Everywoman: ZWRCN Desk

The economic liberalisation and dollarization of the Zimbabwean economy in 2009 brought much welcome relief. After massive inflation, long queues and massive deindustrialization, a lot of Zimbabwean bread winners lost their livelihoods. A lot of professionals fled the country, and women found themselves automatically bearing the brunt of providing for the family.

Women in Zimbabwe have been revered for their strength and fortitude that saw them crossing borders with larger than life packages of basic commodities balanced precariously atop their heads with a typical matriarchal aggressiveness. Concerned for their children, this was finding ways of providing for their families without the aid of the government.

In that era, cross border trading emerged as one of the most reasonably successful strategies for addressing poverty. This aggressiveness contributed significantly to the recovery of this economy. Through cartels, cross border traders managed to supply retailers with goods like cooking oil and sugar that we no longer found on supermarket shelves, albeit at the roadside. A majority of us even had our fair share of buying ‘tsaona’ , and those are days we hope to never relieve.

Nevertheless, the Zimbabwean women’s ability to cross borders and bring groceries was made possible because the government had relaxed import duty on basic commodities and raw materials.

Now, with the recent reintroduction of duty, even ZIMRA officials have admitted that the numbers of cross border traders travelling to and from South Africa or Botswana have significantly and notably reduced. This is the whole idea. But let us look at the facts for a bit. It is one thing to attempt to protect local markets and industries; it’s another to protect industry that is near non-existent. Zimbabwean industries have suffered massive de-industrialization in the past 10 years with huge job losses and company closures. Existing industry is itself obtaining raw and sometimes finished goods from neighbouring South Africa, e.g Dunlop is importing tyres.

If the government is going to protect local industries, the latter must be fully functional, recapitalised and capacitated to cater for the local demand. If we look at the cooking oil manufacturing industry, for instance, how often do we find Olivine products on the shelves? Capacity utilisation is still poor and growth in the industrial sector has been hampered by lack of funding to revitalise operations.

So, the potential challenges are in more ways than one. While traders certainly have an obligation to remit taxes to the state; they face massive loss of profit and in the end, loss of livelihood in a country where unemployment tops 90%. It is a fact that because of Zimbabweans’ resourcefulness, the majority of its unemployed citizens generate income through the informal sector. A big chunk of this is women who are cross border trading. A big section of households in Zimbabwe are also female and child headed.

On the other hand, it is easy to foresee the nightmare of 2008 and its commodity shortages rearing its ugly head again. The reintroduction of import duty may result in some retailers stopping the importation of critical products, and the shortages of yesteryear may resurface, then the vicious cycle begins with women receiving the raw end. It is therefore big wonder that the manufacturing industry has been clamouring for the restoration of import duty whilst their production levels have not yet fully recovered enough to meet local demand. What is more, locally manufactured commodities remain unaffordable and mother hen is left with no option but to desert her offspring to explore better pastures.

Writing in 2009 for the Inter Press Service, one Tonderai Kwidini justifies why and how Zimbabwean women traders kept the economy afloat. In part, by bringing in imported goods like chickens and cooking oil that are proving to be cheaper than the locally manufactured – cross border traders have ensured that the poorest of families can at least afford to eat. This continues to be the case with the dollar still being beyond the reach of the majority. The government may regularise the sector, but there is a fine balance that needs to be observed in order not to render this vital cog completely disabled. The local industry has not yet fully recovered, and it is the women who feel most of that heat.

The Zimbabwe Women Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) is an information based organization committed to gender equality and equity. The organization promotes women’s rights and empowerment by advocating for social and economic justice in Zimbabwe and globally. We would like to hear your views on this issue and more to come.

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