Zimbabwe: A Nation of Once Billionaires, Without a Currency

Photo: IRIN
Zimbabwe dollars

Zimbabweans salute their national anthem, hold their rich traditions dearly and indeed have an emotional attachment to their national sports teams. But their patriotic fervour seems to wane at the mention of their own currency.

Putting paid to rumours of the Zimbabwe dollar's impending return, acting Reserve Bank governor Charity Dhliwayo announced last month that the Australian dollar, Chinese yuan, Japanese Yen and Indian rupee would be added to Zimbabwe's multiple currency regime. The nation has been using the US dollar, the euro, the South African rand and the Botswana pula ever since the local currency was scrapped in 2009.

No one seems to be complaining, though.

Susan Mandinde recalls how she strode to her workplace late in central Harare one morning in 2008. Despite all the anxiety of facing her strict boss, she could still stop to give a hundred million dollars to a beggar who sat on the edges of a pavement. By right, the beggar was supposed to count her blessings. But alas, these were Zimbabwean dollar notes that Mandinde got as change from a lift to the city centre, five kilometres from her home. The good deed amounted to 20 cents in US dollars.

Chido Muzondiwa, a babysitter in Harare, had earned a monthly wage of 900 billion Zimbabwean dollars, but still failed to take care of her young ones back in the countryside. She is now a happier earner of 120 US dollars a month.

These two are among millions of poor Zimbabweans now relieved from their billionaire status by the current multiple currency dispensation.

Bad Zim dollar memories

Fortune Madhuku, a finance officer working for a local NGO, is one Zimbabwean who frowns at the mere mention of the return of the local currency.

"We suffered seriously in 2007 to 2008. We would work for a whole month, get paid in trillions of dollars but when you get to the shops, the money would not by you anything," he says.

Madhuku, who recalls how he once bought a loaf of bread with 10 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars, says he wants to maintain a stable life for his family. He fears the local currency easily printed by the government would be open to manipulation by corrupt but influential government officials.

"The Zim dollar will not guarantee a good life for me and my family because that currency will not be stable," he says. "Things are not yet stable in the country but if things get better, there is nothing wrong with a return to our own currency."

Lindelwe Khumalo, a Harare resident, doesn't recall the Zim-dollar era with fondness. She says that as students, she and her classmates were called back to repay examination fees because their last payments had been washed away by hyperinflation.

"I am a patriotic Zimbabwean, but when it comes to currency, l think l prefer the US dollar because of my past experiences with the Zimbabwean dollar. l almost died of hunger," she says.

Joseph Makiyi, a driver at a Harare media company also dreads the return of the local currency. He recalls how hyperinflation caused him to lose a savings of 23 billion Zimbabwean dollars (then the equivalent of 300 US dollars).

Fear of losing

Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa is at pains to allay fears among Zimbabweans there will not be a return to the dreaded national currency in the short term. But hushed debate within government corridors on the wisdom of its return to remedy the current cash crisis remains evident.

The continued fear of losing out due to Zimbabwe's chaotic banking system has also reduced some enterprising locals into "pillow bankers," a tongue-in-cheek name given to those wont to securing their hard-earned cash in hidden spots of their home.

Millions of savings were lost in bank accounts when the central bank imposed a limit on withdrawals after panicky depositors attempted to withdraw all their savings. This was in a desperate attempt to escape hyperinflation, pegged at 231 million percent at the last official count in July 2008.

When the local currency was scrapped, some Zimbabweans were already trading in quintillions.

Not excited

Though many people may not desire the return of the Zim dollar;, they are also not ecstatic about the introduction of new currencies.

"This is much ado about nothing. Zimbabwe still doesn't print any of these currencies, so the cash problems will still persist. In fact, this will result in more Chinese and Japanese goods flooding our local market. The sad reality is that our own economy will not recover. The multiplicity of currencies will further confuse the old who many not be able to understand the multiple exchange rates involved. To me, this is a perfect condition for scams," says Benard Moyo, a resident of Harare.

Moyo is not alone in his pessimism. Opposition MDC legislator Tendai Biti, who served as finance minister in the coalition government, says Zimbabwe's cash crisis, coupled with a ballooning budget caused by a recent wage increase to the restless civil service, would force President Mugabe to go against national sentiment and bring back the local currency.

Speaking during a panel discussion organized by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition at the Crown Plaza, Biti said: [W]hat brought the US dollar in the first place was not the genius of any person. It was the market. So they have no choice over that. What happens is that the more they continue accruing these arrears, starting with wage arrears, they have to find a formula of monetizing their debt. But, unfortunately, they are not the Federal Reserve, they cannot print the American dollar. So they will have to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar whether they like it or not."

Time will tell if the country's indigenous currency will ever return or if, like the fabled Zimbabwe Birds adorning the now useless bills, they will be relegated to the category of historical artefact.

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