Monday, July 2, 2007

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Inspectors and police raided stores yesterday to enforce sweeping price cuts imposed to curb Zimbabwe’s soaring inflation, while shoppers fought over rapidly disappearing staples at supermarkets.

At least 20 business executives were arrested over the weekend for hoarding goods and violating the government’s order last week to slash prices of most products by half, the official Sunday Mail reported. Gasoline prices were ordered reduced by 70 percent, and stations quickly ran dry.

Store managers have complained they were being forced to sell goods at lower than cost.

Inspectors and police forced their way into storage rooms at shops, demanding that stocks be put on sale and accusing managers of hoarding products, possibly to sell on the black market.

Zimbabwe, suffering its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, has the world’s highest inflation. The official rate is 4,500 percent, but independent financial institutions calculate real inflation on essential goods at closer to 9,000 percent.

Critics blame the meltdown on President Robert Mugabe’s often-violent campaign to seize thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks. The long-ruling leader says the program is fixing imbalances in land ownership inherited from British colonial rule.

Store managers tried to limit shoppers to two items of soap, foodstuffs, milk and other goods.

“I’ve got bargains here,” said Aenias Mativenga, a Harare cook jostling at a checkout, his arms laden with packs of tea, frozen chicken and cartons of cookies.

Bread and the cornmeal staple vanished from most shelves by Saturday. Inspectors ordered stores to slash the prices of all perishable goods yesterday, said one shop manager.

“There’ll soon be nothing left, and we’ll be closing,” he told people converging on the store. Bargain seekers streamed across the nearby highway as word of the new reductions spread.

Crowds fought for sugar in the capital, Harare, on Saturday, tearing open many of the packs and spilling the contents. Private security guards averted a riot at a downtown store that was forced to put scarce sugar on sale at a third of the black-market price.

In the crumbling economy, sugar and cooking oil have mainly been available from black-market dealers for months.

One wholesaler in western Harare received only 80 loaves of its regular 2,000-loaf order.

“We gave it away to our staff rather than have an invasion,” said a manager who asked not to be identified, fearing the premises would be targeted by angry shoppers. Police had been called in after the bread delivery truck arrived.

Tuesday’s price-reduction order included a range of basic goods and services, from commuter transportation to bread, sugar, meat, milk, cornmeal and even newspapers. Industry Minister Obert Mpofu later extended it to rents and almost all manufactured products.

“Reports are that some businesses are resisting this order. We are going to deal with them accordingly. We are going to arrest them,” Mr. Mpofu told the Sunday Mail.

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