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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Zimbabwe's precarious survival
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts

With the Zimbabwean economy in ruins, it is the people leaving the country who are helping those who have remained to survive.

For a country which is in a state of economic collapse, there is a surprising amount of movement in Zimbabwe today.

Drive through the darkened streets of Harare at night - for there is no electricity - and you see hundreds of people walking purposefully at two and three o'clock in the morning.

Shoppers walk past empty shelves (Demond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images)
Empty shelves are a common sight in Zimbabwean supermarkets

They are the few who need to get to work - only one in five of the adult population still has a job.

They take up their positions on street corners waiting for a passing car or pick-up truck.

There is no petrol, and regular bus services are already a distant memory.

"I sometimes wait four or five hours to get to work," said one office worker.

Once one of the richest countries in Africa, Zimbabwe has become a barrow, bucket, and bag economy

"But even the bosses don't complain."

Everyone in Zimbabwe understands life is difficult.

Bread queues

A couple of hours later, as dawn breaks over the capital, many people - the mothers and unemployed - start forming long, silent queues that wind around entire blocks of the city.

There is a rumour that bread could be arriving in the city today.

Refugees on the South African side of the border with Zimbabwe
An estimated 3m Zimbabweans are thought to have fled to South Africa

Five hours later, people are still waiting.

Policemen arrive, apparently helpfully supervising the queue and giving a surreal air of normality to the city scene.

"They just pretend," said one man in the queue with five children at home to feed.

"They get the first news if a lorry is on its way with bread, sugar, or mealie meal and they jump to the top of the queue and loot the food."

Once one of the richest countries in Africa, Zimbabwe has become a barrow, bucket, and bag economy.

You see people walking for miles, wheeling barrows, buckets on their heads, and plastic bags in hand.

Like the "bag ladies" in the former Soviet Union, they are always on the ready just in case something turns up.

But it seldom does.

Medical horror

People are starving. The evidence is in the hospitals where tiny, wizened babies lie dying in their cots while their mothers look on helplessly.

Baby lying on blankets
Infant mortality is 51.12 per 1,000 live births (Source: CIA Factbook)

One mother cradles a child who is losing her hair and her skin, a sign of the most advanced form of Kwashiorkor or vitamin deficiency.

It is certainly the first time I have seen this condition in 20 years of reporting on the developing world.

"Zimbabwe once offered the most comprehensive medical service in Africa," a doctor explains.

"It is now becoming a textbook case of medical horror."

Many children arrive with grandmothers.

Grandmother or child-headed families are a growing social phenomenon in Zimbabwe today, often the result of the Aids epidemic.

In other cases - if parents still have the energy and the means - they flee abroad to look for food and to send back money.

Fleeing to South Africa

Buses loaded with people and luggage wait for days around the petrol stations on the roads leading out of the country.

When fuel eventually arrives, they lurch off, swaying precariously under the weight of so many passengers, on the five-hour journey to the border with South Africa.

Zimbabwean immigration officials do not bother them and, on the South African side, they can be paid off with bribes.

Map of South Africa and Zimbabwe

For those who do not have the money and who have to duck through the bush, there is a greater risk.

Gangs wait on either side of the river for the groups of desperate refugees.

"They had guns and knives," one girl tells me. "There were 15 boys and five girls in our group.

"They killed one boy when he refused to give them his shoes. They raped all the girls."

Still, they arrive in South Africa at the rate of thousands a week.

The many victims of political persecution will never go back while Robert Mugabe is alive.

Others just come for a few weeks to make enough money to take home.

I met two teachers. Liliana told me she worked as a domestic cleaner while Patience told me she worked as a prostitute.

"What else can I do?" she said.

"My husband is dead and I have three children back home to feed."

Slow agony

It is a situation that suits the governments on both sides.

Among the refugees, there are doctors, engineers, agricultural experts, just the kind of people who are needed by South Africa's growing economy.

Anyone expecting a swift conclusion to Zimbabwe's agony will be disappointed

Zimbabweans have long since given up hope that the South African leader - Thabo Mbeki - will put pressure on his old friend, Robert Mugabe, to reform.

And as for Robert Mugabe, an opposition politician in Harare says: "This makes him a very, very happy dictator.

"He gets rid of his opponents and they in turn send back money to their families in Zimbabwe and that keeps things ticking over."

Anyone expecting a swift conclusion to Zimbabwe's agony will be disappointed.

Thanks to the ingenuity and tolerance of people still in the country and the remittances sent back by those who have left, Zimbabwe's death throes could last a long time yet.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 8 September, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Zimbabwe
16 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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