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Zimbabwe: Slow next steps
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

Zimbabwe has entered another phase, one of problematic unity between President Mugabe and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, where the hope for change and the movement toward a painful rebuilding is overshadowed by a regime that has strangled any movement for the good of the people or the land. The following article is based on a report by Maryknoll Sister Fran Kobets, living in Zimbabwe.

While there is some evidence of change in Zimbabwe -- and some are hoping that by July 2010, a new Constitution will be in place -- overall, it is a wait and see situation there. The sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by other countries that were mainly directed at corrupt leaders, their external bank accounts and education benefits for their children, are still in place as there is no evidence of political progress. And the reality created by ZANU-PF now facing the unity government is bleak:

Life expectancy for men is 37 years; for women, 34. Government health services have largely collapsed, although some district hospitals show improvements in consultations and counseling. HIV/AIDS, cholera, anthrax, poor nutrition and lack of hygiene have all contributed to the generally poor health and high mortality rate of the population. HIV symptoms are more evident among children, especially orphans. Waterborne diseases are rampant. Doctors Without Borders identified unsafe water as the main source of current health problems, but recognizes that no government structure is in place to handle the situation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been asked to help build a safe water system. HIV and AIDS infection has increased in the center of the country as gold panning communities use or buy women and children.

As of March 2, US$1 equaled one trillion zim dollars. While the unemployment rate was over 80 percent, the salaries of those who were employed could not be paid. Vouchers were briefly provided for families of six or more. At that point, the inflation rate was 250 million percent, the zim dollar ceased to exist and suddenly the U.S. dollar, the South African rand, and the Botswana pula took over as currency. Bank accounts are in zim dollars and, as there is no zim currency, accounts are frozen. Now, only cash in foreign currency is used. No checks are written. The government has no money. There are no services. Yet, there is a concentration of money at the very top. The governor of the reserve bank raised the amount of foreign exchange that people could carry out of the country to US$250,000 and the amount that could be deducted from foreign exchange accounts in the banks to US$5,000 per day.

Thanks to dollarization, the inflation rate has dropped, and as of mid-April, devaluation was -3.1 percent. The reserve bank has no cash for people to withdraw, but local banks encourage opening foreign currency accounts to decentralize and put money into the pipeline. The bottom line is that there is no cash flow in the system. Whoever goes to South Africa to get goods brings them back, sets up shop, makes the profit, then turns around and takes the money back to South Africa to buy other goods, etc. It is a vicious cycle.

Agriculture is still the backbone of the country, but despite good rains, there has been little production. As empty shelves are stocked with goods (mainly unaffordable for the majority of people), the crime rate, including armed robberies, has escalated. Previous black market venders have turned to crime. Where cultivation has taken place on local farmsteads and seeds were available there have been good harvests and enough maize produced to get through to October 2010, but poultry, and especially dairy and beef production, will take a long time to recover. The new government has tried to provide some basic maize meal and has welcomed outside agencies to assist in food relief.

Public education has collapsed. Schools function with stress and a minimum of teaching; fees are high. Teachers strike for salaries. Many do not teach; rather, they tutor privately and are paid by parents. Students are still waiting for the results of last year’s (2008) exams that have not been marked.

Finally, recent reports from Sokwanele (3/30/09) and other sources report that prisoners are “suffering untold horrors in Zimbabwe’s jails.” They are being “held in hell-holes, condemned to slow starvation and possible death from nutrition-related illnesses” and a vast array of other diseases resulting from unhygienic conditions. Yet, they are prevented from begging for food from passers-by; they cannot forage from wild berries in the bush; and they can’t rummage through garbage cans for waste. “Zimbawe’s prisons constitute a unique and especially cruel form of torture that has both physical and psychological impact” on prisoners.

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