The Popular Cheap Shop, the Musina Cheap Price Shop and the Bargain Centre: the signboards in South Africa’s border town with Zimbabwe don’t mince words. Or marketing themes.
Trading on promises of cheap sales, dozens of retailers jostle for the non-stop flow of Zimbabweans in search of food and other basic goods in Musina.
”The town is booming,” said Jason Rana, chairperson of the local business chamber. ”As far as Musina is concerned, we don’t know what recession is. For us, there is no such thing.”
As the entry point to South Africa, the town’s businesses have struck gold in recent years, fuelled by cross-border trade as Zimbabwe’s economy continues its spectacular nose-dive.
”We just can’t keep up,” said Rana, whose general dealership sells everything from fridges to giant slabs of green laundry soap and tins of coffee creamer.
”One minute you have 10 000 [12,5kg] bags of maizemeal and in two days time you have nothing,” he said.
Musina has always relied on cross-border trade but the demand from shoppers has swung sharply to basic food staples as Zimbabweans face empty shelves and crippling hyper-inflation last estimated at 231-million percent, but believed to be much higher.
The World Food Programme announced last week that nearly seven million Zimbabweans — about 60% of the population — need emergency food aid, and that the shortages extend to every district in the entire country.
Waiting outside a large wholesaler here, a 30-year-old woman with a shopping list from her family said a dozen bottles of cooking oil in South Africa would cost the same as just four bottles in Zimbabwe.
”It’s just very expensive,” she said, on her third trip to the border town in less than three months.
Store owners speak of massive increases in business — up to threefold — in the wake of disputed elections last March that have left the country without an effective government for nearly a year.
Down at the border leading to the Zimbabwean town of Beitbridge, money changers at a 24-hour market and taxi rank will only accept US dollars or euros to exchange into rands.
There is no interest in the neighbouring currency — currently trading in 100 000 000 000 000 Zimbabwe dollar bills — which was once worth more than the US dollar but now devalues faster than the government can lop off zeroes.
”I don’t think there is anybody in Musina who is not busy — even the woman selling bananas or fruit outside is busy,” said Abdul Omar, owner of the Factory Shop, one of Musina’s largest wholesalers.
”In the last five years or so, everything’s changed to food because of their crisis. The situation is just getting worse and worse.”
Living so close to the border means that, despite the obvious windfalls, many in Musina have a first-hand idea of the conditions under Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe’s 29-year rule.
”It’s a see-saw,” said Rana, who has lived in Musina his entire life.
”If Zimbabwe is down, Musina is going to thrive, but I would say most of the business people would not want that the masses of the people would suffer because of one person.
”It’s a shame to see a fine country like that going down and getting ruined just because of one person’s stupidity. The worst thing is that the world is not doing anything about it.”
A few kilometres from the business hub, the sobering reality of Zimbabwe’s collapse plays out in desperate conditions in a open-air refugee camp of asylum seekers.
Crime has also risen. At the local hospital, Zimbabwe’s deadly border-jumping cholera epidemic that has killed more than 3 000 people is being treated.
But there is little doubt that Musina’s business boom will continue as Zimbabwe’s crisis deepens.
”There are about 80 stores in Musina and everyone is doing a very good share of business,” said Rana.
”If any store owner has to say he is not making it, then there is something wrong with him.”
Salvaging the country
Meanwhile, Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said on Saturday that the the world must unite behind a new unity government in Zimbabwe and help rebuild the shattered country.
”We are asking for the international community to support this agreement, support this government without equivocation and help us try to salvage our country,” Mutambara told Reuters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
”It’s not for Britain or America to judge our agreement, Your job as America or Britain is to support what we try to do,” he said.
”All the sceptics must now shut up and support what Zimbabweans want. Listen to us as Zimbabweans.”
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of MDC, announced the decision on Friday to join a government with Mugabe, ending deadlock that deepened a political and economic crisis.
Under the agreement, Tsvangirai will become prime minister, with Mugabe remaining as president.
Mutambara, who was arrested last year for criticising Mugabe’s handling of the March 2008 elections, said he will become deputy prime minister.
The United States has voiced scepticism over the deal, saying implementation is key and that aid would come only when a representative government was in place.
”This agreement is a flawed arrangement. It is imperfect. But it is the best short-term answer to provide a platform to extricate our country from its worst crisis,” Mutambara said.
Mutambara, a former student leader who is recognised as one of Africa’s most prominent scientists, said the world had a tendency to simplify the Zimbabwe crisis and see Mugabe as a ”devil”, to Tsvangirai’s ”angel”.
”There is no devil and there is no angel. There are two political parties. There are two political leaders,” he said.
”Let’s forget our political differences and think about Zimbabwe’s national interests, let’s try to work together to salvage our economy, to salvage our business,” he said.
Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, also attending the Davos meeting in Switzerland, urged world leaders on Saturday to help rebuild Zimbabwe. As he passed Mutambara in the corridor, he told him: ”Congratulations on the decision.”
Mutambara called for aid to rebuild the country, but said investment was even more important, saying he had been approached by businessmen meeting in the Swiss Alpine resort.
”There is a lot of appetite to be involved in Zimbabwe in Davos,” he said. ”People want to be involved in Zimbabwe, not for charity, but for economics.”
”Our foundation is very strong. Our fundamentals are very robust,” he said, noting that Zimbabwe was rich in natural resources, like platinum, gold and uranium, while its people were also very well educated by African standards. – AFP, Reuters