by Chris Anold Msipa
(IPS) HARARE --
future has never been as uncertain for Zimbabwe as it is now. Ever rising food prices, shortages of basic needs, strikes in vital public services and angry speeches have now become the way of life.
"Just like the war days," remarked Mbuya Rukai Zikonyauswa from the western district of Hurungwe, after President Robert Mugabe's 2003 address to his ruling ZANU-PF party. Zikonyauswa, whose generation had been subjected to similar angry speeches and political slogans during Zimbabwe's liberation war of the 1970s, watched the proceedings on television.
ZANU-PF delegates had met early December for their annual conference in the southeastern town of Masvingo. The meeting was preceded by speculation that Mugabe, in office since independence from Britain in 1980, would announce his retirement from active politics.
Instead the 79-year-old former guerrilla leader dropped a bombshell when he addressed the gathering: "Thank you for affirming the leadership and sending a message to those amongst us who might think that time has come for change.
"Until the people say so, I know I have a duty, a mandate from the people. And I must make good that mandate."
Political commentators say the government's use of the confrontational speeches and slogans would thwart hopes for talks with the opposition.
Welshman Ncube, Secretary General of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said Mugabe was acting like any other dictator. "No tyrant has ever accepted that he is going down or is finished. They all say they are in full control, even when they are on the run or about to go into exile," he said.
Ncube described 2003 as the worst year in Zimbabwe's history. He said it was the year characterized by the suffering of the masses, the systematic expulsion of foreign journalists, the closure of the country's only independent daily newspaper, the 'Daily News' in September, the arrests and torture of opposition, trade unionists, and rights campaigners.
He said Zimbabwe's economy also suffered as inflation skyrocketed over 400 percent, one of the highest in the world. Factories closed down and many workers lost their jobs, he added.
Even so, Ncube said, the future holds hope because human rights activists and the opposition, though crippled, are still vibrant. The Commonwealth, the European Union and Southern African countries like Botswana and Mauritius have also made it clear they do not accept dictatorship.
Early this month the Commonwealth, an organization of 54 independent states which were formerly parts of the British Empire -- established to encourage trade and friendly relations among its members -- suspended Zimbabwe indefinitely. Zimbabwe reacted by withdrawing its membership from the association.
Nonetheless, Ncube said ZANU-PF and Mugabe have acknowledged, for the first time, publicly that there was need for political dialog, a development, which he said, shows there was light at the end of the tunnel. "The darkest hour is nearest to dawn," he said.
University of Zimbabwe Lecturer David Mungoshi said the times ahead would be tough, and would require the cooperation of every citizen if Zimbabwe was to overcome its problems.
He said consumer boycotts -- like the one witnessed in the cost of bread towards the end of 2003, when bakers were forced to reduce the retail prices of their commodities -- would determine market prices.
Another problem facing the government is strikes. Nurses and doctors have for the past three months been on strike demanding better salaries and working conditions. Other ministries also face similar problems as employees complain of poor pay in the face of worsening cost of living.
President Mugabe has pledged to apply tough measures to ease their problems. He said once the rains fall, the agricultural sector would boost the economy and everyone would be happy.
Critics said Mugabe's decision to withdraw the country's membership from the Commonwealth and his chaotic land reform program, which war veterans forced him to embark on three years ago, would block any possible improvements in the economy.
They said no donors or investors would come as long as Mugabe maintained his negative stance, and that agriculture would take a long time to work, as the newly resettled farmers lack experience and inputs.
The World Food Program (WFP) recently cut by 50 percent its food aid to six southern African countries, including Zimbabwe.
The WFP had appealed for up to $311 million to feed 15 million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which was to get at least two-thirds of the money. The WFP is said to have received only about $150 million from donors.
Deputy Finance Minister Chris Kuruneri said the number of Zimbabweans in need of food aid has risen from six million to eight million.
There are widespread fears that thousands of children will drop out of school this year as a result of high fees being charged by school authorities.
Hope to end Zimbabwe's woes had until December been based on Mugabe's retirement and talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC. But Mugabe is not about to leave office, while the political dialogue remains a behind-the-scene affair.
South African President Thabo Mbeki remains the only African leader frantically trying to help break the impasse between Harare and the opposition. Political commentators say Mbeki's efforts are unlikely to bear any fruit as long as Mugabe remains in office.
Zimbabwe plunged into its current crises after the government in 2000 encouraged the violent seizure of land from 4,500 white farmers for resettlement of landless black peasants. However, the land issue is now facing a new twist amid reports of multiple ownership of properties by senior politicians and government officials.
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