Déjà-vu – and it’s not good

9 08 2017

NEVER throw away what might be useful

We have a habit in this country of not throwing things away “just in case they might be useful one day”. It’s not without good reason but it can be taken to extremes.

In the days when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and the country was under blanket sanctions for it’s persistent colonial ways ingenuity ruled. Getting fuel was difficult and just about everything else close to impossible. Car spares were horded and years after we got rid of an old car I still found spares squirreled away “just in case”.

Now that Rhodesia is Zimbabwe and we still have sanctions (but this time targeted against certain odious individuals) spares are once again becoming difficult.  In this case it’s spares for a Husqvarna hedge trimmer we use to trim tobacco and gum tree seedlings – so of course I feel somewhat smug that I kept the remains of a previous hedge trimmer. Just in case.

The shortages this time around are nothing to do with the sanctions but gross incompetence and greed by the ruling regime; the nation has simply run out of money. The bond notes alluded to in other posts are proving to be exactly what everyone feared them to be – a return to the defunct Zimbabwe dollar under another guise. There was never a bond/loan backing them (the Reserve Bank governor simply lied) and now the government has announced that it wants to release another 300m of  them backed by precisely nothing.

Inflation has also made a return. I priced a gum wooden door last week that has increased 50% over the last 4 months despite being made entirely of local products. It is priced in US$ but I’m almost certain that if I asked I could get a discount for “cash” i.e. real US$ notes of around 20% (most people use debit cards or similar devices to pay for items). A potential customer asked me if he could get a discount for bond notes and was told most definitely no. He did not ask if he could get a discount for real cash – US dollars.

So tomorrow I will start making a plan (something else for which Zimbabweans are notorious) and see if I can assemble the 1½ hedge trimmers in the picture into one functioning one. After all adversity is the mother of invention and we’ve been here before. Once as Rhodesia and again in the years when the Zimbabwe dollar was real if completely useless.  It’s a sense of déjà-vu and I don’t like it one bit.

There is one positive aspect to this. In the carnage of the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar in 2008/9 when inflation was running in six figures per month, people who’d taken out housing mortgages paid them off with one note or less. Yes, that happens when the largest note is 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars.  Now if the government floods the country with bond notes we should be able to pick them up cheaply enough by paying in real dollars to pay off our mortgage really cheaply. There will of course be collateral damage as they say – territory we visited back in 2008/9. I don’t think I want to go there at any price.

P.S. (a day later). I was called this morning by a company that sells irrigation equipment – a part that I’d ordered had arrived. On asking the cost I was told $78 “… but we are offering a discount of 25% for US$ cash or 10% for bond notes.” So apparently the bond notes, based on nothing, are actually in demand.


Déjà vu

13 06 2016
Just change the date and the bank details...

Just change the date and the bank details…


It was quite simple really. All I had to do was open the “Labour”
folder in Microsoft Word, look for a file with “wages request” in the title and change the date and the bank on the existing letter (above). Back in 2008 the hyper inflation was raging, shop shelves were empty, money was being printed and the money changers were making small fortunes.

Now we are in 2016 and money is about to be printed, shop shelves are full for the time being and money changers are making small fortunes if they have access to cash. And I have to make an application to the bank to withdraw my own money as cash for wages.

Last Friday I’d called in at my local bank to check on cash withdrawal limits; $300 per day for small businesses. The bank manager suggested I get my staff to open accounts so that they could use debit cards. I pointed out that a number of my labour force signed their name with an X. They were pretty much illiterate. How was I going to explain that a piece of plastic now represented cash and the actual money was held at an institution which they didn’t trust in the first place. Well then, she suggested, I should make an application to withdraw cash but they couldn’t promise anything.

So here I was, a little over 8 years later, changing minor details on a letter so that once again, I might get access to my own money to pay wages. Yes, they are US dollars now but I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu.  (I did also have to change the phone numbers and email address on the footer.)

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.

NSSA and wasted time

22 04 2013

One of the larger and newer buildings in Harare is the National Social Security (pronounced NaSSA) building. It was built in the Zim dollar days so they were making a fair bit of money then. This was not difficult given that it is compulsory to give 3% of the labour force’s salary, matched by 3% from the company, in one’s employ to NSSA on a monthly basis and in those days we had a reasonably robust economy.  So given the vastly reduced income base now that there is some 90% unemployment in the country, one could forgive NSSA being overly keen to ensure that dues are paid.  But I was more than a little annoyed last week to get a phone call from one of the NSSA inspectors requesting to see the wage returns.

“Is that Mr Roberts? This is Brian from NSSA, I need to inspect your returns”.

“But I had an audit last year in December, why do you want to see them again?”

“We are doing them every 3 months. When will you be back in the office?”

I said that he would just have to wait the 2 hours or so that I was going to be in town.

On getting back to the office I produced the required documentation.

“Why are you doing inspections every 3 months?”

“It’s our policy” (meaning there is nothing I can do about it).

“Why not do it every 6 months or a year and save on time, travel and costs?”

“You will have to ask my superiors that”.

This was a blind ally so I tried a bit of information gathering instead.

“How many of you do this in Harare?”


“And do you do anything else?”

“No, this is what we do”

This sounded like a job from hell so I persisted; “How many customers do you have to see a day?”

“Oh, about 10 to 15”

“And how long have you been doing this?”

“Two years” and Brian rolled his eyes.

I was beginning to quite like this guy despite the annoyance I felt at the incredible waste of resources used in the quarterly visits. NSSA does actually pay out pensions to retired and widowed people so I guess it does fill a function. Fortunately as I am over 50 I am exempt from having to pay dues. In the past some high-profile politically “connected” farmers have point-blank refused to pay the dues and so far as I know were never brought to book. I should have put this to Brian but I had other more pressing issues to deal with.

“So I guess I will see you or a colleague in another 3 months time to look at another 3 pieces of paper”.

“Yes”, he replied, giving me a wan smile and clumped down the stairs on his way to another appointment.

Beans best before

21 10 2012

One can always get a different perspective on life from the vantage point of the toilet. I could see the remains of 2 cases of cans of beans under the spare bed in the spare room. They have been there a long time. I guess I bought them in 2008 when doing a shopping run to Johannesburg. That was the year of the crash of the Zimbabwe dollar. Food shortages abounded. The supermarket shelves were full  of very little spread out to make it look like a lot. All manner of people were selling basic and not so basic foodstuffs from their garages and charging illegally in hard currency. People coming back from the UK brought food and bread back in their luggage. Said a UK customs official to someone I know on seeing the bread in her hand luggage;  “Going back to Zimbabwe are we madam?”.

If you were down in Jo’burg it was possible to go and buy in bulk at the Woodmead Makro wholesale warehouse in the north. I did a pallet shop and ran out of money before the pallet was up to full height so it was rather expensive on the transport but I got it back to Harare with a transport company offering a specific service. Most of it was used long ago but being single I don’t go through a lot of food and the South African supermarket chains could land produce here much cheaper than the individual could once the US dollar became the currency of choice in 2009. So I rather forgot about it until just now.

The best before date on the baked beans is October last year and on the butter beans is a month ago and there is no rust on any of the cans so the contents are definitely worth investigating. This IS Zimbabwe and we don’t just throw away food because it has passed its best before date!

I do still occasionally come across wads of totally useless Zimbabwe dollars stashed away at the back of a cupboard or secreted in a suitcase. The best before dates on those was pretty much the day after I stored them (there was no point in banking them as there were limits on withdrawing cash and they devalued too fast) and no, they have no other use that even I can think of.



Where have all the skills gone?

28 06 2012

For 20 minutes I sat and watched an abortive attempt to tow a heavy steel structure across the car park of the engineering works that specialised in welding. They were using a thoroughly inadequate chain which kept breaking and it was getting boring so I decided to go and see what was happening with the coffee pot. I’d bought it at the gym coffee shop towards the end of last year because it seemed easier to use than the espresso pot that was probably older than me and, despite being very expensive, I thought it had to last a long time as it was made of stainless steel. I’d never been over-impressed with the marketing guff on the side of the box; “The Signature Collection is 100% craftsmen made because objects that are made by craftsmen resonate with emotion. Pick one up and you can sense the time and effort invested in its creation“. It felt to me distinctly machine mass-made to me but what the hell, it was a Nick Munro design (whoever he is if indeed he exists) so it had to be good. Then last week the spout began to leak and lo, with minimal effort, it came right off! Some craftsmanship this was but having paid $60 for it I thought it worth getting fixed.

They still hadn’t managed to get the gas lit so with an increasing sense of foreboding I decided to hang around and watch. Eventually things started to happen but it seemed to take an awful long time to merely re-attach a spout. The welder then made off with the pot and my concern turned distinctly nasty when a stub of a file was found and the inside of the pot attacked. I asked for it back, told the foreman I wasn’t paying and made off with the pot and my money nearly and hour after arriving.

It’s well know of course that skilled artisans are in short supply worldwide. Zimbabwe is no exception. In the dark days of the Zimbabwe dollar’s plunge in 2007/8, large numbers of professionals and artisans left for more stable and better paid jobs elsewhere. It was at that time that I had my Land Cruiser engine rebuilt at a machine shop in Harare. All seemed well but after 2000km it self-destructed and I opened the engine to find all 6 liners (hard metal sleeves in the cylinders) broken. I found out later that the original owner had sold up, emigrated to Australia and then sponsored all his best machinists to go over from Zimbabwe and join his new business. As I had done the re-assembly of the engine I was advised that I could not try to pin culpability on the machine shop even though it was obviously their error. Quite how they’d managed a blunder of that magnitude nobody could really tell me.

On a far larger scale the commercial farmers who were kicked off their farms in the land grab in this country took their hard-earned skills to the Middle East, New Zealand, Afghanistan, Iraq, West Africa and even Russia amongst other places. Zimbabwe is not an easy country to farm and we are now paying dearly for these skill losses.

As for my coffee pot I will have to see if the mess can be cleaned up (he even managed to BURN THROUGH THE SPOUT!) enough to make it useable. So it’s back to the old espresso pot (on the right in the photo) which although more fiddly to use does, in my opinion, make better coffee. Who knows, it might really have been put together by real craftsmen all those years ago when they weren’t in such short supply!