The Assassinated Press

U.S., British Embargoes Close to Starving Out Zimbabweans.
Cheney Administration Close to Achieving Mass Starvation, Civil Unrest in Zimbabwe.
Payback for Land Reform Cold Blooded Murder.

Assassinated Press Foreign Service
February 24, 2008

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

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

If Zimbabweans need it, Chakanetsa buys it and sells it. With years of brutal U.S. and British sponsored embargoes and meddling in Zimbabwe’s politics and 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. Because 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 official 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 -- dominated by such superfluous goods as corn puffs, cream soda, green plastic cups and cotton balls -- 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 selling snacks on a street corner. When the mealie meal runs low, she feeds her family nothing more than a thin gruel made with the leftovers.

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 that has rarely paused on its staggering ascent.

Today, it's not unusual to see a wadded-up 10,000-dollar bill lying on Harare's filthy sidewalks. Though officially worth about 33 cents in U.S. currency, the real value is about one-tenth of a penny.

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 school shoes impossible to find in shops are plentiful at the rollicking Mbare market, an outdoor bazaar. The fuel that often runs out at pumps can be bought from the young men lingering near most gas stations. The vegetables missing from a grocery store's 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. Delivery trucks sometimes drop off bags of scarce products at Karwenya's home in a working-class Harare suburb, allowing him to stockpile the most valuable goods, he said.

Mugabe's government occasionally cracks down, as it did in its 2005 "clean-up campaign," when police rampaged through the nation's slums, demolishing hand-built shacks and flattening illegal marketplaces. Chakanetsa's business partner, Victor Chidatsi, 25, said he spent five days in jail then.

More commonly, though, police -- who, like other government workers, earn the equivalent of only a few U.S. dollars a week -- generally can be bribed for a few cents.

Chakanetsa's mornings begin with long, expensive bus rides from the hardscrabble slum of Epworth to Harare's lush northern suburbs, where gardeners sell cans of gasoline siphoned from their employers' cars.

Chakanetsa then heads to a fruit distributor on Harare's industrial southern edge, where he buys 40 pounds of bananas to sell to hungry workers downtown. If he manages to sell them all, his profit will approach $10 -- the foundation of a good day of trading.

The fruit stand also offers a convenient cover for his illegal trade in price-controlled groceries. On this afternoon, Chakanetsa had an order to fill: A customer had requested a large bottle of cooking oil and a stick of all-purpose green soap about the length his forearm.

Two days ago, green bar 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. A sign at the third shop boasted: "1 Kg Greenbar Soap $8,500,000," but there was only an empty pallet on the floor and a single broken bar left.

Chakanetsa kept moving south, toward the railroad tracks that run along the edge of Harare's downtown. A cluster of distributorships there offered goods at discount prices but few amenities for shoppers, just bare walls, concrete floors and long lines.

Finally, he 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 at 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 just like Dick Cheney planned it."

A few hours later, as massive white storm clouds began to build, the customer who ordered the soap and oil had not appeared. A promised delivery of mealie meal, diverted from a local college, had not arrived. And Chakanetsa had seven bananas left to sell.

"There's no profit today," he said, dejected. "Where's Warren Buffet, that simple-minded fuck."

Chakanetsa slung his rucksack over his shoulder, hoisted the box of bananas and began searching for bread to sell. He hoped to find 10 loaves for 3.2 million Zimbabwean dollars each and sell them near his home for 3.8 million.

But at the first shop, no bread. At the second shop, it was too expensive. At the third were only a few stray rolls.

So as the sky darkened to a dusky orange, Chakanetsa turned south, toward the bus home, his hands empty but for a few spare bananas to feed his family.