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Zimbabwe economy, public expectations hard to square

A small crowd gathers daily at the Salisbury headquarters of Zimbabwe's ruling political party. A few make it past the guard at the door and upstairs, where party officials listen patiently and fill out forms.

A young woman with a child wrapped against her back needs verification that she served in the guerrilla forces to qualify for government assistance. Others want jobs, or money for school, or medical care for their families.

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''We haven't quite shed our liberation image,'' says Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front deputy secretary Don Muvuti, noting the steady flow of requests at party headquarters.

In many respects, these offices are a focal point for the frequent clash between expectations built up during years of guerrilla warfare and the government's ability to deliver now that Zimbabwe is independence.

Some of the people coming here are helped, some are not.

Perhaps as one measure of more realistic expectations on the part of Zimbabweans, local observers say the crowd at the political party offices is smaller than it used to be. Still, by most all accounts, this year will prove the toughest yet for Prime Minister Robert Mugabe to square government policy with public expectations.

Blacks still look expectantly for material improvements in their standard of living. But the economy is sputtering and increasingly hard pressed to provide those improvements. On a more fundamental level, Mr. Mugabe is still grappling with just how to overlay his socialist philosophy, and presumably that of the voters who elected him in 1980, on a basically capitalistic economy.

''I must repeat that our socialism will have to take into account the viable infrastructure we have inherited,'' the Prime Minister told an audience of white industrialists recently. The meeting was called to shore up sagging confidence of businessmen in Mr. Mugabe's long-term economic plans. He assured them his brand of socialism ''would not amount to the destruction of private enterprise.''

A delayed three-year transitional economic development plan is nearing final form. It should make clearer the blend of ideology and economic pragmatism Mr. Mugabe has in mind. Already, the Mugabe government has shown it recognizes that it must balance the two.

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Zimbabwe is the economic hub of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, nine nations that banded together in 1980 to lessen their economic dependence on South Africa.

Zimbabwe hopes in the next several weeks to eliminate its dependence on South Africa for fuel by reopening the oil pipeline between Umtali and the Mozambique port of Beira. A good portion of Zimbabwe's fuel is now transported by rail through South Africa.

However, while pipeline tariff negotiations proceed with Mozambique, Zimbabwe is also negotiating an extension of its preferential trade agreement with South Africa.

The trade agreement grants favorable tariffs to Zimbabwe goods imported through South Africa. The termination of the agreement, which expires in March unless extended, could choke off $40 million worth of Zimbabwean exports and affect up to 6,000 jobs, according to economist Roger Riddell of the confederation of Zimbabwe industries.

Neither a loss of foreign exchange from reduced exports or a loss of jobs would be welcome in Zimbabwe, so the government has taken the pragmatic course of trying to renew the agreement. Unemployment and underemployment in Zimbabwe is between 20 and 30 percent according to Mr. Riddell. Foreign exchange is so short that newsstands can no longer buy overseas publications.

In its first 20 months in office the Mugabe government racked up an impressive economic performance. In 1980 the economy grew at a real rate of 14 percent. Imports rocketed up by 50 percent, as Zimbabwe went on an overseas buying spree after years of being shut off from foreign markets because of sanctions.

In 1981 the economy grew at a slower, but still impressive, rate of 6 to 7 percent. And farmers produced a huge crop - twice the normal size.

This period brought substantial social gains as well. The number of children in primary school was double in 1981 what it had been in 1979. The minimum wage for farm and domestic workers was pushed up 66 percent in January, and for all other workers it was raised 23 percent. Yet the prospects for 1982 are not so rosy.

The current rate of inflation is 17 percent. This has forced the government to impose price controls. World economic trends, a lower gold price, and a smaller farm crop this year are expected to slow the growth of the economy to around 5 percent.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe will sustain one of the world's highest birth rates of 3 to 3.5 percent. That means the economy may not grow sufficiently to afford any real per-capita gain.

There remains a sizeable shortage of housing in urban areas. And in the rural areas poor black farmers are still waiting for land promised by the government. The commercial farmers union figures there are 57,000 squatters on white-owned farm land.

Looking ahead to l982, a prominent economist concludes ''there will be some conflict between expectations and the economy's ability to meet them.''

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