The Reality on the Ground

In the next two days the immediate future of this country may be decided. Heads of State are gathering in Lusaka and today, in preparation, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Security and Finance meet to work through what will go to the Presidents when they meet on Thursday. According to the South African Foreign Minister, Mr. Mbeki will report on his facilitation of the Zimbabwe crisis on Thursday.

Already there is so much nonsense flying about that it is impossible to see what exactly is going on. We (the MDC) have a large and powerful group in Lusaka to lobby the different delegations and from all the media reports they are active.

But I wanted to set out a different reality - just what is the real situation like here on the ground for the ordinary, decent, hard working Zimbabwean? I was thinking about what I might write when walking the dogs last evening. It had been a lovely day - typical winters day in Matabeleland, cool, crisp, zero humidity, deep blue sky with little wind. The dogs were having a great time hunting hares and mice in the open savannah grassland that stretches out for several kilometers from the bottom of our road.

A young man, about 25 years old, with large boots on his feet was striding down the road and we greeted each other. He surprised me by speaking in good English. He was carrying a small bag across his shoulders. We walked together for a while and he asked me if I knew anyone with work that he could do - anything. I said things were quite impossible for business now and I could not think of any sort of job openings. He then told me of his immediate circumstances.

He was a High School graduate, could not find any sort of work commensurate with his basic qualifications and had been jobbing - working on building sites around the City where people from the Diaspora are building homes using their foreign earnings. All work had stopped because of the price control operation, which had resulted in all suppliers of materials halting deliveries - no cement, no sand or bricks because there was no fuel. He was living on the site because he had nowhere else to go but was not being paid - now for one month.

That morning he had gone to the 'Renkini' (a word derived from the words 'Taxi Rank') where he had gone to try and buy some maize meal. He had some savings from his work and was using these to buy food. The distance .to the Rank would be about 15 kilometers from his building site home. He had found no transport and had walked all that way that morning. Spent several hours finding maize meal and then had paid Z$500 000 for a tin of maize. That is about 12 kilograms. He had then had to walk back and was now about two kilometers from his 'home'.

Before the price control exercise he was gainfully, if inadequately, employed. He would have been able to catch a bus to town and would have had to queue but he would have been able to get a bag of maize meal for about $150 000. Now, after just a month of this stupidity (you cannot describe what this regime is doing as 'policy') he is unemployed, close to starvation, has to walk everywhere and paid 10 times the so called 'controlled price' for maize meal of $50 000. For thirty kilometers of hard walking he had been able to buy enough food for himself for about 15 days. No protein is available even if he could afford it, so he was going to try and catch something in the nearby bush.

Now what I would say to people is that his experience yesterday was typical, he is not an exceptional case at all. He is about the average age of an adult here (life expectancy is about 35 years), he has the sort of basic education, as a post independence child would have expected (and would not get today from the same system). He was underemployed, now unemployed and is facing a daily struggle to feed himself (he is single).

Mr. Mugabe said this weekend (and it was repeated several times on the SABC network) that the price controls are meant to stop business from overcharging and that he was going to keep them in place indefinitely. In reality all he has succeeded in doing is to lose what little control they had over prices and the ordinary Zimbabwean now faces the harsh reality of being unable to buy anything in the shops and is forced back onto the back streets to find what he/she can at several times the cost before these controls were introduced. Suddenly everyone is much worse off than before.

If the regime here maintains its position that every business must get the Ministers written approval for every price they charge on every product and must go through the Ministry if they want to change anything - pack size, packaging, prices, contents. Then business as we have known it is simply going to die. Unless ordinary market principles are permitted, industry in Zimbabwe is history and with it most of the retail sector.

They have destroyed the commercial farming sector and with it the support infrastructure that made it all possible, this has resulted in farm output across the whole industry falling by a massive 80 per cent. Tourism is in a similar situation and is barely ticking over. Industrial production has declined already by close to 50 per cent and in the past month I would suggest it has slumped still further to about the same levels as Agriculture - 20 per cent of normal. The mining industry is the least affected but even so, output is falling and we can expect no further investment either in maintenance or in new ventures until a new government is installed and sensible policies are reinstated.

Impossible as it may seem, this will result in overall GDP declining still further this year - already down by half with a forecast decline of 7 per cent in GDP this year (the 9th successive year of decline in GDP). Exports, already down by two thirds will decline still further and employment, down from 1,4 million in 1997 will slump to new lows of no more than about 500 000 - half of them in the public service. The collapse of the Zimbabwe economy is now a reality.

For my walking companion what options does he have? I suggest he has only one. That is to pack his bags, take what food he has left and walk or hitch a ride to the South African border. He will know people in South Africa and once he is through the border region he can find himself a small patch of land in a slum, build a shack and then start making a living for himself and perhaps find a couple of hundred Rand to send home each month. His main option for employment in South Africa will be crime unless he risks finding work without the required documents.

It is strange that in this way he becomes perhaps the only means we have of influencing the leadership of South Africa as to our plight. It is the presence of over 3 million Zimbabweans in South Africa and the arrival of thousands more on a daily basis that is now driving SA foreign policy. Not human and political rights, not the issues of freedom and democracy that once fuelled the struggle in the region and in South Africa itself. Just crude self-defence against the only weapon left to the ordinary Zimbabwean - that of forced flight.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo 14th August 2007