A South African-based, Zimbabwean-born correspondent shares his experience of the cash crisis in Zimbabwe when he went to visit his family over the festive season.
The shortage of cash is still a reality in Zimbabwe even after the ascendancy of President Emmerson Mnangagwa into power on 24 November 2017. After spending some time in the country during the festive season, I had run out of cash and so I visited several banks in the Harare CBD.
The queues were not that long but still people could not get money from the banks.
“I have been here for almost two hours but the service is very slow. I am not sure whether they are giving some cash today. I have to wait until my turn comes, maybe I will be lucky. The most disturbing thing is after waiting for more than three hours the bank may only give a maximum of $50 (R850.00) per day,” said a woman trying to find a place to sit on the pavement outside the Barclays branch on First Street.
According to the woman, a security guard at the bank entrance in an effort to maintain order had issued numbers. She was number 90 but said she would wait patiently in the hope of gettingt some money that day.
A few metres from Barclays is Zimbabwe Bank (ZB). About 20 people queued outside the bank intending to withdraw money. Most of them were not sure whether they would get any.
“I just joined this queue but am not sure whether I will get the money. Schools are to open very soon so I have to get prepared. A week towards Christmas Day the bank allowed a maximum withdrawal of $70 (R850,00). I hope it is still the same,” says Chamunorwa (not his really name) who was also in the queue.
Where are people getting cash for daily needs such as commuting to work?
In the prevailing situation, one can use either Ecocash, swipe a bank card or hard cash.
Ecocash is a mobile payment solution that enables Econet customers to make financial transactions such as paying goods and services without hard cash.
Alternatively, relatives from abroad may send money by Mukuru Services.
In Harare I was welcomed by my family. They asked me not to buy anything using the cash I had. Cash was only to be used for commuting. Instead they advised me to use their Ecocash or bank cards for swiping.
I really did not understand how this worked. The family was not aware that I had privately stashed some few hundred rands for my personal use.
Trouble started after I had spent the extra rands. But how then was I to meet my daily needs without hard cash? In an effort to find out exactly how people get the cash, I had to visit several retail shops and food outlets in Harare.
Surprisingly at Chicken Inn, one of the most popular food outlets in the Harare CBD, I noted some middle-aged women negotiating for cash from customers. They offered their bank cards to swipe or an Ecocash payment in exchange for hard cash.
Some of the customers are neither patient nor comfortable with such a situation. They actually wave away anyone approaching.
While I was in the CBD, I ran out of cash for commuting home. From the CBD to Budiriro is US$1 during peak hours and 50c off-peak. I tried to negotiate for cash in one of the food outlets but one of the shop assistants stopped my negotiations.
Luckily I bumped into a friend who paid for me.
Consumers are hard hit
Now that I had no hard cash with me, my daughter transferred $30 (R365.00) into my Ecocash account.
One morning, I visited OK Zimbabwe and other small retail shops dotted around Budiriro 5, a high density suburb 18km west of the city centre. Most of these shops accept Ecocash and bank cards but these forms of payment carry a surcharge.
Consumers are hard hit. A loaf of bread costs US$1 when a customer has hard cash but when paying by Ecocash, retail shops charge 10 cents more.
“When paying by Ecocash please you have to buy goods worth $2 and above. We do not accept anything less than that,” says a shop assistant at one of the small retail shops in Budiriro 5B.
My intention was to buy just a loaf of bread and get $10 cash out. The retailer forced me into buying two loaves of bread. To get the $10 cash out they charged me $2 more. No one dared explain to me the extra charge.
Chain retail stores like OK Zimbabwe and Pick n Pay do not impose extra charges on Ecocash but the mobile payment system is not reliable.
I visited OK Zimbabwe which is about a kilometre away from where I stayed, wanting to buy 1kg of bananas and a packet of brown sugar only to discover that the Ecocash system was not working well that day. That explained why there were very few customers in the shop.
The bananas were necessary that day for my bed ridden mother so I had no choice but to buy from other retail shops that imposed extra charges.
Meanwhile President Mnangagwa in his inauguration speech assured Zimbabweans of their access to money from banks. “People must be able to access their earnings and savings as and when they need them,” he said.
Zimbabweans are anxiously waiting for such times.