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President's lavish birthday plans slammed
Moyiga Nduru, Inter Press Service (IPS)
February 14, 2007


JOHANNESBURG - Someone who’s managed to reach the advanced age of 83 might argue that they’re entitled to a sizeable celebration. But this argument doesn’t hold water if the person is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, says activist Tapera Kapuya.

"The 1.2 million dollar birthday party being organised for President Mugabe is enough to provide food for 3.2 million people starving in Matabeleland for three months," notes the head of the South African branch of the National Constitutional Conference, a pressure group based in Zimbabwe’s capital – Harare -- that campaigns for a new constitution in the Southern African country.

"Matabeleland has run out of food," he told IPS in further reference to the southern Zimbabwean region.

In a brief available on its website, the United Nations World Food Programme says it aims to feed some 1.9 million of Zimbabwe’s 11.7 million people this year, if all its projects in the country are fully paid for.

Funds for Mugabe’s celebration are being raised by the 21st February Movement (named after the Zimbabwean leader’s birth date) which was set up in 1986 for this purpose. The group is run by the youth wing of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

This year, the group is gathering money for an event to be held Feb. 24. It appealed for assistance in an interview published by the state-run ‘Herald’ newspaper Monday.

"From what we have heard they have already raised the funds. By placing a statement in the newspaper, they are just testing the water to find out what the public would say," Kapuya observed.

Festivities will take place in the town of Gweru, which is located relatively near Matabeleland: a region neglected in the distribution of food aid, some claim, for its open hostility to ZANU-PF.

"In Zimbabwe, relief food is distributed through local ZANU-PF channels. We see it as something planned to punish Matabeleland for not voting ZANU-PF in elections since 2000," said Kapuya.

The people of Matabeleland are also bitter towards the Mugabe regime for committing atrocities in their region during the 1980s, a campaign which caused the death of thousands of people, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International.

"On top of this, you can imagine holding a lavish birthday party next to millions of Ndebele people who go to bed hungry each night," Frank Tshuma, a Zimbabwean refugee living in the South African commercial hub of Johannesburg, told IPS.

The problems being experienced by Matabeleland and Zimbabwe as a whole are compounded by the country’s runaway inflation rate, which hit 1,593.6 percent in January – topping the figure of 1,281.1 percent recorded over the same period last year, according to figures from the state-run Central Statistics Office.

"People are living from hand to mouth. They…are walking on foot from Chitungwiza to Harare -- a distance of 20 kilometres a day. There’s no fuel, no food and no medicine," said Jerry Mashamba, a Johannesburg-based representative of one of the factions of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

"Some are dropping out of schools. They can’t afford tuition fees," he added, in an interview with IPS.

Kapuya has more troubling statistics at hand.

"The average Zimbabwean family is six, and according to the Central Statistics Office’s recent release such a family requires 720,000 Zimbabwe dollars (150 U.S. dollars, at the black market rate) per month on average to survive," he notes.

"The average salary of a Zimbabwean is under 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars (less than 20 U.S. dollars). Yet a loaf of bread is 2,200 Zimbabwe dollars (about 46 U.S. cents)," Kapuya adds.

"In Zimbabwe, prices of goods double every other day. The prices you find in shops are only valid the time you are there looking at the goods. The following day the figures become invalidated."

Mashamba says only two categories of Zimbabweans are managing the high cost of living in Zimbabwe: "Those benefiting are Mugabe’s loyalists -- and then you have people who have relatives abroad who send them money."

This weekend, representatives of Zimbabwe’s 180,000 civil servants demanded a 400 percent pay rise, threatening to go on strike if government refused to heed their demand. Doctors and nurses from hospitals in Harare and the southern city of Bulawayo have paralysed the country’s health system since launching a strike in December 2006, also over pay.

"Mugabe should have used the money for his birthday to pay the doctors, nurses and teachers. Holding such a lavish celebration makes him looks like uncaring leader, which, I’m afraid to say, he is," Tshuma noted.

Mashamba agrees. "That’s right. All of us are in exile because of one man -- Mugabe. The over two million Zimbabweans in South Africa can trace the root of their (problems) to Mugabe’s regime and his cronies."

Attempts by IPS to get comment on Mugabe’s birthday plans from the Department of Information in Harare and the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, were fruitless.

However, Mugabe has accused the opposition and Zimbabweans living abroad of peddling lies about him and his government. He claims the West, led by Britain and the United States, has imposed sanctions against his government for seizing land from some 4,500 white farmers to resettle landless blacks.

The reallocation of land got underway after farm occupations initiated in early 2000, just months before a landmark election in which ZANU-PF faced its first credible challenge from the opposition.

Some accuse the ruling party of masterminding the occupations in an effort to boost support ahead of the 2000 parliamentary vote which, along with subsequent elections, was marred by violence and claims of irregularities.

The farm campaign and adverse weather conditions are viewed as being amongst the key causes of Zimbabwe’s inability to feed itself.

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