Zimbabwe on the Brink, Again?

By Neo Sithole

The past few months for the landlocked country of Zimbabwe have been eventful, to say the least. Battered by a severe drought that has affected agriculture, a power utility unable to meet the minimum required demand, and a doubling in annual inflation to a 10 year high of 175% brought on by the abrupt reintroduction of a national currency has revived notions of a ‘Zimbabwe on the brink of crisis’. However, is that a reality? 

A quick rundown of the most pressing matters badgering Zimbabwe gives us insight to just deep the cracks run and interconnecting. The first and without a doubt most controversial is the floundering economy. Most recent is late last month the Zimbabwean Reserve bank abruptly announced that it had banned the use of foreign currencies and instead use the RTGS currency renamed the Zimbabwe dollar for all domestic transactions. Now, the decision to revive the national currency is not at all odd, Zimbabwe needs a stable national currency to help ease its economy. It has been using a ‘choice assorted’ box of currencies for a decade after the reserve bank kicked money-machines into overdrive caused inflation to skyrocket and the currency to crash. A primary qualm with the sudden enforcement of a national currency, outside of the obvious shock to investor confidence, is that it has caused an increased inflation rate-raising concerns of a repeated economy collapse like seen in 2008. Another is that it forces Zimbabwean’s to rely on a currency with very little value. Following closely is a threatened national strike by government workers over a desperately needed increase in wages. The third immediate crisis a ‘double whammy’, due to a crippling drought water levels in Kariba dam have dropped rendering the country’s largest power provider able to run at 38% capacity, the drought has also left roughly 5 million people in need of food aid. 

Now that we understand what Zimbabwe faces, let’s talk about how close it is to the brink. 

Largest issue right now is Zimbabwe’s economic situation, this is the longest standing and is feeding a large portion of the remaining problems. MacDonald Dzirutwe notes the Zimbabwean government, for the first time in years, is running a budget surplus, which is an indicator of an effectively managed government and with claims of political mismanagement aside, remains a good sign. 

Dzirutwe also notes how attempts to reset the Zimbabwean currency forms a problem. 

“For a start, government reforms to set fiscal discipline, which could earn future funding, include gradually ending fuel subsidies and increasing electricity tariffs to reflect costs – steps that will in the short-term lead to more price increases” 

It is these prices increases that have the most toll on Zimbabweans. It is also partially the reason public workers threaten strike action. 

Currently, the lowest-paid government workers in Zimbabwe get paid what is the equivalent of US$47 compared to the previous US$475, this has not been the case all along. The drop-in wage is a result of the value of their earnings birthed by a drop-in currency value spurred on by a resurge in inflation. What Zimbabwean civil servants demand is a restoration of their income to US$475 which in the new Zimbabwean dollar is Z$4750. As it stands now their current earnings of Z$430 is just enough for a car tyre. 

Civil servants aside more than 80% of Zimbabweans earn a living in the informal sector meaning it is very likely that they earn less than protected civil servants. 

For me, although Zimbabwe is already in crisis the flashing red light has a little less to do with to the ailing economy but rather a complex tapestry of issues bound by the current government’s inability to actively listen to its citizens. 

While the threat of a national strike would grind the functionality of Zimbabwe to a halt a more concerning matter is the long history of knee-jerk violent repression in response to civil disobedience. Not having to look as far back as the 2016-17 civil disobedience, early this year Zimbabwean protested a fuel increase of 130%, in response, the police and military launched a coordinated response involving the unjust raiding of homes and mass detention. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights had recorded 844 human rights violations, 466 arbitrary arrest and detentions along with 242 cases of assault and degrading treatment with a total of 12 deaths being reported. Not to mention that the government has since continued to harass and arrest vocal civil and opposition leaders. 

It is difficult to disassociate the mounting public pressure against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government from the inability to regulate the economy for the people of Zimbabwe as this was the foundation of his run to the office. Promises of a better life, eerily like the slogan of a Southern African counterpart, fast faded when the country still suffers supply shortages in almost every major sector. Current inflation has been recorded at 175.66 and has made the most basic of items like bread, flour, eggs and cooking oil even harder to get. Daily 18-hour power cuts implemented as a means of keeping preventing a countrywide blackout is a catch twenty-two as its affected small- business and smaller miners who rely on the national grid for power, thus hurting an already limp economy. A third fuel increase this during a fuel shortage compounds the issue. Means to kick-start the economy by raising prices to generate money are ineffective when people can barely afford commodities at their most basic price.
Questionable leniency granted to the Zimbabwean Defence Force which in many cases is the most used baton of the security apparatus for the Zimbabwean government in the use of excessive violence to quash protests is another point of interests. It is also worth considering that military personal is just as affected by Zimbabwe’s deteriorating living conditions and spiked inflation, despite earning slightly more than other civil servants low ranking soldiers ear Z$600 a rough equivalent of US$60. Continued disgruntlement in Zimbabwe’s security forces does not bode well for the current president who has relied on the army as a public stabilizer. 

Finally, the largest crisis Zimbabwe faces is fast escalating public pessimism in the government's ability to quickly effect positive change. Not that this is the fault of civil society, a history of an arrogant and self-servicing government is sure to erode confidence in not just government but also the standing political process. Many people doubted the ability of Zimbabwe’s new leaders to deliver the economic change needed to survive primarily because these are the same people who supported previous ‘progressive revolutionary turned dictator’ Robert Mugabe. Notably, the Zimbabwean people have historically not been one to abandon their sense of country over an economic downturn and violence but sustained heavy-handedness from the government and deteriorating living condition does make it difficult for any people to provide the government with the support needed to bring about an improvement.  

In the same sense that the new Zim-dollar needs to the confidence of the Zimbabwean public for it grow and thrive the Zimbabwean government needs to provide its people with a reason for them to believe in them. 

President Mnangagwa needs to place the calming of the economy and firming the currency as the most important, in the face of unrelenting economic crisis, drought, and limited provision of energy the last thing needed is a mass protest that the army may use to topple the current government has done previously.


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