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Zimbabwe turns 34, but struggles economically

Since independence, Zimbabwe has faced food shortages, hyperinflation - and several political crises.

Last updated: 18 Apr 2014 15:37
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President Robert Mugabe has been accused of poor economic management [AFP]

Johannesburg, South Africa/Bulawayo, Zimbabwe - Thirty-four years ago, Africa's 51st independent state was born. Vowing to end social inequality and racial oppression, Zimbabwe's first prime minister and current president, Robert Mugabe, proclaimed a new era in the nation's history, but the promises and hopes of independence are yet to translate into sustained economic growth.

In Mugabe's early years, the government focused on improving rural access to education and health as well as providing agricultural help for small-scale farmers, but the social progression of the 1980s was short-lived. A costly military venture into war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo - then named Zaire - and overdue compensation payouts to war veterans marked the beginning of economic collapse in November 1997, when the Zimbabwe dollar lost more than 70 percent of its value.

At the turn of the millennium, a political crisis and a land reform programme that violently seized white-owned farms resulted in a significant reduction of agricultural productivity and mass withdrawal of foreign investment. Although farming yields eventually increased, the shattered economy and volatile political situation prompted many Zimbabweans to seek political refuge and a better life elsewhere.

Exodus: movement of the people

Hundreds of miles away from the thatched homesteads and towering granite domes of rural Zimbabwe, Tawanda Marimo, a 24-year-old university student now lives in South Africa. She left the country at the height of economic and political turmoil in 2008. 

"We were due to write exams at the end of that year, but shortly after elections it became impossible to go to school," she said. "There were no lessons because there were no teachers; many were striking over non-payment of salaries so it was pointless to go to school.  Although my father was a [village head], life was very difficult at home, so I decided to leave on my own."

Zimbabweans have dispersed all across the continent, with a concentration residing in South Africa. Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans here range between 1.5 million and 3 million, but a large number are undocumented migrants who left in search of employment and a better standard of living.

As a paperless traveller, Marimo sought alternative means to cross the heavily guarded Beitbridge border post.

"I didn't have a passport, but I found a way to walk through from the Zimbabwean [side] to the South African side. I met a group of people who had paid soldiers to escort them through the fence so I joined them.

"When I crossed, I found some piece jobs [short-term work] so I could earn money, then a few weeks later I applied for a two-week asylum permit. I was nervous, but once I got it, I took a train to Johannesburg," she told Al Jazeera.

For better or worse

Unlike Marimo, millions more stayed and survived through Zimbabwe's best and worst economic periods.

Zenzo Bhebhe 'struggles to make ends meet' as a sculptor in Bulawayo [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

Zenzo Bhebhe is a 63-year-old sculptor who has worked at the main marketplace in Bulawayo - the country's second largest city - since the early 1980s. "Just after independence so many tourists would come to Zimbabwe because they wanted to see this new country," he said. "Many people would come from South Africa where there was apartheid and they would buy our art.

"Business was good for us back then, but now we struggle to make ends meet. Very few tourists come here and the local people aren't interested in buying sculptures, so one can go for months without selling anything except cheap pendants and wooden cooking spoons."

Bhebhe said that the current downturn had resulted in an increasing number of artists now being in arrears with the City Council as they struggled to keep up with monthly rentals for the small pavement blocks they occupied. With all industries affected by the crunch, a recent survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) revealed that, since the beginning of the year, at least 75 companies had shut down and more than 9,000 people had lost their jobs in the process.

A condition partly caused by ongoing liquidity problems in the banking sector, as well as donor and investor uncertainty over the credibility of 2013's presidential and general elections, the shrinking economy has resulted in economic deflation. Recent figures from the International Monetary Fund show inflation has declined from 2.9 percent in 2012 to -0.5 percent in February 2014.

While it's the first time Zimbabwe has experienced deflation since adopting the multiple currency system in 2009, when record sky-high inflation levels forced the government to abandon the Zimbabwe dollar in favour of currencies such as the US dollar and the South African rand, analysts have warned Zimbabwe could face more financial challenges if poor economic performance continues.

Voicing those concerns is the former Minister of Finance and Secretary-General of the opposition MDC-T party, Tendai Biti. He blames the Mugabe government for poor management of the economy.

"The current situation proves that the Zanu-PF regime cannot be trusted with management of the economy. We have now entered into a serious period of deflation and this could lead to the total collapse of industry and an increase in corruption and social suffering as people struggle for the few resources that are available," he told Al Jazeera.

Biti said that protracted deflation could lead to the return to the Zimbabwe dollar. "Faced with absence of economic growth and debt repayment problems, it might be likely that a return to the Zimbabwe dollar is inevitable."

An elusive quest?

In its 2013-2015 Country Brief for Zimbabwe, the African Development Bank (AfDB) urged the government to improve administration and revenue collection from the country's mineral wealth - as this could potentially provide some debt relief for the state and, in turn, the general population.

"Though it holds a significant natural resource wealth, weaknesses in policies and institutions have led to weak linkages between the resource wealth of the country, poverty reduction and equity among the population at large," stated the AfDB.

Flora Mahachi believes the country won't face as severe a crisis as it did during the early 1990s [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

However, some doubt that a return to social unrest and food crisis would reappear. Flora Mahachi, 45, a hotel human resources manager, told Al Jazeera the current situation was very different.

"Right now things are bad, but I don't think we will go back to those years when we had serious shortages. During the drought period in 1992 and 1993, people would camp at factories which made things like [maize] and sugar, then when they saw a truck leaving with food they would ask where it was going and follow it on foot.

"When things were really bad people rioted over shortages and price increases, but we won't see that happening because the goods are there - even though industry is not functioning 100 percent, people can still buy the basics," said Mahachi.

As Zimbabwe celebrates more than three decades of self-rule under the theme, "Zimbabwe at 34: Defending Our Sovereignty and Providing an Enabling Environment for Sustainable Economic Empowerment and Social Transformation," the country's long record of a distressed economy and widening poverty gap remain a distant concern in the nationwide commemorations and provincial rallies fronted by marching bands and traditional dancers.

Away from the cheering crowds, the nation's long history of economic crises and political instability which has shaped the life choices of ordinary Zimbabweans within and across the country's borders, serves as testimony that the attainment of economic liberation remains a troubled and at times elusive post-independence dream.

Follow Tendai on Twitter: @i_amten

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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