Harare (AFP) – With rampant inflation eating away at incomes, staple foods have disappeared from the tables of Zimbabweans like Emina Chishangwe, who lives in a poor bedroom community south of the capital Harare.

“I can’t remember the last time I ate meat. It’s become a luxury for some of us,” said the 57-year-old single mother of two adult sons.

Zimbabwe has the highest rate of inflation in the world, according to Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, who believes it can only be solved by fully adopting the US dollar.

The situation deteriorated rapidly this year as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, compounded by black market currencies, caused the value of the Zimbabwean dollar to plummet.

“The parallel market is largely responsible for the inflation spiral,” AgriBank’s chief economist Joseph Mverecha told AFP.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in a downturn for nearly two decades, marked by cash and food shortages.

Inflation soared to 191.6% in June from 60% at the start of the year, pushing up property prices.

The rate even eclipses the 41% inflation in war-torn Ukraine.

A kilo of prime beef now costs ZWL 8,768 ($21.92) and five kilos of chicken drumsticks ZWL 21,000 ($65.22), equivalent to the average monthly salary of a civil servant.

Chishangwe, who runs a vegetable stall in Chitungwiza town, and his sons have two meals a day instead of three, usually a thick cornmeal porridge called sadza and kale or tiny dried sardines.

‘Anguish’

Rising fuel prices forced Edwin Matsvai to downgrade from a fuel-guzzling Toyota Land Cruiser to a more economical Honda Fit.

“My friends joked that I ‘quicked’ when I made the switch, but now some of them are considering doing the same,” said Matsvai, a car salesman.

Gasoline rose to US$1.77 per liter this month from US$1.41 in January.

Zimbabweans endured and survived some of the worst hardships of 2008 when hyperinflation saw the central bank mint a trillion dollar bill.

Growing gaps between income and the cost of living, forcing people to make tough decisions about how and where they live, are impacting mental health, says specialist psychiatrist Isabel Chinoperekwei.

“I see a lot of them suffering from depression, anxiety disorders and also alcohol abuse,” said Chinoperekwei, who has a private practice in Harare.

It’s not just professionals who feel the anxiety.

Inflation soared to 191.6% in June from 60% at the start of the year, pushing prices higher Jekesai NJIKIZANA AFP/File

“I saw teenagers who changed schools because their parents could no longer afford the schools they went to,” Chinoperekwei said. “They are struggling to cope.”

Many blame the country’s leaders.

“The old men let us down,” Matsvai said, referring to the government. “If they don’t act quickly and fix the economy, it will cost them in the general election next year.”

Already in the March by-elections, the long-ruling Zanu-PF party lost to the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), formed just three months earlier.

The southern African nation is due to hold general elections in 2023.

‘Hand to Mouth’

Analysts say the current political and economic landscape now reflects the crisis that led to the 2008 elections, which saw former leader Robert Mugabe nearly fall from power.

“People earning poverty wages, those without jobs and everyone feeling the pinch of the rising cost of living have lost faith in Zanu-PF,” said Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist at Masvingo State University.

“The only hope is in a new government that will give (the public) a reprieve.”

Zanu-PF has been in power since 1980, when British colonial rule ended. Current President Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe in a military coup in 2017, pledging to fix the moribund economy he inherited.

The risk of losing power in the upcoming polls is now pushing Zanu-PF into “frenzied measures” to halt price hikes that have pushed millions deeper into poverty, said economist Prosper Chitambara.

“Anywhere in the world, no ruling party is expected to succeed in an environment of chronic high inflation,” said Chitambara, of Zimbabwe’s Labor and Economic Development Research Institute think tank.

Last month, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube announced a series of monetary policies, including maintaining the dual use of the US dollar, adopted after the hyperinflation of 2008, and the reintroduced Zimbabwean dollar in 2019.

Minimum interest rates more than doubled to 200% last week.

The country is also introducing gold coins “as a store of value” from July 25.

But these are for the rich.

“Ordinary citizens, those who struggle and live hand to mouth are not going to afford it,” Chitambara said.

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