By Tarik de Vries
‘Malaicha’ delivery services in Zimbabwe are the unofficial couriers importing goods from South Africa and elsewhere for a fee, and bribing the police and immigration officials they meet on their way. They are – for those who can afford their service – a way around the import ban the Zimbabwean government placed on basic products, ranging from foods to furniture, last year June.
After the ban passed into law as Statutory Instrument 64, traders in the border-town of Beitbridge rightly protested against its meddling with their informal cross-border trade. Trade routes with towns such as Musina in South Africa, Lusaka in Zambia, or Beira in Mozambique, sustain the informal economy that now provides an income to otherwise jobless Zimbabweans, since expropriation and indigenization policies led to capital flight and an erosion of the formal economy since the mid-2000s.
The Zimbabwean economy remains in a state of deflation, while the import ban is only useful in suppressing the informal economy
The protesters in Beitbridge thus stood up for their livelihoods, and police arrested 71 of them for the violence that ensued. Notably, 17 showed up in court later to be represented by human rights lawyers Reason Mutimba and Patrick Tererai, who secured their acquittal.
Despite these protests, President Robert Mugabe defended the ban in August for its effort to protect Zimbabwean producers from cheaper South African products.
Indeed, now the rand has weakened, importing South African products has become cheaper, and since US dollars are coveted in the region, Zimbabwe has become a “fishing pond” for these. Partly for this reason, businesses in Musina are disgruntled to see Zimbabwean clients withhold buying goods their families in Zimbabwe either survived on or reaped money from through re-sale.
But the Zimbabwean producers Mugabe says the ban aims “to protect” can hardly make up for the products now restricted. High production costs, along with liquidity challenges and a lack of beneficiation have left Zimbabwean businesses unable to bridge the trade gap with South Africa, which amounts to around $3 billion per annum. Without stimulus measures to increase production of these businesses, the Zimbabwean economy remains in a state of deflation, while the import ban is only useful in suppressing the informal economy.
And as some 300 companies close their doors each month whilst new indigenization policies scare away investors, the government continues to lose more sources of revenue to fix structural issues with. Total revenue declined from $4.3 billion in 2013 to $3.4 billion in 2016, when the monthly deficit averaged to $120 million. Of the revenue collected, 97% went to paying for civil servants’ wages, and for 2017, Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa has proposed this amount to stay the same, making capital projects and social services difficult to realize.
Meanwhile, Mugabe spent around $6 million on his latest vacation to Singapore, taking his family and a team of bodyguards along. In total, the Office of the President and Cabinet spent around $35 million on travels last year, providing no real help to any other Zimbabweans aside from the 92-year old dictator himself. Perhaps this year, such expenditures will come to an end, but the economic and political woes in Zimbabwe will continue until solutions less empty than an import ban come to fruition.