When Prices soar and hopes plunge
In Zimbabwe, a disaster of one man's making
HARARE, ZIMBABWE--It has been said that a million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to. You don't have to tell that to George Sanyika. A gardener in one of the capital city's major hotels, Sanyika earns 6 million Zimbabwean dollars a month (equivalent to U.S. $59), barely enough for essentials at the supermarket. What's more, he is growing poorer by the day in a nation beset by the worst inflation in the world, running as high as 2,000 percent a year. On June 1, the government put into circulation the new 100,000-Zimbabwe-dollar bills--worth 98 U.S. cents--just four months after introducing the 50,000-dollar bill, which no longer even covers the cost of a loaf of bread. "When I go to the shop, things are up, up, up," he says, gesticulating skyward with his hands and arms. "When I buy soap, cooking oil, margarine, and maybe milk, then I've spent my 6 million."
Hyperinflation is only one sign that Zimbabwe, once seen as a star of post-colonial Africa, is in an economic death spiral. Over six years, the economy has contracted by nearly half. There is 80 percent unemployment, and farm output has collapsed. Once a major tobacco and cotton exporter and the potential breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe today depends on international food aid to feed fully half of its 12.2 million people.
How is it that a country that is rich in natural resources, that once boasted a well-educated workforce and competent government, has fallen so far? Blame President Robert Mugabe, whose increasingly repressive misrule is dooming millions here to a life of misery.
When the territory then known as Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980, after a civil war that killed 30,000 people, Mugabe essentially followed the economic policies he inherited from Ian Smith's white minority-rule government--policies that produced solid economic growth until the late 1990s even as most of the rest of Africa was becoming poorer. For years, Mugabe, the revolutionary fighter turned independence hero, resisted pressures from war veterans to deliver on his promises to them. They wanted generous pensions and the redistribution of rich farmland controlled by white farmers, a legacy of the country's British colonial past.
But by 1997, with a faltering economy fueling discontent, Mugabe put his own political survival ahead of his country's economic survival. Faced with voters' startling rejection in 2000 of proposed constitutional changes to strengthen presidential powers, Mugabe promoted the violent takeover of white-owned farms as a way of regaining popular support--and rewarding political allies, who claimed some of the best land. The number of white commercial farmers fell from about 4,000 in 1999 to some 400 today. And after six years, many of the farms are either abandoned, their once fertile fields overgrown with weeds, or producing a fraction of their former output. "Zimbabwe's collapse can be traced to a single policy: its fast-track land-reform program," Prof. Craig Richardson of Salem College argued in a recent paper.
Dying city. The nation's woes are evident in its second-largest city, Bulawayo, a pleasant enough place with brightly painted one- and two-story buildings and wide streets. Now, pedestrians amble in the streets since few drivers can afford gasoline. Department stores, reasonably well stocked, draw few shoppers, and restaurants are mostly empty. At the industrial park on the city's outskirts, plants are running just two or three days a week, if that, lacking the foreign exchange to import raw materials. "Bulawayo today is a dying city with a frustrated people and an army of unemployed, young and old," says Gordon Moyo, the executive director of Bulawayo Agenda, a civic group. "You still see the beautiful buildings, but inside those buildings people are hungry."