- - Wednesday, August 14, 2019

JOHANNESBURG — It has been nearly two years since ailing President Robert Mugabe was driven from power, but the problems he bequeathed to Zimbabwe over 37 years of autocratic rule and economic mismanagement are proving harder to eradicate.

The United Nations office in Harare this month launched an appeal for more than $300 million in emergency aid to fend off starvation in a country once dubbed “the breadbasket of Africa.”

U.N. Ambassador Bishow Parajuli said the funds were needed to cover the humanitarian needs of 3.7 million people through April.

The struggles of daily life are easy to see. Power is cut for 18 or more hours every day, vehicles line up for miles at dry gas stations, and few goods are stocked on store shelves.

Most of the would-be shoppers have no cash because the state’s Reserve Bank banned the use of American dollars and South African rands, reintroduced a Zimbabwean dollar and then revealed that the government lacks the funds to print the new notes.

Frustration at the dashed hopes for post-Mugabe prosperity is building. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), plans a major march through Harare on Friday to protest the record of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a onetime ally of Mr. Mugabe who emerged as his successor after an army-backed popular uprising in 2017. Mr. Mnangagwa won a disputed election last year after promising an era of investment, openness and “good days ahead” for long-suffering Zimbabweans.

MDC leader Nelson Chamisa, who says Mr. Mnangagwa has squandered the country’s vast potential, is demanding talks with the government as the economy deteriorates. Fears are mounting that Friday’s demonstrations could become violent.

“The cost of doing nothing far exceeds the cost of doing something,” Mr. Chamisa said this week. “We must change our unmerited circumstances and harsh realities of joblessness, hopelessness and poverty.”

As in Cuba and Venezuela, the government blames its problems on “outside forces,” notably the United States, Britain and Australia, all of which have travel bans on key members of the Mnangagwa government. The president insists the pain will bring substantial payoffs in the near future.

“We have made a return back into the international fold after two decades of isolation,” he said in a national address last week. “We are on the right path, and our ambitious vision is within grasp.

“Painful but necessary reforms have been made in the year gone by,” he said. “While the beginning may be painful, the medium term will bring about growth and jobs.”

But the government’s own statistics underscore the depth of the crisis. Annual inflation is pegged at over 175%, energy prices have soared and the economy is on track to shrink for the first time in more than a decade. The World Bank projects Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product to fall by 3% next year, the worst forecast for any country in the region.

The country badly needed a change of course after the Mugabe years, critics say, but the current government has yet to come up with a coherent reform agenda.

“They are behaving like a drowning person who is clutching at straws,” Harare-based economist Prosper Chitambara told the German news service Deutsche Welle. “Most of the policies that have been implemented are ad hoc, latching from one policy measure to another without addressing the structural policy impediments.”

Deep-rooted dysfunction

Zimbabweans say the country’s troubles are all the more painful given the euphoria that greeted Mr. Mugabe’s ouster in November 2017.

“I was on the street,” said Ida Chiweshe, who runs a store in a village east of Harare. “When Mugabe left office, we went into Harare and there were tens of thousands of people on the road, in the parks, everywhere. We danced and sang, we were black and white together and just so happy.”

Now, she said, when she is able to stock her shop with groceries, customers can’t afford basics such as toothpaste, cooking oil and cornmeal. “Prices double every month, sometimes in a few weeks,” she said.

Mrs. Chiweshe said things are worse now than under Mr. Mugabe.

“We don’t want him back, but we can’t go on like this,” she said.

Both Mr. Mnangagwa’s supporters and defenders acknowledge the country’s dysfunction has deep roots that long preceded the current government. Economists say the problems began in 2000 when Mr. Mugabe forced nearly all of the commercial farmers off their estates in a chaotic, coercive land reform program.

The mostly white landowners were poached by other countries in Africa and, ironically, Zimbabwe now must find hard currency to buy corn and other foodstuffs from the same growers who are now prospering in Zambia and Mozambique.

Despite the food shortages, millions of acres of land lie vacant. Mr. Mugabe was a teacher in his youth and implemented one of Africa’s best education systems, which taught Shakespeare, calculus and physics — but not farming. With no jobs at home, school graduates sought work in Britain and the U.S. and across other parts of Africa. An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans live in South Africa alone.

After the farms, mines and some of the key factories were nationalized and doled out to Mr. Mugabe’s allies, many subsequently failed, leading to a shortage of exports and a critical lack of foreign exchange to pay for electricity imported from South Africa. A brutal drought has only exacerbated the dire situation.

Under white rule in the 1950s, the country known as Rhodesia set up a drought protection program. Thousands of acres under irrigation grew wheat in the mild winter and corn — Zimbabwe’s staple diet — in the summer. Most of the irrigated farms were vacated during the period of land seizures. Even where sprinklers are in place, farmers say there is no electricity to pump water.

The Trump administration has refused to engage with the Mnangagwa government since several demonstrators were killed at a peaceful protest in Harare last year and says the culprits must be brought to justice. Washington has also called for an end to the intimidation of political rivals and state control of the press.

Although there are privately owned newspapers, mainly in Harare, the key dailies and most radio and TV channels are owned by the government and are heavy with ruling-party propaganda.

Diplomats who attended the launch of the latest U.N. aid plea in Harare were not optimistic. Donor countries have given billions of dollars to Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, but there is little to show for their investments.

Opposition leaders say the protest Friday in Harare won’t be the last in a bid to force changes from the government.

“Every Zimbabwean will be marching to end this suffering until we achieve a legitimate people’s government that will begin to address the serious challenges facing the country,” MDC spokesman Daniel Molokele told a Harare press conference Wednesday. He said protests in other cities also are planned.

“Until that is achieved, we will not rest and we will continue to exercise our democratic right to demonstrate peacefully,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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