As desperation meets opportunity, Zimbabwe's black market thrives

Email|Print| Text size + By Craig Timberg
Washington Post / February 29, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Karonga Chakanetsa moved through the trash-strewn streets of Zimbabwe's decaying capital with the swift, easy grace of a predator.

His prey? Soap. Cooking oil. Bread. Salt.

If Zimbabweans need it, Chakanetsa buys it and sells it. With inflation exceeding 100,000 percent, the almost daily price increases are too dizzying for most shoppers to track.

Dressed like a junior executive in an oxford shirt with an open collar, dark slacks, and brown loafers, he searched block by block, shop by shop for essential goods still selling at the government's low official prices. A small nylon rucksack crumpled in a pants pocket waited for the right bargains.

They don't last long. Once a bottle of cooking oil or a bar of soap hits the streets, black marketers can make nearly twice what they paid. Such tactics allow some Zimbabweans to survive, or even thrive, in a nation where 80 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty line.

"People don't buy clothes these days," said Chakanetsa, 39, with the knowing tone of a businessman who understands his market.

After cruising through a warehouse-style shop with high ceilings and long shelves, he walked right out, his rucksack still tucked away.

"Big store," Chakanetsa said dismissively, "but there's no basic commodities."

President Robert Mugabe often blames illegal traders for Zimbabwe's troubles, saying their frantic buying and selling have pushed up prices. But since Mugabe imposed price controls in June, the black market has thrived and many traditional stores have gone out of business.

Customers such as Annamore Mukwena, 34, have suffered.

"There's no mealie meal in the stores," she said, referring to the finely ground cornmeal used to make sadza, the porridge that is Zimbabwe's staple food.

The smallest bag costs 12 million Zimbabwean dollars on the black market, more than her weekly earnings, said Mukwena, a widow who is raising her two children on her meager earnings from selling snacks on a street corner.

The economy began its free fall when landless black peasants invaded white-owned farms in 2000 with the support of Mugabe, who said the redistribution would undo colonial inequities. The often violent process decimated the country's most crucial industry and biggest earner of foreign exchange, triggering hyperinflation.

As Chakanetsa moves through the city, downtown Harare's most established retailers look as if a cyclone blew through, sucking out the inventory, leaving mostly empty shelves and bare clothing racks. Yet the most crucial goods can be had, for the right price, on the black market.

The leather shoes impossible to find in shops are plentiful at the Mbare market, an outdoor bazaar. The fuel that often runs out at pumps can be bought from young men lingering near most gas stations. The vegetables missing from grocery shelves are offered at black-market rates in the shop's own parking lot.

Trader Atson Karwenya, 31, said store managers phone him when they expect the arrival of basic goods and offer to divert them for the right price. Chakanetsa's mornings begin with long, expensive bus rides from the hardscrabble slum of Epworth to Harare's lush northern suburbs, where gardeners sell gasoline siphoned from their employers' cars.

On this day, Chakanetsa had an order to fill: A customer had requested a large bottle of cooking oil and a stick of all-purpose green soap.

Two days ago, soap was going for 7 million Zimbabwean dollars. But at the first shop on this day, it was 11.9 million, at the second 12.8 million.

Chakanetsa stepped into a small, dark shop that reeked of curry. On a shelf behind a lone clerk, a bar of green soap was priced at 8.5 million Zimbabwean dollars. And a bottle of cooking oil was marked 38 million, a bit more than at a busier shop but cheap enough to make a profit.

Chakanetsa handed over several grungy 10-million-dollar bills and slipped the loot into his rucksack. Order filled.

"Everybody is hungry," he said. "If you're not working, you will die."

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