‘Fake news’ to blame for panic buying spree‚ says Zimbabwean government

25 September 2017 - 16:29 By Harare Correspondent
Reserve bank Governor John Mangudya.
Reserve bank Governor John Mangudya.
Image: Facebook/Harare Scandals

The government of Zimbabwe has blamed social media activists for creating panic buying over the weekend against a backdrop of surging commodity prices and fuel shortages.

Zimbabwe’s The Standard newspaper reported that Reserve Bank governor John Mangudya was forced to assure the country that there would be no shortage of basic commodities as Harare residents moved to stock up amid fears of further loss of bond notes’ value.

He charged that the panic buying that resulted in empty shelves at supermarkets in the capital was being fuelled by “fake news” on social media.

“The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe wishes to advise the public that social media messages that are circulating and suggesting that there are going to be shortages of basic commodities in Zimbabwe are false and malicious‚” the newspaper quoted Mangudya as saying in a statement.

“These messages are meant to cause anxiety‚ panic‚ alarm and despondency to the unsuspecting and peace-loving members of the public‚” he added.

The statement did little however to stem the rush to buy commodities that left supermarket shelves empty.

Most people don’t have ready cash‚ so they buy commodities using credit cards. Most traders import products from South Africa but‚ as they are not getting foreign currency from the central bank to restock‚ they are forced to buy hard currencies on the street.

To cushion themselves against burgeoning costs‚ shop owners are forced to increase prices. "We are buying these goods even at increased prices because there will come a time when there will be nothing to buy locally just like 10 years ago‚" said a woman who had an assortment of goods such as washing soap‚ mealie meal and cooking oil.

On Sunday‚ after a church service‚ #thisflag pastor Evan Mawarire was taken into police custody for posting a video on his Facebook live feed criticising Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economy.

He will have to spend another night in jail and will appear in court on Tuesday when his lawyer‚ Harrison Nkomo from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights pro bono initiative‚ is expected to have the appeal against his client's indefinite detention for "subverting a constitutional government" heard. In a statement following Mawarire's arrest‚ Minister of Home Affairs Dr Ignatius Chombo said the recent developments were caused by "well-known renegades and malcontents who now seek to disturb peace in the country to cause alarm and despondency in pursuit of an illegal political game".

The minister added that government was closely monitoring press and social media reports and would not hesitate to arrest people linked to them.

A truck driver who last week shared a picture of an invoice of bond coins worth US$3-million destined for Harare from the South African Mint Company‚ Tinashe Sikwila‚ 32 is set to be charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.

Meanwhile‚ another picture of brand new bond notes in plastic was leaked on Facebook. Only banks normally receive fresh notes for disbursement but the presence of notes on the black market suggests that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) is mopping the few remaining hard currencies from the streets.

But RBZ governor Mangudya has sought to allay fears among the public.

"The bank also wishes to advise that neither it nor the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development did not and will not print bond notes to buy US dollars from the streets‚" he said in a statement.

In Harare‚ fuel shortages have become the order of the day. On his Facebook page‚ newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube said he experienced shortages first hand and it reminded him of the period around 2001-2005 when the country experienced acute shortages. "This situation will most likely get worse with shortages extending to basic food items‚" he posted.

Many small businesses have stopped taking card and mobile money transfers because that could effectively collapse their businesses.

"I take strictly cash. If you buy with bond notes there's a different price with other currencies you buy cheaper. If you pay me with bond notes I will have to go buy the rand and dollar on the streets because I restock in South Africa‚" said one trader.

Bank queues have become longer with some banks not even dispatching money.

The government is finding it harder to pay external debts such as the power bill owed to Eskom and importation of fuel.

Tobacco and gold are arguably the country's biggest foreign currency earners. Last year tobacco raked in US$9‚390 million but from September to February‚ there are no inflows from tobacco because it's planting and processing season.

"We run a risk of retarding the economic growth if the country fails to secure foreign exchange‚" Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa said.