Inflation April 2006

THE first time that Anna was arrested, two policemen confiscated her box of tomatoes, bananas, popcorn and a couple of cigarettes and ordered her to pay an on-the-spot fine of Z$250,000 (65p) for illegal vending.

When she refused to pay they took her Z$160,000 takings for the afternoon, put it in their pockets and left. Two days later Anna was caught by the police with her goods spread out on a sack. They told her to bring her goods with her to the police station.

On the way the police asked how much money she had. “Nothing,” she said. They said she could go. “No,” she said. “I want to go to the police station. I have done criminal things. Let’s go.”

“What’s your name?” they asked aggressively. She told them. “You are too cheeky,” they said. “Yes,” she said, “I am too cheeky.” She strode back to her corner, triumphant. Anna started trading on the street to pay her two children’s school fees. For millions of Zimbabweans, informal trading on a tiny scale has become the difference between life and starvation.

President Mugabe has declared the activity illegal. Every day thousands are arrested in police raids and lose their earnings and their goods, or have them smashed.

“I will be back there every day, selling,” Anna said. “They can come. I am no longer afraid of them.”

This is the reality of Zimbabwe as the country commemorates today the 26th anniversary of independence from Britain. Mr Mugabe has presided over the ruin of the country’s economy, once one of the strongest in Africa. The rapid impoverishment of Zimbabweans has been compounded by the destruction of the homes of nearly one million people, who have also been banned from making a living in his notorious “Operation Remove the Rubbish”, which continues after 11 months.

Last week the World Health Organisation said that Zimbabwean women had the lowest life expectancy in the world, at 34 years. The country has the highest inflation, at 913 per cent The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe estimates that a family of six needs Z$35 million a month to survive. Six years ago Z$1 million dollars would have bought a whole block of luxury apartments.

State school fees have recently risen by 1,000 per cent. “Zimbabwean children are faced with some of the worst hardships confronting children anywhere in the world,’ a Unicef spokesman said.

John Makumbe, a political commentator, said: “Life has become unbearable and unaffordable. These people are waiting to vent their anger through mass demonstrations. We are on the brink. The element of [ordinary Zimbabweans’] fear is overrated. That point is going to become clearer in the next few months.”

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of what appears to be the dominant faction of the divided Opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, is capitalising on the rising mood of defiance.

He has promised in recent weeks that he will lead street protests to bring down the Government and has said that he is prepared to die doing so. He has hinted that the movement will start next month.

Mr Mugabe responded with a stark warning to Mr Tsvangirai: “If he wants to invite his own death, let him go ahead.”

John Robertson, an economist, said: “We are in a tinderbox situation. If something starts, it can become complete collapse and it can be started by street violence. They will call the soldiers out, but the soldiers may turn their guns on their leaders. They are having as difficult a time as everyone else.”