Zimbabwe: Is the basket case finally on the mend?

Shops are well-stocked; rubbish is being collected; and teachers are back at work. But Mugabe is still in power and the land thefts continue

By Daniel Howden
Sunday 29 March 2009 02:00

Behind the high bougainvillea hedges of Harare's more affluent suburbs, there are the first murmurings of a possible improvement in daily life in Zimbabwe – at least in the capital.

In some places, long-forgotten public services have stirred. Rubbish is being collected, and workmen have even been seen painting white lines on the pot-holed roads. Gone are the bread queues and the snaking lines of cars awaiting black-market fuel. The sugar, soap, cooking oil and eggs that arrived in minibus convoys from Botswana to the west, or north from South Africa, can now be bought locally.

Printed price tags, consigned to folk memory during the nightmare of hyperinflation, have made a tentative reappearance in some shops as the disappearance of the Zimbabwean dollar, and its replacement with the US dollar and the South African rand, stabilises costs. In smarter areas such as Borrowdale, where President Robert Mugabe has his walled mansion, or Avondale, where the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, lives, the shelves of supermarkets are stuffed with imported goods.

In so-called "high-density suburbs" such as Glen View and Warren Park – townships built under white rule as holding areas for cheap black labour – the schools have reopened, with teachers back at work after ending their five-month strike.

"I am happy for now, since I'm now able to get $100 [£70] per month, which is more than what Mugabe was giving us," said Ncube, a teacher in Norton, outside Harare. "The good thing is that prices of basic goods have gone down drastically, and having US dollars is meaningful."

Since Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) agreed to join Mr Mugabe's government in January, education has been run by David Coltart, elected last year as an opposition senator.

Does this mean Zimbabwe is at last turning the corner after a nightmare 12 months in which the country was engulfed by political violence, the economy collapsed and basic services deteriorated to the point where cholera, an easily preventable disease, was rampant? One answer might be that, in some respects, things have at least stopped getting worse.

Political intimidation is down, and most prominent government opponents are out of detention. Even Roy Bennett, the gruff former farmer and outspoken Mugabe critic, has been released on bail to join his MDC colleagues in the new government, although the President told cabinet colleagues that he would "never" swear in his old adversary to his appointed role as deputy minister of agriculture.

The World Health Organisation had some good news about the cholera crisis last week. An epidemic that long ago surpassed its worst-case scenario by a third, with 90,000 infections, was "past its peak", the UN agency said. As the rainy season ends, the expected drop in new cases has come, slowing from 3,800 a week to 2,000 by mid-March. "The situation with the cholera outbreak is improving," the WHO said from its headquarters in Geneva.

Senior members of the MDC have used such developments to argue that it is time for the international community and Western donors to re-engage with Zimbabwe. That process may well begin at a regional summit which opens tomorrow. Zimbabweans have received forceful support from South Africa's president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, who described the refusal to hand large sums in aid to the Mugabe-led government as "very unfair to the Zimbabwean people".

Mr Zuma, who is poised to take office after the South African election on 22 April, said last week: "You cannot say [Zimbabwe] has stabilised, but it has entered a phase of stabilisation politically."

The unity government was the only option, claimed Mr Zuma: "There was nothing else." He even had unprecedented words of support for Zimbabwe's 85-year-old President: "When there was an election, it is not as if not a single human being voted for Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He had a very big percentage himself."

What if donors do not heed Mr Zuma's words, and fail to support a prompt peace dividend to ordinary Zimbabweans? The country's widely respected new finance minister, Tendai Biti, was in no doubt. "The consequences of it [the unity government] not working are drastic," he said. "It will lead to a failure of the state, a collapse of the state and all the civil unrest that follows the failure of a state."

Some diplomats viewed this as a threat, but most understood that such an outburst, from the man commonly viewed as the most capable thinker in MDC ranks, reflects the increasing desperation in his party. The former opposition understands all too well that the image of recovery in Zimbabwe is false.

Mr Biti and his colleagues no longer speak of the "benchmarks" they set when entering the new government, by which those outside it could judge its progress and the good faith of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

Those criteria are worth recalling: the release of political prisoners, the appointment of new regional governors, the sacking of both the attorney general and the reserve bank governor, the restoration of the rule of law, and an end to farm invasions. Only one of those benchmarks has been met in any meaningful way: even then not all prisoners have been released, and those that have are on bail, still facing trumped-up charges.

This explains the reaction of a team from the International Monetary Fund, which said last week there would be no new investment until the government changed its "track record". The next day a fresh commitment of $10m from Sweden bypassed the government in Harare and went straight to humanitarian agencies.

There remain virtually no jobs outside the state sector, and remittances from the three million Zimbabweans working abroad – a crucial lifeline for families left behind – are in decline as the global recession squeezes hard. While "dollarisation" has meant a welcome return of goods and services for those with access to currency, for the majority it has spelled disaster. There is practically no money in the system, and the government has been forced to switch from cash payments to civil servants to coupons, most of which are now being refused as banks do not have the cash to redeem them.

The experience of Rumbi Kazingizi, a housewife, is frighteningly common. "Food is still not easily available," she said. "Although it's now cheap, where to get the money to buy the food is the biggest challenge."

A mother of three from the middle-class Glen Norah area, Mrs Kazingizi admits many are worse off. "We have orphans and widows who are failing to get even a dollar per day," she said. "How are they expected to survive?"

Meanwhile the farm invasions, so long an accurate indicator of the intentions of Mr Mugabe's political allies, have intensified. With them the uncertain nature of the junior partner's role in government becomes clearer. While the finance minister appeals for outside funds, his Zanu-PF colleagues in the cabinet sign off paperwork allowing fresh farm seizures, and the Prime Minister rages against "land thefts". And while Mr Tsvangirai and his allies find they are responsible for delivering progress, with their own political credibility on the line, they are facing a bitter realisation: they have given the powerful clique around Mr Mugabe the political space to carry on regardless.

Zimbabwe by numbers


US dollars is the monthly salary for a teacher


new cholera cases each week; down from 3,800


US dollars needed to kick-start the economy, according to Morgan Tsvangirai ($2bn of which is needed immediately, he says)


is the current, estimated rate of unemployment


people killed by the cholera epidemic since August 2007, according to the World Health Organisation

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