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Zimbabwe: lots of graduates, not enough jobs. Need for trade liberalization is key issue in faltering economy

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1988

Harare, Zimbabwe

Every morning, Fainos Chokori arises at dawn, eats a bowl of maize mush, goes into town - and waits. Mr. Chokori waits for a job. Any job. He waits outside factories. He waits outside stores. This morning, he will wait under a tree near the front gate of a security firm until 6 p.m., then start again tomorrow. The reason: Since leaving high school three years ago, Chokori has not had a single job.

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``Sometimes,'' he says softly, fingering a hole in his shoe, ``I wake up in the morning and feel like I have no future.''

Chokori is not alone. Indeed, the entrances to most factories in Harare's industrial zone are clogged with anxious, impatient people seeking work. Unemployment runs about 18 percent. By 1991, it is expected to hit 25 percent.

The problem is one that plagues many developing countries: a stagnating economy that cannot keep pace with a booming population. Only here in Africa's newest independent nation, the dilemma has been compounded since independence eight years ago by a huge increase in high-school graduates. In 1983 there were 20,000 ``school-leavers'' (high school and university graduates entering the job market); in 1991, that number will soar to about 300,000. And only about 12,000 new jobs are being created annually.

Thus, the country is swamped with educated, aspiring - but unemployed - young people. ``This is a time bomb,'' warns Samuel Gozo, a businessman. ``You can't expect hundreds of thousands of young boys and girls to loiter on the streets forever without eventually resorting to violence.''

Critics contend that despite the obvious danger, President Robert Mugabe, an avowed Marxist, has done little to revive the economy. They say that is because the remedy generally favored by world lending institutions - cutting the budget deficit, liberalizing trade, and opening up to foreign investment - is anathema to him.

But without such changes, economists and businessmen argue, Zimbabwe stands to go the way of most of sub-Saharan Africa, where, since 1979, per capita income has dropped an average of 7 percent per year. However, with the infrastructure, industrial base, and know-how President Mugabe inherited - surpassed in the area only by that of South Africa - the nation could avoid a similar scenario.

``We're at a crossroads,'' says Mervyn Ellis, an economist at Standard Chartered Merchant Bank. ``What we do about the economy is important not only here, but as an example to sub-Saharan Africa. A few steps in the right direction, and we could take off.''

While Mugabe may be Marxist, most of his Cabinet is not. The government is considering some conventional ways to revive the economy. Besides, many political analysts see Mugabe as the consummate politician, ultimately driven by pragmatics.

That clearly has been his style since taking over what once was white-ruled Rhodesia. Unlike his Soviet-backed buddies in nearby Angola and Mozambique, Mugabe pretty much left the economy here alone. Marxism seems confined to the proliferation of Soviet sports magazines found in book shops and the honorific ``comrade'' accorded officials.