Wheels of fortune spin in debris of marxist dreams

African Times, Harare
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The Independent Online

In Zimbabwe, now the world's fastest-shrinking economy, the challenge is to work out who is actually benefiting from president robert mugabe's tireless offensive against those who threaten the ruling élite's 20-year grip on power.

In Zimbabwe, now the world's fastest-shrinking economy, the challenge is to work out who is actually benefiting from president robert mugabe's tireless offensive against those who threaten the ruling élite's 20-year grip on power.

the casualties are many. There are the 4,000 white farmers whose properties - some the size of small european countries - have been transformed by war veterans into lawless fiefdoms. There are the 150,000 employees of commercial farmers, many from malawi and mozambique, who have been told to leave their huts. Then there are about four million city and township dwellers, struggling ever harder to make ends meet.

the really big farms, the factories and the mining interests can buy their way off the feared government acquisition list. Patronage sees to the division of spoils from the business-motivated war in the democratic republic of congo, a transport contract here, an export licence there. But only for loyal supporters, friends and dependants of president mugabe's zimbabwe african national union - patriotic front (zanu-pf).

in zimbabwe today, hard work gets you nowhere unless, like thomas zvigumbu, you get lucky. Happy as a cobra who has swallowed an elephant, he is selling record numbers of bicycles at manica cycles in the capital, harare.

his luck? That international lenders got so fed up with mr mugabe they stopped sending dollars. Now, landlocked zimbabwe cannot afford a steady flow of oil, diesel and paraffin through its pipeline from mozambique.

in harare, there are long queues at petrol stations. There is a growing black market, and fares on communal taxis and buses have soared. The shortages affect everyone. At christmas, the luxury meikles hotel in harare was offering a "fuelfilling experience'', 10 litres of petrol or diesel for every fully paid night. But for the price of a night at the meikles, mr zvigumbu can sell you a bicycle. His biggest trade is in indian and chinese bikes (available only in black). The gleaming, beautifully retro bikes would be fashion statements in europe. But shoppers looking at his row of flying pidgeons with lever handbrakes (z$4,800 or £55) are interested only in practical considerations.

"we sell 10 to 15 a week,'' mr zvigumbu said. "Before, we sold three or four a week. They go quickly because of the economic situation. All the bikes are imported.Everyone wants to cycle. A return trip to harare from chitungwiza, the township 25km away, has doubled to z$70 (£1). So people who commute can recover the cost of their bicycle.''

but mr zvigumbu admitted cycling in harare had its drawbacks. "There is not much street lighting and there are more and more thieves and potholes," he said. "But it is still worth the risk.''

others see the bicycle boom in this scrapheap of marxist dreams as a deeply sinister development that will end in millions of people pedalling obediently out of harare on their identical flying pidgeons. "It's pol pot,'' said mick pearce, a respected architect and supporter of the opposition movement for democratic change. "The cities are being deliberately starved so everyone flees to the countryside.''

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