The poor lose their will to fight Mugabe

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe is on the brink of a new clampdown against government opponents who fear that their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, could be arrested, possibly tomorrow. But this time, ordinary people, cowed by economic hardship and a dictatorial ruling party, may not show the resolve to fight back.

Zimbabwe is on the brink of a new clampdown against government opponents who fear that their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, could be arrested, possibly tomorrow. But this time, ordinary people, cowed by economic hardship and a dictatorial ruling party, may not show the resolve to fight back.

Paul Widza, a hotel cleaner who lives in the Harare township of Chitungwiza, has lost interest in politics. Mr Widza's prime concern in is counting the increasingly worthless Zimbabwe dollars in his pocket.

"It has become almost impossible to make ends meet, even if you have a job. The fuel price has doubled since the election," said Mr Widza, 40, who earns 3,259 Zimbabwean dollars (£44) a month (plus tips) and now spends nearly half - Z$1,300 - on his bus fare to work. A further Z$1,500 goes on rent for the three rooms he shares with his wife, Sarudzai, their three children and an orphaned niece.

The Widza family's situation is typical of Zimbabwe today - except that Mr Widza has a job. Statisticians have stopped estimating the unemployment rate but inflation is running at around 53 per cent, GDP growth is negative, Zimbabwe is defaulting on its foreign debt repayments and 25 per cent of the population is HIV-positive. Anarchy rules in the countryside where the war veterans' land invasion campaign has deteriorated into an orgy of looting and burning.

Three-and-a-half months ago, in the violent run-up to the parliamentary elections, almost everyone in Chitungwiza proudly and bravely proclaimed their support for Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But now Mr and Mrs Widza claim they did not vote.

Survival has become the Widzas' priority. But as long as Mr Widza can keep his job, the family is resisting moving. "Some people are leaving Chitungwiza and going to the rural areas. We have a small plot at Karoi [150 miles away] but it is just enough to grow three sacks of mealies [corn] a year and it costs Z$400 to get there," he said.

Mrs Widza, 33, is considering taking the couple's eldest daughter, Abigail, 15, out of school. "She has two years until A-levels. But next year she will change schools, which means a new uniform, and we have Kudakwash, our six-year-old son to think about.

"We do not want to take Abigail out of school. But her fees are Z$300 a term and she must have shoes with the uniform," said Mrs Widza as she outlined the desperate dollar-and-cent-counting she has now been reduced to. "A loaf of bread costs Z$20 but it was only Z$8 last year. Electricity has gone up and up, even though the authorities switch it off between 6pm and 8pm three days a week. On those days we have to buy firewood."

In one of his speeches ahead of the election, President Robert Mugabe said blacks would always survive in Zimbabwe because "we can eat sadza (maize porridge)". That is all the Widza family eat. "Some days we can afford pieces of meat with the sadza but most days we just have vegetables and no gravy," Mrs Widza said.

According to John Robertson, an independent economist, Zimbabwe has now "written itself off as an aid recipient" after defaulting on its loans. Mr Mugabe has suggested a price and wage freeze which, Mr Robertson said, "can only lead to gross imbalances".

Some observers hope the new finance minister, Simba Makoni, will make a difference. His first step in the job, to devalue the Zimbabwe dollar from Z$38 to Z$53 against the United States dollar, was welcomed. But it is still not clear how free a hand President Mugabe will give him.

In parliament, the MDC is vociferous but has only so far twice mustered enough votes to win or quash bills. Its MPs face regular intimidation. Mr Tsvangirai's return to Zimbabwe will be a test both for the government and the people.

The police have threatened to arrest the opposition leader for inciting violence in a speech last weekend. If they do, many observers fear a violent reaction. But Mr Widza, for one, will not take to the streets.

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