/ 12 March 2020

Zimbabweans’ survival strategies

Zimbabwe Politics Economy Oil Protest
People jostle for a chance to buy a loaf of bread from a vendor at a market in Bulawayo last year (ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

Joseph Mbano* keeps the contact details of every fuel attendant he meets. He’s made friends with about a dozen of them, hoping to be tipped off when fuel is available in Harare, so that he can fill up one of his family’s two vehicles.

They can no longer afford to keep both cars on the road; getting petrol for one vehicle is difficult enough. The other is gathering dust in his driveway at his home in Westgate, a medium-density suburb in Harare

“We pay fuel attendants 50 bond privately every time to jump the line. We know several at several stations,” he said. Fifty bonds is worth about US$2.50 or R39.83, although this rate fluctuates regularly.

Mbano, like all Zimbabweans, has had to become an expert on fluctuating exchange rates. Officially, only the new Zimbabwean dollar — launched in June 2018 — is legal tender. Unofficially, the US dollar is everyone’s preferred currency, when it is available; and the value of the new Zimbabwean dollar varies according to whether it is in electronic form (RTGS), mobile money (Ecocash) or physical cash (new Zimbabwean dollar notes or older “bond” notes that are still in circulation).

Mbano is relatively lucky. He works for an international nongovernmental organisation that pays him in US dollars, the most valuable currency available. Foreign exchange is in desperately short supply, which makes life easier for those who have access to it. The government is so eager to get hold of forex that it has licensed selected petrol stations to sell fuel in exchange for US dollars.

Zimbabwe’s economy is going through its worst crisis in a decade, largely because of government mismanagement and a severe forex shortage. Prices of basic goods have soared and there are shortages of cash, electricity, medicine, food, fuel and forex.

The new Zimbabwean dollar is struggling, with inflation so severe that the government has stopped releasing official statistics (analysts estimate that, by the end of 2019, the annual inflation rate was more than 500%). In a scathing statement in late February this year, the International Monetary Fund said that efforts to reform the economy were “off-track”.

The country’s straitened circumstances have forced citizens to adapt their lifestyles. Mbano buys fuel on the black market some times, even though it is more expensive. He has also had to forego parts of his lifestyle that he used to take for granted. “Due to the electricity crisis, the lawn and the garden have been sacrificed. Sometimes we do not have council water so we used to use borehole water, which is powered by electricity. Besides load-shedding, we can’t afford the cost of electricity just to water the lawn,” he said.

To save fuel, Mbano and other parents have established a lift club to drive their children to school. “Gone are the days of having just one kid in the car,” he said.

No one is expecting things to improve any time soon. Figures from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe are not encouraging. In his monetary statement released last month, central bank governor John Mangudya said the country’s ability to attract offshore lines of credit is curtailed as a result of the perceived country risk.

He also outlined a stark decline in foreign direct investment. “Foreign direct investment declined from US$717.1-million in 2018 to US$259-million in 2019. Similarly, net portfolio investment inflows declined significantly from US$54.7-million in 2018 to US$3.7-million in 2019. The decline in both FDI [foreign direct investment] and portfolio investment was, in large part, due to heightened perceived country risk.”

Despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s promises to end the economic crisis when he was inaugurated in 2017 — after longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was toppled in a coup — the crisis is worsening. Public trust in him is waning. A number of the pledges he has made, such as ending bank queues and tackling corruption, remain unfulfilled.

Byron Chamburuka, a retailer in his early 40s, said he does not believe that Mnangagwa will rescue the economy, because some in power are benefitting from the situation. “The second republic has but proven to be the new deception. It was a new dispensation that never was. Government is disingenuous of this crisis and rot.

“Instead of stopping and policing, they are the enablers and beneficiaries of this, so the appetite to stop this is nonexistent.”

Chamburuka said people have resorted to bizarre business practices to survive. One such person is his sister, who sells groceries such as bread and cooking oil from the boot of her car. She buys the groceries using electronic money, and then sells them at a loss for cash. She then sells the cash in exchange for electronic money, adding in a hefty premium of 30% to 50%. Cash is in short supply. By the time she is finished, she has more electronic money in her account than she began with.

There are always black market dealers waiting to buy cash, Chamburuka said.

Businessman John Paruku, who lives in the plush suburb of Glen Lorne, said he has been able to protect his family from the economic crisis, but is not sure whether he will be able to hold on for much longer. He has installed solar panels and has a borehole to escape the water and power shortages. Every month he buys groceries in Musina, on the South African side of the border.

Paruku is also shielded by his ability to get access to forex. “I have a number of shops that I am leasing in Harare and three residential homes. I charge in foreign currency, as is being done to most tenants. It’s illegal according to the government but some of the business people prefer to do business in US dollars, which is a stable currency. The forex I get has shielded my family,” he said.

“But as long as you are in Zimbabwe, you can’t run out of all the troubles. We drive on the same roads that have too many potholes and they damage our cars. I can’t have my own roads. There is the extended family. Their troubles worry me.”

Hairdresser Tatasha Shaya, 36, lives in Kuwadzana 3, a high-density suburb. She used to be able to turn on the taps in her house, but for several years these taps have been dry, with the exception of the occasional trickle at night. Now, she wakes up at 5am every day to get water from the local United Methodist Church.

“Sometimes fights break out outside the church premises due to misunderstandings and accusations of jumping the queue,” she said. “Those families with wheelbarrows are seen as privileged, because it is easy for them to transport the water home.”

The water she collects is always used more than once. “We can’t throw away dirty water. We use that for the toilet,” said Shaya.

*Names changed at the request of the individuals