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Zimbabwe / Economy - 2002-02-11

Economists say the increasing violence that has accompanied farm occupations is adding to the deteriorating situation. But the government of President Robert Mugabe has encouraged the occupations, arguing that they will give more Zimbabweans access to land and will eventually lead to economic productivity. Thirty-six year-old gardener and caretaker Lovemore Jangano suggested we meet in his bedroom in Avondale, a neighborhood in Central Harare. Lovemore Jangana is a high-school dropout. He shares the twin bed at the corner of the 3 by 2 meter bedroom with his seven-month pregnant wife Jennifer. The room is also used as a kitchen and sitting-room. The room is usually filled with music blaring from the local FM radio station. “When I think very hard, if I turn on the radio, then I can hear some of the music which can lessen my burden, my mind, so I can feel relieved from that music.” Frustration over the economy has led to a series of strikes and protests in recent years. Only six years ago, an average Zimbabwean family of six could use just 100.00 Zimbabwean dollars (about 2 US dollars) to buy two loaves of bread, a pint of milk, a kilogram of beef, 20 kilograms of the staple maize meal and some vegetables – and still have some change left over. But according to figures from the Central Statistics Office, the same family today has to fork over a little more than one thousand Zimbabwean dollars to buy the same basket of groceries. Lovemore Jangana says he is disappointed in President Robert Mugabe today, -- he says “the freedom fighter’s” promise of a better life for all Zimbabweans at independence in 1980 has not been realized. “ If you try to compare from 1980 (the year of independence) to 1999, I use to work as a general hand (helper) in a building construction. And I use to earn 40 Zim. Dollars, for a forth night, that from that 40 dollars, I use to buy my trousers, shoes and shirt, and some surplus to buy my family some food. So it’s different from 1980 to 99, also compared to 2000 and 2001. Today if you go to the shops with 1500 (Zim. Dollars), it’s nothing – even with 2000 (Zim dollars), you cannot buy grocery which is sufficient for two people.” Inflation has reached an all-time high of 97.9, and is expected to close the year at 100 percent. The Zimbabwe dollar, once on a par with its American namesake, is now trading at 55 to one at the official rate against the US currency. The black market rate is 300 Zimbabwean Dollars to one US dollar. Economic analysts say the impact of the sharp increase in the cost of basic foodstuffs has been most severe on low and middle-income earners, whose salaries have been eroded by more than 75 percent in the past year. Unemployment is hovering around 50 per cent. Observers say this is associated with falling disposable income and company closures. Most companies and farms that produce raw materials have either closed or have been forcibly occupied by war veterans, in most cases, with the support of the government. Agriculture Minister Joseph Made insists the government’s land reform policy is vital to the economic development of Zimbabwe. “Land is the economy and the economy is land. What we are doing we’re looking at land from an inheritance point of view, that we’re entitled to this land, that is in the hand of a few. And we’re also looking at it from the point of view that land is massively under-utilized in this country or not utilized at all. So what we see is really a drive to buoyancy in our economy, to buoyancy in our food security, in our economic growth and employment creation.” Analysts say President Mugabe’s decision to commit thousands of troops to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has also contributed to the problem. Government spending on the DRC conflict is estimated at 3 million Zimbabwean dollars a day. Recently, Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank acknowledged that attempts to penetrate the international market are proving more and more difficult because of the widening price differences between the country and its major trading partners. The bank cites increasing inflation in neighboring South Africa, Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner. Just this week, South African President Thabo Mbeki warned that civil war could break out in Zimbabwe if next year's presidential election is not free and fair and if press freedom is restricted in the run-up to the poll. Today, the US House of Representatives passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001. The bill provides guidelines for U.S. engagement with Zimbabwe. It expresses U-S interest in assisting the Zimbabwean people with economic development and provides funding for such efforts when the rule of law has been established and when free and fair elections are possible.