Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Empathy in Zim
As a lot of us are heading off on holidays during this period, I though it poignant to reflect on what's currently going on in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's latest reign of terror in the form of these squads shutting down businesses that don't slash prices (mostly below cost prices) is having a devastating effect on a failed economy. It's phenomenal that things can actually get worse there. Cathy Buckle, author of "African Tears", gives this letter on the situation on the ground:
Dear Family and Friends,

Zimbabwe has been engulfed in a macabre and tragic frenzy this week and frankly, it beggars belief. Across the country what has been called a "Taskforce" has been unleashed by the government to force shop owners and businesses to cut their prices by 50%. The price cut enforcers are army men in camouflage clothes, police in uniform and large numbers of youth militia. They go from shop to shop and simply pick on items they want reduced:

Slash that price, is the phrase we are hearing again and again and then products have to be sold for less than they were purchased for. Shop owners who refuse to cut the prices face arrest and having their goods seized. Some have been assaulted, others had their premises trashed and windows smashed.

The result of it all, inevitably, is rapid collapse and many goods and foods have now become completely unavailable including all the staples which were already difficult to find such as flour, oil, sugar, salt and maize meal. Joining the list now are most other normal household products in daily use such as soap, candles, matches, milk, eggs, margarine, rice, bread and the list grows longer by the hour and day. As the prices are ordered down hordes of people with bagfuls of money swarm behind and buy up all the stocks. Shops are displaying signs announcing that only one of each item may be purchased but entire gangs are moving around in dozens and just cleaning everything out.

This week in my home town, all types of meat have become completely unavailable as butchers were ordered to sell for less than half the price they had paid to abattoirs. One supermarket in the centre of the town was empty of all goods by mid week, another two were not far behind - both saying they expected to be out of business in the next few days - a week at most. In both of these outlets there were aisle after aisle of completely empty shelves. It was heartbreaking to see pensioners and desperately poor people looking for bargains but finding none and then looking for basics and finding none of those either.

Outside a major wholesaler, groups of young men stood around waiting for the "militia taskforce" to arrive so that they could buy up everything as the prices were slashed. The car park was nearly full of luxury vehicles - pajero's, twin cabs, SUVs. even a Lexus - all filled with men talking incessantly on cellphones and women in tight jeans and artificial hair - their vehicles already bulging with “slashed price” goods, many pulling trailers also stuffed to overflowing.

I went to one almost empty supermarket and stopped near a young policeman in a pick up truck without number plates that was loaded to the hilt with “slashed price” goods. It was a bitterly cold morning and a barefoot and slightly retarded man was sitting on the tar shaking and shivering with cold. He stretched his hands up to the policeman and said: "Chingwa" (Bread). The policeman ignored him and turned away, calling out cheerfully to another young policeman, also in uniform, who was staggering out with more booty. Again the shivering and barefoot man asked for bread but they both ignored him. I could not stop tears filling my eyes and although I had virtually nothing left I bent down and folded a note into his hand; he clapped his hands in thanks and as I stood up I caught the eye of the young policeman. There was no compassion or empathy there, just arrogance. For a moment I remembered how it felt after the farmers and their workers had been thrown off and someone had helped me when I was utterly desperate. He had said to me: There but for the grace of God go I.

Now there are so many more in that place of need.

All week as the situation has deteriorated people have been comparing what is happening now to shops and businesses with what happened to farms. A huge crisis seems just a few days or perhaps a couple of weeks away, as stocks dwindle, warehouses empty and we simply run out of food. As I write this letter the government are continuing to applaud the price cuts and say they will take over the businesses that close down.

*Cathy Buckle is author of "African Tears" and "Beyond Tears". Her website is

Let's be thankful for what we have in this country, even with its challenges...