Empty shelves in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture AFP
Empty shelves in Harare, Zimbabwe. Picture AFP

Harare — Zimbabwe has lifted a two-year ban on the import of basic commodities, in a move likely to be welcomed by South African businesses. The lifting of the ban seeks to allow importation of products in short supply as Zimbabwe is facing critical shortages of commodities such as cooking oil, sugar and cement, which have run out in shops as a result of panic buying and low productive capacity from ailing industries.

In 2016, Zimbabwe’s government introduced statutory instrument (SI) 64, before reinforcing it with SI 122 of 2017; both  limited importation of a long list of basics as a part of strategy to protect local industries. However, Zimbabwe’s industries have failed to step up to the plate and the country still receives a large chunk of its consumer and retail goods from SA.

Figures released by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency last week show that Zimbabwe imported goods from SA worth $193.6m in September, reflecting a 17% increase from imports worth $175.4m the same period in 2017. In a statement, information, publicity and broadcasting services minister Monica Mutsvangwa said: “Cabinet further observed that, owing to panic and speculative buying, products which used to be sold over a month are now being sold in just three hours’ time, a situation which is completely unsustainable.

Accordingly, as a way forward, cabinet resolved as follows: that the minister of industry and commerce temporarily amends SI 122 of 2017 to allow both companies and individuals with offshore and free funds to import specified basic commodities currently in short supply, pending the return to normalcy in buying patterns of the public and adequate restocking by manufacturers.”

Harare-based economist John Roberston said lifting of the import ban would help some South African businesses. “You will remember that when SI 64 was introduced there was an outcry from many business owners in Musina ,who said they would lose most of their customers, which are mainly Zimbabweans. So, given that we are approaching the festive season, such businesses are definitely going to get a boost because you are likely to see enhanced spending.”

CEO of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, Chris Mugaga said lifting the ban was long overdue.

“This is something we have been advocating for because the government introduced the import restrictions with a noble initiative to encourage growth of local industries. However, our industries have not been growing because they continue to face challenges.

“What we need to do as a country is come with an industrial policy that will articulate plans for our ailing industries. But for now we need to liberalise the markets so that we do not experience the shortages that we are facing.”

Shortages of basics have become the norm in Zimbabwe in the past few weeks resulting in meandering queues for products such fuel, bread, cooking oil, cement and sugar.