Scraping by on billions a day
Zimbabwe’s middle classes have been forced into cheating and doing menial jobs to scratch out a living, writes Dingilizwe Ntuli.
Sabina Mlilo is a widow and a proud teacher of 22 years’ standing, but she has little to show for all that if you consider that she now earns Z60-billion a month — which crudely translates into the price of 12 tomatoes.
Her salary, which sounds ludicrously astronomical, becomes even more absurd if you consider that her transport to and from school costs her Z40-billion a day.
She walks several hours a day because she can’t afford to pay the fares.
With US1 worth Z12-billion, Mlilo earns as little as US4 a month.
She still considers herself among the lucky ones because she doesn’t have to worry about accommodation costs. She owns a house in the Queens Park East suburb of Bulawayo.
That saves her from paying rent, which landlords charge in foreign currency — ranging from R150 a month for one room to US250 for a two-bedroom flat.
Mlilo earns much less than she has to spend but, despite this seemingly bizarre financial anomaly, she hardly ever skips a day’s work and still manages to pay school fees for her two children, who attend government schools. The schools charge about Z20-billion a term for each child.
Mlilo says she uses her salary only to pay for her children’s school fees because there is nothing else worthwhile that it can buy.
Her children are better off staying at boarding school, where their basics such as food, bedding, heating and water are taken care of by the school. Staying home by herself, Mlilo saves a lot on such expenses.
Her real income comes from a poultry project she runs from home and deals that she does at her school.
“If you are not a dealer, you will never survive in Zimbabwe. There is not a single person in this country surviving on their salary,” Mlilo says.
“We just use our workplaces’ resources to conduct our deals and continue to hold on to our jobs with the hope that things will change soon and we will regain our dignity.”
“Dealing” can range from selling clothes and other items from foreign countries to dealing in foreign currency sent by family and relatives who live abroad.
Mlilo raises chickens at her house and sells the birds to buy essentials or barters them if her customers have no money.
She says most people without cash to buy basic commodities have resorted to bartering. Trading goods like-for-like is the most common way to keep hold of the value of something.
As a senior teacher, Mlilo also benefits from arrangements common at schools where teachers take up to three months unofficial leave, in cahoots with head teachers, travel to work in South Africa and return home with groceries, which are shared.
Younger teachers with young families are the ones who mostly take such leave to work in restaurants, bars and street-corner hair salons in Hillbrow and downtown Johannesburg, while heads and senior teachers cover up for them and look after the families.
On their return after their three months of toil, they bring critical basics such as cooking oil, sugar, soap, flour, rice and other toiletries for their senior colleagues.
They sell some of the commodities on the black market and use the money to buy foreign currency to pay their rent and other bills.
“This is how we make ends meet in Zimbabwe. Otherwise, if we become selfish, we will all suffer. Someone always knows somebody who has access to certain commodities and services. We have essentially been turned into a nation of petty traders,” Mlilo says.
Buying groceries outside Zimbabwe is much cheaper but because most people have no travel documents many find themselves at the mercy of black-market sharks, primarily cross-border hawkers.
Mlilo’s is the story of a typical lower-middle-class citizen in a country whose economy has imploded by all accounts — although those in power are still in denial. Working-class people and peasants are even worse off.
Meanwhile, the government is frantically printing new currency — and the highest denomination at the moment is a Z50-billion note.
If you don’t have access to foreign currency, you are doomed.
The staple, maize meal, is hard to find and, when in stock, a 20kg bag costs Z650-billion (54) in shops and Z1-trillion (83) on the thriving black market. A week ago it was Z150-billion.
A week ago, the official price of a two-litre bottle of cooking oil was Z250-billion but this week it was going for Z700-billion (58).
Bread was Z10-billion but is now Z70-billion (5.80).
Beer prices rose sharply from Z8-billion a pint last week to Z100-billion (8.30).
The currency is so crippled that prices increase over the course of a single day.
For most urban dwellers, such as Mlilo, life has simply become unbearable.
Things that many South Africans take for granted, such as maize meal, milk, margarine, bread, sugar, meat, cooking oil and tea, have become luxuries beyond the reach of growing numbers of people as some of these good s cost 10 times more than their wages.
Mlilo says it is easy for teachers to resort to menial work in South Africa because they do not need visas to travel and only need to produce their latest pay slips with their passports at the border.
She says some schools, particularly in rural areas, actually have secret rosters that show when teachers willing to do menial jobs in South Africa can travel, as long as they agree to the “terms and conditions” set by senior staffers.
Those who are unable to travel, for whatever reason, are helped out so that they don’t spill the beans.
Although these intricate arrangements are made to the detriment of pupils and the quality of their education, Mlilo says teachers have no choice but to resort to such survival tactics because of the country’s dire economy.
When they escape the poverty north of the Limpopo to work in menial jobs, the teachers and other semi-professionals live in subhuman conditions, sleeping in such places as Johannesburg’s Park Station and living mainly on bread.
For reasons ranging from cost saving to avoiding the xenophobia-ravaged townships where they would otherwise find shelter with friends, this is the daily routine of these economic refugees.
After eight successive years of economic meltdown, hope has virtually deserted Zimbabwe.
These are desperate times for most of the country’s people.
Because Zimbabwe has become so desperate, many people have turned into petty criminals, with some devising ways to make money out of others’ misery.
People survive by overcharging for the commodities they have access to.
Cross-border hawkers buy basics in bulk from neighbouring South Africa and Botswana for resale in the knowledge that people will buy them at any price.
Most of the hawkers are actually runners for top businessmen and politicians who use their influence to get access to basic goods.
With such spurious government initiatives as the “people’s shops”, they put managers of companies such as sugar producer Hippo Valley, cooking oil-maker Olivine and other basic commodity producers under duress, forcing them to sell basic products to them at the official price. Then they channel the goods into the black market through their surrogates.
These businessmen and politicians do the same with foreign currency, which they procure from the central bank at the official rate of Z30000 to a US dollar and take to the black market to make a killing.
Civil servants in key government departments also take advantage of people’s desperation to extort money and goods for services that should be offered free or at a nominal fee.
It’s almost impossible to get essential documents such as birth certificates, identity papers and passports if one doesn’t pay an insider in the relevant department to process them.
So serious is the scourge of corruption that some police officers have resorted to “reheating” cases that had been dropped so that they can extort money or groceries from people.
Others simply confiscate basic goods from suspected opposition supporters. At roadblocks, police have gained notoriety for cleaning motorists out of any groceries they may be carrying, accusing them of trading without a licence.
Searches and seizures by the police have become so common that they occur even in recreational parks.
The practice has, in effect, turned the Zimbabwean police into pickpockets as this is where they seize foreign currency.
In the private sector, more and more people are opting for unpaid leave to search for greener pastures in neighbouring countries and abroad to supplement their meagre salaries.
Banks are just keeping their doors open in the hope that one day they will get back to doing real business.
People use banks just to cash their pay cheques.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Scraping by on billions a day