BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Despite the blazing sun, it seems as if the whole of this city’s population is here, at the Egodini Public Transport Terminal. There are taxis and buses, but many people are here to shop. The scent of vegetables, crushed on the ground beneath people’s feet, is rich in the air. People haggle over produce, chicken, skin bleaching cream, cellphone services, hair extensions and more.
This bustling market is a new way of life for Zimbabweans, who now rely on informal businesses, including market stalls, more so than brand-name and formal stores. It’s a coping strategy to survive a severe economic crisis that seems to worsen each day.
High unemployment rates and the country’s new restrictions on imported goods have made it increasingly difficult to acquire basic commodities.
The tightened restrictions, which went into effect in June, aren’t intended to ban the products, but to “regulate” them, according to a press statement released then by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.
The new law, known as SI64, applies to dairy products, clothes, washing powder, furniture, hair products, building materials and more.
Officials who approved the restrictions mean to ensure that cash circulates in the country. The crippling cash shortage has forced the government to convert all currency in banks to bond notes — government-distributed notes that are used as cash alternatives.
Government officials, including Minister of Industry and Commerce Michael Bimha, have expressed concern over the increase in smuggling, but local people say those contraband goods are the only ones they can afford. They say the new restrictions amount to an all-out ban on imported goods.
The cash shortage and unemployment make it impossible for Zimbabweans to buy local goods, says Samukele Hadebe, director at the Centre for Public Engagement, a think tank that promotes democracy.
“The current economic environment in the country compels those who can to cross the border and buy cheaper products from outside,” he says. “Buying stuff from Zimbabwe is very expensive, as the prices are hiked to cover transport costs; naturally people would go out of the country to buy what they can afford, because very few people have disposable income.”
The restrictions have sparked serious frustration among people who are struggling to make ends meet. In July, people set fire to a warehouse in Beitbridge, a town at Zimbabwe’s border with South Africa, that stored confiscated, imported goods.
“They say they are banning us from importing these items into the country, but what will happen to our families?” says Sukoluhle Ncube, 31, one of the stall owners at the Egodini terminal. “I have been doing cross-border trading for 12 years and have been making enough to pay my landlord and send my two children to school.”
Akim Nsikane, 53, questions whether the ban will encourage crime.
“The ban works on paper, but practically it will not work, because people will always find a way to bring the goods, which is why cases of smuggling and corruption are rampant,” he says.
Talent Gumpo, GPJ Zimbabwe
But some say the ban is necessary to bring industry back to Zimbabwe.
Mqhelisi Ndlovu, a 24-year-old shoemaker, hopes it will encourage people to buy his shoes.
“The instrument is a necessary evil, because people rush to buy the imported stuff, and our hard work goes down the drain,” he says. “We also want to grow our businesses, but people rush to the flea markets to buy cheap products. So the instrument is a good move by the government.”
Yona Phiri, 32, a mobile phone salesperson, agrees, but doubts that the ban will be effective.
“If that door is closed and we can still get the same product here at the same, normal price, then that’s all right because our industry will grow,” he says. “But I doubt that the ban will be successful, because people still bring in the goods, they smuggle them into the country, and in any case the ban has heightened the level of corruption, because importers pay bribes and cross with the prohibited goods.”
Hadebe, the public policy expert, says the import ban should have been implemented gradually.
“Every country wants to promote the local industry, and that is very noble,” he says. “But the question is, is this the best way to do it at this particular time? What about other factors that include corruption, the ease of doing business and the effects of imposing such a policy? Because those are also crucial in promoting local industry.”
Talent Gumpo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Ndebele.