Spirit of Ubuntu, in big and little things…

That gut wrenching moment when you are in the supermarket, and an announcement is made that there is a car on fire outside in the parking lot. All motorists drop shopping baskets and gush out. The relief of finding that its not your car mingles with pity and empathy for the shocked owner of the vehicle thats burning. Some motorists quickly move their vehicles away from the ticking time bomb. You stand there transfixed, at the same time in awe of selfless human beings that risk limb and life itself, trying to put out a fire that threatens to engulf the vehicle of a total stranger. Subconsciously, you find yourself harking back at the time when government made it compulsory for all motorists to carry fire extinguishers in their vehicles, and most of us cursed like hell. To think that that one small fire extinguisher may actually not be enough when it comes to it…

Yesterday I witnessed the staff at Montagu Spar in Harare battle to put out fire from a vehicle parked in their lot. They brought out all the supermarket’s fire extinguishers. They did all they could to help the distraught motorist who momentarily could only just stare and breathe. Although he possibly only managed to salvage the body, because the entire engine got fried indefinitely, worse things could have happened, had people chosen to stand aside and look. It was extremely dangerous, and there was no way of measuring the level of risk these men took being so close to the bonnet, the source of the fire, which was progressively making its way to the petrol tank.

May this spirit of ubuntu persevere. It may well be the only thing that will take us through.

Useless US$ Coins

So, where are US$ coins actually accepted for retail in Zimbabwe? I find it interesting that having adopted a multi-currency system as a country – some retailers neither recognise nor accept US$ coins.  Picture this; you want to purchase a product that costs $3, 25. You hand over three US$1 notes to the teller and when you give them a quarter, they look at it, frown and say they don’t accept that but R2 (two Rand) would do instead. I mean what the bollocks?

US$ quarter. Picture: Money of the World

Ever since I returned from the States, I have been carrying around a wallet full of what I realise now are essentially useless coins here. I just don’t get it. Yesterday evening while making a few purchases at the Bridge Spar, I tried my luck again with the coins. The till attendant looked at me squarely and said it was after 6pm therefore she could no longer accept US$ coins. I demanded an explanation as to what it being after 6pm had anything to do with what choice of coins was acceptable. The till attendant mumbled something along the lines of the shop being unable to give them to other customers as change or ‘cash’ them, whatever that means. I drew surprised stares when I thought aloud that that was one of the stupidest things I had heard all week.

It is bad enough we are not using our own currency, but to have selective use of the foreign currency that we do use is an unnecessary inconvenience. I think it is high time for whoever’s job it is to start working towards a more sustainable currency solution. I mean for how long can a country live under all sorts of speculation. The Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme (STERP) stipulates that the temporary use of multiple currencies terminates in 2012. Then what next? In last week’s Standard, the IMF was quoted in an article as having cautioned the Zimbabwean government against re-introducing the Zim-dollar. They said the country should rather extend the life span of the multi-currency system and also continue using the US dollar till 2014. The IMF Article IV report on Zimbabwe stipulates that the inclusive government has failed to put in place adequate conditions for the re-introduction of the Zim-dollar.

Last year there were speculations that the government attempted to join the Rand Monetary Union (currently consisting of Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa). Big wonder what happened to that idea. The media reported that Cabinet for the most part feared rejection. Now I hear old Zimbabwean coins are being purchased for long cash and selling like hot cakes on the streets. I wonder if like in 2008 the RBZ governor might just once again resuscitate old currency. I sure am holding on to whatever original Zimbabwean notes and coins I still have, all together with my currently useless US$ coins.

My favourite supermarket is a rip-off!

For a long time travelling between Zimbabwe and South Africa, I never understood why fellow Zimbabweans still insisted on hoarding groceries from the latter, even after dollarization and the availability of goods in the supermarkets. I was in South Africa over the annual break and had plenty of opportunity to scout the malls with my sister. I always knew clothes were cheaper and options wider down south. But that did not prepare me for the shock I got when I started doing the math in the grocery stores. That said, I never actually understood why my sister always gaped at the prices whenever she was down here, partly because I never made much effort to understand the Rand-USD exchange rate. At some point she would say something like: What?! R50 for yoghurt? In South Africa that is two trays of meat and mealie meal.

Yoghurt sixpack costs anything between USD4-5 at Spars in Zim

I found for instance, that my favourite yoghurt – Nutriday, costs just over a dollar for a six pack. Here, I buy the same for $5 at Spar Athienitis specifically. Also notable was the fact that what costs R10 in Spar Randfontein also cost R10 in a Spar in say, Mpumalanga. In Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon for the Spar chain to have huge margins in the price differences for the same goods.

Upon return to Zimbabwe, I took time out to ask the shop-floor manager of my favourite supermarket how they arrived at some of the prices of goods. He explained something about having to factor in costs of import, vat and other things. I thought if this justifies a $3 dollar jump for yoghurt imported from South Africa, then our local industry ought to see this as an opportunity and improve the quality of local products. Fans of yoghurt for instance will agree with me that Nutriday is smoother, richer and less cloying than Dairiboard’s Yummy – which I have often observed nearing expiry sitting on the shelf while stocks for the former run out as soon as they hit the same shelf.

I have begun to understand why many a Zimbabwean is prepared to suffer the indignity of being taunted by South Africans at the Beitbridge border post for the heavy ‘changaan’ bags full of groceries.

I have always found the staff at Spar very friendly, a big motivation for shopping there. The till operators smile broadly, like they are extremely delighted to see you. Last time I shopped there and got hit with one of those smiles, it crossed my mind that of course, the thought of what I am about to fork out for a handful of groceries would make any retailer smile, bloody rip offs!