Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Puts Out the Barbecues

Meat and alcohol shortages, caused by ill-judged economic policies, end moneyed Hararians’ weekend binges.
By Meshack Ndodana
Weekend life for the capital’s rich is drearier these days, as they’re forced to give up on their marathon barbecues.

Prior to a June government directive to businesses to slash prices, which effectively closed butcheries, barbecue sites such as KwaMereki and KwaZiko would be roaring with life, almost round the clock at weekends.

But meat and beer shortages have left Harare a much quieter place, with the rowdy barbecues now a thing of the recent past.

The people who flocked to these weekend binges were the newly-rich urbanites, who’ve emerged in spite of the country’s ten-year economic decline.

They included young business people who have benefited from the black economic empowerment programme that saw the launch of more than a dozen black-owned financial institutions such as banks and bureaux de change.

Some were young politicians in the ruling ZANU-PF party, and their hangers-on, who do not have to queue for government largesse. They have launched shelf companies through which they get government tenders as part of President Robert Mugabe’s politics of patronage.

But the majority were what are referred to as “dealers”, who trade in anything from fuel to foreign currency. They live well from their black market activities, as the swish cars they drive and the designer clothes they wear testify.

Close to the barbecue locations on the outskirts of the city centre are bottle stores that usually sell ice-cold beer and butcheries, retailing all cuts of beef, pork and chicken. But now the shelves in these stores are empty.

Albert Musara, who runs a small butchery and a bottle store at a popular barbeque spot, says he is devastated, “I was forced to sell all my meat at a loss. Now I can’t restock. My butchery and bottle store complemented each other. The more meat I sold for the braais, the more beer was bought too. Now I have shut my shop and my family has no source of livelihood.”

Barbecues would begin on Friday after work and continue into the early hours of Saturday morning. Later in the morning, the men would play or watch “boozers’ football” to “shake them beer-bellies”.

Around mid-morning, the mobiles would begin to ring, signalling that girlfriends, popularly referred to as “small-houses” or “spices”, had finished their morning chores and were ready to join their menfolk.

The cars would begin roaring to life to pick up the dates and the barbecuing would continue until the wee hours of Sunday.

But well-off Hararians’ good times are no more. On June 26, the government launched Operation Reduce Prices whereby wholesalers and retailers were ordered to slash the prices of goods by as much as half. The directive turned out to be tsunami-like in the scale of its devastation. The business sector is being destroyed. Most firms are only operating because owners fear Mugabe might nationalise their companies as he has threatened to do. Many people have lost their jobs.

The blunder that the Mugabe government made in carrying out the price blitz was to begin at the top. The authorities forced retailers at the apex of the food supply pyramid to slash their prices, literally driving them out of business. Butchers were among those worst hit.

The government then went downwards to the private abattoirs, who responded by refusing to slaughter cattle and supply meat at a loss. As a result, they had their licenses withdrawn and the moribund state-owned Cold Storage Company, which owns no cattle, was vested with the sole responsibility of meat provision.

The government then descended on cattle producers, commercial and subsistence, and tried to force them to sell their beasts a knock-down prices. They refused and now the shops are empty.

Operation Reduce Prices has dramatically changed the lifestyles of almost everyone but the change has been most painful for the ordinary people.

“There is nothing in the shops,” said Anita Moyo, a housewife in Harare’s medium-income suburb of Parktown. “There is nothing on the black market either. There is nothing more painful than for a housewife to fail to prepare meals for the family. My family does not remember when there was last meat on the table.”

Zimbabweans are now increasingly depending on commodities imported by cross-border traders who buy the basic foodstuffs - meat is not among them - from neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana.

Cross-border trading is a big industry, providing income for thousands of jobless people. Unemployment in Zimbabwe is estimated at over 80 per cent.

That figure is partly due to Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish), launched by the government in May 2005 to destroy, military-style, the homes of the urban poor. UN Habitat estimates Operation Murambtsvina left 700,000 people without homes and two million without the source of their livelihoods. Since then, the jobless ranks have been swollen by former civil servants, especially teachers, who have quit their jobs because of low wages to become cross-border traders.

But this industry is also in danger as the government tries to suppress it. Last month, it announced and then withdrew a directive which would have given the minister of industry and international trade powers to control the importation and export of certain goods, including essential groceries.

Although the measure was withdrawn, there is no guarantee it will not be re-introduced. There is widespread suspicion that government wants to control the supply and distribution of foodstuffs as a political tool to whip opposition supporters into line.

Trader Maureen Chihota castigated the government over the directive, “I know the withdrawal is temporary. This government will stop at nothing to make people, especially urbanites, suffer. This is my livelihood. How do they expect us to survive?

“It is not only our livelihood but also a lot of people have been depending on us to close the gap left by the price blitz. When was the last time shops received sugar and cooking oil? Where do they think people are getting those products? Government has been squeezing us and squeezing us until there will be nothing to squeeze anymore.”

Meshack Ndodana is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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