By Cris Chinaka
CHINHOYI, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - According to the official figures, Zimbabwe's economy is booming. The agony etched on the faces of those in the auction rooms in Chinhoyi, watching helplessly as prized possessions go for a song, tells a very different story.
Zimbabweans from all walks of life are drowning in debt after the implosion of a three-year credit bubble. High-rollers are losing mansions and limousines; ordinary people chickens and pots and pans.
The only ones doing well are the auctioneers holding the sales and the newspapers advertising them.
As well as hammering some of the southern African country's biggest firms, the crisis is threatening the stability of its banks and piling more pain on a population of 13 million traumatized by a decade of drastic economic decline up to 2008.
"It has been a real nightmare," said Milton, a victim of the burst bubble standing at the back of an auction in Chinhoyi, a farming town 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Harare.
Instead of fulfilling his ambitions of owning and running a car workshop, he is watching nervously as his bed, a six-piece lounge suite, refrigerator and stove go under the hammer to try to repay a $1,500 bank loan.
"First, I lost my car over a loan that I used to start this business, and now this. I have to start afresh," he said, with a sigh.
When President Robert Mugabe, one of Africa's longest serving leaders, formed a unity government with rival Morgan Tsvangirai after disputed elections in 2008, Milton and thousands of others hoped the former British colony and its once-vibrant economy had turned the corner.
That belief took root when the new administration quickly scrapped the worthless Zimbabwe dollar in favour of the U.S. dollar and South African rand, ending multi-billion percent hyperinflation at a stroke.
Three years later, the court-auction advertisements filling newspapers suggest the hopes were premature.
"It's painful but I have to be here to see if the goods they have taken will be able to cover the debt," said Milton, who would only give his first name. "Otherwise they come for more stuff."
With the relative political stability of a unity government and the monetary stability of dollars and rand, many banks went on a lending spree in 2009, taking title deeds on homes and ownership documents for cars as security.
Interest rates ranged from 15 to 50 percent but businesses from second-hand clothes stalls in townships to village grocery stores lapped up loans to restock after the lean years.
"There was a frenzy," said Brains Muchemwa, a private economic consultant. "And it has been one huge disaster, both for the borrowers and the lenders, with big losses for individuals, families, banks and businesses."
Over the past year, two banks have collapsed and two others have slid into administration under a mountain of bad debts.
Worse could be in store, with the central bank saying that loans to individuals for consumption more than doubled from 8.6 percent of all loans in June last year to 18 percent by June 2012 - against the backdrop of an economy in trouble.
In his mid-year budget statement last month, Finance Minister Tendai Biti slashed his 2012 growth forecast to 5.6 percent from 9.4 percent, a cut that took few Zimbabweans by surprise given the widespread belief the government has been over-egging the figures to lure outside investors.
The tough times can be seen in the growing numbers of people eking out a living as street vendors, and in the boom of court-appointed auctions.
Even the central bank has been clobbered, with outstanding debts of $1.4 billion to individuals, companies and government institutions - the legacy of a system in which a business and political elite with close links to Mugabe's ZANU-PF party borrowed money cheaply from the bank and never paid it back, even if they could.
Overall, eight out of 10 adult Zimbabweans are jobless in an economy that shrank by almost half in a decade of recession blamed on the disastrous economic policies of Mugabe, who has been in charge since independence in 1980.
Hampering the push from investment is a drive by Mugabe to force foreign mining companies and banks to surrender at least 51 percent shares to black Zimbabweans.
Fears of violence during elections due within the next year have also unsettled investors given the trouble that has marred polls since 2000, the year after Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged to challenge Mugabe.
The court auctions have already sucked in the headquarters of Zimbabwe's largest pharmaceutical company to clear debts of $4 million, and two houses belonging to the directors of Merspin, one of its oldest and biggest textile firms.
Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi from ZANU-PF and his wife Mercedes stand to lose a house to the state-owned POSB Bank over an unpaid $129,000 loan, according to the state-controlled Herald newspaper.
In the countryside, the auctions are often held in the grounds of police stations and lots range from cows and black and white TV sets to crates of empty beer and Coca-Cola bottles.
"At first, I tried hard and I was paying half the monthly instalment but after four months, I stopped completely and that's how I ended up here," said John Moyo, who borrowed $10,000 two years ago to start up a furniture-making business.
Unable to make the $1,000 monthly repayments, he had to forfeit his trusty Mazda truck, which sold for $2,000, a quarter of its value.
"I am sunk," he told Reuters. "Many other people are sinking too."
"THIEVES IN DESIGNER SUITS"
Most auctions have a funereal air, with sellers shuffling in quietly, alone or in pairs. Pictures of houses on sale are pinned on walls around the hall.
However, sharp-suited businessmen and women will typically occupy the front two rows, knowing they are picking up houses or cars for a fraction of their market value.
Few are prepared to talk to reporters, feeding the perception of a predatory business and political elite sucking the economy dry.
Biti, a senior figure in Tsvangirai's MDC, has accused top officials from Mugabe's ZANU-PF, which controls the mining ministry, of stealing millions of dollars in diamond revenues for themselves or party election coffers.
"What we have now are people getting filthy rich on resources that should be going into national development while the ordinary citizens of this country are sinking deeper into poverty," he said at a recent news conference.
"The facts are evident all around us. It is obscene."
ZANU-PF dismisses Biti's charges as cheap politicking, but the public mistrust of those with cash to splash runs deep.
In an editorial, the Zimbabwe Independent, a private weekly, urged the government to tackle what it called "theft by those in designer suits".
"Authorities must stop this systematic economic sabotage and halt dead in their tracks these thieves in imported designer suits," it said.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood)