By Jackie Olson
About 20 miners a year die from the desperate efforts to find gold within the caverns in Johannesburg, South Africa. Called “Zama Zama” from the Zulu tribal phrase: ‘men who try to get something from nothing’ this group of Zimbabwe men travel to South Africa in a desperate attempt to find gold and to provide for their struggling families back in Zimbabwe. While the activity is illegal, the seriousness of their ‘illegal’ activity is certainly unequitable to the illegal activity of Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old president, Robert Mugabe.
Robert Mugabe took office in 1980 after a brutal civil war and was at first proclaimed as a leader who could positively impact Zimbabwe. Yet after nearing the end of his seventh-term in office, he is considered by the west as a leader of a regime that has invoked economic and political oppression on its people.
In 2009, Zimbabwe was infamously known for their massive hyper-inflated currency, which at one time hit over 231 million percent from a combination of a 50% shrinking economy, poor crops and public corruption in the midst of a political rebellion against Mugabe. In order to save Zimbabwe from utter economic destruction, Zimbabwe changed currencies and adapted the U.S. dollar for greater protection from internal insecurities.
Since 2016, rough estimates have placed Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate at 90%. With a failing agriculture and industry economy, Zimbabwe has had to increasingly rely on imports for products. As the economy is beginning to look similar to the one in 2008, the government has taken extra precautions in preserving the quantity of U.S. dollars in the treasury. This has resulted in the freezing of payments to many government workers such as teachers and civil servants and has also caused an increased amount of public demonstrations of unrest.
Yet, in order to combat activism on the streets, a local NGO has estimated that over 654 cases of political violence has come from government security officials, including police, military, and a secret service unit just from 2016 alone. Reports have found that detainees have had to face sexual violence, were injected with mysterious substances and were hung over large pots of sulphuric acid to discourage them from more activism.
These troubling reports have certainly not helped Mr.Mugabe’s case in pressing the IMF for economic relief as the IMF has been reluctant in even providing support without any change in Zimbabwe’s governmental structure, especially the fact that 97% of all government spending is used to pay the governmental workforce. Zimbabwe has refused to make any spending cuts.
As a desperate-last ditch effort, President Mugabe on November 28 ordered to print a new currency, a Zimbabwean currency that looks almost identical to the note used during Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflated period in 2008-2009. Orders were then given to stock ATMs in millions of the new $2 and $5 note with the hopes that only larger bulk import purchases would need US Dollars for a transaction. The switch to Zimbabwean currency has caused civil anxiety and many people have rushed to banks to withdraw as many US dollars as possible resulting in long lines and unrest.
Many economists worry that Zimbabwe’s turn to an insulating currency will be highly detrimental to Zimbabwe’s economic health as foreign demand for the currency will be next to nothing.
For months the imminent disaster has led many Zimbabwean people to turn to plastic payment, either from debit card machines or services on a mobile phone. Services such as gambling, supermarket purchases and even donations to churches has been adapted to a plastic transaction as money has been so scarce. In rural villages where technology is not as prevalent, transactions have been left to bartering.
This vacuum of money has provided a perfect opportunity for a growth in inequality as only the wealthy has been able to open debit accounts. The poor are left to struggle without the basic tool to trade, money, and are forced to buy cell phones for access to a mobile banking service from individuals who realize the opportunity to make massive profits out of people’s desperations.
For example, take village trader, Fambai Mudzaniri who has been consistently making 500 dollars a month from the shortage. He goes into the town and buys $13 dollar phones and resells them to poor villagers for a goat or a few chickens. He then takes the livestock and sells them to restaurants for $50 dollars each.
Unfortunately, the troubling economic conditions and corrupt government will be unable to provide for the eventual widening of the inequity of Zimbabwe and the increased amount of civil unrest from droughts, a lack of food and opportunity. Fortunately, though, Robert Mugube is currently the world’s oldest leader and even though he is looking for ‘re-election’ in 2018, he has even acknowledged his own death in 2016 with the public statement: “Yes, I was dead-I resurrected.” Hopefully within the next decade Zimbabwe will resurrect too.