Black market dealers gouging the public with overpriced essential goods in short supply and thieving vendors offering “bargains” of repackaged underweight groceries are not helping the many sympathisers of the poor who want authorities to find a way of reopening the informal sector safely.
Sometimes criminals in the informal sector manage to combine both crimes, cornering supplies of roller meal and sugar, repacking these products by tampering with factory seals or even printing their own new packs, and then selling underweight packs at inflated prices.
Besides the black market dealers, we have vendor gangs repackaging flour, rice and other groceries as bargains, after carefully removing up to 20 percent of the product, cheating their customers who do not travel around with a set of scales to check what they buy.
In any business, even a dishonest business like black market gouging, or unlicensed business like sidewalk vending, some honesty is a sacrosanct virtue, whose absence breeds chaos and disaster and in its absence will destroy swathes of the economy.
Maize-meal is our staple food and should be treated with utmost care and given national value hence tampering with packaging and cheating on consumers should be an unforgivable crime.
What makes it worse is that the underweight packs are sold double the gazetted price.
Government set the price of 10kg packet of roller meal at $70, with millers given the extra production costs as a subsidy, paid for by all of us through our taxes, and we all pay taxes even if it is only a bit of VAT or that two percent transfer tax.
But the unscrupulous dealers, who get supplies by packing queues with professional queuers, are selling the same bag for between $140 and $200, depending on demand.
Some even break a second set of laws by selling only in US dollars, for between US$4 and US$5 for the same 10kg pack, using the black market exchange rates.
Then they steal a couple of kilogrammes and sell an underweight bag, making a few more dollars from those they prey on.
This is unacceptable and the Government and the Consumer Protection Council of Zimbabwe should act promptly.
With the lockdown, many people are unable to get into major supermarkets in town and are having to buy from these vendors, since their local shops do not have supplies.
The millers doing the distribution do try to spread supplies, but are hampered when a lot of smaller legitimate shops have owners who forgot to renew their council licences.
The Government has many options among them arresting the vendors found tampering with original packs and taking the steps required to arrest those selling roller meal on the black market or, for that matter, away from a proper shop..
While the second option might be too hard to enforce, since no one can really stop a family selling a bag to a neighbour, the short-weight vendors can be arrested since they are visible and all that is required is a couple of police officers or consumer protection officials moving around with a scale.
We will be very happy if the legislature comes up with mandatory deterrent sentences to make life easy for the judiciary for, such vendors do not deserve a place in our society, but fit squarely behind the bars.
What is disturbing is yet another discovery that syndicates of informal traders are working in cahoots with staff at shops and supermarkets to get supplies or scarce goods, or probably to be more precise goods that are scarce because so much is diverted to the black market.
In recent weeks, Government has made efforts to try and ensure that roller meal is sold in local shops to households, but it is difficult to exclude those who queue, sometimes after being tipped off by friends on the shop staff, to buy bags for resale in the black market.
Law enforcement agents should immediately move in and protect the consumers who bear the brand of being sold underweight products and tighten systems for the sale of maize-meal.
If the only solution is ration cards then we need cards. India, where a single city has a larger population than the whole of Zimbabwe, managed equitable distribution of subsidised goods by having families registered at local distribution points.
It is inexplicable why Zimbabweans have grown the tendency to cheat, to cheat in business and profiteer.
The longer the Government and its law enforcement agents delay acting on these vendors the more their dishonesty, gouging and thieving becomes entrenched and the more it gets worse.