The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday News Reporter
THERE was drama around Tredgold Building, which houses the Bulawayo Magistrate Courts yesterday, as illegal money changers ran away at the sight of the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Professor Mthuli Ncube, who promised a crackdown on big businesses conniving with the foreign currency traders as well as retailers who unjustifiably raise prices of basic goods.
He accused them of delighting at the misery of the majority and urged a return to ethical business practices. Prof Ncube caught the money changers, popularly known as osiphatheleni, and managers of some of the city’s biggest retail outlets, napping when he had an impromptu tour around Bulawayo’s Central Business District, interacting with consumers who expressed their dismay at the rising cost of living and pleaded for Government intervention.
During the tour, Prof Ncube impressed upon several managers he interacted with that the Government would consider withdrawing the operating licences of some operators for remaining adamant to Government’s call to observe ethical business practices.
Prof Ncube began his unannounced tour with a visit to fast-food outlets where some people have alleged that cashiers claimed that Point of Sale machines are always down when consumers attempt to make purchases in local currency. While the machines were said to be down when enquiries were first made, they seemed to find their “network” as Prof Ncube made further enquiries.
At some major supermarkets, Prof Ncube expressed his dismay when he was told that the price of some basic commodities like mealie-meal had doubled in the last week or so. Prof Ncube also noted that prices in local currency were far higher, as retailers deliberately tried to push consumers into using foreign currency to buy some goods.
He also noted that some retailers were only stocking basic commodities in smaller quantities, with sugar only available in packages of 1kg while they no longer put the prices of some goods on the shelf, as required by law.
One customer at a local supermarket, Ms Christina Chibaya, said at some shops, they were restricted on the number of goods they could buy using local currency.
“You come in today, note down the price, then you come in tomorrow and find that the price of that same thing has doubled. When all of this is happening, some of us will be wondering where the Government is because we expect them to step in and protect us. In some shops, for example, I was told that if I want to buy sugar, using swipe, I can only get two packs.
If I want more than that, then I have to use US dollars. In other shops, there are some items that we are told can only be sold exclusively in foreign currency and they won’t allow us to use our bank cards. Where do they expect us to get that money?” Ms Chibaya said.
A pensioner, Mr Esau Dube, said the cost of living was particularly biting for the elderly.
“We are struggling and this is especially true for old men like me. The prices are rising every day and we wonder where we are supposed to get money to keep up. We retired a long time back and we are now just sitting at home so we are finding it hard to keep up,” he said.
At a supermarket located on Fort Street, an incensed Prof Ncube took matters into his own hands, tearing down a sign that advertised goods in US dollars only. Addressing a manager at the outlet, Prof Ncube said he might soon have to address captains of industry on the situation prevailing in shops.
“We want to send a message to your bosses; I have not spoken to them but I may yet have to.
We are saying that they must stop these price hikes which are totally unjustifiable. I am saying this because the next time we ask you to close and withdraw your licence, you will be out of a job and so will a lot of other people. Then the Government will be blamed for shutting down business when this is only way because their behaviour is not proper.
Have you heard of the word, schadenfreude? It is a German word that means taking delight from the misery of others. In English they call it epicaricacy.
That is what you’re practicing. It is not good. We are also hearing from the street traders, I am coming from there, that it is the shops that are the supply chain for their money. Is that correct? This is not good,” he said.
At Tredgold, osiphatheleni ran away from Prof Ncube, with the few that were willing to interact with him blaming retailers for the rising cost of living. In recent months, illegal forex dealers have resorted to using POS machines for transactions involving large sums of money.
In an interview after his tour, Prof Ncube said the Government would soon crack down on businesses that were working hand-in-glove with osiphatheleni.
“I went to the so-called World Bank, the people who sell currency on the streets in Bulawayo and I told them what they do is unjustifiable. Selling currency in the street, freely without shame, where do they get this money from? They have brand new notes and this is unacceptable.
We want to send a strong message as the Government that, firstly, we are not happy with these price increases and secondly, we are not happy with these movements that we are seeing on the parallel market. We are taking action on it.
I saw swipe machines on the street and these people are running businesses from their cars, changing currency. Clearly, they are working with organised businesses and this is why we have to come down hard not only on these currency traders but also on organised businesses who are doing the wrong things,” he said.
Prof Ncube said Government had pinpointed middle-men between producers and retailers as some of the culprits fuelling price increases and black-market activity. So far, he said Government had identified six who would soon be blacklisted, with their bank accounts already frozen.
“As Government, we are not going to tolerate this kind of behaviour, where shops are refusing domestic currency and only accepting US dollars. You saw me, and I said that both of us (with shop manager) should take down that sign that says ‘US dollars only.’ We don’t accept that as the Government.
Both currencies should be equally accepted but there’s just a wanton increase of prices, for no reason because nothing changed between this week and last week. It’s totally unacceptable and unjustifiable and as Government we are forced to allow citizens to import anything in terms of basic commodities which is what we did when we opened up the borders.
“Then the big shops will complain and say we are informalising the economy yet it is them that are pushing up the prices. We have also just discovered that the middlemen between the producers and the retailers, the so-called aggregators, are also part of the problem.
We have decided that on Monday we are going to fine and blacklist six of them. I won’t mention their names but I have got the list and we want them to stop behaving badly. Any shop that will be behaving in that manner will have their licence withdrawn,” he said.