Cross-border traders sing the blues

Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa

JOHANNESBURG – Ephraim Takavarasha sits on the sidewalk outside Johannesburg’s central bus station, wondering how long it will take him to sell his four cases of electrical sockets, mobile-phone chargers and alarm clocks when he returns to Zimbabwe.

What was once a monthly 1 200km trip that Takavarasha (25) took from Harare to South Africa’s commercial hub, has become a visit every second month.

Cash-strapped Zimbabweans aren’t spending, deflation has taken hold, factories are being shut and the economy is heading for recession less than a year after President Robert Mugabe (90) was voted back into office to extend his 33 years of rule.

“I used to spend about $5 000 a month to make a profit of about $1 000 a month as a cross-border trader, but no one’s buying now,” Takavarasha said in an interview, as he hugged his knees against the cold night air.

“It’ll take me two months to move this,” he said, pointing to his cases.

Five years after Zimbabwe emerged from recession, ended hyperinflation by abandoning its local currency and spurred farming production, the economy is at risk of contracting again.

Foreign currency needed to pay wages and buy imports has dried up, Mugabe’s government has given investors mixed signals on plans to seize company stakes as part of its “indigenisation” policy, and factories are operating at just 40% of capacity.

“We’re already in recession and the economy will probably shrink by 1% this year,” John Robertson, an independent economist, said.

“Even if the government does act on its promise to soften indigenisation laws, it’ll take at least a year before foreign investors build factories or sink mines.”

Mugabe won a July election that his main rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, called a sham and local observers and the United States said were marred by voter irregularities.

Mugabe’s Zanu PF party won two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, ending a four-year power-sharing government with Tsvangirai’s party.

Under that coalition, the economy had begun expanding following a 40% contraction in the previous eight years. Hyperinflation, estimated by the International Monetary Fund to have peaked at 500 billion percent in 2008, came to a halt when authorities dropped the Zimbabwean dollar, ending the central bank’s ability to print money to pay the government’s debt.

Zimbabwe now uses a multi-currency system that includes the US dollar and South African rand.

The recovery spurred investment from Pick n Pay Stores Ltd, South Africa’s second-biggest grocer and Tiger Brands Ltd, the Johannesburg-based maker of food products such as Jungle Oats.

It also fueled agriculture, with tobacco output surging more than three-fold to 167 million kg in the five years through 2013 and set to reach 180 million kg this year.

Production had slumped following Mugabe’s 2000 land reform programme that saw the government seizing commercial farms owned by white landowners to give to black Zimbabweans, many of who were subsistence farmers.

That progress is now at risk. Retail sales fell 30% in February from the previous month, while 15 factories in the metals and engineering industries closed in the period, the Finance ministry said in a monthly report on its website.

Consumer prices declined for a third consecutive month in April, reflecting depressed demand.

“There’s no clear sign of a way out of the difficulties,” Thea Fourie, an analyst at IHS Inc IHS, a global business research company. “It’s pretty bad in Zimbabwe right now.”

Zimbabwe’s benchmark stock index has slumped 15% this year, the worst among 14 African stock markets tracked by Bloomberg.

Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa has said a law that forces foreign and white-owned companies to cede 51% stakes to black Zimbabweans will be eased.

The government is working on a “sector by sector” plan and won’t compel all foreign-owned companies to sell, he said on April 23.

“Although some investors might see the apparent softening of rhetoric on indigenisation as an opportunity which would provide some relief to the liquidity crisis, the minister’s announcement underlines the uncertainty of the policy environment and the high level of State intervention,” Mike Davies, an analyst with Cape-Town-based Kigoda Consulting, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Zimbabwe has the world’s second-biggest platinum and chrome reserves after South Africa and also produces gold, coal and iron ore.

The ruling Zanu PF is now considering the return of the Zimbabwe dollar to help boost liquidity, three members of the party’s decision-making body said on April 23, declining to be identified because the discussions are private.

The move will be unpopular and will only be implemented as a last resort, the people said.

For cross-border traders like Takavarasha, remaining in South Africa as an undocumented immigrant is becoming more promising than trying to sell goods in Zimbabwe.

The Johannesburg-based University of Witwatersrand estimates that as many as 1,5 million Zimbabweans, or more than a 10th of Zimbabwe’s population, live in South Africa.

“The profit is less and less and there’s no work in Zimbabwe,” he said.

“The economy is going down. Maybe it’s best to leave for a couple of years and wait and see.”

– Bloomberg