Zimbabwe's shops full, but only for the rich

HARARE – Zimbabwe's once-deserted supermarkets are full again, after the country reined in its world-record hyperinflation. But there's no wait at the tills – most people simply can't afford to buy anything.

"It a luxury for those who have money to buy," said Marian Chituku, a 36-year-old mother of three, holding a loaf of bread as she walked out of a supermarket in the working-class suburb of Chitungwiza, outside the capital.

"The shops are full, but to us there is no difference because we cannot afford the goods. They are as good as non-existent. We only see them on the shelves."

Chituku said her family has tea – without milk – in the late morning, skips lunch and then eat dinner as their only meal in order to stretch her income from a vegetable stall in the township.

But in Harare’s leafy suburbs, supermarkets are a shopper’s paradise for the select few deciding between imported haddock fillets or full-shell mussels.

"You can get everything you want here," Josephine Marucchi, a housewife from the posh suburb of Mount Pleasant, said pausing to choose from the various brands of cheese before completing the sentence: "as long as you have money.

"It’s completely different from last year when people had money and the shops were empty," she added.

The centre of the shop looked like a gym, stocked with modern exercise gadgets, where an assistant explained to a customer how to operate a treadmill.

Last year supermarkets across Zimbabwe resembled empty sheds as local manufacturers either pulled down the shutters or operated at less than half their capacity because of hyperinflation, which rendered the local currency unusable.

The shortages were exacerbated after the government launched a blitz ordering businesses to slash prices, with long-ruling President Robert Mugabe accusing some businesses of colluding with his western foes to try to topple him.

Things improved after Mugabe and his one-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai formed a unity government in February. The local currency has been abandoned and import restrictions lifted, which has erased the hyperinflation estimated in multiples of billions last year.

Now prices, all in US dollars or South African rands, are actually declining, but more than half the population still depends on international food aid.

"The major challenge is affordability," Harare-based economist Prosper Chatambara told AFP.

"The majority of workers are earning $100 (Dh367) a month, and yet the poverty datum line is put conservatively at $437, so there is a deficit of nearly $350.

"Most families have to reprioritise their needs. In most cases basic have become luxuries."

Zimbabwe’s biggest employer is the government, which is paying workers only $100 a month while it tries to win international support for its plan to revive the economy and the civil service, including schools and hospitals.

Until the government finds a way of increasing wages, the gap between rich and poor is unlikely to change. The painfully obvious disparities have become a fact of life, seeping even into local music.

"Some die from over-eating," goes a hit song by Chiwoniso Mararire. "Others die of hunger."