Tatenda Majiri, 22, hoists a calabash of home-brewed beer with some authority while discussing news of the day. But he has no confidence in the future. The social-work student says he has lost hope of going back to school because the government-owned University of Zimbabwe (UZ) has been closed since last year. "Drinking is the only constructive activity I have," he says as he passes the time in Nzvimbo, a rural township in Chiweshe, about 150 km north of the capital, Harare. "What else can I do?"
The UZ has been closed for more than six months now. It ran on tuition fees and government subsidies, but both have vanished. Most of the college's students are the children of civil servants who have to live on salaries of $100 a month. The government is too broke to inject funds into the institution, which was once the envy of students all over Africa. Justifying his beer, Majiri says, "At least I am not into thievery, like most of my colleagues, who are subsidizing their income that way."
Zimbabweans cheered when the government of national unity was formed in February by President Robert Mugabe and his erstwhile foe Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now the country's Prime Minister. But ordinary folks say they are not happy with what has happened since. Half the population of about 13 million is facing hunger; a raging cholera epidemic has claimed more than 4,000 lives since last year; and the economy has continued to be inert, as it has been for almost a decade now. The world economic crunch has not helped the situation. "We are yet to see results of this so-called government. Rates are too high, unemployment is alarming, and cholera is still claiming lives," says Mazvita Gonde, a vegetable vendor in Harare who was once a government clerk.
Life is expensive and unbearable for the unemployed who constitute more than 85% of the working-age population yet they are "expected to pay bills at the end of the month," says Gonde. Residents in the crowded suburbs of the capital shell out $40 to $65 per month for rent. Water and electricity bills can be as high as $20 even though at least half the time there is no water or electricity. "It defies logic that we pay for electricity we do not have, refuse they do not collect and water that is dirty and frequently unavailable," Majiri rails. Meanwhile, he says, "our sick deteriorate at home, and [the politicians] celebrated their 'marriage' in Victoria Falls using the very few resources we have at our disposal."
"Marriage" is a reference to the strategic-planning meeting held by the government of former foes earlier in April. Mugabe and Tsvangirai, along with all Ministers, gathered in the resort town of Victoria Falls to decide on how to improve government services in the next 100 days. "The country is cash-strapped, but we hear they had gone to wine and dine," says Majiri. "We read that the ministers went on boat-cruising, helicopter rides and stayed in a five-star hotel."
It all plays into the Zimbabweans' belief that they live in a version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, where some animals are more equal than others. Just a day after the new government was sworn in, all the Ministers almost 40 of them were driving around in luxury Mercedes Benzes. Each was allocated an all-terrain vehicle. Their deputies were each assigned a luxury car as well.
All this happens at a time when Harare cannot supply safe water to its citizens. Had it not been for international relief organizations, many fear, the death toll from the cholera outbreak would have been much higher, perhaps into the tens of thousands. Cholera-related deaths per day have since gone down, but Oxfam's chief executive, Barbara Stocking, believes the crisis has not ended. Said Stocking during a recent visit to Zimbabwe: "We have to expect a cholera epidemic and outbreak to happen again at the end of this year, given that the water and sewage system is not working well. It's not going to be quick and easy to get an efficient water and sewage system fully working, so all the things that we did in the fight against cholera will certainly be needed again next year."
Cholera is confined to mostly urban areas; in rural areas, hunger and HIV are wreaking havoc. "We have not had a decent harvest for years now," says a government official in the rural Chirumanzu district, about 250 km south of Harare. "A number of deaths of people starving have been recorded here." The official adds, "Had it not been for donor organizations, the situation could have gone out of hand. The other problem is that with the high prevalence of HIV in this country, hunger has to be fought. Those taking [anti-retroviral medications (ARVs)] need to have nutritious food. Otherwise the ARVs will not achieve anything. In fact, they will worsen the situation."