One day, this hope will just evaporate like mist

Christmas came, as inevitably as birth and death, before giving way to the new year which is bound to be with us - for better or for worse - until 2009.

Christmas came, as inevitably as birth and death, before giving way to the new year which is bound to be with us - for better or for worse - until 2009.

For most Zimbabweans, 2007 had the 365 days in their lives that they would love to forget. Even Christmas was spent in the most miserable circumstances imaginable.

Apart from the food shortages, there was an unusual, if not outlandish, scarcity: of money. As I write this, at 7pm, there is a long queue outside a commercial bank a few metres from my office. There is an ATM operating and optimistic depositors will stand in the queue for as long as there is a promise of cash being available.

For weeks, Zimbabweans have spent hours outside and inside banks, waiting for their money to be dished out to them by banks beholden to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the country's monetary custodian, whose monumental blunders have led to calls for the resignation of the governor, Gideon Gono.

But there is more to the crisis than just the cash shortage. Corruption, the inevitable and ugly appendage of a country whose government is lackadaisical in looking after its economy, has scaled new heights.

A few days after January 1, I was asked to arbitrate a bizarre incident in a lavatory. I had gone to the public toilet along Jason Moyo Avenue, after another fruitless visit to my bank in search of you-know-what.

The charges had gone up to $200000 for the most elementary use of the facility. A man in a threadbare T-shirt told the attendant he could only afford $100000 for a "weewee". The attendant was adamant: it was $200000 - or nothing doing. The customer proposed boldly that the attendant need not give him a receipt. He could just "put it aside".

The attendant was flabbergasted: was this a bribe? Yes, the customer said brazenly. Then I was dragged into the tableau. "Do you know who this man is?" asked the attendant, pointing to me. "He could be from the anti-corruption squad or the Central Intelligence Organisation."

I dared not respond. I didn't want to get involved. But I did offer the opinion that the customer had made a mistake.

I left hurriedly, unable to shake off the feeling that something nasty was about to happen.

This was a microcosm of a country in which corruption in high and low places has become so prevalent you get the feeling that everything, including life itself, can be bought or sold, if the price is right.

Many people resist an acceptance of this reality. For them, hope truly springs eternal.

For some fortunate Zimbabweans, Christmas was an occasion for lavish celebrations, courtesy of car loads of goodies brought into the country by relatives working in South Africa.

There were even more spectacular celebrations for Zimbabweans whose relatives flew in from the UK for the occasion.

Yet, after all the orgy of eating and drinking ended, the truth returned to confront them. They would be lucky to return to a life of relative normalcy after their relatives had returned to their haven across the oceans.

In other African countries, there would be unmistakable signs of unrest. Not in Zimbabwe, where the people seem to be endowed with a bottomless well of tolerance for corruption in high places, with a dash of misgovernance thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps that hope is what sustains their sanity.

One day, as has happened in many other countries, hope will evaporate like mist. The illusion will be shattered for ever.

lBill Saidi is deputy editor of The Standard in Zimbabwe.