Suffocating in Wreckage of Energy-Sapping Meltdown

IT is 5pm on Wednesday in central Harare and Douglas Marima, a 34-year-old journeyman, patiently waits at the tail end of a long, snaking queue for a bus which will take him to his home in Chitungwiza.

Marima has been in the queue for the last two hours and, like many urban dwellers who cannot afford commuter omnibus fares, he has no choice but to endure long hours before getting transport home.

Waiting for long hours has become a daily routine for Marima, but still he cannot get used to it, just like spending 18 hours daily without electricity, while also reeling from fuel queques and bread shortages, as well as skyrocketing inflation.

To alleviate the plight of urban commuters, who are finding it hard to pay commuter fares, government in January introduced a public transport system coordinated by the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) at heavily subsidised fares. The move was also meant to pacify restless citizens as social discontent and public anger grew over government’s inability to solve the country’s economic woes.

The disaffection had initially resulted in widespread protests over a 150% hike in fuel prices introduced earlier in January. But the public transport system has failed to ease the plight of the majority of commuters, given that everything else around them, including basic commodities and healthcare, is expensive.

The queue where Marima impatiently waits is a melting pot of the day’s struggles and frustrations of Zimbabwe’s growing economic problems. Here, people talk bitterly of their problems, their daily struggles and possible solutions are often proffered. The murmurings grow louder with the bus’s further delay.

The mischievous ones, who dare skip the line, receive instant chastisement from frustrated commuters. Ironically, the bus that Marima is impatiently waiting for is inscribed “Blessed”, but the biblical virtues are not evident in any of those in the queue.

Marima tells the Zimbabwe Independent how his salary — now more than 10 times lower than what it was when President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 — has been decimated by soaring inflation.

His wife, Mavis (30), supplements the family income by selling second-hand clothes in Harare’s central business district, where she has had to endure constant running battles with municipal cops.

“Around this time last year, my family could afford a decent breakfast but we can hardly afford two meals a day. My wife tries to help me but it has become increasingly difficult for her to sustain her business in this tough economy. This economy is making us poorer almost daily,” Marima said.

“How do you plan when you have no fixed pay date? This is déjà vu, we have been here before. The signs are clear and it’s not looking good. We are going back to 2008.”

Marima’s three school-going children had to endure the humiliation of being sent home after he failed to pay fees last term.

The children, aged six, nine and 11, respectively, spent a month without school fees before he managed to secure money through a cash baron. Paying back the money is a mammoth task for Marima.

Marima explains how at one point he contemplated transferring his eldest son, 11 to his rural home, where school fees is relatively affordable.

“We have had to adjust to the current situation and it’s difficult also considering we have school going children. We are failing to pay their fees on time and this is always problematic. It has affected their performance at school,” Marima said.

“I have resorted to borrowing from loan sharks, I have no choice.”

Just across the street, Joseline Munengiwa, a 40-year-old mother of three from Epworth, sits in a dark corner; a spot she secured after long running battles with council police. Under an improvised lighting system, she touts to attract customers’ attention to her makeshift vending stall. On a good evening, Munengiwa makes ZW$80 from vending, but such good days come once in a long while.

“My chest is painful from running from the police. I am relieved that my goods were not taken; now I can sell. I hope I can get something to take home to my children. I don’t want them to suffer,” Munengiwa says.

Munengiwa has had to grapple with feeding three teenage boys who often miss school to sell wares on the dusty streets of Epworth. “Food is our biggest problem. We have had to register for the food programme in our area to supplement the little we have. I never thought I would live on charity but if we don’t get that food, it will be tough,” she said. “Eating meat is now a luxury; the closest we have to that delicacy is when we eat soya chunks. As long as my family get something to eat, anything goes.”

Her township was under lockdown when security services cracked down on protestors in January. The protests led to the death of 17 people at the hands of the army while more than 70 were left nursing gunshot wounds. The crackdown left a dent on the country’s image, worsening an already strained relationship with the West.

Another vendor, Yvette Mabasa (32), a Glen View resident, said life had become difficult since last year.

Struggling to fend for her two children following the death of her husband, Mabasa, resorted to street vending to try and escape from the vicissitudes of an unemployed life.

“Life is really getting tough and there seems to be no end in sight. We spend 17 hours without electricity, running water is scarce, this economy needs urgent attention,” Mabasa said.

Mabasa spends the little she makes from vending on alternative sources of energy like firewood due to a crippling electricity crisis.

“I hardly make enough to save. I am literally living from hand to mouth. The power crisis has also worsened things because I have to part with money to buy firewood.”

Zimbabwe has continued on a freefall since last year’s disputed election. The country has gone from deflation to triple-digit inflation in less than three years. According to ZimStats, annual inflation rose to 176% in June from 97,9% in May. Runaway inflation has raised the spectre of hyperinflation, experienced in 2008 when inflation peaked at 500 billion percent, prompting the government to abandon the Zimbabwe dollar. The return of the Zimdollar and subsequent banning of other currencies like the United States dollar and South African rand as legal tender has also raised concern over the trajectory of the economy as the new currency continues to tumble in value since introduction.

Economists say the annual inflation may end conservatively at between 200% and 300%, but to conceal figures the burn government banned ZimStats from publishing inflation numbers until February next year.

Government has been battling to contain civil unrest in recent months ahead of the MDC’s demonstration scheduled for today while teachers have also threatened to go into the streets, demanding better wages which have been decimated by inflation.

Rudo Jonasi (36), a school teacher, said educators were leading undignified lives due to growing economic challenges.

“There are no clear promises by the government except for these threats of losing jobs. Currently there are no salary increments, even a cushioning allowance. Life is difficult, most teachers are surviving through ponzi schemes which leave us in debt,” Jonasi said.

Pulling a cart for a living, Mufaro Mabuto (27), a resident of Mbare, has never held a payslip in his life. Mabuto, a high school dropout, yearns for a comfortable life.

“I get ZW$5 per load and it’s not enough to take care of my family. Lucky enough, I stay at home but taking care of my extended family is getting tougher every day, it’s simply impossible,” Mabuto said.

Part of his growing extended family includes a hypertensive uncle whose medication costs US$45 per month.

“This burden is tough to bear. On top of the food whose prices go up every day, I have to buy medication for my uncle and it’s expensive. Last month, he had to miss his medication for some days because I had no money. He is not safe anymore,” Mabuto lamented.

Mabuto was hopeful that after last year’s election, life would get better.

“My family now relies on an aunt abroad. But she has stopped sending money. She is also complaining that she cannot continue to support us and this is a blow.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) country director, Eddie Rowe, last week warned of increased cases of hunger this year due to economic meltdown and the El Niño-induced drought.

The number of people at risk of starvation this year has exponentially risen by 900% to 5,5 million, although this is viewed by some as a conservative estimate. Some calculations project the number of people facing starvation at more than seven million. This comes as various humanitarian and relief agencies are escalating their intervention programmes to alleviate the crisis, with government and the United Nations (UN) in the process of mobilising US$331 million to feed millions of Zimbabweans ravaged by hunger.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has found the going tough since winning a disputed election last year. International goodwill has also dwindled because of gross human rights violations. In place of joy and expectations after the 2017 coup that toppled long-time leader Robert Mugabe, suffocating despair has crawled back into Zimbabwe.

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