Christmas gloom for Zimbabwe this year
Bleak mood amid hard times a contrast to last year's festive joy after Mugabe's fall
The persistent economic meltdown in Zimbabwe has swallowed any Christmas cheer citizens and companies might have been looking forward to this year.
This is a marked departure from the merrymaking and festive mood in 2017, when it was heightened by the fall of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in November.
Citizens will this year mark Christmas after having borne the brunt of a wave of price increases over the past few months as the cost of goods and services soared.
Figures from the national statistical agency put the inflation rate at 20.85% in October, but independent economists estimate it is a staggering 122%.
Public servants were paid their bonuses last week, but there has been little fanfare over the 13th cheque.
Junior doctors and radiographers went on strike this week to protest against poor working conditions. The former want an increase in their monthly pay of $385 (R5,400) and to earn salaries in foreign currency.
Teachers have also put their employer on notice that they want their salaries in US dollars. When schools closed on Thursday, they informed parents that a part of the school fees in the new school year would be payable in dollars.
A doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity said many doctors were already looking for ways to leave the country for greener pastures, amid a fickle health-care system punctuated by shortages of medicine and frequent disease outbreaks.
Years of economic ruin under Mugabe led to a boom in Zimbabwe's diaspora. Millions of expats are spread across SA, Botswana, the UK and the US, and those abroad are still cautious about committing to returning home.
Some, like US-based academic Tinashe Mushakavanhu, who plans to visit home next week, say they are keen to contribute to the rebuilding process.
"While living away from home has benefited me in personal and professional ways, I do want to come back home eventually to settle and to play my part in building a society I want to live in," he said.
Severe foreign currency shortages are hampering business operations. The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) estimates that companies are owed more than $800m in outstanding payments by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
CZI president Sifelani Jabangwe said the country was in a "tricky situation".
National Foods, a unit of Tiger Brands, this week became the latest firm to announce it was shuttering its operations in the country, in its case wheat mills in Harare and Bulawayo.
Christopher Mugaga, CEO of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, on Friday ruled out the prospect of any brisk business for companies this festive season.
"There is no fuel, there is no foreign currency and business is facing several challenges," he said.
The economic hardship has played out most visibly at petrol stations, where motorists across the country have for the past two weeks had to endure long, winding queues for fuel.
Energy minister Joram Gumbo this week claimed there was "enough fuel" in the country.
However, the acting CEO of the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority, Edington Mazambani, told a parliamentary portfolio committee on energy on Thursday that the fuel situation in the country was desperate, even though $60m was released by the central bank last week to pay for fuel imports.
"It was for two weeks' supply, but because we were already at zero, that can last for a week instead of the two weeks as everyone is thirsty to fill up their cars. The $60m has already been exhausted," he said.
Motorists across Harare have found ways to cope with the long hours spent at queues at petrol stations, bringing along bottled water, playing music loudly in their cars and drinking a few beers while waiting for their turn at the pumps,
Some bus operators have already hiked prices in response to having to buy fuel on the black market. A trip between Harare and Bulawayo now costs $60, up from $25.
In a further blow to President Emmerson Mnangagwa's administration, the US on Thursday refused to remove sanctions imposed on the country since 2001. The sanctions curtail Mnangagwa's attempts at re-engagement with the international community and access to credit lines.