It’s all legal tender

9 12 2016
New notes and a coin. All real, apparently...

New notes and a coin. All real, apparently…

Earlier this year we decided to take the plunge and buy a house. We reasoned that with the economy in tatters there would be lots of cheap, good value houses on the market. Well, yes and no.

There were lots of houses on the market but most were unrealistically priced and the owners were inflexible on the prices. Seven months later we agreed on a house, circa 1960, that needed substantial refurbishing but was solid and had a good quality 2 bedroom cottage in the garden which made the asking price a lot more palatable.

Some $10,000 later it’s almost habitable and we are due to move in 2 weeks time. The rubble pile has grown substantially and the old parquet flooring (original 1960s teak) was clogging the garage. Then on Tuesday this week a buyer arrived in the afternoon as I was preparing to leave. Of course I insisted on cash and then the bargaining started, or so I thought it would. It seemed I’d come across the only Zimbabwean who didn’t know how to negotiate. Eventually I asked him how much he was prepared to pay and agreed to his offer of $250 – I had things to do. That evening he arrived back with the money bought at the Roadport in town, where all manner of buses and taxis congregate and devious deals are done, with the required amount in old $10 bills. I thought it odd that there were no larger denomination notes available but it was real money. The old parquet tiles were piled into the back of a pickup, the passenger seat of the pickup, a Honda Vitz and a Nissan 1/2 tonne pickup.

Yesterday my senior foreman asked if I could find some small change, even the much reviled bond notes would do. I managed to find some $1 bond coins at a hardware store and the clerk was happy to give them to me as change. My bank was also happy to oblige but the teller misheard me and said I could have my day’s allocation of $175 of which only $25 could be bond coins or notes. I opted for the coins and was more than a bit taken aback to get 6 brand new, sequentially numbered US$20 notes. Are we not in the middle of a full fiscal meltdown with US dollars being plundered at a frantic rate and the dreaded bond money taking over and doomed to follow the Zimbabwe dollar into oblivion? Well, most likely that is the case but where did the new $20 come from? Were they bought recently? By whom? Or had they been stored in a bank vault somewhere? Is this an attempt to emulate India whose government, in an attempt to curb rampant corruption, recently ruled that the larger denomination notes were no longer legal tender? That would be wishful thinking indeed. The larger denomination US$ notes have already fled the country.


Return of the Zimbabwe dollar

6 05 2016

There was a demonstration against the rule of Robert Mugabe recently. That’s not news by most country’s standards but it most certainly is news here. It was small, about 2000 participants, but noisy and although the police originally refused permission the High Court granted permission. So what exactly is happening here? Is this the beginning of the end of the Mugabe regime?

I was in town for my French lesson with Shelton. He was late, comme d’habitude, as he has to rely on the notoriously erratic minibuses. While I was waiting a call came through from an unknown number.

“Hello, is that Mr Roberts?”

“Yes it is”.

“I am name given from  ZANU-PF Gomba District at your office. I am requesting a donation for Monday”.

“What’s happening on Monday?”

“It’s Independence Day”.

I’d genuinely forgotten this most sacred of Zimbabwean holidays. There aren’t a lot of reasons to remember it. After 36 years we have steadily regressed to the point where currency restrictions are being reimposed because our balance of trade is so heavily skewed towards imports that we are once again running out of money. No, we cannot just print some more as we did with the Zimbabwe dollar; we are now using the US dollar. We don’t even have a currency of our own. Well so I thought.

Shelton told me that for 3 days this week he’d been translating at a feminist conference in town. It wasn’t just feminists, the whole spectrum of LGBTIQ (I had to ask what the last 2 letters meant) were there and it was quite an experience for him. No holds barred; there were tears, shouting and bad language aplenty but as he said just that it happened at all was remarkable. It would have been unthinkable just a few years back. Progress perhaps?

Bond coins - not enough for this cup of coffee!

Bond coins – not enough for this cup of coffee!

Then today I was on the way to do some company shopping in the industrial sites when I saw the newspaper placards advertising that the Reserve Bank is introducing bond notes. Bond notes? Really? We already have bond coins that are useful only in Zimbabwe and are on parity with the US dollar which is our de facto currency, but bond notes? Is this the start of the return of the Zimbabwe dollar as was suspected when the coins were introduced? Those fears were unfounded – it was just a means to alleviate the chronic shortage of small change – but it only gained acceptance when the South African rand plunged in value. We’d been using the rand coins, which fortuitously were one tenth the value of the US dollar, but when the rand started to run the bond coins became acceptable. Rand paper money also became unacceptable and the US dollar now rules supreme representing 95% of the currency in circulation. I decided to see where the public opinion lay.

Newspaper vendors on Coventry Road in the industrial sites were my first target.

“Can I pay for your newspapers with bond notes?”

“Yes” (no, I can’t – they haven’t been released yet)

“The Zimbabwe dollar is back!”

Nervous giggles – clearly I was not going to get a response here.

I stopped at the Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company yard to buy some gypsum. Despite my best provocations the clerk who served me would not be drawn to any sort of opinion on the matter. I was more blunt with the labourers who loaded the fertilizer. They were so bored with the lack of business that even those not involved wandered over.

“Pamberi ne ZANU-PF” (forward with the ruling party) I shouted and gave a clenched fist salute. Laughter.

“Pamberi ne Zimbabwe dollar” elicited a similar response. Nobody showed much interest in a debate.

My campaign reached it’s finale at the accounting office where I had to sign my companies’ annual returns (to indicate they were still active). The clerk’s response to my provocation was simply; “Ah, but what can we do?”. Protest perhaps?

Getting onto the internet at home was instructive. A statement from the Reserve Bank governor was circulating that was instructive and entertaining. The bond notes are going to be issued in $20, $10 $5 and $2 denominations and will be equivalent to their US cousins. They will be backed by a bond (hence the name) of $200 million from the Africa Export-Import Bank though they will be released as necessary (the $50m that backed the release of the bond coins last year has not all been used). But why are we in this mess?

  • as the economy has declined our balance of trade deficit has ballooned. There is less money around to buy the cash we need. It’s going into importing goods.
  • the cash we need has dwindled because it has become a commodity in itself. People are hoarding it because they don’t trust the banking system that let them down so badly in the past. The Reserve Bank estimates that some $3b – $7b is circulating in the informal sector and never goes through banks.
  • the countries around us with more volatile currencies are eager to get hold of US dollars and are mopping it up any way they can.
  • the cash is being illegally exported. Who is responsible? In the words of a teller at a bank I deal with  – “The big men are stealing it all”. Also the Chinese. One was caught recently at Harare airport leaving with a large amount of cash.

So the elastoplast fix is multi-faceted. Heavy restrictions on imports especially luxury items. Raw materials, medicines and fuels are unrestricted. Paying for students overseas is restricted. Cash withdrawals are limited to $1000 per day. This should make paying wages for the big companies interesting. There are heavy restrictions on taking cash out the country but I saw nothing about using local Visa cards outside the country. Use of plastic money is going to be heavily encouraged and in some cases laughable; “To this end, every business in all geographical areas and sectors of the economy must have a point of sale per till machine or purchase point” in the words of the Reserve Bank governor. Really? That rural bottle store in the Honde Valley must get a POS machine?

So will it work? No, as I said earlier it’s not addressing the source of the problem – the gravely ill economy. Luxury goods will of course be available at a hugely inflated price (better stock up on wine now!) as those who can circumvent restrictions. Local producers will lack competition and hike prices. Cash is already being sold at a 10% markup and really, what will $200m do? Real $100 and $50 notes will be hoarded and smuggled even faster than before and the run on the banks that started some time ago will not stop as people fear the worst. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So is this the return of the Zimbabwe dollar? Whilst the Reserve Bank has stated it has no plans to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar I don’t know anyone who actually believes that – apart from maybe itself.



A nice idea

3 02 2015

Towards the end of last year Zimbabwe was abuzz with the news that bond coins were going to be introduced. The news was not well received and, despite strong denial from the Reserve Bank, rumours abounded that it was an attempt by the government to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar. I had seen one or two but up until today had not actually received any as change.

Small change

Small change

Small change is in notoriously short supply in Zimbabwe. South African coins (2 RAND lower right) have been useful in that they are roughly 1/10 the value of a dollar (so the 2 RAND coin is valued at 20c) but obviously they have to be bought at least the face value plus some sort of commission. The bond coins, which are minted in South Africa, are pegged at equal to the US dollar though they have no value outside the country. They certainly cost less to produce than their face value. A nice idea and certainly preferable to receiving ball point pens or sweets as change which was the case. People receiving lots of coins, such as the mini bus drivers, can go and change the coins at the end of the day for paper money at a bank. Except, as Shelton tells me, most refuse to accept them.