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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Zimbabwe's frenzied shopping spree
Zimbabweans queuing
Zimbabwe has 80% unemployment and the world's highest inflation
A barefoot woman in Zimbabwe with a supermarket basket at her feet, toes squeezing the wires to prevent anyone grabbing it, was throwing pots of half-price moisturising cream into it as fast as she could.

Around her desperate shoppers at the Harare supermarket, with trolleys piled high, were lunging at shelves, fighting, shouting to get to products that had suddenly been cut by 50%.

"The staff had all evacuated apart from the till operators. At the back, even the storeroom doors were wide open and the place had been ransacked - there was nothing left, nothing on pallets," a bystander said.

This chaotic scene has been repeated across the capital in the last week following an order by the authorities that the prices of basic goods be halved.

It was mayhem... the riot police had to come because the tills hadn't the chance to sort out the pricing
Eyewitness

With inflation at officially more than 3,700% (some economists put it as high as 9,000%), supermarkets are unwilling to comply, so a price-control unit has been trying to enforce it with instant inspections.

On Sunday, the unit arrived at 0800 at a Bon Marche store in Harare, and gave the staff a list of goods whose prices had to be cut by 50%, including most Nestle products.

"I swear at 0830 (0730 GMT) there were droves of people running, not walking, running to the supermarket through the mall," an eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous, told the BBC News website.

"It was mayhem in there. By 1030 the riot police had to come and sort it out because the tills hadn't had the chance to sort out the pricing."

Hoarding

She described how people with packed trolleys were accusing each other of hoarding.

bread in a Zimbabwean supermarket
They don't make bread because it's a controlled price... they add a few currants or change the shape of it - then it'll be classed as fancy bread - and they can charge what they like
Harare accountant

"I'm going to report you. You should share," one person shouted.

"I will share with you, if you give me half your chicken," the other retorted.

A 25 litre drum of cooking oil was reportedly cut by the officials from 15m Zimbabwe dollars to Z$3m.

"There weren't enough trolleys so people were going to the plastic-ware section and got buckets to carry the stuff in," the eyewitness explained.

When the police arrived, they ordered everyone out of the shop, and then allowed 20 people in at a time.

"But at that stage time was ticking and the doors closed at 2pm, so there was a commotion like you wouldn't believe outside - swearing and shouting," she said.

The next morning, scared shop assistants and managers wore plain clothes to work and began the massive clear up - returning the items piled in trolleys that were abandoned when the police arrived.

However, the prices were back to normal - no bargains were to be found.

Arrests

News of the price cuts have led some people to rush into town, only to discover that the supermarkets they heard about are no longer discounting.

People walking and cycling to work (File photo)
Many workers are unable to afford to get buses to work

According to state media, at least 20 businessmen have been arrested in the ongoing crackdown.

Among them was the manager of a TM supermarket branch in Harare, detained on Sunday morning when he asked price-control officials, who had arrived at the shop, to give him an hour to re-programme the tills.

He was immediately handcuffed and taken into police custody.

An accountant in the capital told the BBC News website that sometimes inspectors force shopkeepers to cut the price of just one product.

"You'll be standing in the shop, when suddenly the price for something will go down - there'll be a mad dash, a free-for-all, and it'll all be gone within seconds," she said.

Smaller shops are suffering the most in the crackdown.

"A lot of the butchers are closing down because they've been told they've got to sell below cost," she says.

Meanwhile, buyers are reluctant to restock in case they are forced to slash prices again and this had led to some shortages.

Some people are profiteering
Harare accountant

"There're shortages of bread because now. They don't make bread because it's a controlled price. The bakeries make buns or something with a few currants in or change the shape of it - then it'll be classed as fancy bread - and they can charge what they like," the accountant said.

A Harare resident said she had been looking for eggs and milk since Thursday and another told the BBC there were rumours that goods were being moved from warehouses to residential houses to hide them from inspectors.

'Half-price war'

Petrol queues have formed again as garages are confused about what price to sell at.

A couple of fuel pumps opened on Monday night selling at Z$140,000 (just over $1 on the black market; $560 at the official rate), down from Z$200,000.

Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe has said price hikes are unjustified

One family contacted by the BBC, who was cooking supper outside over a fire because of the now daily electricity cuts, said the fuel prices had not been reflected in lower transport fares.

The "half-price war" is not limited to basic products. Mobile phone companies have also been threatened, and Econet top-up cards were nowhere to be found in Harare on Monday.

Earlier this year, President Robert Mugabe blamed "unbridled greed" for the country's economic woes.

"Some people are profiteering," agreed the accountant, "but there must be a more logical way of tackling it. Asking to see invoices and working out the profit, perhaps."

Businessmen complain that it is a full-time job trying to keep abreast of new regulations that change daily.

Because of the chronic shortage of cash, employers have been told to pay staff who earn over Z$1m a month (a subsistence wage) by cheque, which means people have to open up bank accounts.

This is proving difficult as many do not have the correct identification documents and will face bank charges that shrink their meagre earnings still further.

No cheques of Z$50m or above ($416 on the black market) are acknowledged by the banks and there are limits on the amount of cheques that can be drawn each day.

When the ATM machines work, only Z$3m ($21) can be withdrawn.

It seems beating rampant inflation will prove a long-fought battle.

This report was compiled by the BBC's Lucy Fleming from the accounts of several Harare residents.



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