HARARE, 8 February (IRIN) - Inside
TM Supermarket along Harare's Nelson Mandela Avenue, Joseph Sengu picked
up a packet of low grade beef and for a while looked hard at the price
tag. Then, shaking his head in apparent dejection, dropped it back into
the display fridge.
Moving over to another part of the shop Sengu selected some vegetables, salt and bread. But as IRIN watched, he returned to the butchery section and as if with some new found courage, he grabbed the same packet of meat he abandoned earlier and threw it into his shopping basket and ambled towards the tills.
There, Sengu closely monitored the till operator as he punched away the figures into the machine and then suddenly shouted: "Stop! Can you tell me how much everything is now minus the meat?"
Told the sub-total, Sengu visibly frustrated, reluctantly removed the packet of meat from the basket and put it aside as he indicated to the till man to close the sale. It would be the third night his family would have another supper of just sadza (maize porridge) and plain vegetables.
Outside the supermarket, Sengu told IRIN: "When I am no longer able to provide enough food for my children to me it is like I am failing as a father, it hits my ego very hard."
Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has manifested itself in an acute foreign currency scarcity, fuel and food shortages. For Sengu and many other Zimbabweans, survival has become not only a daily challenge but also an embarrassing and frustrating one.
Inflation hit 112 percent in December for the first time since independence in 1980. The government-funded consumer rights watchdog, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) told IRIN that prices of almost all commodities have in the last four years permanently moved only in one direction - upwards.
"Literally everything has gone up in the last four years. An average family of six now needs Z$23,860 (US $433 at the official rate) for its most basic needs per month," CCZ spokesman Nick Kanyemba said. In 1999, the same family required about Z$6,000 for its basic consumption per month.
Moves last October by President Robert Mugabe to arrest the spiralling cost of living by imposing price controls on basic commodities have, as was predicted by critics then, failed. Nearly all the controlled goods are now only available on the black market, and at much higher prices.
"You no longer go to the parallel market only when you need your foreign currency," independent economic analyst John Robertson told IRIN. "These days you will also have to go onto the black market for your cooking oil, soap, sugar - in fact a lot of the basic commodities, but these are often at more than double the state-sanctioned official prices."
For example, you cannot get cooking oil in the supermarkets where the government has pegged its price at Z$143 per 750 ml bottle. But Jane Mashayamombe, in Harare's Kuwadzana low-income residential area is doing a brisk business selling from her home at Z$250 per 750 ml. And likewise almost every other basic commodity is readily available on the streets of Harare, where not only a parallel market but a whole parallel economy seems to be fast emerging.
According to Kanyemba, the only way to stabilise the economy was the re-introduction of tripartite negotiations involving labour, consumers and business. Agreement on a compromise package could then ensure the viability of business, at the same time ensuring reasonable wages and fair prices of commodities, he said.
The unions, however, are at the forefront of demands for political change in Zimbabwe. Protest over the deteriorating economy in the 1990s crystallised into the formation of a broad based opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Stone carver Jacob Maromo, from the Harare's high-density suburb of Glen Norah, believes the presidential election due on 9-10 March offers Zimbabweans a chance to start all over again. Mugabe faces MDC party leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the crucial ballot, which many analysts insist he could easily lose if it was free and fair.
"What we need now is a new man with fresh ideas and above all who has not antagonised the international community whose support we need so that we could start rebuilding again," said Maromo, mopping up the sweat and dust from the black granite stone he was working on.
In October 1999, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) froze financial aid to Zimbabwe because of differences with Harare over policy and its failure to meet agreed fiscal targets. Bilateral donors and investors also steered away from the country as Mugabe's government introduced a controversial land reform programme and then cracked down on critics.
Maromo, who has a wife and two children at primary school said before Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis drove away tourists, he was making on average a handsome Z$40,000 per month from sales of his stone carvings. He told IRIN he has to budget carefully to ensure that the Z$15,000 he is now making per month is enough to last the family through the month.
Every month end he allocates Z$5,000 to cover what he euphemistically calls "contractual commitments". These are his family's rent, electricity and water bills. "Six thousand, which of course is not enough, covers our food requirements and the remaining 4,000 is reserved for the children's school fees for the next school term and also sometimes to pay back debts I might have accrued during the month," Maromo explained.
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