How long should Zimbabwean consumers continue to bear the brunt of price distortions, shoddy goods, diminishing disposable incomes, unfair bank interest rates and general ill treatment at the hands of goods and service providers?
Despite consumers in other parts of the world joining hands in celebrating World Consumer Rights Day recently, the Zimbabwean consumer could only shed tears and hope that, one day, his or her rights would also be recognised.
The consumer rights movement in Zimbabwe, seemingly in the “intensive care unit”, have failed to ratchet up meaningful support for consumer rights unlike their peers the world over.
Today, local consumers remain downtrodden and the situation is ompounded by a lack of hype in celebrating consumer day.
The main celebrations in Harare were a classic case of ‘‘much ado about nothing’’.
Today, most Zimbabweans cannot afford the basic consumer basket, whose cost last month was pegged at US$559,93 by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ).
CCZ statistics also indicate that the food basket increased by 19 cents from US$150,33 to US$150,52 in February on the back of price increases in detergents.
Erratic power supplies, poor potable water quality and exorbitant rentals are some of the challenges local consumers have to contend with daily.
Experts note that service delivery in Zimbabwe does not tally with either the quality or the cost of the services.
All this comes against the stagnant consumers’ monthly incomes, mostly below the US$540 poverty datum threshold.
Worsening the appalling situation, is the fact that most goods which were available locally are now scarce as a result of the massive downsizing of industries in Zimbabwe.
Most industries are operating at less than half their capacity.
Studies have shown that, on average, Zimbabwean consumers are paying more for goods and services as compared to their counterparts in other SADC nations.
As a result, the sum of these circumstances was apparent in the dejected consumer as other countries celebrated on March 15.
“These commemorations account for nothing,” said Billiat Matipano of Hatfield.
“The rights of consumers are being trampled upon left, right and centre.
“There is need for new regulations dictating the relationship between consumers and providers of goods and services.”
But, with local industry barely surviving and characterised by ballooning operational costs and low production, can Zimbabwean consumers expect anything better?
Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) president Charles Msipa thinks otherwise.
He told The Sunday Mail In-Depth in a recent interview that providers of goods and services affiliated to the confederation “are alive to the consumer concerns.”
“Our members have formal systems within their organisational structure for responding to and dealing with customer and consumer queries and complaints,” said Mr Msipa.
“The current regulatory framework for quality standards as well as the enforcement of such regulations is currently very weak.
“This has resulted in substandard products being offered for sale.
“It is necessary to re-assess and strengthen the existing regulatory framework as well as the enforcement of such regulations for the protection of consumers.”
A snap survey by The Sunday Mail In-Depth last week revealed that prices of basic goods were higher than those in the region, especially South Africa.
A litre of milk in Johannesburg costs R10, which is roughly equivalent to US$1, yet in Zimbabwe it is being sold for about US$1,55.
A kilogramme of potatoes costs R11, which is equivalent to US$1,10, yet in Zimbabwe it goes for US$1,75.
A loaf of bread sells for US$1 in the country compared to R8 or US$0,75 in South Africa while a 2kg pack of rice costs R11,50 or US$1,50 in the neighbouring country and US$2,20 locally.
Interestingly, there is nothing in Zimbabwe which is sold at less than US$1.
In the past, businesses attributed the pegging of prices to the nearest dollar to the unavailability of change.
However, the country has witnessed an improvement in the supply of coins, but the situation still obtains.
This was echoed by another Harare consumer, Ms Rumbidzai Mungani of Budiriro 4, who argued that the issue of coins has vastly improved, but the pricing of goods remains problematic.
But amid the ongoing crisis, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) has been conspicuous by its lack of agitation.
Described as a toothless bulldog, the watchdog argues that the liberal market adopted by the country in recent years has opened the consumer to a raft of abuses.
CCZ director Ms Rosemary Siyachitema said the open market economy has exposed the country to counterfeit imported goods.
“There are many loopholes as there are no locally clear-cut frameworks to monitor the internationally agreed standards on imported goods and services,” she said.
There is a need for all other monitoring bodies such as the Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) and Government to work together to ensure that only internationally agreed goods and services are allowed into the country.”
Zimbabwe has over the years opened its market to foreign manufacturers.
This has witnessed the country being flooded with clothing, food, electrical goods from foreign countries especially South Africa and the East Asian Tigers.
Sadly, some of these goods do not match the basic standards of acceptability set by bodies such as CCZ and SAZ.
But with the country’s industries failing to produce enough due to depressed capacity utilisation, the goods continue landing as an alternative.
Economic analyst and ZNCC chairperson on the macro economic sub-sector Mr Brains Muchemwa maintains that the pricing regime is justifiable.
“The volatility of the South African rand continues to pose exchange rate risks for the retailers, considering the extensive use of the United States dollar,” he said.
“Furthermore, the cost base for Zimbabwe retailers against South African retailers is so high and therefore the general feeling that consumers are being fleeced is largely misplaced.”
Mr Muchemwa said most of the imported goods attract costs related to freight, insurance, finance and customs duty.
He added that comparing shelf prices in South Africa and concluding that prices in Zimbabwe are expensive is illogical.
In South Africa, laws such as the Consumer Protection Act (Act 68 of 2008) and the National Credit Act (Act 34 of 2005) were put in place to protect consumers from unjust practices.
The CCZ has, since 2012, been lobbying for the crafting of the Consumer Protection Bill.
Officially opening the Eighth Parliament in September last year, President Mugabe said Parliament will table the much-awaited Consumer Protection Bill.
“The Consumer Protection Bill and the Zimbabwe Quality Standards Regulatory Authority Bill, which seek to protect the rights of consumers and to foster fair trade, will be tabled in this august House during this session,” he said then.
The Bill will seek to protect consumers’ rights and to promote a fair, accessible and sustainable marketplace for consumers in terms of goods and services.
Plans are also underway within SADC to push for the crafting of laws that will protect consumers’ rights within the region.
But the current situation on the ground shows that the consumer is feeling the heat and is in desperate need of protection.
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