Gweru-Zimbabwe-Shoving, stampeding, yelling, crowding at door entrances and Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). This has become characteristic at banks in Zimbabwe since the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) Governor, Gideon Gono increased the daily cash withdrawal limit from 50,000 Zimbabwean dollars to 500,000 dollars for individuals and $1million up from $10,000 for companies last Wednesday.
But the intervention by the central bank has not brought any relief to the transacting public. Instead prices have skyrocketed and the new withdrawal limit can only buy 2kgs of sugar. For 33-year-old Faith Chiseko, the distress that she faces as she wakes up around 4 a.m. every day to attempt to withdraw cash at a building society along seventh street, life has become unbearable. A single parent of two, Faith bursts into tears as she is told that today there is no cash at the bank.
“I have to take care of my two sons. How does anyone expect me to survive without cash?” she quizzes as tears cloud her eyes.
Even if the amount cannot buy her much, Faith believes it’s her money and she has every right to get it.
“I know $500,000 is not enough but it’s my money and I should not struggle to get it,” she says.
Hordes of other depositors continue to mill around the bank even as they are told there is no cash. Some of them who spent the night here to beat the queue just can’t believe it. With ashen faces that tell of injured spirits they ponder the next move for survival. They know the kids are waiting home for something to eat.
“The pain of not knowing what you are going to eat or whether you will eat at all is a haunting experience, my brother. Worse still if you have kids. You can’t expect them to understand the situation,” says 30-year-old Daniel Tembo.
Since the withdrawal increase, shortages of cash at banks have become the order of the day. Despite the central bank’s initiative to introduce higher denomination notes of $100,000, $500,000 and $1 million, nothing positive has been recorded. Instead the piecemeal measure has witnessed a surge in the price of everything. Economic analysts contend that holistic macro and micro economic policies coupled with political reforms are needed to address Zimbabwe’s problems. The central bank boss has, however continuously insisted on numeral occasions that it will continue printing money until the economic and political environment stabilises. This has however contributed to the high inflation, as the move is not supported by production of goods and growth in the output of services.
The hyperinflation figure as of July is officially pegged at 231 million percent. The Central Statistical Office (CSO) is yet to release the September, October and November figures. Independent economic analysts argue that the CSO figure is unrealistic and that inflation could be running into several billions if not trillions.
Opposite the building society at a commercial bank, depositors sit on pavements. It is almost mid-day and they have been promised that cash is on its way. The blank eyes tell of a people resilient under abnormal conditions. One wonders why they struggle to withdraw such a meager amount and even the need to put great effort in accessing one’s own cash. But such is the nature of Zimbabweans. They are soft and non-violent in their approach.
One American Professor at a local university, Professor Buckett once put it across: “When I first arrived in Zimbabwe and saw people queuing at banks and at shops for bread, I was really surprised. I have never seen a people so patient as to endure the queue to withdraw one’s own money and buy bread.”
Around 4 p.m, a security company truck reverses to the entrance of the commercial bank. People rush to the door. A security guard fights to control the commotion. Only a few minutes later the bank manager announces, “As you can see the money reached here late. We will start serving tomorrow.”
The weary and hungry crowd can’t have any of it. All sorts of shouts are directed at the “poor” man. He has no choice but to direct his tellers to work overtime. They serve up to around 9 p.m. There is temporary relief as depositors leave for their homes with the $500,000 note. Tomorrow is another struggle for a meaningless withdrawal limit that might not be available anywhere.
Even those fortunate to have relatives working in foreign countries who regularly send them hard currency also feel the pinch. Machines at most western union agents are almost always down.
“Someone can surely starve to death when money can’t be accessed like this. My aunt in the United Kingdom sent money a week ago and I have been coming here everyday without any luck,” says Tichaona Banda. Old men and women sit on the pavement. Their drained eyes however express hope that maybe today, the machines will be working. They have grandchildren back home who are waiting for food.
Those that are driven to tears like Faith can at least pour their emotions out. For the majority who put on tough faces, the continuous crying inside gradually damages their mental health.
Zimbabwe once considered the breadbasket of Africa is currently going through the worst economic crisis since gaining political independence from British colonial rule in 1980. Political leaders, 84-year-old Robert Mugabe of Zanu PF, Morgan Tsvangirai of the main Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Professor Arthur Mutambara of the Smaller MDC formation signed a power sharing agreement on September, ostensibly to pave way for the creation of Government of National Unity. The three protagonists are however hopelessly deadlocked on how best to share cabinet posts. At press time, they were meeting in South Africa Sunday, at a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) summit to resolve the impasse, which many believe can lay the ground for Zimbabwe’s economic and political resuscitation.
Stephen Chandega is a journalist in ZimbabweCommenting Policy
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