South Africa – The New Coloniser

Written By: The Lowdown - Apr• 30•13

2013 04 small coverI grew up in post-Independence Zimbabwe, a time when Mugabe was following his quasi-Marxist ideals.  Luxury goods were hard to come by and anything imported was viewed with a mixture of suspicion and awe.  I remember my mother buying tins of fish from Mozambicans who had stolen across the border near Mutare, keen to sell off the food aid from West Germany they had recently received.  Under pain of death, we were sworn to secrecy: no one was to be told where the fish had come from and yet just by having it in the pantry it would have created suspicion.   It was to be another twenty years at least before tinned fish such as tuna could be found for sale in Zimbabwean shops.


South Africa’s apartheid state was an enemy of Zimbabwe and very little could be imported from it.  Those who did venture there usually returned with stashes of niceties: dried fruit, Marmite and decent chocolate.  In turn, the Zimbabwean economy expanded and the country produced its own goods.  With that grew a certain pride in ourselves: we were the bread basket of Southern Africa and all we produced was our own.


Fast forward to 2006.  The Zimbabwean economy is in ruins and the shops are empty.  Unless you want pool cleaner or toilet paper, which for some reason there is always plenty, there is nothing to eat.  Strict price controls mean that companies cannot afford to operate in the current climate of hyper-inflation and, unless they can feed an export market, they are forced to close.  Fast forward once more, this time to the present.  The shelves are full again, mostly due to the use of the US Dollar as the main currency.  This time, however, it’s local goods which are hard to get.  Everyone’s buying South African products, not just chocolate and tuna fish, but basics such as milk and even fruit and vegetables.  Zimbabwean made goods are often more expensive than their imported counterparts as local industry struggles to get back on its feet.  Their packaging is often inferior to that of the South Africans, giving the impression that the product itself is not up to scratch.


Street vendors of fruit and vegetables are really feeling the pinch.  When there was nothing in the shops, they did well out of people who bought their wares.  The threat of cholera and the availability of superior quality produce in supermarkets, mean many of these people have now lost their livelihoods.  Zimbabweans have become snobs as well.  They’d rather delight in being able to buy South African cheese than support their own producers.  This may in part be due to the novelty of choice after doing without for so long.  Unfortunately, they have also lost that old pride in themselves, in what was good about the country, which is now viewed only with suspicion.


However, the prevalence of South African goods in shops is not confined to Zimbabwe.  A little further north, in Zambia, South African shops, not just products, are the order of the day.  Whether it’s clothing, food or spare parts for cars, no one wants it locally made.  Shopping centres are springing up all over Southern Africa, offering all the big name South African stores.  The irony is that it creates a sense of pride in the local to have these shops on offer.  They have somehow made it because a little slice of South Africa is available down the road.  It’s just like Eastgate or Rosebank they’ll tell you, eyes shining with delight.  Cynics like myself can only hope the big superstores never make it to Zimbabwe.  A couple have tried, but failed.  And just as I used to long for Smarties and Mars bars as a child, I now look forward to my next visit and the sweet taste of cheap chocolate.

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