The jokes run out in Zimbabwe fuel queues

Peta Thornycroft reports on the deteriorating daily struggle to buy basics in Harare

THEY are called “hope queues”, but mostly they bring nothing but bitter frustration. They consist of drivers with empty tanks who converge on garages where a rumour has gone around that a petrol tanker may be coming soon. Sometimes queues build up merely on the off-chance that fuel may arrive. The motorists often wait for hours for nothing.

The petrol shortage in the Zimbabwean capital reached even more dire levels than normal this week. No tankers came and even diesel, usually more plentiful, dried up.

In the last big fuel crisis three years ago, and there have been many short ones in between, a petrol queue had its moments, witty jokes about the government, anecdotes about the last queue and reunions among queuers in the stop-start lurches towards the pumps.

This time around, a fuel crisis so shortly after a general election in a city where most people voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has come too soon. No one is talking, let alone joking about the “old man”, President Robert Mugabe.

The reserves of everything that kept Zimbabwe limping downhill for the past five years of self-destruction have dried up. Even the last summer rain this week before the long dry winter sets in did not lift anyone’s spirits.

The wealth of resources on the former white-owned commercial farms that produced foreign currency has run out and the “new” farmers, largely Mr Mugabe’s clique, have no idea how to grow tobacco or other crops for export. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a yard of electric cable to be had as the factory that makes it cannot get foreign currency to import copper wire. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t any cooking oil, and we cope without electricity for a few hours daily.

We are used to water cuts and have learnt to keep a few filled buckets at strategic places. All that is bearable. But no petrol is unbearable.

Those without a car, about 95 per cent of the population of about l2million have to walk everywhere as the nation’s fleet of run-down mini-buses is grounded. So the 10 to 25 per cent who have jobs arrive late for work, exhausted after several hours’ walk from their crumbling ghettos where sewage seeps past many front doors.

Zimbabwe has the cheapest fuel in the world, about Z$4,000 or 33p a litre at the official exchange rate. On the black market, which this week hit Z$30,000 for £1 outside a five-star hotel in central Harare, it’s 13p a litre.

The government subsidised the price of fuel ahead of the elections last month. Mr Mugabe’s minions say increasing the price of fuel will wreak havoc with plans to stabilise inflation at what it claims is about 123 per cent per annum.

Inflation is one of the few enduring jokes as everyone knows, especially mothers looking for maize meal for their children, that Zimbabwe’s inflation is beyond comprehension. It’s probably about 400 per cent and rising according to economists, but what do economists or bank managers know about trying to afford a pint of milk if it is available?

Increasing prices are unfathomable and the only certainty is that prices of tomatoes, beans, and bananas if there are any, will go up tomorrow. Most Zimbabweans no longer eat meat or other proteins. Mr Mugabe has seen to that.

Zimbabwe’s urban shoppers, if they have fuel, have to be energetic. It might take hours from supermarket to corner shop, to women selling on the pavement and to contacts who know, but eventually those with enough money and time will find what they need.

They are the minority, mostly foreigners, with access to legal foreign currency, who shop at supermarkets where most consumables are available, including imported wine and fish.

The rest are like Constance Goredema, 36, with a ninemonth-old baby on her back, trudging to a queue she hopes will yield maize meal in the afternoon, who lamented: “We won’t live. We won’t see next year. We are going to die.”