soon be worthless and discarded on the streets of Harare.
A beggar is allowed on the bus before we depart from Harare’s Roadport station. A passenger drops a bright red ZW$10 million note into the beggar’s palm. He curses her. It’s worth next to nothing.
Soon, the bus is rolling away on a 1,000-plus kilometer journey in search of food.
In between naps, I notice that the landscape looks bare. The once-green Kintyre estate – just before Norton town, 30 kilometers outside Harare – bears nothing but tired, brown grass where winter wheat once grew abundantly.
The next town, Chegutu, resembles a ghost town. Once a major producer of tobacco, it is a sorry sight. All its white commercial farmers have been chased off their land with no compensation. President Robert Mugabe said they must get payment from their "kith and kin" in Britain, Zimbabwe’s old colonizer. Tobacco output, a major foreign currency earner, has dropped from more than 236 million kilograms in 2000 to a projected 73 million this year, according to a farmer’s union.
Farms Sit Idle
These farms were seized in the so-called land reform campaign, but they were not distributed to landless peasants. Top chiefs in the government grabbed them. Some of their wives, mistresses and children have a farm each. In April, a semi-independent newspaper, The Financial Gazette, detailed a divorce court case involving Mugabe’s nephew Leo Mugabe. Leo and his former wife are trying to settle between themselves who owns the farms taken during the land grabs.
When the farms were seized, most had food crops growing in the fields. All the new occupants did was harvest the crops. In most cases, they have not grown anything since 2000. The farms lie idle. Youths too young to have fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war against Britain in the 1970s call themselves “war veterans” and spearhead violent land occupations. But the “war veterans” end up with nothing, save the odd allowance for killing, harassing and chasing off the whites.
Further south, we pass Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, now a white elephant. Electricity outages, water cuts and a stagnant economy have forced most of its once-vibrant industries to close. A good number of its inhabitants have fled to neighboring Botswana and South Africa to do whatever jobs they can find.
Bribes at the Botswana Border
Finally, after Plumtree, we arrive at the border post with Botswana. Zimbabweans wait patiently in a long line, trying to get their passports stamped by customs officials. Hundreds are turned away. The Tswana say there are too many Zimbabweans trying to get in. When my turn comes, I slip the Botswanan currency equivalent of U.S.$1 in my passport. The official grins and stamps. He tells me that at least 2,500 Zimbabweans are entering Botswana every day legally, saying they want to buy groceries. But less than half return. The rest stay and seek asylum or just live as illegal immigrants.
The Botswana government is now deploying its army to secure the border with Zimbabwe. But Zimbabweans still jump the security cordon on foot, risking deportation and wild animals. "Starting next month, we want visas," the Botswana border official warns me.
On the Botswana side of the border, four caged trucks arrive packed with about 350 deportees, escorted by armed police. It's an hourly event. These are the unlucky border jumpers who have no passports and have been caught by Tswana police. Caged and guarded like hardcore criminals, they look desperate. Many vow to cross again once they are dumped on the Zimbabwean side.
After negotiating the border, we make our way to Francistown, about 80 kilometers from the Ramokobgane crossing. Here I meet Zimbabwean teachers, nurses, accountants and engineers who have left their country in search of employment, however, menial. They tell of going door to door, doing laundry for the Tswana. Begging, tending gardens, working on the farms or in the mines, they accept Botswanan wages as low as P3 or P5 a day (about 37 cents or 62 cents in the United States). Even a meal is acceptable payment.
I am angry to think that Mugabe’s government has enriched itself and degraded all these citizens, who trusted it after Mugabe’s forces led the war that brought independence to the black majority in 1980.
A former teacher, 52-year-old Marilyn Chirwa, says to me, "I would rather live under Smith again. We were oppressed, but at least we ate." Ian Smith was Rhodesia's prime minister during the days of white-minority rule. After independence, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
One could mistake Francistown, Botswana, for a Zimbabwean town. There are more yellow Zimbabwean vehicle registration plates than white ones of Tswana. In almost every grocery shop, I hear my fellow Zimbabweans conversing in their local Shona and Ndebele languages.
Soap, Sugar, Oil, Flour, Candles
In the wholesale shop, Jumbo, located in the industrial area, it’s not hard to spot Zimbabweans. They buy everything in bulk -- giant boxes of soap, cooking oil, powdered milk, salt, matches, sugar, flour, candles. The candles make me think of my home. It’s in an affluent suburb of Harare, but I have gone for two weeks without electricity. Government officials call it "load-shedding." The country is no longer generating enough electricity for people’s homes or industries.
The more affluent Zimbabwean shoppers who have made this trip are also buying toilet paper, rice, macaroni and containers for fuel. They load these into their vehicles. Poorer people head for the buses, but back home, they will be better off than the majority. In the midst of biting poverty, at least they can eat for the next month.
I help a 65-year-old woman, Mbuya Taona, load her soap boxes onto the bus. She is grateful and tells me she has six grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. It is all too common a story with thousands of children now living in households with no parents. All her children are dead, except for one who is an illegal immigrant in South Africa. I fear telling her about what was in the paper the previous day.
At least 42 foreigners have been killed and thousands displaced from their shacks in South Africa’s Alexandra and other townships; many are now living at police stations and churches. They are mainly Zimbabweans and Mozambicans. Their crimes? South Africans accuse them of taking all the jobs and good housing. They also complain that desperate Zimbabweans take any job for a few cents and make it hard for South Africans to ask employers for higher wages. Unofficial figures put the number of Zimbabwean economic refugees in South Africa at three to four million.
Maybe these xenophobic attacks on foreigners will wake up South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki who recently said there is "no crisis" in Zimbabwe, apparently to maintain good diplomatic relations with Mugabe. But the people of Zimbabwe cannot eat diplomacy. Mugabe's government has destroyed Zimbabwe, and the world needs to speak out, especially our neighbor, South Africa.
Once the bus is on the road back to Zimbabwe, women of the Apostolic Faith movement break into song. They thank God and their ancestors for the food they have bought. I fall into a deep slumber, tired from lifting so many boxes.
Forgetting What Normal Life Is Like
Before sunset, the bus reaches the border. Immigration officials are lenient with the travelers. They want a small bribe of one Botswana pula from each of us, and in return, we avoid paying a duty on the food and supplies we've purchased. No one refuses to pay. Within minutes, we are on the Zimbabwean side and the bus parks along the road for the night. We all sleep in the bus. No one can afford a motel or lodge anymore. It's an unthinkable luxury.
The next morning we set off. At a police roadblock, the officer wants to see duty-clearance forms for the goods on the bus. It only takes a packet of potato crisps to convince him to open the roadblock. Such is the poverty amongst police, who are often accused of propping up Mugabe's regime. Yes, the top cops remain loyal to Mugabe. They benefited from the farm invasions. But the lower ranks bear the brunt of a harsh economy, just like the rest of us.
After two days of traveling, we arrive back at Harare's Roadport around 5 am. Hungry and expectant families wait in the morning cold. Six other buses arrive in the space of an hour. It's like the Berlin airlift – a convoy of shoppers arriving by bus with food and supplies from the outside world, where life is normal.
Here in Zimbabwe we have almost forgotten what normal life is like. We had our election March 29, and most people believe that Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won, defeating Mugabe, who has been in power for 28 years. But the government delayed the official results for days, and when they were finally announced, officials said Tsvangirai had fallen just short of the necessary 50 percent needed to win. So now, we have a run-off scheduled for June 27, and in the meantime, the MDC says Mugabe's men have killed more than 50 opposition members in a wave of violence across the country.
Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party has already lost majority control of the Parliament in the first round of voting, but the 83-year-old Mugabe seems determined to keep hold of the presidency.
And while this political drama plays out, people are going hungry, inflation is never-ending and there is little hope for economic recovery anytime soon. My country is on life support.