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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 December, 2003, 14:49 GMT
Long wait for Zimbabwean recovery
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter

A Zimbabwean holding new temporary banknotes
Inflation means more and more banknotes are needed

For many Zimbabweans, life these days has a single constant, wearing factor.

Queuing.

Food is scarce. Petrol - on the irregular occasions when it makes an appearance - sells out quickly. The minibuses or "commuters", which run along pre-arranged routes and serve as a key form of public transport, are fewer and the lines for them are longer.

Seven in 10 Zimbabweans are officially out of work, with the parallel economy increasingly important.

Out of the towns, the food shortages are even more punishing, worsened by the drought which hit southern Africa last year.

Rampant inflation, most recently put at 526% a year, means that fat piles of banknotes are often needed even for simple transactions, despite the introduction of travellers' cheque-style notes for high denominations.

The government has imposed price controls on key basic necessities, but the rising price of inputs has simply made the shortages even worse.

Mixed message

Whose fault this is depends on who you talk to.

Food aid delivered to Zimbabweans
Donors accuse the government of using aid as a political weapon
According to the Zanu-PF government of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since independence in 1980, the economy is under attack, sabotaged by Britain and its allies.

Their motive: revenge for Mr Mugabe's policy of redistributing land from white farmers to the majority black population at large.

According to independent economists, the land reform was badly botched, and combined with general economic mismanagement to precipitate a meltdown.

The currency, the Zimbabwean dollar, is in freefall. The official rate is 825 to the US dollar - after having been pegged at 55 for years - while the parallel market rate is above 5,000.

Foreign currency is in short supply, given the lack of exports.

Inventive businesses are finding ways around the situation, of course, and the stock exchange in Harare is booming as profits rise.

But the country remains largely isolated, economically speaking, from the world outside.

Turnaround

The result is a situation where more than half the 12 million-strong population are dependent on food aid, which the government attempts to use for political purposes and divert from supporters of opposition parties - a far cry from Zimbabwe's former role as the breadbasket of the region.

Demonstrators against corruption in Harare
Corruption is seen as an increasing problem
With the exception of a minority of the white farmers dubbed "Rhodies" - a name derived from the country's pre-independence name of Rhodesia and suggesting they would prefer white rule to have continued - few people doubt that land reform was an urgent necessity.

But the way it has been done, most observers believe, crippled both food production and cash crop output.

Tobacco sales, a key export, are way down, while maize is in short supply.

'One man, one farm'

Many of the farms confiscated remain fallow, having been seized by members of the ruling elite.

Recent declarations by President Mugabe that corruption will not be tolerated seem to have had little effect - and international anti-graft group Transparency International puts Zimbabwe at position 112 on a league table of 133 countries worldwide.

Yet more land has been handed over to Libya and China in exchange for fuel and other imports.

With land the only sure store of value, and interest rates at artificially low levels, the building industry has been one of the few remaining boom sectors.

But shortages of materials are leaving many building sites empty.

Support

Many leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are on Mr Mugabe's side.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe says white saboteurs are to blame
President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia - and, up to a point, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa - see this as a post-colonial issue, of the UK penalising a former territory for having the temerity to do its own thing.

Unfortunately, that support is unlikely to help Zimbabweans much in improving their circumstances.

Fuel and electricity imports from South Africa keep the economy just about afloat.

But without some form of political change - Zanu-PF's national conference in December looks set to make no mention of succession - Zimbabwe's government will stay widely isolated, as exemplified by the International Monetary Fund's decision to consider expelling the country.

For the moment, then, the queues are likely to keep getting longer.


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