Page last updated at 07:44 GMT, Wednesday, 13 February 2008

From Harare: Election fever starts

Harare skyline [Pic: Robyn Hunter]

Esther (not her real name), 28, a professional living and working in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, is writing a regular diary on the challenges of leading a normal life.

Zimbabwe is suffering from an acute economic crisis. The country has the world's highest rate of annual inflation - 26,000% - and just one in five has an official job.

Well Harare is in the grip of high excitement over Simba Makoni's announcement that he is running for president in the 29 March polls. It has to be THE most talked about issue here.

Black-market money dealer counting back notes
Zimbabweans are trading everything from banknotes to tomatoes

Questions are flying: "Is he genuine, or is his campaign about splitting the opposition vote?"

For loyalists: "what is he doing, standing up to Mugabe?"

Then there are those who love "The Party" - Zanu-PF - but think it needs new blood, and for them Simba is the perfect answer.

Then again our supermarket shelves are slowly emptying again, you can't get basics like milk and margarine, what basics you can get are hideously expensive.

I've seen greenish meat in smaller supermarket chains because the ordinary Zimbabwean just can't afford meat.

By the way most professionals are included in this category, what with civil servants earning the equivalent of between $20 to $50 per month.

So for most people the new presidential hopeful is just something to talk about while commuting to and from work, or over lunch and tea breaks at work, and it ends there.

People have more important things to think about, like where to get mealie meal, how to raise extra money for the kids' daily bus fare, stuff like that.

Brain drain

I met this woman on the combi yesterday - public transport is a GREAT source of info - and she was telling me how 15 teachers from her daughter's school resigned and will not be available this first term.

Simba Makoni
Many Zimbabweans are excited about Simba Makoni's challenge

It's not unique to that school, professionals are quitting work every day to become traders - cross-border, fuel, forex [foreign exchange on the black market], commodities... basically whatever they can get into.

It all pays better than waking up early in the morning, putting on a suit and tie to work for, it you are lucky, 500m Zimbabwean dollars a month. That's less than US$100 at today's rate.

I think this brain drain is even more severe than the migratory one we always talk about, and that's a bit scary.

If you can't afford a private school, your child is almost certainly not getting an education, if you can't afford a private hospital, don't dare to get sick because government hospitals are short staffed, without drugs and sometimes without electricity and running water.

We are not even at war.

I shudder to think what will happen if the opposition decides to react the way Kenya's did after our March poll.

After her first instalment, Esther answered some readers' questions:

Question from Rob Chikuri, South Africa:

How are people managing to balance between school fees for their children, daily travelling to school or work, groceries, lunches and utility bills. How much is a teacher, engineer, doctor or any degree professional earning?

Esther: Almost everyone now does something outside of their formal employment in order to supplement their income. Professionals in the civil service earn about 250m - 300m Zimbabwean dollars a month. Sounds impressive, but that will buy two pairs of shoes in a middle market shop.

Question from J Kinya, Nairobi, Kenya:

I have an experience of what bad governance can do to an economy. If you had an opportunity to leave your country, would you leave?

Esther: At times I get really frustrated and want to just leave, like when there has been no power for three days straight and no running water but on the whole I'd rather live in my own country.

Question from Mwiza, Lusaka, Zambia:

Hi Esther, I really feel bad about the situation in your country. There was a time when we, as Zambians would flock to Zimbabwe to buy essentials like butter and cooking oil, now we see our streets full of Zimbabwean women selling sweets and chocolate. However, as much as the economy has gone down, you still have the infrastructure. If the government changed, how long before the economy could get back on its feet?

Esther: I remember those days too! I think quite a lot of damage has been done and it will take five to 10 years to really get back on our feet and rid our society of the corruption that comes along with this kind of suffering.

Question from Farai Mutibura, Harare, Zimbabwe:

Esther in light of your concern about our current situation, as a responsible citizen of Harare and Zimbabwe, what do you think we must do to get rid of the current situation?

Esther: I honestly believe a big part of the solution is political. Handei ko vota! [Shona for let's go to vote.]

Question from Nicole, New York, US:

Thank you for your words. I am wondering how long you think the people of Zimbabwe can endure in such times of economic crises. When is enough, enough? And what will it take to make change?

Esther: Apparently we are a very resilient people.

Question from Susan Ward, Broken Arrow, US:

Both of our countries have major elections coming up, and like millions of other Americans, I've been keeping up with our presidential race at every turn. How easy is it to keep up with the Zimbabwean presidential race? Given [Robert] Mugabe's extended period in office, how likely is it that a new president could be elected? Do you feel that the election process will be fair? I'm not fond of [US President] George W Bush by any stretch, but I'll take him in a heartbeat over President Mugabe.

Esther: You cannot begin to compare the US presidential race with ours. In our country it is treason to even entertain presidential hopes. That should answer your question about fair elections, hey, the opposition does not even get equal, let alone positive media coverage. The Republicans are in power in your country, but the Obama-Clinton race is the most talked about election issue, and they are Democrats. You will not see that on our local TV station news.

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