Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Payday Nightmare in Zimbabwe

The six-digit salaries earned by those lucky enough to have jobs are not enough to cover the barest essentials.
Payday Nightmare in Zimbabwe

The six-digit salaries earned by those lucky enough to have jobs are not enough to cover the barest essentials.

From Florence Muchena in Harare (AR No. 106, 1-Apr-07)

There is a new class of people in Zimbabwe who go by the name “BSAP” – “broke soon after pay”.

Sibongile Ncube is a typical white-collar BSAP, a young urban professional who a decade ago would have been driving a small car and renting a two-bedroomed flat in the posh Avenues district of the capital Harare.

Now she dreads the end of the month when she gets her paltry salary, which is not enough to cover transport costs for her and her daughter, let alone other things. She shakes her head in despair as she calculates her budget for the month and tries to balance it with her pay.

Ncube’s monthly salary of 384,000 Zimbabwean dollars, ZWD, would come out at a respectable 1,500 United States dollars if you applied the official exchange rate set by the country’s central bank. But as is generally the case with government-enforced exchange rates, it is an irrelevance because no one except a few privileged insiders has access to foreign currency at this price.

Instead, a parallel exchange market has grown up where most transactions take place. Such is the pace of the Zimbabwean dollar’s depreciation that it trades on the informal but realistic exchange market at an astonishing 1,000 times less than its official value. In other words, Ncube’s salary in the real world has the purchasing power of not 1,500 but nearer 15 US dollars.

So her six-digit salary may make her a millionaire earner over the course of a year, but it leaves her and her daughter on less than one American dollar a day, well within the parameters for extreme poverty defined by the World Bank.

Ncube’s monthly outgoings includes 660,000 ZWD for her own commute to work and her daughter’s travel to school, 300,000 ZWD in rent, 35,000 for water and 25,000 for electricity – so even without food, her costs are two-and-a-half times her income. Were it not for a relative living outside Zimbabwe who sends her money occasionally, life would be impossible.

Asked what the point of going to work was, Ncube said, “I have asked myself the same question over and over again. I have been losing weight – not because I am ill, but because I simply cannot afford to feed myself.

“I forego breakfast and lunch. And these days I can go into a supermarket and come out with nothing because prices would have gone up from my previous visit and I realise that I can no longer afford anything.”

As well as worthless wages, the 20 per cent of Zimbabweans who are still in work have to battle with consumer prices that rise daily.

Annual inflation stands at 1,700 per cent – in other words, the nominal prices of consumer items in the shops are that much higher than they were at the same time last year.

The BSAPs – a category that these days includes just about everyone – are casualties of the ever-widening gap between prices and wages. Bread, at 5,000 ZWD a loaf, is now a luxury item and is not always available, while milk, meat and eggs are priced off the menu. The price rises are continuous – in March, for example, prices trebled for many items.

Fuel prices, too, go up on almost a daily basis, leading to rising fares for commuters, so many people have just stopped reporting for work.

People on lower pay than Ncube, plus the vast army of unemployed, have an even tougher time of it in the ongoing economic meltdown described by the World Bank as the world’s worst outside a war zone.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which represents most of those still in employment, has called for industrial action, telling people to stay away from their workplaces on April 3-4. Yet despite poor wages and economic hardship, the signs are that most workers will ignore the call.

One security guard – doing a job that is among the worst paid in the country – explained this apparent paradox. “The problem is that people are afraid of being beaten up by the police and the army and losing their jobs,” he said. “So we are saying that at least we have jobs and losing them would make life even more difficult, so why risk it? Personally, I don’t see people staying at home.”

Several other workers interviewed were worried about retribution from the authorities if they stayed away from work. President Robert Mugabe has vowed to mercilessly crush any groups showing resistance to his rule.

Ncube, meanwhile, has resigned herself to a life on the margin, relying on relatives to help out a little and waiting for divine providence,

“Why I continue going to work and still beg for bus fares from friends and relatives is because I hope and am praying that maybe one of these days my salary is going to be increased to levels that will enable me to try and survive,” she said. “Had it not been for my sister in the diaspora who assists me with at least rent and tops up my transport fare, particularly for my daughter, I would be living on the streets.

“Sometimes, I think of getting what we girls now call ‘sponsors’ [sugar daddies] to take care of me, but because of my Christian values I haven’t taken that step. But if things get worse and I don’t get an increase, I might be forced to.”

Florence Muchena is the pseudonym used by a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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