No Santa Claus for Zimbabwean kids

HARARE - A visibly exasperated mother drags away her pesky four-year old son from a gift shop window, upset by his insistence that she buys him a toy car for Christmas.
"Dad will buy it for you next week," she fabricates an excuse to persuade him to move away from the shop window.

As she melts away into the crowds in the shopping mall, Chiedza Moyo, 31, like many of Zimbabwe's hard-pressed parents, agonises that this year there will be no Santa Claus coming down the chimney to stuff gifts under the beds for her children.

Times are hard for Zimbabweans.

For proof, just observe the crowds jostling along First Street Mall - a prime pedestrian mall in the middle of Harare. The crowds have not thinned one bit. There are probably just as many people shoving and pushing along the popular mall as one could have seen here this time last year.

But it is the enthusiasm to shop, the festive spirit or as some Harare residents love to call it "the buying power" that is absent!

There are not many in the crowds along the mall that are laden with gifts shopped with abundance from some of Zimbabwe's prime shops like Barbours, Greatermans or Truworths all dotted around and along the mall.

This would invariably have been the case in November before 1999 when Zimbabwe's economic crisis set in after the International Monetary Fund withdrew financial assistance following disagreements with President Robert Mugabe's government over fiscal policy and other governance issues.

The World Bank has described Zimbabwe's economic crisis as unseen in a country not at war.

Skyrocketing food prices coupled with acute shortages of every basic survival commodity that have characterised the economic crisis have certainly taken the wind out of many Zimbabweans yearning for merry-making during the eminent festive season.

"We don't even plan for any merry-making this year," says Christine Kurenje, who had been up and down the city looking for cooking oil, among essential commodities hard to find in Zimbabwe.

Inflation, which hit 411 percent last month and is still rising, has also hit hard Zimbabweans' pockets with many families forced to reduce the number of meals they eat per day and to forego basic necessities such as shoes for their children as a coping measure.

The average consumer basket of the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) more than anything else illustrates the plight of most ordinary people. The state-funded consumer rights watchdog says an average family of a mother, father and four children requires $11.9 million for basic goods and services per month.

But an average factory worker, who in most cases would have a spouse and children to look after, takes home on average three million dollars per month. How such people have managed to pull through the year would certainly make a perfect case study for students of economics.

"How can we spend when school fees next term are going up to $13 million?" said Kurenje, who lives with her husband in the low-income suburb of Kuwadzana west of the city centre.

The couple has two children all at missionary-run boarding schools, expensive but the only sure sources of a good education for many working class children whose parents cannot afford higher fees at exclusive private schools.

The private schools are a preserve of the children of top company executives and officials of Mugabe's government and ruling ZANU PF party.

Kurenje added: "If we manage to get a decent meal for the family on Christmas Day, then that will be a great achievement . . . the problem is that there are fewer special offers on food items than in November last year."

Many of the shoppers along First Street and elsewhere across town are hopping from supermarket to supermarket calculators in hand to work price differences in a bid to make some small saving.

They are not alone in trying to cut costs. Workers at some of the big supermarket chains said management had ordered them to haul last year's Christmas decorations from the warehouses, spruce them up, before mounting them on shop fronts, all as a cost cutting measure.

But the decorations seem to have done little to entice Zimbabweans to spend more according to gift shop owner, Ismail Rajan.

"Business has been below expectations and I am not so sure it will pick up with time. I don't expect a last minute rush from the look of things," Rajan said.

But Rajan is quick to point out that the depressed Christmas shopping season was not entirely unexpected given that Christmas sales have been in gradual decline since 2000 - the year Mugabe launched his chaotic and often violent seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks.

The farm seizures which Mugabe said were necessary to ensure blacks deprived of land by past colonial governments also owned the vital resource, destabilised the mainstay agricultural sector, hastening a collapse of Zimbabwe's economy that had been set in motion by IMF withdrawal of funds the year before.

Mugabe's controversial land redistribution programme also knocked down food production by about 60 percent to leave once food exporting Zimbabwe dependent on food aid.

But the veteran President denies his agricultural and economic policies ruined Zimbabwe and instead blames the country's problems on sabotage by Britain and its Western allies opposed to his land reforms.

Mugabe says by giving Zimbabweans land he has given them the key to economic prosperity. This is probably true, only that for now it may be hard to swallow for a factory worker paid three million dollars at the end of the month when he needs $11.9 million to feed his family.