Zimbabwe's Bustle, Business Evaporate With Fuel Shortage

Severe gasoline shortages in Zimbabwe have led to lines in the capital that stretch for blocks and last for days. For the 30 percent of Zimbabweans who are employed, many now spend hours each way commuting on foot.
Severe gasoline shortages in Zimbabwe have led to lines in the capital that stretch for blocks and last for days. For the 30 percent of Zimbabweans who are employed, many now spend hours each way commuting on foot. (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 25, 2005

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- This had long been a city in motion. Corners were crammed with men offering fruit or cigarettes, restaurants were busy and plentiful, shops were well-stocked. And only the foolhardy would dare cross the traffic-clogged streets without the assistance of a green light.

But four months into a crushing fuel shortage, and more than two months since the government began a campaign to clean up slums and informal markets, the capital of about 1.4 million has slowed to a halt.

Empty cars are parked in gasoline lines that stretch for blocks. Even at rush hour, pedestrians can stroll across major boulevards without a glance in either direction. With tens of thousands of street vendors reportedly arrested, the few that remain have turned shy. Grocery stores routinely run out of cooking oil, sugar and soap. Shoppers must wait in line to buy a single loaf of bread.

Harare's bustle is gone. Even those lucky enough to have jobs, in an economy with 70 percent unemployment, have trouble getting to work because public transport has become so scarce. It is not uncommon, workers said, for their daily commute to take three or four hours each way, most of it spent waiting in line for transportation. Many have resorted to walking, rising hours before dawn and returning home well after sunset.

Zimbabwe's troubles have extended even to the skyscraper that is headquarters for President Robert Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. Once, its lighted sign confidently beamed the letters ZANU-PF bright enough to be seen for miles.

Now, the broken beacon reads ZA U F.

"Our government is hopeless," said Arnold Mapfumo, 21, a welder waiting in a line for gasoline in the suburb of Chitungwiza. "If we don't have petrol, everything stops. Everything stops. What can we do?"

Mugabe's demolition campaign, called Operation Murambatsvina or "Drive Out the Rubbish," has generated international outcry because of the brutal destruction of slums, which the United Nations estimates has made more than 700,000 people homeless. Many are sleeping amid the rubble of their homes or under plastic sheeting at government resettlement camps. A U.N. report last week called for an end to the program, which the government said it had temporarily halted.

But it is the fuel shortage that has crippled Zimbabwe, reaching across all levels of society. Manufacturers can't get their goods to market. There are reports of police commandeering just-delivered gasoline because their official supplies have dried up, and of Air Zimbabwe having to ground flights because of fuel shortages.

Major businesses have begun sending trucks across the borders into Botswana and South Africa to buy fuel. Even senior members of Mugabe's ruling party have difficulty filling their tanks, according to Pearson Mbalekwa, a former lawmaker who resigned from the party this month to protest the government's slum-clearance campaign.

So serious are the current problems that many party members are itching for an alternative, even if that means ending the reign of Mugabe, 81, a former hero in the struggle for independence. He has ruled the nation since the end of British control in 1980, and for the past five years he has been resorting to increasingly authoritarian measures, including cracking down on political dissent, closing independent newspapers and seizing land owned by white farmers.

"Maybe he has been there a little too long. Maybe he has gotten too confident of what he is doing, and maybe he is no longer listening to the wishes of the people. Because if he was, I don't think we'd be in this mess," Mbalekwa, 53, said in an interview at his home in an elegant suburb. "It's time for him to pack his bags and allow for a new leadership."

At the root of the shortages of fuel and other commodities is a lack of hard currency. The Zimbabwean dollar, which a decade ago was worth 33 U.S. cents, has plummeted. A single U.S. dollar can now be traded on the black market for $20,000 in Zimbabwean currency, making payment to international suppliers nearly impossible.

Because Zimbabwe's largest note is for $20,000, those who have money must carry around bricks of it. A fast-food burger and fries cost more than $100,000, a sit-down dinner for a family more than $1 million.

Making matters worse is the collapse of Zimbabwe's once powerful agricultural industry, which in the 1980s and 1990s exported large amounts of tobacco, fruits and vegetables, both to neighboring African countries and to Europe.

Today Zimbabwe exports little but people. As many as 3 million residents -- about one-fourth of the estimated population of 12 million -- have left, mostly heading to South Africa, where the economy is booming.

Mugabe has recently appealed to South Africa and China for $1 billion to relieve shortages of fuel and other necessities, according to news reports, but at the same time the International Monetary Fund is considering expelling Zimbabwe for non-payment of debts. Major Western donors, meanwhile, have sharply curtailed or halted most forms of aid other than food donations.

For Zimbabweans with the means to own vehicles, obtaining fuel and shepherding scarce supplies has become an all-consuming pursuit. Black-market prices are up to 10 times higher than those set by government price controls, and even those supplies are erratic.

Opinions vary about whom to blame, with many pointing to Mugabe but some Zimbabweans accepting his argument that a coalition of Western nations -- led by the country's former colonial master, Britain -- are starving the nation economically with sanctions. Such claims are made nearly every day on radio, television and in daily newspapers -- all of which are owned and run by the government.

"This is an economic war, as I see it, between the Zimbabweans and the West," said Lawrence Gwashure, a 53-year-old taxi driver who has spent most of the past three weeks in a gas line in Chitungwiza, hoping to use his battered 1973 Datsun to earn a living.

But there is no disagreement on the severity of Zimbabwe's problems: people here say life has never been harder.

Caleb Choto, 30, another cabbie, said he had spent the past month in a line waiting for fuel. Each day, he leaves his wife and 7-year-old daughter to walk more than two miles to the gas line in Chitungwiza. At the end of the day, after eating nothing for nine hours straight, he walks home full of worry that thieves will ravage his car in the night.

Choto is ready, he said, for a better economy, a new government and enough fuel to return to work.

"If it doesn't come today, I have to come back home and come tomorrow," Choto said. "I'm sick and tired of waiting."

Harare, Zimbabwe
Map: Harare, Zimbabwe
© 2005 The Washington Post Company