Zimbabwe Crisis Takes Toll on Workers

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Life for people in Zimbabwe is an ordeal amid a political crisis. Wages are poor and inflation is soaring. Plans for a national strike collapsed when President Robert Mugabe promised a harsh response.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Consider two numbers from the African nation of Zimbabwe: Inflation is running around 1,700 percent, unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. President Robert Mugabe rejects calls to resign. The president of his most powerful neighbor, South Africa, says Mugabe will leave peacefully but adds that his neighbors won't force a change.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on how Zimbabweans get by as they wait for change.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The rumble of military helicopters again fills the air briefly early this morning over downtown Harare on the second day of a two-day national strike. The government deployed riot police, water canon trucks and armed soldiers. Zimbabwe's main labor unions called the stay away to protest an economic crisis, poverty and deepening daily hardship. But yesterday most shops, banks, offices and businesses were open.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: People were leery about speaking if it meant giving their full names. Computer office worker Lynette(ph) told me they're afraid of government intimidation. She said it's better for people to go to work and not to say too much for fear of being beaten up by the police.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said day one of the union's work stoppage was a failure.

Mr. SIKHANYISO NDLOVU (Information Minister, Zimbabwe): Once again the politics of regime change have failed dismally, sending a very clear message to all those working against our nation that their effort will come to not.

QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabwe's government has blamed what it calls opposition puppets backed by the West and Western sanctions for the current economic problems. The outspoken United States ambassador here in Harare, Christopher Dell, said President Robert Mugabe's government must stop blaming the West for the economic meltdown and face the truth about Zimbabwe.

Ambassador CHRISTOPHER DELL (U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe): Economically, it's way beyond the tipping point in terms of its ability to recover from the economic disaster that government policies have produced. There's no way Zimbabwe is going to climb out of this hole without massive international support.

QUIST-ARCTON: But away from the political war of words in Zimbabwe, many ordinary people here in the city will tell you life is plain tough, like Paddington(ph), a security guard, and his colleague Maramba(ph).

MARAMBA: The cost of living is very high. We do need money for schooling for the children, even for the rent to pay, even to buy food for us to eat. We could just buy little.

PADDINGTON: Now a days it is very expensive to survive. People are just saying the economy is broken.

QUIST-ARCTON: A United Nations report published yesterday called Zimbabwe Africa's worst economic performer in 2006. Made worse, it said, by political problems exacerbated by recurrent droughts. Zimbabwe has the fastest-shrinking economy in the world and its inflation rate is currently the world's highest.

The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will shoot up to 4,000 percent by the end of the year. Four out of five people here are out of work with a dwindling average life expectancy in the mid-30s. Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said they were tackling these problems.

Mr. NDLOVU: Government is working out a battery of measures which should soon stabilize prices of commodities, which have been increasing astronomically, to improve the overall conditions of the workers.

QUIST-ARCTON: But that's not the reality. Computer office worker Lynette, mother of a toddler, says even with just one child she's finding it hard to survive.

LYNETTE: Zimbabwe life is too difficult. (Speaking foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: She added that life had become unbearable. She said it seemed almost pointless to her to go to work because shop prices just keep going up and up and up morning to night, from one day to the next.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

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