It is early morning and groups of Zimbabwean women and men wrapped in blankets to ward off the chill are slowly waking from a night spent sleeping on the tarmac at a bus depot in Johannesburg, South Africa, waiting for the city's shops to open.
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They arrived in two buses carrying long-distance shoppers from Zimbabwe, brought south by the empty shelves in their country to stock up on sugar, cooking oil, laundry soap and other basic commodities in South Africa's economic heartland.
The shopping veterans in the group exchange tips with the first-time shoppers on where to get the best prices for the commodities they have travelled hundreds of kilometres to buy.
"There is nothing to buy at home, even when you have money, these days," Cecilia Chipundo, 38, from Gweru, in Midlands Province, Zimbabwe's third largest city, told IRIN.
"You either have to queue for most of the day for nearly everything - milk, bread, sugar, cooking oil and other basics - without a guarantee of getting any unless you are well-connected [politically]," said Nophilo Sibanda, 26, personal assistant to the managing director of a steel manufacturer in the Midlands town of Kwe Kwe.
Some of South Africa's working class are blaming the increasing prices of basic commodities on shopping sprees by Zimbabweans, rather than the local single-digit but rising inflation rate, an accusation that Chipundo dismisses: "If it were not for our misfortune which compels us to come here, some of them would become jobless when the shops we buy from close."
There is little doubt that Zimbabwe's misfortunes - where inflation is above 6,000 percent and there are shortages of almost everything, including fuel, electricity, potable water, medicines and basic commodities - are a boon for South African shop owners.
"It is not of our own making that Zimbabwe has become a large supermarket for South African goods," Chipundo told IRIN. The introduction of price controls by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government has exacerbated the dire situation in her home country by fuelling the parallel market, where goods are available at much higher prices but the shelves of formal shops have been left bare.
The bulging bag is a Zimbabwean label
Zimbabwean shoppers are easily recognised on Johannesburg's streets: their bulging hold-alls packed with items not only for consumption but also for resale at home, have become an unwelcome identity tag.
South Africans are perplexed that people from a country said to be on the verge of economic collapse can afford to buy such large quantities of items that are beyond the reach of many local consumers. "They push prices up unnecessarily," Marvis Kgokgo, a shop assistant at an Asian-owned shop in the inner city, told IRIN.
In a recent research paper, Norman Reynolds, a South African-based independent development economist, claimed Zimbabwean shoppers were pumping billions into the South African economy in these shopping jaunts, financed by an estimated R30 billion (US$4.2 billion) remitted annually by Zimbabweans living outside of the country.
"Zimbabweans in exile worldwide earn R10 billion (US$1.4 billion) a month, and seek to send home R3 billion (US$428 million) a month. If there were suitable banking regulations to keep the hard currency [in Zimbabwe] this money would do the major part of humanitarian and reconstruction work urgently needed," said Reynolds, who used to live in Zimbabwe.
Sibanda, from Kwe Kwe, whose sister works in England and remits hard currency to her, said the equation was simple: "As long as there is nothing to buy [in Zimbabwe], we will continue to come here in order to provide for our families."
|As long as there is nothing to buy [in Zimbabwe] we will continue to come here in order to provide for our families|
Shopping sprees by Zimbabweans are not limited to basic goods, but also durable items such as televisions, household furniture and beds, which can take working-class South Africans months to pay for.
To stem the flight of hard currency, Zimbabwe's finance minister, Samuel Mumbengegwi, earlier this month imposed excise duty on a range of items deemed luxury goods.
The government's amended Customs and Excise (Designation of Luxury) lists footwear, undergarments for both men and women, hosiery, veils, gloves and ties, which attract duty of 60 percent, with an additional US$10 per kilogram charge to be paid in foreign currency. Carpeting, "refrigerators of a household type", cookers, bed linen, blankets (but not electric blankets), carry 50 percent duty, plus the US$10 per kilogram charge.
The new tariffs have done little to deter Zimbabweans from flocking to South Africa. The busloads of shoppers "contribute" R10 (US$1.43) each to custom officials, who perform a "perfunctory inspection" of their goods at the Zimbabwe-South African border post at Beitbridge, and so avoid paying duty.
Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk by at least 50 percent since 2000. The government blames "sanctions" imposed by western governments to punish perceived human rights violations, and the seizure of white-owned farms in violation of court orders.
The government's critics point to the mishandling of land reform - ostensibly aimed at correcting a colonial imbalance in land ownership - and other anti-investor policies, that have slashed foreign exchange earnings. Price controls have also failed to stem inflation.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions