Protests and Shutdown of Businesses let Country bleed

17 Jan 2019 | R M Ertner based on Crecey Kuyedzwa
Zim Petrol out of control

Zimbabwe seems not be able to catch a break. Freshly freed from the coercive shackles of the Mugabe Era, the country was hit first by a cash crisis and now by the violent aftermath of a 150% petrol price hike, making Zimbabweans Petrol the most expensive in the world.

The newly appointed government seems inexperienced dealing with the mighty unions as well as the resulting protests and the decision to curb social media and internet-based communication was not only unlucky, it poured further oil on the burning fires within society and business world.

Currently, businesses in Zimbabwe are losing millions of dollars per day as a shutdown protest – called for by the country’s biggest labour union – continues over a the sudden hike in fuel prices. Most businesses were closed by midday on Monday, when violent protests that started in high-density suburbs spread to the central business district of Harare. Businesses, at least in Harare, remained closed on Tuesday, amid social media threats of unspecified action to those who defied the call to stay away. The country’s biggest labour union body, Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, called for the 3-day stay away after the government announced that the price of petrol would increase from $1.31 per litre to $3.31/l, now the highest in the world.

While according to Associated Press releases five Zimbabweans have been killed in the fuel hike protests, Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Christopher Mugaga said businesses, and retailers in particular, are loosing at least US$ 5m for every day they were closed: “We have looked at it. We are talking of an average US$ 5m per day in sales, especially in the retail sector. This also comes in a month we have lost a lot of productive hours in fuel queues. So January will be the lowest in terms of productive hours,” said Mugaga.

While only CBD and high-density outlets were closed Monday, those in wealthy suburbs, such as Sam Levy Village, Zimbabwe’s most affluent mall, remained closed on Tuesday amid social media threats. At noon on Tuesday, social media platform WhatsApp seemed not to be working, with many taking to Twitter to express their dismay with government action. Some businesses also fell victim to looting, with at least two outlets belonging to Botswana retail Group Choppies having been looted.

Meanwhile, the US embassy in Harare has issued a security statement alerting its citizens and officials to avoid the central business district in the capital city, as well as in Bulawayo. "There have been widespread tensions, sometimes including violent protests, countrywide — including in Harare’s Central Business District, Epworth, Chitungwiza, and downtown Bulawayo. “Additionally, there are reports of fights breaking out in fuel queues and as a result the embassy advised official Americans to not use fuel stations until the situation has calmed.”

It is currently unclear – especially with President Mnangagwa being in China – what the measures of government will entail to restore peace in the streets and facilitate the re-opening of businesses, but censoring communication is surely the wrong way as it is rather totalitaristic. Fuel subsidy for now would be one answer and review of the value-chain leading to the increase definitely a necessary first step. The supply chai management across border as well as the payment portals available should also move into the focus of experts as the circumstances are not new in Africa and historic measures may teach a lesson or two!

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