Unity government brings real improvements to Harare residents

in Harare – Despite the continuing political strife between Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's allies and those of President Robert Mugabe, residents of Harare say things have improved significantly since the unity government came into power in February.


‘’Last year we were burning in hell. This year the fire has gone out,’’ says Trevor Saruwaka by way of explaining how life has relatively improved since Morgan Tsvangirai became prime minister in February. In fact, in the capital Harare, where supermarket shelves are full again, people are positively upbeat.


Generally, despite the continuing political strife between Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's allies and those of President Robert Mugabe, city residents say things have got better since the unity government came to power in February. Civil servants have gone back to work and factory owners are starting up their machines again.

But Saruwaka, who is a rural MP for Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, warns against judging progress only by sights and sounds in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. ‘’Life remains extremely tough in rural areas.’’

One of the first and most effective measures carried out by MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti was to abolish the Zimbabwe Dollar in February. Before Biti was sworn in, the currency had been printed in huge quantities by Central Bank Governor Gideon Gono, causing world record-breaking hyper-inflation. During this period, some prices - like fares on minibuses - doubled between the morning and the afternoon and the currency was too weak to allow goods to be imported. Shops were empty and the black market ruled.

Now the shelves are full again and the prices more manageable, at least for the middle classes. Shuah Makuyana sells bananas on Livingstone Avenue. The price is US$1 for ten bananas. But if you only want five, life gets more complicated. ‘’We don’t have US coins. We do take some South African coins. But neighbours solve the problem by buying in bulk and taking turns to pay,’’ he says.

This month (August) Biti has managed to give civil servants a pay rise. In February, he kick-started the economy by giving everyone on the state payroll – from the president to police and army officers - $100 dollars a month. ‘’Now I’ve managed to introduce grading, which is as it should be, so for instance headmasters, MPs and ministers are going to get $200 – minus tax – and teachers will receive $165. The prime minister and president will get $300, minus tax of course,’’ said the minister.

Saruwaka says the use of foreign currencies – chiefly the US dollar and the South African rand – has helped enormously, with some reservations. ‘’Rural people depend on the money sent to them from civil servants in the cities but there is not enough of it, and there is a shortage of small denominations and coins, so getting change is a problem. If you go along to the miller with your bucket of grain, he will want 50 US cents. But no one has 50c so they will offer to barter a chicken in return for having their grain milled. Even if a hen is worth $3 or $4 and people soon run out of chickens.

"And as a chicken is not enough to pay school fees," he adds, "people are forced to pay for school with goats but these are highly prized animals in our society and we cannot afford to let them all go. Nevertheless, you won’t find a single Zimbabwean, even among rural people, who wants the Zim dollar back.’’

Across the country there is a feeling that things are better. But major western economic players - such as European supermarkets who used to buy vegetables from Zimbabwe and large mining companies - have not yet returned. They are still looking closely at the signals coming from their diplomats who remain very worried about the political instability. The only investors willing to bet on Zimbabwe for the time being are relatively small risk-takers, chiefly from South Africa.

Dollarization has in the past few weeks led to the re-emergence of queues outside savings banks. One afternoon last week, Edmore Chirume, a carpenter, was still at the back of the queue, in the street outside Beverley Building Society, even though he had turned up at 9am. ‘’I want to withdraw some savings but it seems there is a shortage of cash,’’ he said.

Local media also report that fluctuations in the dollar and rand have recently prompted black marketeers to cash in. In the first few months of dollarization, 10 rand was worth $1. Now the US dollar has strengthened and is reckoned to be worth eight rand in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, but 10 rand in much of Harare. Speculators are cashing in by moving large quantities of cash between the cities.

Other forms of ingenuity are legal. Residents of a block of flats in Fourth Avenue have planted vegetables in their communal garden, where the flowers used to be. Simon Sisimayi manning a stand at the Harare Book Fair, which ended on Sunday, sold balls of string as a sideline. ‘’Let’s face it, no one can afford books any more but everyone needs string. I’m selling six balls for $24, do you want some?’’

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