Why Cash Is King In Zimbabwe

Jul 17, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 7:21 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hi, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know I was just on this big reporting trip in Zimbabwe.

CHANG: Yes. You came back very tan.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Nobody can hear my tan on the radio.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: We're airing those stories all this week about this historic moment of transition in a country. Now that Robert Mugabe is out of power, Zimbabwe is opening up to the world. And before we dive into this next story, I want to give you a souvenir that I brought back for you.

CHANG: Ooh (ph), you didn't have to. Oh, money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONEY THUDDING)

CHANG: Nice. How much is this actually worth?

SHAPIRO: Count the zeroes. Count the zeroes.

CHANG: OK, let's see here. There's a two. And then there is one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 zeroes. Did I get that right? Twenty billion dollars.

SHAPIRO: That is a $20 billion bill from Zimbabwe.

CHANG: Ari, you shouldn't have.

SHAPIRO: Well...

CHANG: This is so generous.

SHAPIRO: ....I'll tell you I actually paid two U.S. dollars for that bill.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Zimbabweans are not using this currency anymore. This is a bill from 2008. They stopped using it in 2009. But when they were using it, inflation was so high they basically stopped counting. One measure had it...

CHANG: Wow.

SHAPIRO: ...At 89 septillion percent inflation. One guy in Zimbabwe told me that at that point - we're talking about just about 10 years ago now...

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...He would negotiate the price of a meal before he sat down to eat because by the end of the meal the value of the currency would have already changed.

CHANG: That's incredible.

SHAPIRO: Today Zimbabweans use a bunch of different currencies. They prefer the U.S. dollar. And this week, we're hearing some optimistic stories about free expression and openness in a country that's been stifled for decades. But today's piece about cash is a bit more of a sobering reality check about one of the biggest challenges Zimbabwe faces.

CHANG: I can't wait to hear it.

SHAPIRO: It's a little after 8 a.m. on a weekday. We're in the middle of downtown Harare. And CBZ Bank has a line for the ATM stretching at least 20 people long. People have been standing out here for hours. And even when they get to the front of the line, if the ATM has cash, they can only take out a little bit. Some of them might find that by the time they get to the front of the line there's no money left.

BRENDAN MOYO: I came at 4, but...

SHAPIRO: You said you came at 4?

MOYO: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: In the morning?

MOYO: In the morning, yes.

SHAPIRO: Brendan Moyo (ph) is from a small farming town where the banks have no cash at all, so twice a week he takes the bus into the capital to wait in line here at the ATM. He has to pay for that bus ride in cash. On days the ATM runs out of money before he gets to the front of the line, he might have to stay in the city an extra night to try again. At another bank down the street, David Soko (ph) showed up at 8 a.m. to find that people had slept overnight hoping to snag a ticket that would guarantee a cash withdrawal.

DAVID SOKO: I was told that they started issuing out numbers around 12 midnight, which is quite scary for me to leave home and come to get a number.

SHAPIRO: Scary because Harare can be dangerous at night. On this day, Soko manages to withdraw $20. Foreign countries are not investing much in Zimbabwe. A lot of stuff has to be imported and paid for with foreign currency. So this is a country where cash is king, and Zimbabwe has a major cash shortage. Rumbitsai Chahara (ph) sells chickens for a living.

RUMBITSAI CHAHARA: (Through interpreter) It's very painful to have to wait for your money, especially if it's money that you've worked for. And it feels like we keep getting pulled back when we should be moving forward.

SHAPIRO: Since President Mugabe left in November, Chahara's situation has gotten worse. Her bank used to let her withdraw a hundred dollars a week. Now the limit is just 40. And those dollars aren't exactly dollars. They're bills called bond notes issued by the Zimbabwean central bank. In theory, they're worth one U.S. dollar each, but they're worthless outside of Zimbabwe. There's also a system that lets people pay with their cell phones, but some vendors only take cash. For people who don't want to sleep outside of a bank, you can also get cash on the black market. That's where I went next.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Copacabana is an open-air market in Harare where you can buy anything from food to clothing to currency. There's a whole line of people with stacks of cash thick as your fist just waiting to exchange currency.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: A car pulls up alongside us. Alak Javial Karim (ph) rolls down the window and asks if we're looking to buy U.S. dollars. I poke my head into his car and see he is up to his ankles in greenbacks - hundreds, 50s, $20 bills.

ALAK JAVIAL KARIM: I was a banker before.

SHAPIRO: You were a banker before.

KARIM: Yes.

SHAPIRO: But this is more lucrative.

KARIM: Yeah, it's more lucrative considering the economic changes that are taking place.

SHAPIRO: When did you leave the bank?

KARIM: 2003.

SHAPIRO: And life is good since then?

KARIM: It's good.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: One Zimbabwean economist told me the country's unemployment rate is 85 percent. But unofficially, people are finding ways to make money. There's trade happening everywhere. I met up with a sort of informal economist, a black-market money trader named Menasha Rumganga (ph) who knows the streets well. He wears a silver chain necklace and a Kangol flat cap and chews gum as we drive around his neighborhood on a little tour.

MENASHA RUMGANGA: Is this unemployment?

SHAPIRO: It doesn't look like unemployment to me.

RUMGANGA: No. I mean, this is not a formal economy. It's a sort of - this is a market economy. You can see the sugarcane, the oranges, the bananas. This is fresh, GMO free.

SHAPIRO: I'm trying to reconcile this morning talking to people who were waiting since midnight to get cash from an ATM and frustrated that they could only get $40 a week with the huge economic churn that we're seeing right here. One makes it look like a paralyzed economy where nothing gets done, and the other makes it look like a thriving economy where everything's happening.

RUMGANGA: Yeah. So it's a matter of choice. You want to keep your money in the banks, you're going to get stuck because getting it out is going to be a problem. But then for some people, they've got no choice - you see now? - because, like, maybe it's money from their pension or from their salary.

SHAPIRO: Many people in the informal economy are not there by choice. They are scraping by because they can't find traditional jobs. But hustling is also appealing because you don't have to deal with banks. A lot of people use the foreign currency that they buy here on the black market to buy things in neighboring countries that they then sell back in Zimbabwe for a profit.

There is a thriving business hauling things across the border with South Africa. Millions of Zimbabweans live in South Africa's biggest city, Johannesburg. That's where I meet 32-year-old Lawrence Mukube (ph) in a cafe where Zimbabweans hang out. His job is to drive 12 hours each way from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Plumtree, Zimbabwe. On his cell phone, he shows me an image of his vehicle. It's the size of a dump truck with a huge trailer hooked up to the back. People send him with construction materials, groceries and of course cash.

LAWRENCE MUKUBE: I coast right through the border.

SHAPIRO: How many times, once a week, once a month?

MUKUBE: Every week.

SHAPIRO: Every week.

MUKUBE: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Do the border guards stop you?

MUKUBE: I'm passing straight.

SHAPIRO: If people stopped sending money to Zimbabwe, what would happen?

MUKUBE: I'm going to broke.

SHAPIRO: You would go broke, but would the country also go broke?

MUKUBE: Yes. Yes. Yes.

SHAPIRO: The Zimbabweans we meet in South Africa tell us that everyone in Zimbabwe has someone outside of the country providing for them. And whether the expats want to go home or not, they have to stay where they are to support their family back in Zimbabwe. Thirty-seven-year-old Sfiso Gulomani (ph) left home as a teenager when he realized his parents were going hungry to feed the kids.

SFISO GULOMANI: And then one day in the morning, when I find out that my mother, she slept without anything in her stomach, I had to say, I have to pull up my socks. I have to leave this country. I have to follow my fellow Zimbabweans to South Africa.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to return to Zimbabwe one day?

GULOMANI: Yes. I am a Zimbabwean. I love my country, and I miss my country.

SHAPIRO: But before he can return, the country will have to change politically and economically. And for all of the optimism about a new chapter in Zimbabwe right now, people tell me it took years for the nation to crumble. It won't be repaired overnight. Tomorrow we'll talk with a journalist who has worked in Zimbabwe for years about the growing freedom of expression in his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "PINK BULLETS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This sort of a job is just more than an ordinary job. We provide a service to democrats and to society. So when you go to work, you're just not going to work for a salary. You're going to work to improve the communities, the society in which you live in so that you can live in a better country just like other people do.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "PINK BULLETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.