Zimbabwe's on-again, off-again fuel shortages are now in their seventh year. The government, which lacks the money to import sufficient fuel, now is allowing private imports. The importers then sell their fuel at prices way above the official pump price. Tendai Maphosa recently traveled to neighboring Botswana, from where huge amounts of fuel are being imported.
Any Zimbabwean can import up to 2,000 liters of fuel at a time, but there is no limit to how many times one can import fuel, and nobody checks whether the fuel is all used by the importer. The result is a booming private market, selling fuel at prices almost five times the official pump price.
Selling fuel without a license is technically illegal, but even some government departments buy their fuel on the black market, illustrating how bad the situation is.
On the highway between the Zimbabwean city Bulawayo and the Botswana border, most of the traffic is now trucks of various sizes carrying fuel. These are not fuel tankers. Zimbabwe's new fuel importers use any container that can hold fuel, the most popular being the 200-liter drum.
The importers pay a low duty of five percent, but still make a tidy profit. There are reports that some professionals are quitting their jobs to make money importing and selling fuel.
A school teacher on holiday told VOA on condition of anonymity that he makes a profit of about $70 per drum; more than his monthly salary. He said, due to the increased demand over the holidays, he would be importing the maximum six drums his truck can carry every day.
A customs official on the Zimbabwe side of the border told VOA that dozens of trucks pass through bearing fuel everyday. The official said the numbers have increased over the past couple of weeks, as the demand for fuel for the holidays increases.
While some Zimbabwean gas stations have not had any deliveries for months, a few are selling fuel at the black market price. The state-controlled daily newspaper, The Herald, recently ran an article on the law-breaking establishments, but they continue the practice with impunity. This has raised speculation about who owns the gas stations.
Earlier this year, the government designated some foreign currency gas stations, where Zimbabweans can buy fuel using foreign currency, but supply is very erratic. There are also some suppliers who demand payment outside the country before delivering the fuel in Zimbabwe.
Since the fuel crisis began in 1999, the government used to issue statements that things would get back to normal, but there have been no such assurances for months.
The high price of fuel has also led to high fares on what is left of the public transportation system.
Zimbabweans have to brace themselves for another expected increase in fuel prices in the new year. In the recently announced annual budget, the government said it would collect carbon tax on every liter of fuel imported. Up to now, the carbon tax was a one-off annual payment. The school teacher told VOA importers would likely pass on the tax to consumers by demanding higher prices.