Zimbabweans to have merry Xmas after all

HARARE - Cleopatra Matimbe pushes her trolley slowly through a busy supermarket in central Harare, picking up groceries for Christmas.

HARARE - Cleopatra Matimbe pushes her trolley slowly through a busy supermarket in central Harare, picking up groceries for Christmas.

Now it's hard for her to remember that last year she and most Zimbabweans had no holiday celebration.

"Last year's Christmas was different from the other Christmases we used to have long back.

"We had to go to South Africa for groceries and there was no money to do the shopping," Matimbe says.

Zimbabwe was at the height of its economic crisis during the holiday season last year.

Shops were deserted. Few people had any money, and those who did had to queue endlessly at banks for limited withdrawals of the Zimbabwe dollar, left worthless by inflation estimated in multiples of billions.

Then in January, the government abandoned the local currency and allowed trade in foreign currencies, suddenly re-stabilising the economy after a decade in free fall caused by political and economic uncertainty.

A further boost came in February when rivals Morgan Tsvangirai, who leads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and long-time President Robert Mugabe formed a unity government, following disputed elections last year.

Shocking hyper-inflation that impoverished the nation has been tamed and is now ranging below 2percent, thanks to the use of hard currencies such as the US dollar and rand.

Last year the only public sign of the holidays was the queues outside banks on Christmas Eve as workers desperately tried to withdraw their salaries.

Anyone who wanted to buy rice, sugar or soap had gone to neighbouring South Africa or Botswana.

This year Harare's stores are full, decorated with "Seasons Greetings" and huge portraits of Santa Claus hanging on walls.

Shop windows on the First Street pedestrian mall are decorated with tinsel, and shoppers are snapping up Christmas cards, gifts and new outfits.

Oswell Kawanzaruwa, a self-employed motor mechanic, says this year he might even take a vacation - an unthinkable luxury until recently.

"This Christmas I am planning going out with my children to the Chinhoyi or Mutare resort areas," Kawanzaruwa says.

One shop manager, Bevlyn Makamba, says many stores are now even able to source their supplies locally as businesses slowly resume production.

"Most of our products we are getting locally. It's different from last year when we were getting all our stocks from South Africa," Makamba says.

"Most of our products are local at the moment. We are getting very few imports."

Christmas is celebrated in Zimbabwe by more than three-quarters of the population, who are mainly Christians. The day is marked by attending a morning church service, visiting friends, feasting and drinking.

Makamba says for US$20 (about R150) a family in Zimbabwe can have a good Christmas since they can buy rice, chicken and drinks.

"In Zimbabwe it's all about rice and chicken, a little bit of salad and beer, $20 will do," she points out.

That means that for the first time in years a Christmas dinner will become an affordable treat, at least for those with jobs.

Unemployment remains rife but the government - the country's largest employer - is paying salaries of between $160 and $200 (about R1500) and has already announced that it will give a tax-free Christmas bonus.

Even with the festive mood, signs of crisis abound. As workers on First Street, a pedestrian street in downtown Harare, strung up twinkle lights from street poles, a blackout plunged half the city centre into darkness for most of the day. - Sapa-AFP