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Socio-economic hardships take their toll

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Simon Musori (37) teaches at a high school in one of Harare’s high-density suburbs. With a monthly salary of $173, he is hard-pressed for a workable budget that includes school fees for his two teenagers, family groceries and astronomical utility bills.

Reports on the continuous decline of inflation rates following the economy’s dollarisation have just remained high-brow talk as this has not translated into any benefits to the ordinary man on the ground.

“To some of us, this (inflation decline) doesn’t mean anything at all,” says Musori, who joined other civil servants last Friday in a march to express their disquiet with government’s seeming reluctance to increase their salaries.

According to latest figures, the country’s inflation rate has retreated for the third straight month and is set to fall within the official target by the end of the year.

Despite the recent strike, there are little indications that government will cave in, not just because of mere intransigence, but it’s equally trapped into a position where — in light of the macro –economic conditions — they are not yet able to increase civil servants’ salaries.

Public Service minister Eliphas Mukonoweshuro told the demonstrating civil servants that the National Joint Negotiating Committee would meet next week to deliberate on the government employees’ concerns.

Musori says although the economy’s dollarisation has meant that the trade currency works, it was laying hands on the greenback that was a tall order.

“We can’t take comfort in figures,” says Musori, “which don’t translate into something meaningful. This is perhaps just for textbook economists.”

Analysts say the fall in the consumer price index is not being felt by consumers, adding that the government may need to review the calculation of its figures.

Annual inflation slowed further to 3,6% in August, from 4,1% the previous month but the month- on-month figure remained flat at –0,1% for the third straight month.

While many civil servants had hoped that Zimbabwe’s latest mineral find, diamonds, would easily translate into ready cash and pave way for a huge salary increment — especially in the wake of the initial auctions of the gemstones — they have probably misplaced their hopes.

The sale of diamonds has stringent conditions attached, and this means stakeholders have to be modest in their profit projections.

For many people, both in the civil service and informal sector, US dollars are so precious that extreme caution is practiced. Past spending habits have been curtailed.

“Even a small coin like a R5,” says another civil servant, Robert Masuso (30) of Zengeza, “is too precious to waste.”

Commuter omnibuses to Chitungwiza cost a dollar for a single trip into town, and Masuso has to settle for the long, conventional buses, which charge R5 for a single trip.

But these buses are not always available, and Masuso has to negotiate with the commuter omnibus crew to force himself behind the driver’s seat — known in street lingo as paKadoma — and pay his usual affordable fare in a commuter omnibus that otherwise charges $1.

Unemployment is still high, in the region of 80% or more.

While ditching the worthless Zimbabwe dollar in preference of the stronger US dollar and the South African rand brought relief to the country’s impoverished millionaires, survival under the multiple-currency system has not come cheap.

Harare-based economic analyst John Robertson says the cost of living is going up as individuals are pressured to look after extended families.

“Some things have come down but the major problem is that there is no real growth in the economy, so there are no jobs.

“What that means is that there is a greater dependency burden in the country where few people are sharing their income with the bigger extended family. So even if prices are not going up, the cost of living is,” he says.

Other economists believe inflation is much higher than official figures show.

Finance minister Tendai Biti said in July that annual inflation would average 4,5% by December this year but that growth would slow down as the coalition government has failed to attract significant foreign investment and donor funds.

Many people, who have had it easy through “burning” US dollars in the last few years, now have to sweat for every cent and to be content with meagre profits, which just enable them to survive.

Most people are spending most of their income on school fees, rentals and utility bills, but these make up a smaller component of the consumer price index basket, which is used to calculate inflation.

But their salaries, pegged between $150 and $250, are hardly enough to cover even their basic necessities in life.

The Zanu PF and MDC-T coalition government, which has done little to gain international confidence, says it needs at least $10 billion to revive an economy that suffered a decade–long battering because of self-imposed recession.

Zimbabwe registered its first expansion in a decade last year when the economy grew by 5,7%.

The International Monetary Fund has painted a dim economic outlook and forecast that growth will be below 2,5% this year.

The way in which Zanu PF and the MDC-T are pushing for elections next year has dampened whatever little hope people had of a full-throttle economic recovery.

“I think the fact that these guys (Zanu PF and MDC -T) are insisting on elections means they are more concerned with power than the welfare of the people,” Musori says.

President Robert Mugabe is reported to have recently ordered Biti to budget $200 million to finance a constitutional referendum and elections next year.

While Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC-T party had agreed to this development, business has urged government to shelf the idea for at least five years to allow the sick economy a gradual healing.

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