Editor’s Memo

People first

Jorum Nyathi

GOVERNMENT’S attempt to camouflage its failure to resolve the country’s cash crisis through the issuance of travellers’ cheques has been a huge flop.

Banks were not informed about commissions and other charges when handling these pieces of paper. Wholesalers and retail shops are sceptical about their use value.

The public in general is not comfortable carrying paper that has been hurriedly printed that nobody immediately recognises at its face value. In short, the introduction of travellers’ cheques as a substitute for the Zimbabwe currency is not only being rejected but has also created a monumental public relations disaster for both the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe and the government.

The reasons for this rebuff are not hard to find. The travellers’ cheques were issued as a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis that has been simmering over a long period without government offering a plausible explanation or solution. Their sudden introduction was seen as some gimmick to buy time. Why the sudden inspiration to print some paper and call it money when government has been watching the problem ballooning without acting?

Why not print proper money if the travellers’ cheque itself is as safe to use as the $500 bill?

An issue that has been raised by members of the public is that the first cheques issued had a face value of $100 000. Human nature being what it is, people are bound to be suspicious of parting with their money or goods on the basis of a piece of paper they are not sure will be honoured by the next dealer. What if it turns out to be fake and their goods and change have gone? People are naturally resistant to change, especially unguided change. This gets more pronounced under a system where everything appears to result from crisis management.

Like in any other crisis, the hardest hit are the poor. According to the grapevine, wholesalers and supermarkets will accept your new $100 000 travellers’ cheque. The condition is simply that there is no change. The prices of their goods have either doubled or trebled in the past three months.

So whatever denomination you take for your shopping they make sure you take away as few goods as possible to reduce their own exposure to the new phenomenon. You could accuse them of profiteering, but their answer is equally cogent: we are taking on a very grave risk and we don’t want to lose our goods for a song. The poor man is caught in a vicious circle. Talk of Zanu PF putting people first. They are the first in the firing line.

But there are lessons to be learnt from all this. One important lesson should be that people will resist government imposts of any sort if they are not consulted. A simple public relations exercise would have helped to educate people about what the government and the RBZ were trying to do.

The first target would have been the banks – make them appreciate the magnitude of the bank note crisis the government was facing, that travellers’ cheques were merely a stop-gap measure while a lasting solution was being worked out and explain whether commissions would be charged and at what rate. Banks already understand the dangers of printing money in a hyperinflationary environment, so the lessons are clear.

Retailers and wholesalers also needed an explanation of what government was trying to do. They are in business to make a profit, not to solve government’s problems. They need to be persuaded to cooperate with government, not to be ordered to accept pieces of paper of very dubious legality.

TV and radio could have been put to good use to educate members of the public against hoarding money, to report people dealing on the parallel market and how to use the travellers’ cheques in a more economical way. There is too much ridiculous propaganda like Rambai Makashinga on radio and TV when what people want to know is when they can expect relief on problems like cash, fuel and food shortages.

Four years of this kushinga nonsense when people are hungry is too long and has become a major source of frustration even for government’s most ardent supporters. Rambai Makashinga, whatever that is supposed to mean, seems to have become an end in itself instead of an exhortation on people to endure a brief phase of inconvenience while relief is sought. It is especially irritating when people can’t get their own currency and government has taken leave of absence.

The idea is not to heap blame per se but to point out government’s shocking inco-mpetence and mismanagement. Apart from a few well-connected foreign currency hucksters, nobody else is reaping any dividend from this mess. The point must be made, too, that the nation is paying politicians and profession-als at the Reserve Bank to deal with these fiscal and financial matters. We get nothing for our taxes.

Thousands of people spend literally days standing in queues to get their own money when they should be either in their offices or on the shop-floor doing productive work. This is in addition to spending hours in fuel queues and outside supermarkets in search of scarce food commodities. There can be no greater form of economic sabotage than these lost man-hours caused by government’s criminal delinquency.

The biggest problem is, of course, not lack of adequate regulation. It is simply that government itself has become a bewildered bystander while the rot runs riot. Why not ad-mit failure and quit with dignity? There will be nothing to mourn.