Fat cats feed on Zimbabwe's misery

The Sunday Time's Bonny Schoonakker spent a fortnight in Zimbabwe and found a country teetering on the edge. Supermarket shelves lined with every luxury - for the privileged few Oysters snapped up for a domestic worker's weekly wage Mugabe's cronies exploit US dollar as pensioners lose savings overnight.

Out in the Harare suburb of Borrowdale Brooke, which is among the most opulent suburbs in Southern Africa, the beneficiaries of President Robert Mugabe's 24-year rule over Zimbabwe can buy live oysters.

The delicacies are kept in a tank at the self-contained suburb's Spar supermarket. This week they were being sold for Z12 000 each. That's the equivalent of R20 at the prevailing exchange rate and equal to the average weekly wage of someone lucky enough to find work as a domestic worker in suburban Harare.

I spent two weeks in Zimbabwe and found a land of extreme contrasts. While the super-rich enjoy lives of unrivalled privilege, millions of ordinary Zimbabweans suffer unimaginable hardships.

In Mutare we met a starving woman who apologized for being too weak to rise and greet us. In another pitiful scene, a 15-month-old infant lay in an orphanage, too young to know that her parents were forced to abandon her after they were driven off their land by Mugabe's "war veterans".

These are but two of the victims of the worst economic crisis since independence in 1980, which is blamed on economic mismanagement and state repression, including the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms.

But while official inflation rose to a record 622.8% last month, back in Borrowdale Brooke, the supermarket shelves are lined with every luxury an affluent shopper could desire, including a dozen varieties of olive oil, wines imported from South Africa and ciabatta bread from the supermarket's own bakery, not to mention giant prawns in the freezer next to the oyster tank.

The suburb, a short distance from Mugabe's palatial retirement home and about 20km northeast of central Harare, is walled off from the general public and accessible only via a gate manned by guards. Visitors are allowed to enter only at the invitation of residents, unless they come to play golf at the course around which the complex has been built.

Borrowdale Brooke's fairways are ringed by four-storey mansions; some so large they could be mistaken for hotels. Instead, they are the homes of those who have flourished in Zimbabwe's bizarre economy - politicians, stockbrokers, forex traders, businessmen on friendly terms with the ruling Zanu-PF - in other words, anyone who does not depend on a salary or pension for his or her livelihood.

According to local economists, the most opulent houses in Borrowdale Brooke have been financed by Zimbabwe's bizarre foreign exchange regulations. These rules allow those politicians and businessmen closest to Mugabe to buy US dollars at the "official" rate of Z55 to one US dollar. The black market rate for ordinary Zimbabweans was Z4 800 on Friday.

The privileges that Mugabe's allies enjoy offer instant wealth to those privileged few. They have also helped to bring about what Old Mutual Zimbabwe calls "the persisting hyperinflationary environment".

In a letter circulated at the end of last year, Old Mutual advised policyholders that, "despite our best efforts", it was no longer able to protect the value of life insurance policies taken out in previous years.

Pensioners who now rely on policies entered into during their working lives have been reduced to poverty. If they want to find out where all the value of their capital has gone, they might want to take a trip out to Borrowdale Brooke, if they can afford the taxi fare.

Some voices insist that Zimbabwe is on the road to recovery, notably government mouthpiece The Herald, which last week announced the build-up to Mugabe's 80th birthday on Saturday by likening him to Mahatma Gandhi. Similarly, for The Herald, the land acquisition programme "is a triumph for the country's human rights", despite overwhelming evidence that it has beggared the country's economy.

Such optimism also flies in the face of the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP). In its latest briefing, issued this month, the WFP warned that the country was "facing enormous food shortages".

It predicts that 4.5 million people - more than a third of all Zimbabweans - will receive emergency food aid by April. Its briefing for Zimbabwe also predicts an 18% shortfall in the US197- million "required to fund the emergency operation".

Because of its sensitive relations with the Zanu-PF regime, the WFP declines to blame publicly the land acquisition programme, which has reduced the number of commercial farmers from 4 500 to 400. But, Justice for Agriculture, which represents displaced commercial farmers, forecasts a 75% collapse in agricultural output thanks to the land invasions, a prediction supported by the semi-official Commercial Farmers' Union.

But then Borrowdale Brooke has never relied on local producers for its oysters and prawns. It is one thing to hear stories from Zimbabwe farmers who have been dispossessed; it is another to go through their personal agony as they leave homes that have been loved and built up - often from pole and dagger huts in which their parents or grand parents started up. They also leave behind workers who, in most cases have worked for the families for all their lives. The relationship with these workers - although paternalistic in most cases, is often very deep. Then there is the wrentch of leaving behind all they have worked for all their lives except what they can carry. Farmers are unusual - they have in most cases plowed their earnings straight back into the farms. The average return on agriculture as a percentage on the value of the assets used is about 6 per cent - well below what they could get in industry. I saw Econets results yesterday - profit levels of nearly 50 per cent on turnover. Farmers could never hope to get this sort of return over time.

This is the story of one family - fought to stay on their land for the past four years of intimidation, threats, theft, no legal or police protection, vilified in the press, trying to hang on - now given up and leaving for the UK where they will try to make a living. Please note that their son who has already gone to school there - did not have the bus fare to his school. For those of you who do not know the local language - a Mombe is a adult bovine (steer or cow) worth today about Z$1,5 million. Last week I drove past a farm in the Kadoma district - an irrigation farm which has produced top class crops for many years. It lay idle and empty. A few grass huts on the irrigation fields, the irrigation equipment still in place but vandalized. The homestead on the nearby hillside, burnt to the ground. On Monday a 70 year old farmer was beaten to death on his farm outside Kwe Kwe.

Now I do not know what this does to you - but it fills me with despair, that intelligent, well educated men and women, can do this deliberately just to hold onto power for their own narrow needs and greed. We have 6 million people trying to live on 12 ounces of food a day right now - worse to come this winter. This is the 4th year of food shortages and growing poverty. We are going to stop this nonsense and turn things around. There is no future for any African if we do not. You can be sure of one thing - we are staying to fight this thing through to the end. We will be here to welcome home those who have been forced into exile by this regime and who want to come home and help us rebuild this fine country.

Eddie Cross
00 February 2004