Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Zimbabwe will need a lot more than an agreement to rise from its knees

ZIMBABWE: While the powersharing deal is welcome, for the masses suffering squalor and neglect aid is needed right now, writes Bill Corcoran in Highfield township

HIGHFIELD, THE TOWNSHIP outside Harare where Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's regime held Independence Day celebrations in the 1980s is now a shadow of its former self.

As Zimbabwe's economic plight has worsened over the past 10 years to the point of recent collapse, so too has local government's ability to maintain the most basic of services for the people living in the country's towns and cities.

Even though Highfield is Mugabe's own constituency, its residents now live in abject poverty and squalor. These days you can smell the township long before you enter it due to the overflowing sewage system and rubbish which has not been collected by the council in years.

Indeed, Highfield's residents have long abandoned their support for the 84-year-old veteran leader, who used to live among them. Nor do they support his Zanu-PF party because of his government's mishandling of the economy and his refusal to relinquish power.

Today the township is a Movement for Democratic Change stronghold where the party's parliamentary candidate has been returned in each election since 2002.

Despite Highfield's political activism and the media attention the powersharing signing-ceremony received, the daily struggle to survive has left some unaware there is now hope for a better future.

Kezener Katoma says she did not even know the country's rival political leaders had gathered at the capital's Rainbow Towers Hotel to sign an agreement.

"I was too weak with fever to do anything yesterday, so I stayed in my home and rested. We have no electricity so there is no television or radio, and there are no newspapers for sale here.

"Was there really a deal signed yesterday?" she asks before doubling over from the pain of the dysentery wracking her body.

The 65 year old told The Irish Times that diseases like dysentery and cholera are rife in the area because the sewage system has been blocked for years and no one has ever come to unblock it.

The house she lives in on the corner of her street has a dried river of faeces running past it; mounds of rubbish two feet high are piled up on the sides of every street because the city council has no money to pay its workers, who would normally dispose of it.

"This is very bad now, but when the rainy season floods come next month it will be a lot worse. The sewage will flow right up to our front door. What kind of government leaves its people to live in these conditions?

"I look after 10 children and they get sick from living here. There is no medicine in the hospitals to help them when they get sick. There is no food either. So they eat just a small meal of sadza [ground maize with water] just once a day," she says bitterly.

Up the street, Faraid Mugazi is sitting outside his home talking to a friend when he sees the commotion a white man's presence has caused in his neighbourhood.

He walks slowly towards Katoma's home and listens for a moment before asking me: "Why are you gathering all this information?" When I reply that people from Ireland want to know what is happening in Zimbabwe, he responds: "Why? Will the people from the West help us if they know how we are living?"

I do not know how to reply.

Following the powersharing deal, the EU and US said they would adopt a wait-and-see approach before committing the billions needed in aid.

The US ambassador to Zimbabwe said Washington was ready to feed hungry Zimbabweans but the new unity government must prove its commitment to democracy before it will get development aid.

Ambassador James McGee also said the government should free political prisoners and halt political violence. McGee told reporters the US was taking a "very careful wait-and-see attitude" about the agreement that has Mugabe ceding some power to his opposition rival.

He added US food was already in the country but the government needed to provide access for NGOs and ensure that it got to all needy people, no matter how they voted. He added if it works, "we will be very willing to work with the people of Zimbabwe".

Unfortunately, for the residents of Highfield, it is likely that next month's floods, which carry disease right to their doorstep, will arrive long before the flood of western aid money that is needed to improve their lives.

© 2008 The Irish Times