Zimbabwe must rely on its own

Relatives send essentials home from South Africa

March 19, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It's Friday afternoon, and that means Daniel Chitungwiza is putting another package of rice, cooking oil and other basics on the overnight bus to his beleaguered mother and brothers back home in Zimbabwe.

"They won't die without it," he said of the weekly shipments from South Africa, "but they will be hungry."

As once-prosperous Zimbabwe's seven-year economic slide deepens, legions of expatriates like Chitungwiza are keeping their families afloat. They regularly send staples that their relatives - amid a 1,700 percent annual inflation rate - can no longer afford or even find on bare store shelves.

The country made headlines last week when police broke up a rally and badly beat several participants, including Morgan Tsvangirai, a leader of the opposition to the increasingly repressive regime of President Robert G. Mugabe. Police fatally shot one person.

For many Zimbabweans living in South Africa, the crackdown was only the latest sign that their country has spun out of control, with 80 percent unemployment and growing internal unrest. Yet neighboring countries like South Africa have looked on largely in silence amid the worldwide condemnation.

"We need something to change; we need different everything," said Tabita Ndungu as she boarded a bus here on Wednesday with cooking oil and soap for her husband and two children.

Until and unless the situation improves, the northbound flow of goods will certainly continue, as will the southbound flow of people. The rising number of Zimbabweans in South Africa, legal and illegal, has been estimated at between 1 million and 3.5 million. Zimbabwe's population is estimated to be about 12 million. Whatever the totals, most who have left are actively helping family members who cannot or will not leave.

Many of Zimbabwe's problems go back to 2000, when Mugabe encouraged disgruntled veterans of the 1970s liberation war to seize white-owned farms, even though few knew how to run a farm. When harvests fell, Mugabe shunned foreign aid. Inflation jumped as the government printed money to cover its spending, a cycle that has only become more vicious.

"In Zimbabwe everything is too expensive, and you can't find it anyway," said Edson Mangena, conductor of the daily Golden Motorways bus that makes the 12-hour trip from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city.

His bus is part of a vast transit network that functions as a lifeline for thousands of desperate Zimbabweans. Ten different bus companies travel the routes, he said, some using modern coaches and others offering rickety-looking, fume-belching old buses.

In the downtown parking lot that serves as Golden Motorways' depot, half a dozen buses were being loaded Wednesday afternoon. A wide array of items - tires, cases of soap, toilet paper, floor tiles, sacks of corn meal - was crammed in the baggage compartment or lashed to the roof.

"We have to limit what they can bring," Mangena said. "Otherwise we'd have a bus full of soap and food and things."

Separately, private citizens haul goods over the border in pickup trucks or trailers. A large number of those leave from Hillbrow, an inner-city Johannesburg neighborhood so populated by Zimbabweans that its nickname is Zimbrow.

Hubert Moyo, who lives between Johannesburg and Pretoria, takes shipments up once a month in his pickup, often for 10 different families. His fees can total $500, but by the time he pays for gas and duties at the border, he nets $100 or so. He is not motivated by money, though.

"I do it because I want to help people who are suffering," he said. "I'm not enjoying it. Most people here are my family. They ask me, please, our kids are starving."

Moyo moved to South Africa in 1988 and is a permanent resident. But he said most of his family members in Zimbabwe could not get visas due to tightened restrictions.

Besides, he said, "Zimbabwe is home."

His parents and two children live in the town of Plumtree. His children are lucky because they still have teachers, even though there are only four for 500 students. With government salaries now worth just $9 a month (and falling), by some accounts, few teachers bother to show up, and some schools have no educators left.

Zimbabwe's schools were the envy of Africa in the early years of Mugabe's presidency, which began in 1980 after a violent civil war toppled the white regime of what was Rhodesia. No longer. "To build a country," Moyo lamented, "you need education."

For now, the highest priority is the most basic of needs, such as eating and bathing.

Ndungu, laden with three cases of Golden Glo soap and two liters of cooking oil, returns home to her husband and their two teenage children once a month for a week. Then she heads south again to Johannesburg with mopane worms and peanuts that she tries to sell. The round-trip fare is about $60. It is a life she has led for two years now.

"Am I happy to be here without my family? No. It's hard." But she said she has no choice. Her husband, Collin, is a Zimbabwean soldier, meaning he is lucky to have a job and a salary that, however small, actually arrives.

Even so, it is not enough with inflation pushing prices up literally every day and many goods available only at exorbitant black-market prices. So back and forth she goes.

"When the economy is OK," she said, "I'll stop."

She could not guess when that might be. Despite signs of growing opposition within Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the 83-year-old president has hinted he may stand next year for another six-year term.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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