ZIMBABWE: All stocked up for the polls

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Murambiwa Manyika’s house, in the upper-class suburb of Belvedere in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, could easily be mistaken for a well-stocked supermarket.

His garage and two spare bedrooms in the house are stacked from the floor to the ceiling with just about every essential commodity, in sharp contrast to the bare shop shelves in supermarkets across the city.

Manyika is a successful professional hoarder. He gave up his job as a poorly-paid civil servant four years ago to invest in the parallel market. "I started by selling commodities like sugar, rice and maize-meal at very competitive rates because they were no longer available in the shops, and in addition to other transactions which I was doing, I managed to buy this house."

Pockets of the scarce staple, maize meal, are squeezed in with packs of sugar, salt, rice, cartons of milk, soft drinks, cooking oil, beer and dry rations such as beans and soya chunks in the two bedrooms. Non-food items such as soaps, detergents, toothpaste, candles and safety matches have been stored in the garage. Manyika’s lounge has two solar powered freezers stocked with fish and goat meat.

Manyika hopes to cash in on any possible instability after the 29 March elections. The polls are crucial to Zimbabweans, as the dysfunctional economy has left them with an inflation rate of around 100,000 percent and widespread food shortages.

President Robert Mugabe, the veteran nationalist leader, is looking for another re-election after 28 years of rule. The opposition, movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has condemned the electoral process as flawed.

Risk and rewards

Hoarding is illegal in Zimbabwe and if caught Manyika could find himself behind bars. Last week three men were arrested in another upmarket suburb in Harare for having stockpiled sugar.

Undeterred many other Zimbabweans plan to turn adversity to their advantage. Britta Nleya, a public relations officer with a local company told IRIN that she and her friends intended to go on a shopping expedition to a neighbouring country ahead of the elections.

"Initially, we wanted to go to South Africa, but some of my friends are failing to get visas so we might end up driving to Botswana or Zambia so that we can buy enough supplies for at least one month," she said. "We are not going to buy anything fancy, but basics such as soap, cooking oil, candles, sugar, tea leaves, salt, matches, powdered milk, potatoes, eggs, juices, potatoes and coal for cooking."

Vendors who sell firewood and containers used to store water have also reported brisk business. Daily power and water cuts have forced residents to store water in all kinds of containers; firewood is a necessity for the majority of homes that cannot afford generators.

Some Zimbabweans told IRIN they plan to withdraw their savings from the banks and keep the cash at home. A customer at one international bank explained, "If I keep some money at home, then I know I will be able to buy supplies in the event of instability."

Across the border for a "short holiday"

While others are planning to stock up, Tapiwa Chimombe, a sales executive with an electrical appliances company, told IRIN that he and his two brothers and a sister intended to take their families across the border for "a short holiday".

"There is a lot at stake in these elections," he explained. "Mugabe is facing an open rebellion from within his party ZANU-PF and if he wins, then there could be massive retribution which could spill over to ordinary people. On the other hand, the opposition MDC is taking advantage of unusually high figures of inflation, unemployment, poverty and hunger.

"This means there will be a lot of emotion around the outcome of the poll," said Chimombe.

There are others who want a passport in hand, just in case. Long queues of people desperate to get travel documents can be found outside the Registrar-General's office. Last week, among those in the winding queue was Vimbai Sithole, a qualified nurse.

"For me, if the government is retained, it might mean another five years of economic decline and I don’t want to experience that," she said. "If the opposition wins, I think it will be a while before the situation normalises and I want to avoid that. If there is instability after the elections, then I will use my passport to go to any destination where my skills will be required."

Source: IRIN