In late June of this year, the Zimbabwe government sought to curb the country's rampant currency inflation, admitting it to be around 7,000 percent. Other say it is much higher. The government embarked on an operation to control prices of all goods sold, slashing them by half or more. Zimbabwe police officers were issued orders to throw business owners in jail if they did not comply and seize their businesses if they dared to shut their doors.
A reporter for VOA, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, files this undercover report from Bulawayo.
It is early June in 2007, and prices in Zimbabwe are at an all-time high. Instant coffee is selling for over a million Zimbabwe dollars a jar, roughly $2 U.S. And a small bag of tomatoes costs around $33,000.
One shopper said, "One donut cost $16,000." But Zimbabweans pay the high prices, blaming the runaway economy and the worthless currency.
Abruptly, the Zimbabwean government, through its state controlled media outlets, claims it has found the reason behind the country's inflation. It blames the entire problem on business owners, who it says have been profiteering.
Government TV: "You are ordered to stop these things that you're doing here."
As the country's vice president labels them "economic saboteurs," the government orders the prices of everything slashed by 50 percent -- deeper in some cases. Police are issued orders to enforce the price cuts, and jail any business owners who refuse to comply.
The result is confusion -- as evidenced by our undercover video taken at a store in the second largest city, Bulawayo. Hoards of Zimbabweans rush to the shops to buy everything they can for the reduced prices. They stand in lines for hours for the cheap goods.
But weeks later, in early July, the operation has lost its luster. One butchery, whose refrigerated rooms were filled with meat at the beginning of the price controls, has now run out. The owner cannot afford to buy anymore.
Closed doors. Bankrupt businesses. Thousands of business owners jailed, they cannot afford to replace their stock at the stipulated prices. Inflation worsens and the people outside are hungry.
Video, shot from one of Bulawayo's high-rise buildings, shows a seething, agitated crowd of people waiting for a delivery of sugar. Fights break out, and eventually the riot police are called. Across town, two people are killed at another shop by a stampede of people running to get sugar.
Back at the butchery, customers wait in line for a small ration of beef. The owner had to close the doors for fear of a riot. Patrons are only allowed in 10 at a time. They shout at the shop workers, waving $100,000 notes.
Afterwards, we spoke with the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. He said, "If they come through, you're not going to stop them. Then what are they going to do when they get through, anyway? They are angry. Those people were screaming and shouting and only when the riot police came, and sorted them out, did they get into their queues."
He explained how the police, called to calm the crowd, pushed to the front of the line to get the meat themselves. "Because they are coming in first, buying the meat, and then they disappear and leave us with the crowd," he said. Officers also demanded free meat at other times as bribes to leave the shop owners alone.
The government claims the price control operation is a success.
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe said, "The prices must be affordable prices and the people will buy. If the people are ill-treated by suppliers, producers and suppliers, we intervene as government."
In August, state media televised the nation's famous agricultural show, with Mr. Mugabe posing with farm animals. Critics called this a 'crude attempt' to divert the country's attention from its real problems.
But the lines of people outside stores tell a different story. In late September, faced with a hungry, angry population, some prices were allowed to rise incrementally. But many businesses simply cannot afford to stock shelves with goods people could not afford to buy.