Zimbabwe's disposable currency

Once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, Zimbabwe seems to be nearing economic collapse.

By Sheridan Prasso, Fortune contributing editor

(Fortune Magazine) -- What does it feel like to hold a few million dollars in your hands? If you're in Zimbabwe, like this worker, and your wages are in Zimbabwean dollars, not very good. With hyperinflation running at 4,500 percent on an annual basis, all his cash is worth less than $100.

Once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, Zimbabwe seems to be nearing economic collapse. Unemployment is estimated at 80 percent. Electricity has been rationed to just four hours a day. A loaf of bread costs 44,000 Zimbabwean dollars, about 18 cents at black-market exchange rates - or $176 at the official rate.

To earn public support ahead of elections scheduled for March, President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, imposed price controls in late June, which have been largely ignored. He also proposed legislation to transfer 51 percent of foreign-owned firms to local ownership and establish a government fund to help citizens buy stock in public companies.

The government would be able to reject any mergers, acquisitions or new investments in which indigenous Zimbabweans do not hold a majority stake. To many it is an echo of Mugabe's seizure of thousands of white-owned farms, mostly without compensation, in what he called a redistribution of land to poor blacks. Instead, choice farms were handed to government officials, and food production plummeted, leading to a humanitarian crisis.

Along with their shrinking buying power, Zimbabweans now have the lowest life expectancy in the world: It has dropped under Mugabe from 60 to 37 for men and from 65 to 34 for women.  Top of page

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