ZIMBABWE: Queuing becomes essential skill as shelves empty
bulawayo, 3 October 2005 (IRIN) - Three hours of standing in a queue for maize-meal looked like it was about to pay off when the line suddenly disintegrated amid despairing groans and some furious name-calling - the supermarket had just run out of Zimbabwe's staple food.
Shoppers in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, are rationed to 10 kg of maize-meal per person, but finding it - and indeed most other basic essentials - on the shelves is no easy matter.
To get anywhere near a bottle of cooking oil, a bag of rice, a tube of toothpaste, a carton of milk, a packet of sugar, a box of washing powder or even a bar of soap, you need a reliable rumour, an eye for a queue worth joining and, above all, patience.
This IRIN reporter had heard the night before that maize-meal was on the shelves at a local supermarket, and got there first thing in the morning. Seventy other people were already waiting, and the line looped round the aisles - a shuffling, irritated testimony to Zimbabwe's economic woes.
Conversations inevitably revolved around the current hardships - water rationing in the city, the lack of basic items, the exorbitant prices when they did become available, and President Robert Mugabe's recent response to the crisis: that people had the option of eating potatoes.
"Nowadays we eat just one meal a day, at supper," one elderly man informed anybody in the queue ready to listen. "During the day we have nothing at all and I have heard my two grandchildren joke that they had air pies for lunch. The only time we have managed at least two meals is when my son, who is in South Africa, sends us some groceries."
Three hours later, tantalisingly close to the tiny storeroom from where the maize-meal was being sold, supplies ran out. As incensed shoppers accused the supermarket staff of hoarding - "You want us to die, what kind of people are you?" yelled one young man - riot police, on the spot for just such an eventuality, stepped in and the trouble was over.
Plan B was a supermarket in the town centre, but this time only 30 people were waiting in line outside, suggesting that whatever was being sold could not be that important. It turned out to be bread rather than the maize-meal, rice or macaroni Zimbabweans look for to fill their stomaches.
Not much was available in the supermarket - even beverages were scarce because plastic bottles are in short supply - but shop attendants were busy marking up shockingly high new prices.
"It's inflation and the economy that pushes us to increase our prices. In a way we are trying to cushion ourselves against the odds, otherwise we will collapse as a business," explained one shop worker.
In the last few weeks maize-meal has shot from the equivalent of US 50 cents for 10 kg to US $2.5, and rice up from $3 for a 2 kg bag to $7 - in part as a result of the government's easing of price controls.
The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) regards the current predicament facing shoppers as the result of greed by some business people and a standoff between government and producers over input costs.
The producers say the government's prices are unrealistic, while the authorities insist they are trying to protect consumers from profiteering and blame private business for fueling the parallel market.
"Currently there is no maize-meal in shops, not because the country has totally run out of maize but because millers are no longer doing their job, the reason being that government has denied their request to effect a huge increase in producer prices," said CCZ's spokesman in Bulawayo, Comfort Muchekeza.
"As the CCZ we are also worried about the price increases, which now seem to be coming every week," he said. "Many people are not working and the majority of those who have employment earn absurd salaries that cannot sustain them."
The current food basket for a family of five costs Zim $6 million (US $230) a month, yet an average worker takes home about Zim $5 million ($192) - nowhere near enough to pay for rent, school fees and other essentials, besides buying food.
September's 130 percent fuel price hike - the second increase in three months - is set to further stoke inflation, as will a 17.5 percent Value Added Tax on certain goods and services, the CCZ warned in a statement.
Agriculture has traditionally been the engine of the economy. Between 1999 and 2003, maize production fell by over 60 percent as a result of "shortcomings" in the government's land reform programme, erratic rains and regulated producer pricing that did not reflect market prices, according to the World Bank.
Real gross domestic product has declined by 30 percent in the last five years, accompanied by triple-digit annual inflation and a crushing foreign exchange shortage.
The World Bank has cited poor economic policies and sharply reduced development aid flows among the reasons for this, while the government insists it faces sanctions by western nations over its controversial fast-track land reform programme.