Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Saturday, 25 October 2008 11:54 UK

Hope fades under Zimbabwe facade

Peter Biles reflects on his trip to Zimbabwe, where one of the country's worst harvests, spiralling inflation and political deadlock mean prospects for change seem to be disappearing.

Harare (Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
Under the facade, many parts of Zimbabwe are in poverty
In October - at the start of summer here - Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, looks at its very best.

The lilac-flowered jacarandas are in full bloom. So too are the purple bougainvillea and the red flamboyants.

The tree-lined avenues are a riot of colour. There is no finer sight anywhere in southern Africa right now.

It all seems idyllic. The suburbs laid out by the British more than half a century ago are spacious.

On the well-watered playing fields of the city's private schools, young boys play games of cricket, while the nearby golf course is also beautifully maintained, and here, too, the sprinklers are turning.

But it is all rather incongruous because as I drive around Harare, probing the city's facade, I can see the decay and degradation.

Some houses have not had water for many months.

A boy lifts a bucket of water from a borehole in Harare
For some in Harare, holes in the ground are their main source of water
Zimbabwe's crumbling infrastructure has forced many residents to sink boreholes or buy in supplies of water that have to be delivered off the back of a truck.

In the matchbox homes of the high-density suburbs - the traditional townships - life is worse, a great deal worse. There are no private schools and boreholes here.

The political optimism of the Harare Spring that we savoured in mid-September is fast being eroded.

The historic power-sharing deal - when Robert Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, agreed to form a coalition government - has come to naught so far.

Millions of people are now facing the threat of hunger, with food and money in short supply
There is deadlock on who should control which ministries. Robert Mugabe has shown a steely determination to cling on to power at all costs, outmanoeuvre his opponents, and grab all the key cabinet posts.

A cartoon in a South African paper this week summed up the situation.

It showed three men: "the Broker" - Thabo Mbeki who has been facilitating the talks, "the Breaker" - Robert Mugabe and "the Broke" - the penniless Zimbabwean who symbolises the plight of so many.

Scarce supplies

And there is suffering aplenty in Zimbabwe.

Millions of people are now facing the threat of hunger, with food and money in short supply.

Empty shelves in a Harare shop (Photo: Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images)
Soaring inflation has left many Harare shops with empty shelves
Every day, long queues form outside the banks in Harare, as people wait patiently to get cash.

The daily limit that can be withdrawn is miniscule, little more than it costs to make the bus journey into town, or buy a loaf of bread. It seems rather pointless, but this is a hand-to-mouth existence.

I wandered into a local supermarket to see what I could buy.

I had seen the television pictures of empty shelves some months ago, but the situation gets more and more desperate.

The store looked as though it was closing down. It was a depressing sight. There were a few packs of frozen meat in the freezer and a few unappetising vegetables.

But no mielie meal, the staple diet. No dairy products and no household goods. It soon became apparent to me that this was not the place to find essential supplies.

Of course, if you have access to foreign currency, life is a lot easier. But few Zimbabweans have US dollars or South African rand, and most do not earn enough to buy what little food is on sale, especially if it has been imported.

Spiraling inflation

A question I am often asked is how the country keeps going. Why has it not fallen victim to this staggering economic decline and collapsed completely?

Map of Zimbabwe showing the capital Harare
The answer lies in the importance of foreign remittances.

Millions of Zimbabweans living abroad - many of them in neighbouring South Africa - regularly send money home. Without this, many more lives would be in ruins.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe's inflation has become legendary.

Annual inflation in July was officially 230,000,000%. Ten zeroes were knocked off the currency a little while ago.

It has made no difference. The Zimbabwe dollar is worthless.

The figures change by the day. No-one knows what the inflation rate is any more. It could be as much as 1,000,000,000% by the end of this month.

It is generally illegal to trade in US dollars, but it is the only option now.

People continue to express themselves with a dignified eloquence
In the meantime, worthless bank notes are discarded, and some people collect these absurdities as souvenirs. After all, a 5bn Zimbabwean dollar note must be something to show your grandchildren one day.

I spoke to one keen observer of the Zimbabwean scene.

He likened Robert Mugabe to Cambodia's Pol Pot, and said that President Mugabe seemed hell-bent on political survival.

"If that means reverting to a peasant society, and bringing the country down in the process, then so be it," he said.

The other unusual feature of life here is the patience which ordinary Zimbabweans display.

Voices were raised in the queue outside the bank, but there was no pushing and shoving, and certainly no sign of open rebellion. And people continue to express themselves with a dignified eloquence.

When I was in Harare to witness the signing of the power-sharing agreement last month, I saw a Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition supporter on the street outside, voicing a simple - yet poignant - remark as he wandered among the crowd:

"More jobs, more food on the table," he said. Make no mistake, food is what Zimbabweans need now, and time is running out.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 October, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Zimbabwe
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