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How Mugabe stole Christmas

By Brian Latham

ZIMBABWEAN President Robert Mugabe this year stole Christmas. For most Zimbabweans, Santa Claus was a World Food Programme (WFP) worker distributing a basin of emergency maize meal.

Zimbabweans have just experienced their bleakest Yuletide ever. With hyperinflation running at about 620%, the middle classes are reeling while the poor are struggling for survival, let alone any hint of good cheer.

Zimbabweans call the-ir unenviable existence “Zimlife” and wonder when it will end. With a small Christmas turkey costing up to $200 000, the middle classes opted for chicken. But many of Zimbabwe’s poor simply did not have Christmas this year.

Zimbabwe’s inflation threatens to rocket past the four-digit figure in the coming months. Retailers in the capital Harare said on the eve of Christmas sales were down to unprecedented levels.

“Sales are lower than even an ordinary month,” said a shop manager in Harare’s normally bustling Westgate shopping mall. “There’s no Christmas in Zimbabwe this year.”

Some mall shops were deserted just days before Christmas. Even basic necessities cost more than many employed people can afford. And with unemployment at about 70% and rising, most Zimbabweans live in abject poverty.

“There was a time when I could afford to buy nice presents,” said one shopper. “Those days are gone.”

In a country where thousands of people earn as little as $50 000 a month and a loaf of bread costs more than $3 000, many go without.

Prices rise day to day, often doubling month on month. Or worse.

“I ordered roofing timbers for my house two months ago and they quoted me $4,5 million, but when the timber arrived this week the bill was more than $16 million,” said Harare resident Philip Mukwazi. “Now I’m broke.”

At Harare’s refuse dumps, scores of bedraggled men, women and children move systematically, like vultures, through foul-smelling rubbish, scratching for food and anything that might be sold or bartered.

Food shortages have worsened the plight of all Zimbabweans, with mealie-meal in critically short supply. Empty supermarket shelves stand as stark testimony to the economic and political crisis.

Even the supply of basics such as sugar, milk, bread and flour is at best erratic. Cooking oil is now too expensive for many. Glum pensioners queue patiently at shop tills. In their baskets a single egg, tomato and onion show their plight.

“My pension is under $300 a month after 20 years of service,” said retired civil servant George Takawira. “The stamps on the envelope are worth more.”

In the rural areas the situation is worse, with 5,5 million Zimbabweans, about half the population, dependent on emergency food aid. United Nations organisations such as the WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organisation blame starvation in part on Mugabe’s violent seizure of about 95% of the country’s farms.

Before 2000, Zimbabwe fed much of Southern Africa and massive quantities of fruit, vegetables and flowers were exported. Most of that has come to a standstill as hundreds of thousands of once-productive hectares now lie idle.

That means most of Zimbabwe’s rural poor will be dependent on food aid in the New Year. The food comes largely from the United States, Britain and the European Union, the very countries Mugabe accuses of trying to recolonise Zimbabwe.

But the attitude of donors is fast changing as is evidenced by the disclosure by the WFP that it does not have enough food for the three million people in need.

WFP country director Kevin Farrell says some Zimbabweans are at risk of starving.

“Certainly at this stage, the evidence is all around us that there is acute hunger,” he said.

“Because of our shortage of supplies, it’s inevitable that that’s going to get worse.”

The WFP has been forced to cut food aid to about 2,6 million Zimbabweans after donors came up with less than half the funds requested by the UN agency, officials said recently. The WFP said that in July it had appealed for US$311 million to feed 6,5 million people in Southern Africa through June this year.

“However, to date donors have only come forward with less than half of what’s needed, leaving a $161,3 million shortfall. Two-thirds of the overall amount is needed for Zimbabwe, where more than four million people will need WFP assistance by January,” the agency said.

It also warned that the outlook for the first quarter of this year was “even worse”, a further blow for the impoverished country where hyperinflation is rampant and one in three adults is HIV-positive.

“Zimbabwe’s lean season starts in January, a period when granaries tend to be empty and people enduring food shortages are most reliant on food aid,” the WFP said. “Without sufficient food, people won’t have enough energy to cultivate crops for the year’s first harvest.

“Few people still have income or savings to buy staple foods, which have jumped in price by nearly 50 % in the last few weeks, putting them out of reach of the average family,” it said. – Additional reporting by AFP.

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