Cathy Buckle: What’s in a name? Zimbabwe’s ZiG currency chaos

In another letter from Zimbabwe, Cathy Buckle reflects on a tumultuous fortnight where the government’s currency announcement led to banking collapse. Amidst the chaos, blame shifted to the World Bank, arrests ensued, and street traders thrived. As the new currency failed to materialise, struggles persisted, epitomised by a friend’s silent suffering, highlighting the nation’s enduring crisis and resilience.

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By Cathy Buckle

Dear Family and Friends,

Oh dear what an embarrassing situation unfolded in Zimbabwe over the past fortnight. Subsequent to an absolutely chaotic ten days following the announcement by the government of a new currency and the immediate collapse of all banking and other payment systems, we quickly became the laughing stock. Zimbabwe’s repeated answer to economic chaos is to change the currency, give it a new name, strip a bunch of digits off the end, waste unknown millions on printing another lot of bank notes and then pretend it’s just business as usual. But it’s not business as usual and the sillier this change-over became the faster the back pedaling got.

As we all tried to get our heads round what had happened, how we were going to pay bills with old money no one wanted and new money which hadn’t even been released yet, out came the Reserve Bank Governor, John Mushayavanhu to stir the pot a bit more. ‘We didn’t know much about the structured currency,’ he said of the ZiG. ‘We got a consultant from the World Bank. … maybe they didn’t advise us properly…. if you blame me you’re actually blaming the World Bank.’  Oh no! As one, we put our hands over our faces!  Blame it on the World Bank! What a thing to say. Then the big stick emerged and threats came thick and fast. A week before the new bank notes were even released over 100 currency dealers were arrested in Harare, the state media bragged about it but we all know that 100 dealers is a drop in the vast ocean of street currency traders who literally line the pavements outside every supermarket offering to change your US dollars at a rate significantly higher than you can get in the bank. One press report quoting a currency dealer said: “We are all in this mess together. The police can come to assault us ….. but after work they will come to us asking for the US dollars.”

One economist put his finger on it when he said: ‘Do you think the government has enough police to arrest seven million people? Everyone has been changing money on the parallel market.’ He’s right of course because for the past 15 years we have all been buying or selling US dollars on the side of the road where we can get at least a third, half or more for our US dollars than the banks will give us. How do our leaders think we have all survived these years of mayhem? And how do they think so many people have got so rich so quickly? This week the conversion rate for ZiG to US dollars went from the bank- stated rate of 13.38 ZiG’s for one US dollar to 16, then 19, then 23 and that was before the new ZiG bank notes had even been released. So, what’s in a name, call it the ZWL, the RTGS dollar or the ZiG dollar, how will this one be any different and turn around 24 years of mess?

On the day that the new ZiG notes were supposed to be made available to the public I took a trip into town. There were no ZiG’s anywhere by mid-morning, no one had them but everyone was looking, asking, waiting, standing around. It’s the end of the month, bills have to be paid, school fees are waiting, rent is due.

With business as unusual as ever, I went to seek out a friend who I knew was in trouble with pain which haunts her day and night. Most of her salary is in local currency and she can barely survive a week on it, let alone get medical help. My friend is the epitome of Zimbabwe, she suffers in silence behind her smile, always limping and in pain and when I look in her eyes, the pain is forever lurking there. I found her and we embraced. ‘How is the pain,’ I asked, but she just shook her head and I knew instantly. I pressed an envelope with a few bank notes into her hands, ‘to help you cope with your pain,’ I said. She was overwhelmed and looked away. We embraced again, both our eyes wet with tears, words weren’t needed, they never are, this is our beautiful, broken Zimbabwe.

My Letter today is for my friend in pain and for the person who helped me through a particularly hard time this week. This is what Zimbabwe’s never-ending crisis is about, highs and lows and helping each other out whenever we can.

There is no charge for this Letter From Zimbabwe but if you would like to donate please visit my website. Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe now in its 24th year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, a country in waiting.

Ndini shamwari yenyu (I am your friend)

Love Cathy 2 May 2024.

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