The Pirates and the Party

About two weeks ago Mr. Mugabe made a speech at the funeral of a General who died under mysterious circumstances and in it he attacked the private sector for raising prices in the name of regime change. He threatened the mining companies as well as everyone else and said that if they did not come into line with what the Party wanted they would be taken over.

Since then a shadowy, totally unaccountable organisation known as the 'Joint Operational Command' has taken up the call and last week they summoned senior business leaders to a meeting and instructed them to roll back their prices to the level they were at on the 18th June. The meeting was held with the Commanders of the Army, the Police, the CIO, Air Force and the Prison Service.

Since then all major retailers and wholesalers as well as the majority of manufacturers have reduced their prices to the June 18th level. Remember prices were doubling on a weekly basis at the time with inflation about 15 000 percent per annum. So these price reductions were major and across the board.

Last weekend the smaller retailers were attacked - I am not sure we can really call it anything else. One by one they were approached by small groups of officials, police and militia. The messages were confused and varied from store to store and group-to-group. Some simply said they had to reduce a limited range of 18 items to the price levels listed, others said it was the roll back to June 18th while others simply said cut your prices by 50 per cent.

No opposition or arguments were tolerated. If the retailers resisted they were arrested and taken to local police stations. In other cases stores that were closed had their doors smashed open and prices reduced under supervision and then the public allowed in, buying the goods at the lower prices. Many businesses were faced with near riots as people scrambled for goods. In other cases the authorities confiscated goods, especially where they found goods stored behind shops.

Then they started on the fuel stations - systematically all stations selling fuels were visited and if they had stocks they were told to sell at Z$60 000 a litre or else. One operator in Bulawayo refused, was arrested and released when his lawyers intervened, rearrested and taken to see the senior officer in Bulawayo who told him no resistance would be tolerated and they then sent the police to force him to open up and sell. He lost Z$3 400 000 000 in 12 hours on 47 000 litres of fuel bought at Z$132 000 a litre. Today there are long queues at all filling stations still with stocks. I project by Monday that there will be no fuel at all in the City, probably in the whole country. Worse still the fuel importers have stopped buying foreign exchange and halted imports. It will take weeks to get back to 'normal'.

The butchers were simply told to sell 'meat' at Z$90 000 a kilogram or in some cases Z$120 000 a kilogram - there was no explanation of the difference. Since the cost of beef is well above these levels, they quickly sold out and then closed. Today there is no butchery open in the entire City. Bakers are following suit - they were told to sell at Z$22 000 a loaf and they did so but stopped buying raw materials. Today bakers are slowly closing down across the country.

In the milling industry 'controlled' prices are half the real cost of production and the national staple food, maize meal, has disappeared from the stores. The prices of other carbohydrate foods such as potatoes have doubled. Rice is controlled down to half its cost and will also be in short supply by next week as stocks run out.

If supermarkets are unable to restock because either they cannot buy products at controlled prices and sell them for a margin to cover other costs, or the products are just not available, then all basic needs will start to run out next week. For some mysterious reason one product was specifically targeted - Mazoe Orange Juice. Its price was set at Z$120 000 for two litres and when all the dust had settled the manufacturers were given an approved price of Z$180 000 per unit. So if you were to buy this product today you would have to sell it at a loss. Sugar sales from the mills in the Lowveld are Z$15 000 a kilogram - the retail price is Z$17 000. A mark up of 13 per cent - the fuel on collection of this product from Chiredzi is Z$7 300 per kilogram alone.

This morning we watched a police raid on a small 'Spaza' store run by a single women who has a teenage son. A 7 tonne truck arrived with four police on board, they collected all her stocks and loaded them and then ordered her to appear at the police station at 14.00 hrs. The police officer in Charge was Inspector Banda, force number 048168 F.

There she was harangued and fined Z$40 000. Her goods were offloaded into a large warehouse that was full of confiscated goods. While we watched a well-dressed man in a new vehicle, number 807 516 J drove up and helped himself to 4 bags of sugar. He did not sign a receipt and drove away. The vehicle was a make that is driven by senior police and army officers.

While we followed this small saga being played out, we saw truckloads of police coming and going and more goods confiscated from small informal traders all over the City coming in. Its quite clear, the Party wants to show that inflation can be beaten and they are making the business sector pay the price. The people carrying out these illegal and irresponsible orders are rewarded for their diligence with authority to loot the stores they are raiding. Since the big boys in this game can defend themselves, it is the small people and the informal sector that suffers most. So much for Zanu PF socialism, or as Mugabe would put it, his personal brand of Marxist Leninism.

As one man said to me on the street, 'Well Eddie, at least now you know, you do not need to campaign for MDC in March, these people are doing it for you.' He may be right but how on earth do we get there!

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 5th July 2007