Fuel crisis bites
Like any other Zimbabwean town, Bulawayo, the capital of southern Zimbabwe, is part of history in the making. Hundreds of residents stream to their jobs in the city centre and industrial sites. Some of the people trudge from as far as old, highly populated residential suburbs like Old Pumula and Pumula South, about 14km from the city centre.
Those from nearby high-density suburbs like Entumbane, Mpopoma, Tshabalala, Matshobana and Sizinda, which are only 5km from the city centre, consider themselves lucky because of the short distance they have to walk. The crowds of walkers look like invasion columns. The only difference is that in place of firearms, they carry with them umbrellas and raincoats in case it rains.
"This is the first time I have had to walk to work," says 44-year-old Philimon Sigauke, a bakery employee. "I can’t remember precisely when I last walked such a long distance, but I have no choice. There is no fuel and there is absolutely no transport to and from Pumula where I live."
The few minibuses on the road have increased their fares by over 1000 percent as the fuel crisis bites. "I can’t afford that," says Sigauke. Like most of the workers trekking across town to their places of work, and as President Robert Mugabe holidayed in Thailand with his cronies, Sigauke found himself in these daunting circumstances because of the grinding fuel crisis.
The fuel crisis, which worsened towards Christmas and as the year drew to an end, has just about taken all the public transport vehicles off the roads. Cars stand idle in long, winding queues snaking for up to 2km at most service stations in the city. Most of the queues have become a common feature, and are getting longer by the day. Faced with the crisis, very few workers can afford to use private taxis whose fares are beyond their reach. But even the private taxis have become as scarce as the commuter omnibuses as the fuel crisis bites deeper.
And for the average worker, on a salary of no more than US$272 a month in the heavy industrial sites, there is no alternative, but to walk.
It is a testing journey that demands as much of commitment to get to work as the energy needed to duck under bridges, dodge the reckless cyclists and scramble across the road ahead of a charging haulage truck, as often happens.
The former Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Simba Makoni, was perhaps the only man in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government who in 2001 foresaw a time when bicycles would return to rule the road when he announced the removal of import duty on the two-wheelers.
His projection was uncannily accurate: the bicycle has made a spectacular comeback, and is now the most reliable means of affordable transport in Zimbabwe. Makoni resigned in October 2002 following pressure from President Robert Mugabe, as he supported the devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar.
Hundreds of cyclists, formerly the butt of cruel jokes by fellow travellers on minibuses, are having the last laugh as the fuel crisis elbows the fancy commuter omnibuses off the road and out of business. "What is the point of possessing a car that cannot move?" poses Mukhokheli Nyathi a 27-year-old cyclist. "All that my bicycle needs is pressure and that is available without charge at every service station. And we do not need to spend weeks in queues for that. People should simply sell their cars and buy bicycles."
Although there is no empirical evidence, the large number of bicycles on the roads could have been brought about by Makoni’s cyclist-friendly 2001 Budget, which reduced the cost of bicycles. People like Sigauke who did not take advantage of Makoni’s foresight have to drag their old Humbers and Raleighs out of the roof racks, and spruce them up for a return to the track.
But many may not do so because, as Samuel Msebele, a sales assistant at a city cycle spare parts shop put it, spare parts even for the latest mountain bike models are hard to come by. "We handle a large number of enquiries by owners of old models who have been reminded of their bicycles by the fuel crisis. But there are no spares, even for newer models of mountain bikes. They are imported and suppliers want hard currency for those parts," he says.
"The company has been struggling since April to secure foreign currency to buy spares. Banks have no foreign currency, and my employer has refused to buy hard currency from the black market. We are not taking any fresh orders from prospective buyers because there is no hope that we will be able to supply."
But the walking public is emphatic that the blunders and lack of forward planning by the ZANU PF government is responsible for their predicament. The fuel shortage that scuttled many people’s Christmas holiday plans, threatens to turn Zimbabwe into a nation of reluctant walkers and cyclists.
Hard-pressed commuters scoff at suggestions that the fuel crisis is a result of the activities of the United States and British imperialist lobby, as President Mugabe would like people to believe. Mugabe rants about the US and the British governments seeking to avenge the perceived success of the fast-track land resettlement programme by throttling fuel supplies.
Dave Nyandoro, a manager at one service station, says the fuel crisis is the result of ZANU PF bungling, corruption and inefficiency. He objects to State Media suggestions that fuel companies were worsening the crisis by hoarding the little that trickles into the country, in anticipation of a price hike early this year.
"Whichever way the government wants us to see this, it is clear that corruption, incompetence and falsehoods are endemic in ZANU PF. There was a time when Mugabe and his State media wanted the country to believe that British navy vessels were intercepting Zimbabwe-bound oil tankers in the high seas and off the coast of Mozambique and buying all the fuel they would be carrying," says Nyandoro.
Bleary-eyed motorists still in fuel queues after long, uncomfortable nights around the city, blame the fuel crisis on ZANU PF cronyism, which led to the mismanagement and plunder of the State-owned National Oil Company of Zimbabwe (Noczim).
"Mugabe made a big joke when he said Zimbabwe would never be a colony again," retorted one motorist. "Is it not a virtual colony of Libya since Libya calls the shots here now?"
The Libyans, who had been supplying Zimbabwe with fuel for two years, reportedly snubbed further government demands for the precious liquid in November when they walked out from a meeting with Noczim officials in a move analysts say was long overdue.
"Their demand for a controlling stake in Noczim meant they had realised Zimbabwe was not creditworthy," says Daniel Molokhela, a Bulawayo based commentator. They wanted deals based on property such as land and shares in government companies and it was their involvement and promises that gave some Zimbabweans a sense of false security about fuel supplies.
"They (Libyans) are in the same "Axis of evil" with ZANU PF," said Keith Duncan, a motorist. Duncan says he had been queuing for three days at a Bulawayo service station. Sentiments from the fuel queues and the walking public suggest a nation fed up with queuing for everything.
The crisis is in marked contrast with Mugabe’s most recent pledge to solve the country’s fuel problems. He told his supporters who had gathered in Chinhoyi, northern Zimbabwe, for his party’s annual conference in December that he would solve the problem urgently.
But the people in the queues don’t believe him. "Zimbabwe is now a queue country. We queue for fuel, bread, salt, sugar, maize-meal, cooking oil, soft drinks, and other commodities which are fast running out," a motorist in a fuel queue lamented.
The grave economic situation, compounded by the worsening fuel crisis, is a subject of discussion in the queues, be it at service stations or at supermarkets. But as the people now declare in commuter omnibuses and the unending queues, Mugabe seems to have run out of ideas to solve the crises he promised the country he was working diligently to end.