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Editor’s Memo

Back to barter

Joram Nyathi

SIGNS of a very bad omen have been with us for a long time. Although I am not given to superstition, it is, I think, a sign of serious trouble ahead when a

nation runs out of something as basic as salt.

You see, salt – just like water and money – is a commodity that all too often we take for granted in the cities. Not without reason.

We pay people to take care of these things while we do our best to give them a product we think they need.

Not so in Zimbabwe anymore and this is where we are a unique people. Last year Zimbabwe ran out of salt for some weeks. It made strange news, but it was the briefest shortage of any commodity in the long list. Now almost everything that matters in our daily lives is in short supply except newspapers. To the best of my knowledge, newspapers are still the only product that you don’t have to search for on the ubiquitous black market.

Every street corner of Harare has piles of newspapers from which you can take your pick – provided you have the money.

That could be a problem for you. People say the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is to blame for currency shortages. I don’t buy that in the least. That foreign currency dealers are the problem. No, you are wrong again. It certainly must be big retail shops and illegal gold buyers who are the problem!

That’s still wrong. In fact I don’t care who has how much cash stashed in some underground hole. The problem lies squarely with a government in which all people have lost faith. Whichever way you look at it, the problem at the end of the day is about reckless mismanagement. The shortage of money is linked to a host of other problems including inflation.

Inflation has reached untenable levels. Prices of goods are soaring daily as if we have no government. Scarcities have become a normal way of life and nobody in government seems to have a solution. People are forced to carry money in satchels in case they find something to buy. Nobody is beholden to the government for anything except forced taxation.

Government started the system of unaccountability when it raided treasury to pay war veterans an unbudgeted $4 billion in 1997. That single deed set our currency on a roller coaster to which nobody has been able to find the breaks.

Oblivious of the crisis it had set in motion, government in 1998 granted itself licence again to intervene in a foreign war in defence of an unelected power usurper in Congo jungle. While this was calculated to be a swift victory that would lift President Robert Mugabe’s regional stature and divert attention from his failure back home, it turned out to be a costly affair that would drag on for a good four years. We are still smarting from that hurt with nothing to show for it.

People still ask what largesse our soldiers brought back from the Congo? More inflation that has all but killed the formal banking system. Despite talk of opening business opportunities in the DRC, nothing is happening that is worth the name. It was the same thing with Mozambique earlier on. And the economy is bleeding.

The government’s land reform programme was the last straw. It has killed the goose that lays the golden egg – our famed tobacco exports. Government has been forced to import food, fuel and electricity at a time when its forex receipts are at an all-time low. Even exporting companies are finding it hard to survive because most of their earnings are forcibly taken away from them. At least 400 companies have closed shop altogether since the start of the land reform, forcing thousands of workers on to the streets.

All this does not seem to make sense to a government that is not accustomed to consultation outside of its moribund politburo. You could say people are hoarding cash. Of course they are because government cannot guarantee that they will get their money from banks whenever they need it. It is survival of the fittest crook out there. Anyone who has something to sell calls the colour of your money.

It is easy for those in government to advise people to use plastic money because they are not directly affected themselves. You can’t use plastic money to pay for your bus fare even in a Zupco bus, nor can you use it to buy milk and bread.

In supermarkets plastic money is driving the poorly-paid into debt because they are forced to buy things they don’t need, to get some cash to pay for electricity, water and rent. The government has to fully execute its duties of giving people their money. This time around it is not likely to get away with excuses about Tony Blair and other imperialists.

The government is in the habit of telling all – from churches to business – to get out of its way when the going is good and asks what is happening when things get tough. It still has to learn the elementary lesson that the role of any government worth the name is simply to lay a general legal framework and leave business to create jobs and wealth.

President Mugabe did allude to speculative investments in the economy during his opening address to parliament last week. We certainly can’t rule out greedy in as much as we can’t completely eradicate corruption and crime in any society. There are daily murders in South Africa and the problem of guns in the US, but these things don’t ruin an economy so long as people have faith in the system.

Less than two months after the Twin Towers at World Trade Centre were destroyed the US financial system was roaring at full steam. US citizens didn’t escape to England or Europe despite fears of further attacks. They carried their country’s flag high. By contrast, the government in Zimbabwe has destroyed faith in every public institution and nobody has confidence that things will get back to normal any time soon.

A friend who travelled to Kariba over the weekend tells me he found a shop in the Makute area stacked with different commodities from maize to cotton. When he enquired why he was told people who couldn’t get money from banks were bartering their farm produce for groceries, clothes and even blankets they didn’t need. It’s back to a barter economy.

Marco Polo was ecstatic in 1275 when he visited China and saw for the first time people using paper money: “I tell you that people are glad to take these tokens, because wherever they go in the empire of the great Khan, they can use them to buy and sell as if they were pure gold.”

Unfortunately those tokens are as scarce as good governance in Zimbabwe. And that is where all our problems emanate from.

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