Promise of full shop shelves met with scepticism

Predictions by Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono, that empty supermarket shelves will soon be packed with goods are being received somewhat sceptically by Zimbabweans.

Gono's upbeat assessment of the country's prospects in his mid-year monetary policy statement on Monday coincided with an absence of bread on shop shelves because of a poor winter wheat harvest, adding to the list of widespread shortages of basic items that includes fuel, water, electricity and medicines. Donor agencies estimate that more than a third of Zimbabweans are on the cusp of severe food shortages.

The belief by Gono that supermarket shelves will soon fill up is based on the government's introduction of price controls in June, which forced the supply chain to slash commodity prices by 50 percent and led to empty shop shelves, staff being laid off and the closure of businesses.

"It is against this background that I can say without fear of retraction or of being misquoted that it will not be very long before we see visible supply improvements on the ground," Gono said in his mid-term policy review.

"We should, by the end of this month [October], see the return of mazoe [orange syrup], soft drinks, cooking oil, soap, milk, bread, sugar and animal feeds on the shelves at affordable [cost to consumers], but economically viable prices to the suppliers," he said.

A tempered optimism

However, the Reserve Bank governor tempered his optimism with a warning to government against immediate implementation of the recently passed Indigenisation and Empowerment Bill, which allows government to take a controlling stake of 51 percent in all foreign-owned businesses, including the British-owned Barclays and Standard Chartered banks, and South African banking institution Stanbic, owned by Standard Bank.

''Our well -considered advice to legislators and government is that a fine balance should be struck between the objectives of indigenisation and the need to attract foreign investment ''

"Our well-considered advice to legislators and government is that a fine balance should be struck between the objectives of indigenisation and the need to attract foreign investment necessary to grow our economy, so that the same economy starts registering growth, which will enable the majority of our people to start experiencing real, as opposed to the window-dressing, freelance type of participation we have seen in some of our so-called indigenised companies," he said.

Gono advised against what he termed "excitable but impractical overnight conversion events", which could create a perception that the indigenisation programme was aimed at instant gratification through "grab, take and run" tactics.

Gono's delivery of his monetary policy statement coincided with the return of President Robert Mugabe from the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, who arrived at the airport in the capital, Harare, to a tumultuous welcome from veterans of the country's war of independence.

In an address to his supporters Mugabe said companies unhappy with the indigenisation bill were free to leave. "The minerals are ours, we are offering good partners - friendly partners - a share of 49 percent. If they won't take it, hard luck; we will give it to our people."

In another broadside against business, which is labouring under the world's highest inflation rate of more than 6,000 percent, Mugabe warned against any price increases. "We will have to seize those companies if they do not abide by laid down pricing schedules. I am warning you," Mugabe said.

Mixed messages

John Robertson, an economic consultant, said the mixed messages emanating from Mugabe and Gono made it unlikely that shop shelves would fill up any time soon.

''The President and the governor gave different statements on major policies, with the Head of State believing that threats would bring discipline to business, while the governor was critical of price controls''

"The President and the governor gave different statements on major policies, with the Head of State believing that threats would bring discipline to business, while the governor was critical of price controls. This scenario is not likely to result in shelves filling up quickly," he told IRIN.

He said the country was facing a hangover from the price controls. "Goods do not just appear on supermarket shelves; they have to be manufactured by producers and, in this case, many no longer have the capacity to resume production."

A government economist, who declined to be identified, was doubtful about any recovery in the short term. "Over the last eight years, industries have collapsed, relocated or reduced capacity. The few that were barely surviving before the price cuts were dealt severe blows and are not likely to recover," he commented.

"A visit to most supermarkets now reveals that goods on the shelves are not locally manufactured but imported from South Africa. If the shelves are to fill up, it will be with imported goods, as private players capitalise on the absence of a viable manufacturing sector," the government economist said.

Eric Bloch, an economist and Reserve Bank consultant who has no doubt that Mugabe will sign the indigenisation bill into law, allowing it to be gazetted, told IRIN the governor's prediction that the shelves would start filling up was a realistic scenario.

"The goods are slowly trickling back on the shelves, because today I asked my messenger to do some shopping and out of the 16 items on the shopping list, he managed to find 11 items, including milk, candles and laundry soap. All the commodities bought were manufactured locally."

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