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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:30 GMT
Life gets harder for Zimbabweans
Zimbabweans rely on food handouts
A time of suffering for many people

At the beginning of 2002 many Zimbabweans felt that something had to give.

The economy was in rapid decline, political violence was increasing, and food production was dropping.

Surely, they believed, this would be a year of significant change in their country.

President Mugabe
Robert Mugabe won a controversial election

They were wrong.

Life for ordinary Zimbabweans is now significantly harder than it was 12 months ago, but President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF appear more firmly entrenched in power than ever before.

International isolation, even the looming threat of famine, have not dislodged the Zimbabwean Government, nor loosened its ruinous grip.

Zimbabweans praying for change had pinned their hopes on the presidential elections, back in March.

Given the climate of political polarisation in the country, these were bound to be controversial.

'Climate of fear'

In the event, the various foreign observer groups produced such different verdicts that it was difficult to believe that they had even been watching the same elections.

Throughout Zimbabwe's crisis the majority of African governments have been supportive of President Mugabe, and the bitter dispute which followed his sweeping victory in the polls was no exception.

Namibian observers described the elections as "watertight, without room for rigging".

The Organisation of African Unity team said the vote was "transparent, credible, free and fair".

The European Union withdrew its observers, but a Norwegian team said the elections were held in a climate of fear.

Zanu militiamen
The ruling party's militia inspire fear

A network of Zimbabwean non-governmental organisations complained that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was prevented from deploying observers in almost half of the rural constituencies.

And Commonwealth observers issued such a damning verdict that the organisation felt compelled to suspend Zimbabwe.

Farm workers' plight

President Mugabe ignored the criticism and pressed ahead with his radical re-distribution of land.

Seizures of white-owned farms continued.

At the beginning of 2002 there were still several thousand white farmers in Zimbabwe.

By the end of the year, this number had been whittled down to a few hundred.

Many have left the country altogether. Those that remain have little confidence in the future.

But far more desperate is the plight of the labourers who used to work on the white-owned farms.

The collapse of the commercial farming sector has left tens of thousands of people destitute.

With no prospect of employment in the countryside, many have drifted into Zimbabwe's cities.

The government says that more than 200,000 people have been re-settled on the former commercial farms.

But many of these settlers are in no position to grow food. There are severe shortages of grain, fertiliser, animal feed and technical support.

And the re-distribution process has been riddled with accusations of cronyism and corruption.

Supporters of President Mugabe and Zanu-PF have been given some of the most productive farms, although it is doubtful whether many of these beneficiaries are qualified to manage their new properties.

Unemployment and shortages

The economic situation in Zimbabwe's cities is bleak.

Gross domestic product continues to shrink at a rapid rate.

Zimbabwean schoolchildren
Millions of people relied on food aid to survive

Unemployment in the formal sector stands at 70%.

The Zimbabwean dollar is one of the worst performing currencies in the world.

Imports are now so expensive that many industries have had to close down. And recurrent fuel shortages are a painful reminder that Zimbabwe has all but run out of foreign currency.

But the real misery is in the countryside.


Throughout 2002 United Nations agencies warned of a rapidly worsening food situation.

By the end of the year, a staggering six to eight million Zimbabweans were thought to be at risk of famine.

This in a country which until recently supplied a healthy surplus to the rest of southern Africa.

MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai
The opposition leader faces treason trial
President Mugabe blames the shortages on drought, but a sceptical international community remains convinced that economic mismanagement and the land seizures have been significant factors in this appalling situation.

Zimbabwean and foreign human rights organisations say that during the past 12 months the government security forces and pro-government militias, have used violence, intimidation and torture with impunity.

And these brutal tactics do work.

The opposition MDC appears to have been devastated by its defeat in the elections.

Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is distracted by his own impending treason trial.

And efforts by civil society and trade unions to organise strikes and protests have come to nothing.

It is hazardous to make predictions about what the next 12 months will bring.

But there is one certainty; it will be a time of terrible suffering for many, many Zimbabweans.

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See also:

10 Dec 02 | Africa
28 Nov 02 | Africa
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