An Unhappy Holiday in Zimbabwe

By Angus Shaw
Associated Press
Monday, August 13, 2007

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Aug. 12 -- Acute gasoline shortages crippled transportation services in Zimbabwe on Sunday, stranding thousands of weary travelers at bus stops before a two-day holiday honoring guerrillas who fought against colonial-era white rule.

Zimbabwe is facing its worst gasoline shortages since the seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy. Shortfalls in food, energy and other sectors, along with the world's highest rates of inflation, have devastated the country.

At a major terminal in Harare, travelers said buses were infrequent or not available at all to some districts for the holiday period. State radio reported that some bus operators had abandoned government-controlled fares and demanded "exorbitant" amounts from travelers desperate to visit relatives in rural areas.

Some people had been waiting in line since 3 a.m. at the Mbare terminal in western Harare, where riot police were called Saturday to stop fighting among passengers trying to board scarce buses and to remove travelers from overcrowded vehicles.

Thousands of travelers dotted the sides of Harare's main highways, trying to flag down rides. Crowds were three-deep on downtown sidewalks waiting to board trucks and private cars.

"It's misery. There's nothing to celebrate," said a father with two teenage children who gave his name as Lazarus.

The Heroes and Defense Forces holiday Monday and Tuesday commemorates the seven-year war that ended British rule with Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Tuesday also celebrates the capabilities of the country's military, which is commanded by many former guerrillas.

The official inflation rate in Zimbabwe is given as 4,500 percent, although independent estimates put it closer to 9,000 percent. In an effort to tame the rampant inflation, the government in June ordered price cuts of around 50 percent on all goods and services, including gasoline and transportation. But the measure has caused acute shortages of basic goods.

The Sunday Mail newspaper, a government mouthpiece, reported that bus operators were buying fuel on the black market at about five times the subsidized price.

Police spokesman James Sabau said bus passengers often refused to disclose fares to police at roadblocks. "Some of the passengers do not say how much they have been charged, making it difficult to arrest the operators," he said.

At least 7,000 business leaders, traders and bus drivers have been arrested in the push to enforce the price clampdown, which has led residents to clean store shelves of bread, meat, milk and other staples.

Over the weekend, the government backed down on a ban on private slaughterhouses, which are accused of profiteering, and doubled the price of beef to restore meat supplies.

David Hasluck, head of the Livestock and Meat Advisory Council, told state media that the new beef price still was not as high as the viable levels of neighboring South Africa and other countries. He said the government was expected to approve higher poultry and pork prices soon.

Cigarettes and state-run newspapers were the latest items in short supply Sunday. But beer was trickling back into the market after a 30 percent price increase was announced Friday.

Still, the Harare Sports Club, the venue of a cricket match between teams from Zimbabwe and South Africa, had no beer, bread rolls or ground meat for burgers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company