Sithabile Khuzwayo is one of many women who bring groceries and clothing from across the borders of neighbouring Botswana and South Africa to sell at the flourishing flea markets of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo.
She said the hostility of Botswana’s locals to Zimbabwean traders has made buying wares in Botswana risky. ”Before the problems began in Zimbabwe, we could move around without attracting any trouble, but now we have become targets. Some traders are mugged and their goods taken by the Batswana.”
The 30-year-old Khuzwayo complains that ”the exchange rates are so volatile it has become difficult to price my wares to, at least, show a bit of profit”.
The city’s markets have become centres of trade and finance where cross-border traders sell their wares and also source foreign exchange. For many residents struggling in a harsh economic environment amid growing shortages of basic commodities, cross-border traders have become the only suppliers of food.
Apart from groceries, cheap clothing from Botswana is the other essential product being sold in Bulawayo’s flea markets.
The dire economic circumstances have attracted thousands of women to informal trade in Bulawayo, a city of more than two-million people. Recently even professionals such as teachers and nurses have joined in to survive.
The scarcity of foreign currency in Zimbabwe has meant that these small enterprises operate below capacity. It has forced cross-border traders to turn to the thriving illegal parallel market.
At the Plumtree border post, where thousands of Zimbabweans cross into Botswana each week, traders say it is becoming increasingly difficult to move goods. Groceries are now in short supply after a government decree forced retailers to slash prices by half. This has left supermarket shelves empty.
There was panic last month when the Zanu-PF government announced it was banning the importation of groceries from neighbouring countries as part of its price blitz against retailers. Without explanation, the government accused traders of fuelling the shortages of scarce basic commodities.
The authorities reversed the directive after a public outcry. The selling of commodities such as cooking oil, maize meal, shoes and clothing from Botswana in the streets of Bulawayo shows that informal cross-border trade continues despite the hardships faced by the thousands of women who have found a lifeline in this sector.
Traders point to the high import tariffs charged by Zimbabwean customs as one of the reasons for bringing limited volumes of goods into the country.
Zimbabwe and Botswana have signed a bilateral agreement on the avoidance of double taxation as part of what Zimbabwe sees as a move to bolster trade across the borders. However, Zimbabwean authorities are still making life difficult for small-scale cross-border traders.