Zimbabwe economy in free fall

Inflation tops 7,600 percent as the country's economic crisis forces people to flee the country or scrounge for food.

Once considered a shining example of Africa's potential, Zimbabwe is now a country in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Critical shortages of food, fuel, foreign currency, and, in some areas, water beset a nation where the official inflation rate tops 7,600 percent. Some analysts believe the real figure is much higher and climbing fast.

"We can't get anything now – no bread, no petrol ... nothing," says Shephard Lunga, a truck driver from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city. "If you don't have somebody who's outside the country supplying you with things, you're finished."

The country's beleaguered economy has taken a turn for the worse since late June, when President Robert Mugabe ordered all prices cut by at least 50 percent in a bid to slow runaway inflation. The move backfired, causing manufacturers to stop producing their goods. Now grocery store shelves are barren, and people are increasingly hungry.

Even a casual stroll through the capital, Harare, shows the consequences of the country's record inflation. Supermarkets that once offered an impressive array of cereals and ice cream no longer carry even the basic goods every Zimbabwean relies upon: things such as cooking oil, bread, and cornmeal.

People loiter around grocery stores by the dozens, waiting for delivery trucks. The arrival of cooking oil or bread leads to lines that curl around street corners. When a store is able to put tea biscuits on its shelves, for instance, they vanish in minutes.

Gangs of men linger outside nondescript buildings, hawking fuel on the black market at prices few Zimbabweans can afford: about 2.3 million Zimbabwe dollars per gallon, which is $9,200 according to the official exchange rate (250 Zimbabwe dollars to $1) or $11.50 at the more realistic black market rate. Money merchants huddled near hotels are now offering roughly 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars to $1.

Key goods no longer available

Carrying rolls of bills the size of Big Macs, well-dressed shoppers walk into pharmacies stocked mostly with expensive imports.

More often than not, they walk out with nothing. Affordable bath soap is among the many items that hasn't been available for weeks.

"It's become like Zambia in the 1980s," says Iden Wetherell, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, one of the country's two independent newspapers. "People are preoccupied with sustenance, getting by on a day-to-day basis, which successfully diverts them from politics."

The country's downfall was set in motion in 2000, analysts say, when Mr. Mugabe ordered the country's white farmers off their land and distributed a majority of it to cronies in his ruling party, Zanu-PF.

Since then, Mugabe's government has passed draconian measures banning public demonstrations, and members of the now emasculated opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have been beaten.

"There is no life here," says a taxi driver who declined to give his name for fear of government retaliation. "We are struggling like it's nobody's business."

For its part, the government has recently allowed businesses to raise the prices of some basic goods. But John Robertson, a Harare-based independent economist, said the move would do little to stem the country's shrinking economy, saying the government had done a "hatchet job on the business sector" over the past decade that could not be easily remedied.

A bill put forth last week forcing foreign companies to give Zimbabweans majority ownership is expected to make life even harder for people like Sibanda, a hotel porter who refused to give his last name.

The father of three says he pays 3 million Zimbabwe dollars a month for the two rooms he shares with his wife and kids. His salary, he says with a sigh, is only 5 million Zimbabwe dollars a month and he pays 200,000 commuting to work every day.

"I can't support my family anymore," he says.

Sibanda's family is forced to subsist on whatever his wife can scrounge up from the markets, which these days isn't much.

A recent dinner was typical: okra and potatoes. No corn meal means they can't even make sadza, a thick porridge that is eaten with meats and vegetables.

The porter says his family hasn't eaten any beef in weeks.

"This country used to be beautiful for us," he says. "Now people are running away."

And they are doing so at an alarming rate.

Exodus to South Africa

More than 3 million Zimbabweans are believed to have fled the country, among them doctors, teachers, and other highly educated professionals.

Unable to afford visas or obtain passports, some have crossed illegally into countries like South Africa, braving attacks from bandits and the threat of imprisonment.

Hours after he and a friend slipped into South Africa through a hole in the border's barbed-wire fence, Tatenda Muzondo nervously walked down the tarred road toward the town of Musina.

Anxious, tired, and penniless, the 18-year-old high school graduate says that despite his education he couldn't get a job and headed south at the suggestion of his parents.

"We forced ourselves to cross to look for greener pastures," Mr. Muzondo says. "They call this 'the promised land' now."

Those with passports and enough cash cross into South Africa legally to stock up on goods they can then sell on the black market back home.

Last week, a primary school teacher who refused to be named was among a dozen others crammed into a van stuffed with goods heading to Zimbabwe from Johannesburg, South Africa.

She says the constant struggle to survive was coming at the expense of students throughout Zimbabwe.

Having stocked up on soap and cooking oil, the mother of two was planning on selling them on the street after her classes were through.

"I go to school and just teach some basics," she says. "I don't have time for the children because I have to worry about providing for myself and my family."

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