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

Zimbabweans Bear Brunt of Economic Meltdown

Zimbabwe is the only country in the world whose highest denomination bank note cannot buy a loaf of bread.
By IWPR Srdan
If an uprising begins in Zimbabwe any time soon it might well be dubbed "the Lemonist Revolution".

So important has the lemon now become that it is a part of every family's shopping basket. People visiting neighbouring South Africa return with plastic bags loaded with the yellow-skinned citrus.

Fresh milk, when available, has become unaffordable for most. The same goes for sugar. At breakfast, to enhance the taste of their morning cup of tea, locals now use lemon instead of milk and sugar. They need it in their porridge too, for the same reason.

"Tea tastes good with lemon," said Margaret Gweshe, a housewife living in Chitungwiza, 28 kilometres from Harare. "But that's not why we have lemon tea every day. We would prefer the old days when we had milk we could afford."

Prices of essential commodities have shot up, with inflation reaching 1043 per cent in May. "People now only have money for the very basics," said Gweshe as she cradles a two-year-old child showing the early signs of malnutrition. "Maize meal is our staple, so all the money has to be directed towards it before we can think of buying anything else."

For breakfast she gives the baby maize porridge with lemon in it while she makes do with a cup of tea and a sweet potato from her garden. To preserve maize rations there is no midday lunch. "Maputi is all we will have in the afternoon," she said. Maputi are popped maize, very different from popcorn familiar to film-goers. The latter is made from special corn, while the former are just ordinary maize kernels roasted until they pop.

"For supper we always have sadza [a thick maize porridge] with vegetables boiled in salt. There is no cooking oil. We can't afford tomatoes and onions. Having supper is an ordeal rather than a pleasure," she said.

Zimbabwe's economic meltdown is now virtually complete and ordinary Zimbabweans are bearing the brunt of it.

The price of a litre of petrol increased from 200,000 to 300,000 Zimbabwe dollars at the end of the first week of June. Obviously no foreigner can comprehend, at a glance, what that means.

So bear with me for a short seminar on a country holding two world records - the highest inflation rate in the world and the fastest shrinking economy.

The real value of one US dollar at the black market rate in a country where the formal economy has collapsed is 310,000 Zimbabwe dollars. President Robert Mugabe's has pegged the official exchange rate at 102,000 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar, but US greenbacks are exchanged at this rate only in exceptional, unavoidable circumstances. To illustrate how far we have fallen, one Zimbabwe dollar was worth more than one American dollar at independence in 1980.

Eighty per cent of all Zimbabweans now live in abject poverty on the equivalent of less than one US dollar a day.

Every rise in the price of fuel has an immediate effect on everything else. Commuter bus fares rise as soon as the price of fuel rises. The prices of

basic commodities also rise because grocers have to pay more to bring the commodities to their shops.

Zimbabwe is the only country in the world whose highest denomination bank note cannot buy a loaf of bread. Less than a week after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced a new 100,000 Zimbabwe dollar bank note at the beginning of June, the price of a loaf of bread shot up from 85,000 to 132,000 Zimbabwe dollars. Last Christmas, we were paying "only" 45,000 a loaf.

A lot of things have become so ridiculous in Zimbabwe that they would be hilariously funny if they were not so deadly serious and causing so many of us to die unnaturally early. Another world record we hold is for the lowest life expectancy for our women. According to the World Health Organisation, the average Zimbabwean woman does not live now beyond the age of 34 compared with 60 years at independence.

The word "trillion" has been added to our basic vocabulary, because that is the monetary figure government departments and businesses work in. But a recent snap survey showed that only one in ten professionals know how many zeros there are in a trillion.

The Reserve Bank has introduced "bearer cheques" because it has run out of foreign exchange to import the kind of high quality paper necessary for printing standard bank notes. The bearer cheques are printed on ordinary low quality paper, with no security features, and they expire after a given period. The last "quality" bank note printed in this country was for 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars, which these days does not buy you even a single matchstick.

For a single purchase of twenty litres of petrol, one needs 6 million Zimbabwe dollars or 300 twenty thousand dollar bearer cheques. Petrol attendants use money counters for this and as the cheques purr in the machine the poor quality paper sends lots of dust into the attendant's face. They have to wear masks because the dust causes terrible coughing. The dust pollution is made worse because "some of our customers carry their great wads of bearer cheques in the most unsavoury of containers”, one attendant told IWPR at a service station in the Harare suburb of Hatfield.

In the villages, the new money puzzles the elderly. "Why do they give us this new note when it cannot buy anything," asked an old man at funeral vigil in Chivi, 320 km south of Harare. He told IWPR that in his day, "when money was still money", one could buy a pair of shoes using the biggest denomination note. "Now this 100,000 dollar bill buys nothing, but they bring it to us anyway," he said.

The 100,000 Zimbabwe dollar bill has been dubbed the "greenback" by local wits because of its colour. But, unlike a single US dollar, one of these new notes is useless by itself. To buy a single 40-watt lightbulb you need a dozen "greenbacks".

Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono said on the eve of the launch of the 100,000 Zimbabwe dollar bearer cheque, "It will help reduce the annoyance of carrying loads and loads of money around and make shopping easier." Well, Gono, who lives in a palatial home perhaps second in size to President Mugabe's, is way out of touch with reality. We ordinary Zimbabweans no longer use wallets. They are too small. The country's money is devaluing so fast that you have to lug around plastic bags full of "bricks" of notes if you are going to a small grocery shop. To buy anything bigger, you need a suitcase.

For most low-income urban dwellers whose salaries range from a low of five million to an average of ten million Zimbabwe dollars a month, life has simply become unbearable.

Margaret Gweshe's husband earns ten million Zimbabwe dollars and works near the city centre. He needs 200,000 a day to travel to and from work and the total per month is about four million. Rental accommodation in most working class suburbs ranges between 3 million and 3.5million a month for a single room.

The Gweshes' monthly ten million Zimbabwe dollars is gobbled up just by transport and accommodation. They rent two rooms. Therefore there is no money for groceries, school fees and school uniforms, whose prices are soaring in line with runaway inflation. School shoes now cost 3 million a pair at a shoe shop considered to be one of the cheapest.

"A person earning 10 million is not able to come to work, pay school fees and accommodation. That's what it means," said Fadzai Kaseke who lives in the

sprawling shantytown of Epworth just outside Harare. "That person cannot afford

to get sick. Imagine if a serious illness falls in the family. The person will be in serious trouble."

Most families are surviving on one meal a day. Things that most people used to take for granted, such as milk, margarine, bread, sugar, meat, cooking oil and tea, have become luxuries. Beef, once a staple along with maize, now costs 1 million Zimbabwe dollars a kilogramme in a supermarket.

Zimbabweans joke grimly that they are "poor millionaires". Like Gladys, a domestic worker who earns more than 3 million a month. That is a salary she could only dream of a few years ago when maids' monthly wages were set at 80,000. But these days her millions do not stretch to a regular morsel of meat. So she eats dried grasshoppers.

"We are getting to the point where people can't take anymore,” said Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a major lobby group for political reform."Poverty and suffering are growing by the day. It's just a matter of time before inflation sparks civil disobedience."

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.