Contrary to popular belief, Zimbabwe was never really the breadbasket of Africa. But at least it could feed itself and have plenty left over. Those days are gone now—the southern African nation is, quite literally, starving. Food store shelves are bare. The wealthiest Zimbabweans now fly abroad to neighboring countries to shop for basic supplies like bread, cooking oil, sugar and meat. The South African grocery chain Pick 'n Pay is taking direct bulk orders by phone and delivering the goods by air freight to the cities of Harare or Bulawayo. Electricity service is down to 12 hours a day, more or less the same levels found in Iraq. Clean water is so scarce that the poorest Zimbabweans have resorted to pumping water by hand from remote wells. "People are pumping at midnight, all hours of the day," says Eddy Cross, a businessman and member of the Zimbabwean opposition group Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Recently Cross ran into a young girl in Bulawayo. "All I do all day is hunting and scavenging," she told him.
Just when it seemed it couldn't get any worse in Zimbabwe, it has. Officially, the inflation rate is more than 6,000 percent, but realistically the figure is probably closer to three times that. The U.S dollar is trading for 600,000 to one on the black market, virtually the only place left to do business in the country these days. Last week, the country's biggest food distributor, National Foods, offered retrenchment packages to 5,000 employees. Edgars, a large regional retail clothing chain, closed 19 Zimbabwean stores in the last month alone. Zimbabwe's Chamber of Commerce recently announced that more than 400,000 jobs were in jeopardy. Everyone from cattle companies to detergent manufacturers are closing shop and leaving. Analysts forecast a possible 100,000 percent inflation rate by the end of the year.
Ever since President Robert Mugabe started enforcing a series of drastic price-control measures last month to artificially keep his imploding economy in check, the country's downward spiral has accelerated drastically. The steady stream of economic refugees recently increased precipitously to several hundred thousand a week—the vast majority of them hungry and poor and destined for squatter camps in South Africa and Botswana. Inside Zimbabwe, the privations have taken on a sort of sad, Fellini-esque absurdity. Consider this recent Associated Press headline: HUNGRY ZIMBABWEANS TRY TO EAT GIRAFFE. The giraffe had wandered to the outskirts of Harare from a nearby farm. Malnourished locals swarmed upon the animal, eager to chop it up for "the pot."
And yet, even as the economy sinks into a state of near total inertia, there are increasing signs that significant political change is underway in Zimbabwe. For the first time Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party appears to be making significant compromises with negotiators from the opposition. If the changes are successful they could lead to a revamping of the Constitution, a redrafting of a series of repressive laws and new elections, which could bring about the end of Mugabe's 27-year grip on power. Negotiators from both sides are hammering out the language for a series of compromises in five key areas of government and social policy. And for the first time, both sides are discussing more sensitive issues of political violence as well as the government's tactic of using food as a weapon to squash opposition activity.
The changes have already started to appear. Last week, the government stripped nearly three-dozen non-elected ZANU-PF parliamentarians of their seats in the legislature. And government negotiators have also agreed in principle to amend parts of the Constitution to include many of the opposition's demands. "We can say without any doubt that significant concessions have been made by the government," says one source familiar with the ongoing discussions, who asked not be identified because of their sensitive nature. "There's a growing realization that the ground rules are changing."
There's still a long way to go. The economic implosion and the accompanying social decay has been so drastic that many observers fear Zimbabwe won't be ready for elections, currently scheduled for March. Teams are now discussing the possibility of delaying the ballot until June. Meanwhile, opposition leaders from both sides are urgently pushing to draft new legislation to ensure, among other things, that an independent electoral commission is up and running before people go to the polls. "We have to stabilize the situation in the country—the food situation, the economic situation—before people can be asked to vote," says one insider. "We have to get the media back in, we have to get the daily news back out on the streets." It may still be too early to say the negotiations will succeed. In the past, Mugabe has used occasions like these to stall for time. And critics are justifiably fearful that recent government concessions are nothing more than a ruse to trick and further divide the already splintered opposition. Yet it's also clear that Mugabe has been under fire not only from his critics in the West but also increasingly from his neighbors, as well. It's estimated that Zimbabwe's economic woes are costing South Africa up to $5 billion a year. Botswana, which hosts more than 250,000 Zimbabwean refugees, is straining under the pressure and has begun to point fingers at Zimbabweans for rising crime rates there. Faced with these realities, a new generation of African leaders has begun to push back against the one-time African independence hero. But a sense of cautious optimism has crept into the ranks of the opposition. "I think we have reached an irreversible situation," says another opposition figure with close knowledge of the progress of the talks. "But it still has to be honored, and we're dealing with a very, very desperate regime."
So where does Mugabe fit into all of this? At first glance, the 83-year-old autocrat doesn't appear to have lost any of his swagger. Earlier this month, Mugabe allegedly threatened to withdraw from the regional alliance known as the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—a move that would have been tantamount to political and economic suicide. "It's like saying stop the world, I want to get off," quipped one Zimbabwean with knowledge of the threat, "There's no possibility of that, he's stuck." Another option being quietly discussed among the continent's leaders is Mugabe's eventual "retirement." In this scenario, Mugabe would appoint someone to take his place as the ZANU-PF candidate next spring or summer and he would quietly withdraw, possibly with some assurances of immunity, or at least protection within Zimbabwe's borders. Ironically, Mugabe's departure could also make a bad situation worse. ZANU-PF is a divided party, and without a strong figure at the helm, the divisions within its ranks could become too big for anyone to handle. For now, the big question remains how much longer can the country founder before it finally sinks into total anarchy? For ordinary Zimbabweans, life has become a nightmare. A bus fare from Bulawayo to Harare is 2 million Zim dollars—an impossibly high figure in a country that in many parts has moved onto the barter system. Fuel has virtually disappeared. Last month, 3,200 teachers left their jobs. Medical facilities are running out of drugs, cleaning materials and linen. The country's nearly 2 million HIV-positive people are unable to maintain high-protein diets. In some places, people are dying of hunger. At a small South African town called Messina, near the Zimbabwean border, a group that describes itself as an underground pro-democracy movement put up a roadside billboard with a message for arriving immigrants. WE KNOW WHY YOU'RE IN SOUTH AFRICA, it reads, LIFE IN ZIMBABWE IS MURDER THESE DAYS.