Beer Shortage Highlights Decline

Harare residents say absence of commodity that's hardly ever in short supply is clear sign of how bad things have become.

Beer Shortage Highlights Decline

Harare residents say absence of commodity that's hardly ever in short supply is clear sign of how bad things have become.

A long queue starts forming next to a truck, which has just driven into a shopping centre in Kambuzuma, a poor suburb eight kilometres west of Harare. For a few minutes, there is pandemonium, as people rush to join the queue.

The shoppers soon find out that instead of sugar, cooking oil, bread, beef, margarine, the truck was carrying 15 cases of beer, which like the other sought after commodities, is now only available on the black market for exorbitant prices.

“I regard the shortage of beer as the most obvious sign of a very serious malaise,” said a local teacher. “Especially, as it comes during the important Heroes’ Day holiday (held on August 11 to commemorate those who died during the liberation struggle from Britain from which it gained independence 27 years ago) when President Robert Mugabe traditionally tells the nation the success his government would have scored in the previous 12 months.”

The teacher said he did not remember there ever being a shortage of beer in Zimbabwe and that this was a sign that things had gone desperately wrong in the country.

“Beer is the about the biggest source of revenue for government and Zimbabwe is generally a nation of drinkers, so there is bound to be a great deal of anger. Through the ongoing blitz on prices, the government has not only shot itself in the foot in terms of revenue generation, but the blitz has also begun to hit where it hurts most - employment.”

At the end of June, President Mugabe’s government orderered prices of basic commodities to be slashed by 50 per cent to counter soaring inflation, which has been running at 7,500 per cent.

Several senior company executives - many from companies based outside Zimbabwe - have been arrested since the cuts and have spent nights in filthy police cells for failing to comply with the government directive to reduce their prices.

The resulting shortages of goods have meant many companies have been forced to close or have had to let up to half of their workers go, citing lack of business.

One employee who was recently been laid off at TM Supermarket, one of the biggest supermarket chains, said he felt helpless and did not know how he was going to fend for his family after his company was forced to retrench following the shortages and price cuts.

“I was told two weeks ago that I should no longer report for work. It is not really the company’s fault. We have been spending days doing absolutely nothing. The butcher is not operational, the take-away section is barely functioning and the shelves are empty of beverages, such as beer and soft drinks,” said the man.

He has three school-aged children and, together with his brother, also looks after their elderly parents and four orphaned nieces and nephews.

“How am I going to feed my kids and my parents? To me, this whole price slash was a curse,” he said.

With food in such short supply, most people are turning to street-side vendors, but they are now the victims of a police blitz. Those caught selling their wares are forced to spend the night in police cells and pay a heavy fine before being released.

June Benza, who sells vegetables in the central business district, was arrested with other vendors. She was detained by municipal police for six to seven hours before being taken to Harare Central police station.

“We thought it was a simple procedure where we would just pay our fines. We were shocked when we were hurled into filthy and crowded police cells. We were put into the same cells as hard-core criminals [and] released the next morning.”

Mugabe reiterated during his address on Heroes’ Day that there would be no going back on the price war, which has worsened the plight of so many, and has poorer people flocking in their thousands into neighbouring countries each day to seek food.

With most bottle stores closed down, and supermarket shelves empty, beer, like many basics, has found its way onto the black market at exorbitant prices.

A quart, or 750ml, of lager beer costs 60,000 Zimbabwe dollars, ZWD, (4 US dollars) at retail outlets, but is now going for a minimum 200,000 ZWD on the parallel market.

Delta Corporation, the country’s biggest beverage producer, says the shortage of beer and other beverages is a result of overwhelming customer demand, as well as diminished production as a result of water shortages.

Delta spokesman George Mutendadzamera told the official Herald newspaper that the demand for beer had increased dramatically since the manufacturer resorted to the June 18 prices ordered by the government.

“Average sales are rising fast and approaching 300,000 litres per day. This level of lager beer consumption in the month of July is approximately 50 per cent up on the similar period last year,” he said.

Mutendadzamera said Delta was only able to service 60 per cent of its orders due to a variety of factors, “Our plants are experiencing erratic water supplies, thus adversely affecting production. We’re a big user of water, hence any shortage of this ingredient impacts our ability to produce consistently.”

While some Kambuzuma residents were disappointed at finding the truck was not delivering foodstuffs, others were ecstatic to get their hands the beer, which has virtually disappeared in the last few weeks.

For an hour, the Kambuzuma residents who managed to grab a few quarts were happy that at least their Heroes’ Day holiday was a bit livelier.

Remsy Kadungure, a resident of Kambuzuma who was queuing to buy beer, told IWPR, “Such things only happen in Zimbabwe. We can’t even relax on a holiday and enjoy our favourite beer. I never thought it would come to this in Zimbabwe, where we now have to rely on the black market for beer.”

“Everything has become abnormal in this country but the funny thing is that we have accepted…the.. situation. People are burning millions of dollars worth of scarce fuel driving around looking for beers. We are drinking anything that is available. You tell me, what is normal about that? To me, this shortage of beers is just a sign that everything around us is crumbling.

“Everything is in short supply. In most suburbs people have to wake up at 2am to fill up buckets with water before they are cut off at 3am. Some people have to wake up in the middle of the night to iron their clothes because of power cuts. If this is not a collapsing country – I just don’t know what is.”

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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