Zimbabwe's shelves are bare


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    Shoppers in an almost empty supermaket in Harare, Zimabwe.

    - Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images

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    Zimbabwean shoppers leave Musina, South Africa, with a pick-up fully loaded with goods, due to Zimbabwean supermarkets growing emptier by the day.

    - Ade Obisesan/AFP/Getty Images

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    People shop at a supermarket in the Borrowdale Brooke suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe, in July 2007. Even though shelves were bare in most of Harare's grocery stores, supermarkets in Borrowdale Brooke, home to Zimbabwe's rich and famous, offered everything from lobster to single malt whisky -- at a price.

    - Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: South African business are betting on an economic turnaround in neighboring Zimbabwe. A human-rights group in Johannesburg said today South African companies are investing in hopes of big profits if stability does somehow return.

That's a pretty big "if" -- in Zimbabwe right now, it's almost impossible to find staples like bread or rice. Inflation is officially more than 6,000 percent, despite the price controls that President Robert Mugabe imposed last June.

To avoid selling at a loss, grocery stores have just stopped stocking their shelves -- which is forcing people to travel hundreds of miles and across the border to buy their groceries.

Gretchen Wilson reports from Messina, South Africa.


Gretchen Wilson: It's the dead of night at an outdoor bus station in this South African border town. A hundred people, mostly women from Zimbabwe, lie on plastic bags and cardboard. Rats run back-and-forth inches from Jestinah Zvidzai's head.

Jestinah Zvidzai: You have to sacrifice. You have to sacrifice.

Zimbabweans need the basics -- things like oil, salt, rice and bread. Zvidzai caught a bus from central Zimbabwe yesterday at 8 a.m. So many people packed the border crossing into South Africa that she had to spend the night there in a rain storm. Then she made her way to this border town bus station, where she's spending one more night before shopping.

ZVIDZAI: I come every month, so I buy a grocery for the whole month, for 30 days. Then I'll come back again.

She has to stay in South Africa 24 hours, or in Zimbabwe they'll slap her with an import duty. All told, it's a five-day journey.

Incredible as it sounds, Zvidzai is well-off by Zimbabwe's standards. She has a job and can use her pay slip to cross the border -- the jobless have to cough up $300 for a South African visa, something most can't afford.

Anybody who makes it here buys extras to sell on the black market back home. Nyadzai Danda says she'll make a 100-percent profit on soap.

Nyadzai Danda: It's a little, so that I can get money to send my child to school.

Storefronts here in Musina cater to Zimbabwe's desperate buyers. Chalk boards outside the Sunrise Discount World post the latest prices for vegetable oil and laundry soap.

Down the road, the SuperSpar grocery store heaves with Zimbabwean shoppers. The store sets out extra cartons of laundry detergent. Carts overflow. Store manager Pieter Koekemoer says sales have jumped 50 percent since Mugabe froze food prices in Zimbabwe. He's swamped with emails from Zimbabwean store owners begging to buy anything they can at a close-out price.

Pieter Koekemoer: They're looking at baked beans, peas, sweet corn, corn flakes, bran flakes -- it's all necessity goods, just to live from.

South African wholesalers used to stock Zimbabwe's retailers, but not any more. Jayson Rana is chairman of the Musina local Chamber of Commerce, and used to sell to Zimbabwean middlemen:

Jayson Rana: Since the price control came into effect, they're not coming any more, because they have to go sell it at a cheaper price than what they paid. So they would definitely lose that money.

Now he's losing money, too.

Rana: We are also suffering at the same time -- we used to have 42 people working for us, and now we have 27.

Rana says Mugabe's price caps have destroyed formal trade, and fueled unaffordable prices on the Zimbabwean black market.

Rana: So I think the worst is now here. And if nothing is going to be done about it, a lot of people are going to die -- and people are dying daily.

Back at the bus station, Shimbarashe Munamho has done his shopping and is ready to go home. He's a high school teacher who comes to South Africa once a month with homemade brooms to sell. He buys goods and brings a few bars of soap back to his principal, who wouldn't let him go on these 10-day trips otherwise.

Shimbarashe Munamho: Because even he himself he can not afford to get soap... Most of the things I've bought is for my family.

He has to pack efficiently: South Africa's informal bus drivers set up roadblocks to control this road, and they charge everyone $3 dollars a bag. It's literally highway robbery. But it's just another sacrifice thousands make every day to bring home food.

At the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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