Electricity shortages have added to the burden of high inflation – now 100 per cent - and cash shortages in Zimbabwe, provoking a nurses go-slow action and widespread calls for wages to be paid in US dollars. Threats of mass protests during June have not eventuated, perhaps partly because of pre-emptive arrests of activists, and neutralised by some progress on the national dialogue. Both US and EU diplomats have made encouraging statements about the government’s economic program and law reform program, and the Tripartite Negotiating Forum is taking shape.
Zimbabwe security forces have cracked down hard with the arrest of seven civil society activists returning to the country from workshops in Prague and the Maldives amid rumours of violent mass protests against the government in June. Statements from newly confirmed MDC President Nelson Chamisa and from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions promising big protests contributed to the tense atmosphere, while public patience has been severely stretched by ongoing electricity outages and skyrocketing fuel prices.
The MDC Congress due to be held in Gweru next week on May 24 appears to be a triumphal platform for Nelson Chamisa, and it appears he will use it to return to his demand that elected National President Mnangagwa share power with him, perhaps this time for the good of the country rather than Chamisa’s worn out claim that he won the July 2018 presidential election. On his part, Mnangagwa has launched a wider national dialogue, open to all stakeholders and not only political parties.
Cyclone Idai devastated the north-eastern part of Zimbabwe as well as Beira in Mozambique. Its impact exposed the weakness of the Zimbabwe economy and its government resources, and at the same time demonstrated the resilience of civil society to give practical solidarity. While the emergency response from the police and military was initially absent, these resources were also deployed properly when they came online, and with good cooperation with the civilian effort. There is a huge task ahead to rehabilitate Chimanimani, but this experience shows it could be done.
The recent Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe decision to combine all Bond Notes, Bond Coins and E Cash under the umbrella of “RTGS Dollars”, to set the exchange rate against the US dollar at 2.5:1, and allow it to float, is the most significant economic initiative of the Mnangagwa government. RTGS (Real Time Gross Settlement) dollars are now the official currency, and not the US dollar or other foreign currencies. This exchange rate is well above the real market rate for RTGS dollars of 3.8:1.
Underlying the sense of doom in Zimbabwe is the ongoing conflict between ousted President Mugabe and current President Mnangagwa. The economy and therefore the basic living conditions of the people can only go backwards while the struggle between these two forces works itself out. The return of President Mnangagwa to Harare instead of Davos on January 22 dramatised the failure of his “Open for Business” message, just as surely as the crisis of fuel shortages followed by the crisis of fuel taxes to overcome the smuggling of fuel and currency.
The MDC Alliance and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions late last week called for a “stay-away” of two, three and five days this week to peacefully demonstrate to the ZANU-PF Mnangagwa government that its economic policies had to change – mainly relating to fuel shortages, the use of Bond Notes and the need to pay workers in US dollars. Published calls emphasised “NO VIOLENCE”.
This call followed an attempt by MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa to call mass protest rallies on November 29, 2018. It turned into a small rally and march, which presented a petition to parliament.
Finance Secretary Mthuli Ncube presented the new state Budget on November 22, which can only be described as a harsh austerity budget, tempered only by the promise to pay the 13th month pay within the financial year, a big improvement on past years. Some of the austerity is good – cutting wages to ghost state employees. But most of it will crush down on the people – higher fuel taxes and transaction tax, an end to ‘Command Agriculture’, and an end to state bailout of private companies.
Last week marked the first anniversary of the deposing of former President Robert Mugabe by the military putting him and his wife Grace under house arrest, and then the ZANU-PF MPs resolving to impeach him. There was no celebration as the country struggled with economic collapse, disappointment and ongoing political paralysis.
The new government of President Mnangagwa has not only run into a panic buying crisis, but also an alleged scandal of corrupt management of the US dollars everyone needs so desperately. It is alleged that the whole state has been captured by Sakunda Holdings owner Kuda Tagwirei. Sakunda Holdings has a private monopoly over fuel imports. The new Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube and the Reserve Bank Governor appear paralysed by the situation.