Friday, February 24, 2006

Eddie Cross: "Getting it all Wrong"

In business we call it a learning curve. It is supposed to happen to those who are in business and to enable people to cope with their jobs more adequately as they learn the ropes. In Zimbabwe the government does not follow these precepts - in fact if there is a curve it is negative, rather than positive.

Just this month we have seen the following really serious breeches of common sense in Zimbabwe.

The government paid off its outstanding arrears to one of the funds of the IMF. In doing so they spent US$209 million, enough money to pay for our essential food imports for 9 months, or our fuel imports for 10 months and our electricity imports for two years or our requirements for all essential drugs for 4 years.

What did we get for this effort? Absolutely nothing! The IMF issued a statement last week saying that while the payments meant that we were no longer a candidate for expulsion we still owed the fund many millions of dollars against other obligations and would still be suspended in terms of our voting and access rights at the IMF. They would not even re-open their office in Harare.

As a direct consequence of this act by the Zimbabwe regime, we have had virtually no maize meal in our shops for over a month. The World Food Programme is feeding about 5 million people every day now, but this still leaves 6 million people without their basic staple food. This is a catastrophe in any sense of the word. The Presidents remark that Zimbabweans can eat potatoes or rice is just an insult, both are three times as expensive as maize meal and not nearly as satisfying to the Zimbabwean palate. We also now have to sit in the dark for several hours every second day or so as we suffer "load shedding". Fuel now costs nearly Z$200 000 a litre and is in short supply everywhere. As for essential drugs - just try and find these in our pharmacies and hospitals.

We owe external creditors US$5 000 million. Paying US$209 million to the IMF is 0,04 percent of our liabilities. By paying the IMF we avoided expulsion -but so what? It changes nothing on the ground and just exacerbates our humanitarian and economic crisis. If we were expelled we would have been only the second country in the history of the IMF to be so, but if we then put our house in order and brought back the policies we need to implement to get back on our feet, they would have come back in within months and our membership would have been restored - together with all our rights as a member.

Then we found out that to make the last payment to the Fund the Reserve Bank simply printed local currency and bought hard currency on the street and from exporters. In doing so they pushed the parallel market up to $220 000 to one US dollar at one stage last week with it falling back to 200 000 to 1 now. That is it lost half its value in about 10 days.

Bread today is selling at Z$60 000 to Z$70 000 a loaf, flour allocations to bakeries have been reduced to 30 per cent of normal and prices again increased by 25 per cent this week. Eggs are now approaching Z$250 000 a dozen, beef is Z$400 000 a kilo and when I went to the dentist week for a tooth to be pulled I came away Z$13 million poorer! We gave a lift to Harare last week to a railway pensioner who gets Z$38 000 a month to live on.

Looking at the parallel market prices for hard currencies it is now quite clear that for the first time we are really into hyperinflation. The curve on my graph of market prices is now exponential in every sense of the word.

On Sunday night the President (who has 6 University degrees - including law and economics) told a local journalist "we will print money to meet our essential needs". This makes it clear that they have no intention of doing any of the things that are needed to affect a recovery in the economy and curb inflationary pressures. By doing so the regime has committed us to massive inflation and it is anyone's guess as to where we are now headed. Even the IMF thinks our official inflation numbers are being manipulated -the rate for January was a laughable 18 per cent, month on month -in fact in our factory our prices are now most certainly rising by at least 50 per cent a month.

Parliament has opened and closed until March - with nothing either achieved or done about the national economic and political crisis we are in at present. In fact the President said in the long rambling interview on Sunday night that there "is no crisis in Zimbabwe that warrants intervention." Behind the high security walls of his home that may be true - it's certainly not true for the rest of us.

A member of my own staff this past week lost two members of his family to tuberculosis - and you know what that means. In fact the one was a widow about 40 years old who had her house destroyed in the Murambatsvina exercise and as a result lost her sole source of income. She never recovered. She is one of millions who continue to be homeless and without an income as a result of this campaign. I still have 10 families living in a company workshop - only one has found accommodation in 9 months. The UN has condemned the government for this inhuman action - but nothing else has been done.

Tony Blair was in the region ten days ago. Flew from a summit of G8 leaders in Moscow to Pretoria where he spent the whole weekend with the President of South Africa and others in a luxury lodge just outside the City. On Sunday night he was interviewed on South African television - an exclusive. He and a very glamorous TV presenter talked for 40 minutes - about everything except the tragedy 500 kilometers to the north of where they were sitting. Not one word, not a single question - it must have been by prior agreement.

That means either they did something about the Zimbabwe crisis that weekend or they did nothing and like the United Nations, the African Union and the SADC, they chose to simply ignore the problem. I rather think they did talk about us and did discuss what to do next and agreed not to talk about it in public. But I have yet to see or hear of any new initiative that might, just might, turn our situation around. In the meantime time is running out.

My dentist said to me "I am scared of the potential for violence". I said that could only be prevented by giving the people a reason to think that their problems will be addressed in a comprehensive fashion and in the immediate future.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 23rd February 2006

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