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The people of Nswazwi are once again on the move. Three decades ago their tiny settlement of thatched mud huts, a few miles from the border with Botswana, was caught up in Zimbabwe’s liberation war. Many residents fled across the frontier before returning home to enjoy the fruits of freedom. Now, again, abandoned huts and empty kraals (enclosures) testify to an exodus.

Since the days of Lobengula, the 19th-century Matabele king, lustrous cattle have grazed in this remote corner of Zimbabwe. But now food stocks are running low; the average household income is a few US dollars a month; and the intimidation from the regime is intensifying. Those who remain are clearly struggling. Local tracks are dotted with people who cannot afford the bus fare to the local town. And so they walk for hours in the sun, bearing scraps of food that they hope to sell or barter – and this in a country that was until recently dubbed the bread-basket of southern Africa.

These are tense times. Few people talk openly to strangers, lest agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organisation are watching. Hidden behind the corner of a cattle kraal, a young girl said she wanted to speak out. “There are so many who are going,” she said. “They say they will come back one day but I don’t think so. It is so difficult to get food now. We are finishing off last year’s maize and then we will have no stocks.”

The situation in Nswazwi is mirrored across Zimbabwe, where security forces tightly monitor the main roads and most journalists, including this correspondent, have to operate undercover. One veteran of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who acted as a guide for the FT, said: “Every year we say this must be the end.” He recalls how his first car cost $Z5,000, a thousandth of what half a tank of petrol costs now – or rather what it cost when he spoke, for the next day the prices went up. “Mugabe can’t last much longer,” he added. “Or maybe he can . . . ”

In the latest grim signal of Zimbabwe’s vertiginous decline, the official rate of inflation was last week put at 3713.9 per cent. Economists believe it may be much higher. With unemployment at over 50 per cent, three or four million out of a population variously estimated between 12 and 15 million have fled the country in search of work. Perversely, their remittances are a crucial prop to the regime. Yet the government blandly delivers statistics as if inflation were four per cent and not four thousand.

Gideon Gono, the Zimbabwean central bank governor, said on Thursday that inflation had been fuelled by chronic food shortages. The government attributes these to the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the US, as well as to the drought affecting southern Africa, and denies a link to the land expropriations that have led to the near-total collapse of Zimbabwe’s commercial agriculture. The sanctions include a ban on arms sales, a freezing of assets in European banks and a travel ban on senior officials in the government and Zanu-PF.

Mr Gono said he would continue large-scale printing of money despite the warnings of the International Monetary Fund that this would merely increase inflation. “We offer no apology, we offer no remorse for our intervention in all spheres of the economy when we do the unorthodox,” he told MPs.

Some commentators have argued that, such is the economic chaos, the regime must be near its “tipping point”. But comparisons suggest Zimbabwe may well fall a lot lower before this happens. The country is not policed with the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Nor has it been reduced to the state of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) under its late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. By the end of his ruinous regime in 1997, many roads and railways built by the Belgians had been reclaimed by the jungle and visitors were routinely fleeced by officials on arrival at Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport. Despite all Mr Mugabe’s catastrophic decisions in the past decade or so, unlike Zaire in its last days Zimbabwe still somehow staggers along with the odd vestige of normality.

One evening at the Bulawayo Country Club earlier this month, a young white couple were discussing their wedding plans with a caterer. “So do you want fish as well as pâté?” she asked. “And when are you going to do the speeches? Do you want me to wait before bringing in the meat?” Similar exchanges have been overheard in the club’s panelled interior for years and will no doubt be heard for years to come. But the most myopic visitor or resident could not now miss the evidence of a society under terrible strain.

On the fringes of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, queues form outside shops on the rumour of deliveries of sugar or other foods. Banknotes are exchanged in brick-sized wads. Many shops change prices twice a day. Most business is done by barter. One world-weary businessman says that after years of marriage he has changed his mantra to his wife. “I no longer say: ‘You are spending too much.’ I now say: ‘You are not spending quickly enough.’ Whenever we have cash we spend it.”

For seven years since Mr Mugabe first faced a serious challenge to his rule with the formation of the MDC, Zimbabwe’s opposition has been in a state of increasing despair. Since 2000 there have been three elections, two parliamentary and one presidential. With the economy in freefall, each should have been a stiff challenge for Mr Mugabe. But he won all three easily, relying on a formula of populism, thuggery and skulduggery at the polls.

Now more than ever, Mr Mugabe’s back is against the wall. His Zanu-PF party is in disarray. Ten days ago, party meetings in Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold, and the central town of Masvingo broke up in chaos amid clashes between supporters of the two factions vying to replace the president. Also, his sovereignty has for the first time in his 27 years in power been compromised: regional leaders have mandated South Africa to mediate between Zanu-PF and the MDC ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due next March.

Yet barring a move from within Zanu-PF – and insiders suggest that this, despite the party’s unhappiness, is unlikely for the moment – the earliest the 83-year-old can be expected to leave office is after the elections. In the meantime, the opposition is struggling to speak with one voice and overcome regional scepticism as to its viability as a political force. All the while, Mr Mugabe’s supporters are doing their best to ensure that it is in no state to contest the election.

“The regime has thrown all caution to the wind,” says David Coltart, a veteran human rights lawyer and a leading MDC MP. “It has been pushed into a corner and is now lashing out. As with so many dictatorships, the closer they get to the end the more vicious they become. They are deadly serious now. This isn’t an aberration. This is an attempt to crush the opposition before elections.”

He was speaking shortly after police beat two of Zimbabwe’s best-known human rights lawyers in Harare. This was merely the latest act of state-sponsored brutality since March 11, when Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of one of the MDC’s two wings, and other leaders were beaten in the streets of the capital. These are dangerous times for the opposition as Human Rights Watch, the US rights group, made clear in a report this month that recorded the summary arrest and torture of hundreds of activists since the attack on Mr Tsvangirai.

Day by day, the fabric of the old law-abiding and functioning order becomes more threadbare and people more desperate. Earlier this month, on Suzanne Street on the northern fringe of the city hundreds of people had gathered outside a high metal gate. Briefly it opened and some bags were thrown out. The crowd surged forward. Behind the gate was a chicken farm. The crowd was waiting for chicken heads and feet for the pot, or to sell on. “There is a new rule,” said a pastor watching in dismay. “If you buy it, don’t eat it, but sell it, make your mark up.”

The pastor was on his way back from delivering food to impoverished victims of Murambatsvina (Operation Clear Out the Trash), the government’s brutal 2005 campaign to raze informal settlements in the main cities. Hundreds of thousands of people had their homes destroyed and were then dumped in the countryside. Now many are eking out an existence on land confiscated from white farmers a few years ago.

Ten miles outside Bulawayo, Edward Sibanda, 52, is living on a dusty five-hectare plot with his wife and four children. It used to be part of a successful commercial farm. His experience highlights the folly and crime of both Murambatsvina and the expropriations. A decade ago the commercial farmers accounted for half Zimbabwe’s foreign currency earnings. Now most of their land is in small plots and all but uncultivated. Mr Sibanda ticked off on his fingers what he needed to make a go of it: “We have no rain, no tractors, no petrol, no tools, no food.”

He is one of many who can no longer afford monthly school fees ($Z15,000 – just over 50 US cents at the unofficial rate) for his children. Zimbabweans were long regarded as some of the best educated people in Africa and in his early years, Mr Mugabe rightly took pride in his government’s investment in schooling. Now, a malnourished and uneducated generation is growing up. A nurse burst into tears as she described the implosion of the health service. “We’ve got kwashiorkor [a type of childhood malnutrition] again. I didn’t see it 25 years ago when I was trained. Now you are seeing the telltale signs, golden hair and pot bellies.”

South African officials are increasingly concerned about the crisis on their northern border. Western criticism of the country’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” over the past few years has infuriated Pretoria, which argues that trumpeting its concern would be counter-productive. But privately, officials concede the crisis sends all the wrong signals to the foreign investors they want to attract. They also fear it risks overshadowing the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, which they hope will be a showcase for the post-apartheid state.

Now they are pushing forward with their mediation plans. They have held several meetings with the opposition factions and written formally to Mr Mugabe seeking his response to their mandate. Meanwhile, western agencies have done their sums and calculated that the world will need to stump up one billion US dollars a year for a decade after the regime falls.

The best-case scenario is for the region somehow to force Mr Mugabe to step down in favour of a coalition between reformist elements of the Zanu-PF and the MDC. But no one is holding their breath. A senior former cabinet minister believes Mr Mugabe has only one goal: to stay until he dies and so avoid the risk of prosecution. As a senior opposition figure concedes, Mr Mugabe knows all too well that the MDC’s promises of amnesty are meaningless.

“I think we are in for growing violence and eventually some sort of conflagration this year, next or even the year after,” says one diplomat with long experience of Zimbabwe. Given Zimbabweans’ relative quiescence in the face of the growing tyranny, until recently that might have been dismissed as alarmism. Moses Nzila-Ndlovu, an MDC MP, fears that is no longer the case.

“There are so many people who have been traumatised and brutalised by Zanu-PF. If the MDC were cheated at the elections again there could be carnage. There is so much anger. And even if Mugabe goes, it may not end there. Look at it from the perspective of the ordinary people. You have a pot, boiling. Lift up the lid and the steam boils over.”

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