Monday, December 05, 2005

Zimbabwe's descent into misery

Across Zimbabwe, the scene is the same: townships that were once claimed as models for Africa have become stinking health hazards. The big cities are not much better. Some parts of Bulawayo have not had water for seven weeks. Refuse collection in Harare is sporadic. Power failures are routine.

In small towns such as Bindura and Shamva to the north, rubbish is collected by ox wagon. Zimbabwe is fast sinking into the past.

The meltdown of one of the continent's best infrastructures has been years in the making, the result of underinvestment and mismanagement. But the speed of the decline over the past few months has been astonishing. Zimbabweans long accustomed to hardship cannot remember a worse time.

The crisis is driven by a crippling shortage of foreign currency. Since the seizure of white-owned commercial farms began in earnest nearly six years ago, agricultural output -- the mainstay of the economy -- has dropped by 80 per cent. Without dollars, the Government cannot buy the $162,000 worth of parts it needs to fix the sewage plant in Chitungwiza, where dozens of people have already contracted dysentery. It also cannot buy fuel.

Service stations have not had petrol or diesel for months. Fuel can only be bought on the black market -- at more than four times the official pump price. Air Zimbabwe cancelled all its flights for a day last week due to lack of jet fuel.

Prices have doubled in the past month. Annual inflation reached 411per cent in October, according to official numbers. But TM, a supermarket chain, estimated it was closer to 700per cent, based on a typical shopping basket....

The effects of the economic crisis are visible everywhere. People queue for hours just to buy maize meal, sugar and bread, and pay for a trolley-full of goods with briefcases full of cash. Supermarkets, which change their prices every week, have started installing note-counting machines at their tills.

Only 15 of the country's 175 railway locomotives are in running order. The state-owned Zimbabwe United Passenger Company, which runs Harare's bus services, is broke and has debts of $949,000.

Hospitals are creaking under the strain of the increasing number of patients suffering from malnutrition. In a recent parliamentary report, Harare Central Hospital said it might have to close because so many nurses were leaving -- 30 over the past two weeks -- because of poor wages and a lack of medical equipment. No more AIDS patients are being accepted for treatment because of a shortage of drugs. Thousands of soldiers have been sent on compulsory leave because there is not enough food and money....

In the rural areas, which have been badly affected by drought, the suffering is more acute. Near Chivi, in the southern Masvingo province, a bumpy dirt road cuts through parched countryside. Cows, their ribs pressing through skin pulled taut, chew the leaves off trees because there is no grass. Many cattle have perished. Their owners may not be far behind.

"People are not starving yet," said Alfred Matewe, 39, a short, barefoot man with a grey-flecked beard and heavily patched trousers. "But they will be if the rains don't come soon."

But rain will not solve the food crisis. A shortage of seed and fertiliser -- and money to buy them -- mean next year's harvest could be one of the worst. Aid agencies believe more than three million people will need feeding by March. The Government, in denial over the scale of the problem, is reluctant to let in food relief....

Drought and poor havests are one thing, but a government that lets people die for political reasons is another....

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