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."
Official government figures in May put the nation's annual inflation rate at 1,042.9 percent, though private economists say the real figure is close to 2,000 percent, with shoppers forced to carry bags of freshly printed currency to pay for even the smallest purchases. In contrast, all of Zimbabwe's neighbors--South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique--are registering impressive economic growth as a result of free-market policies.
The nation's economic collapse has been accompanied by social decline. The World Health Organization puts life expectancy for Zimbabwean women at 34, the lowest in the world. Some 3,000 people a week die of AIDS-related illnesses despite a recent decline in the spread of the HIV virus. As many as 3.5 million Zimbabweans, many former farm laborers, have given up hope and fled to South Africa, Botswana, and Britain. "Zimbabwe is heading toward a catastrophe," says Bulawayo Mayor Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube. "We urgently need a leader to come out from the rubble."
Mugabe, however, shows no sign of leaving soon. In fact, there is speculation he plans to postpone the scheduled 2008 presidential election so he can remain in power until 2010, when presidential and parliamentary elections would be held concurrently. What may happen after Mugabe finally goes is anybody's guess. Many observers predict a fierce internal struggle within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front Party that could spill into violence. The political class is not providing much of an alternative. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change recently split into two rival factions and is unable to offer any resistance to the politics of the government.
The regime finds itself increasingly isolated. Mugabe has called for "bridge building" with the outside world, but apart from China, Malawi, and Cuba, there are few takers. "Absent the recognition on the part of the government that it needs to make some hard choices and undertake a profound transformation, bridge building is just another diplomatic gambit," says the outspoken U.S. ambassador, Christopher Dell.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe tumbles ever more deeply into a police state. Students are beaten, arrested, and jailed for complaining about a 300 percent rise in school fees or for taking down Mugabe's portrait from a schoolroom. Radio and television stations are under tight government control. Although a few independent newspapers continue to publish, the widely circulated opposition Daily News has been shut since 2003. The bureaucracy has been militarized, with retired high-ranking officers now heading ministries, minding the activities of the Central Bank, and sitting as judges. "People are being held, imprisoned by Mugabe's forces, Mugabe's laws. They are harassed, fearful; they are not free to talk," says Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube, one of the regime's most ardent critics and himself a frequent target of government bullying.
Yet most of the victims, like Fredy Mwachipa, are quiet bystanders. A year ago, police showed up in Mwachipa's poor district on the outskirts of Harare and ordered him and his neighbors to destroy their homes. It was part of the government's declared urban cleanup campaign, called Operation Murambatsvina ("Drive Out Filth"), which left at least 700,000 people without homes and businesses. The real priority was to disperse disaffected slum dwellers before they could coalesce into a threat to Mugabe's rule. "The police came in trucks, went into the houses, and told everyone to get out," Mwachipa explains, sitting inside the wood and plastic sheeting structure donated by a local charity that is his new home. "They said we must take everything out and destroy the house. 'You are no longer living here,'they said."
Mwachipa and his wife and four children, as well as hundreds of neighbors, were trucked to a farm. He and most of the others were allowed to return one month later after producing land deeds proving they owned their homes. By then, however, the police had used picks and shovels to finish the work of destroying the dwellings. "We fault the president," Mwachipa, a night watchman, says softly. "He is not ruling the country the way he is supposed to." On that, there is no question.
This story appears in the June 12, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.