"Dollar for Two" Trapped in a Replacement Pandemic
By Karen Mukwasi
Somewhere in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, on the wall of a derelict building that in better days should have been open for business, a fading red graffiti sign reads “Varombo Tamuka” the poor have risen. Just a few steps away from the building is a makeshift shed. On a small card box in the shed is a line of 250ml bottles containing an illicit drink that is becoming increasingly popular with youths.
The young man peddling the drink advertises the costs as “dollar for 2” vending lingo for 50 cents each. Questions as to what the beverage really is are met with suspicion and are not entertained any further. In the street behind the shopping centre, there is also another form of trade going on. The cost for services rendered is the same “dollar for 2”, apparently there is something for everyone. Here sex workers, deprived of bars and bottle stores where they used to meet customers have resorted to the residential streets.
Sadly they have had to undercharge for their services, standard rates are not relevant after a lockdown that has been in effect for almost 11 months. Even though, the 8 pm curfew is almost up a vendor parks his cart still loaded with green mealies. He cannot go home yet, his merchandise will be worthless in the morning. Very soon he will review his dollar for 2 prices to dollar for 3. Instead of the already measly 50 cents, he will make 30 cents for every cob, and that is if he manages to sell anything. This picture could easily depict any low-income neighbourhood in Zimbabwe.
The “dollar for two” phenomenon is a construct of the 2009 -2013 administration that was run by the government of national unity. When the Zimbabwean economy was dollarized after a complete collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, one United States Dollar suddenly had the strength to purchase. It was an exciting time for Zimbabweans. As large corporates raked in millions of American dollars and the government made a killing in taxes, the ghetto economy found their solace in the cheap commodities that they could peddle for 50 cents and the term was coined. There was no change for the currency of the day so the consumers were sold the façade of a bargain.
Commuter Omnibus touts hung out vehicles, shouting that transport fare was “dollar for 2” and they really would prefer that you present two passengers for your dollar rather than expect change. During the liquidity crisis, the government even hoodwinked citizens into believing that the bond note was the panacea for their crisis with change and would allow them to trade better. The “$1 for 2” economy did disappear from 2016 when the bond note was introduced only to resurface when the multi-currency system was re-introduced in May 2020.
When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, the Minister of Finance Professor Mthuli Ncube claimed that the government could cushion those who would be affected by the lockdown. A sophisticated algorithm would be used to identify families in need of assistance.
The supposed mathematical algorithm is linked to mobile phones and can identify your level of income. The sum offered to the beneficiaries identified by the algorithm were promised ZWD$300, this figure at prevailing black market rates is equivalent to USD 3. Whether this proverbial laugh in the face of poverty was ever delivered to the deserving families was never made transparent to the citizenry.
The government remains committed to its neo-liberal agenda as it has moved to ensure that large corporations suffer the minimum damage. Every level of lockdown recognises all the entities that represent capital as essential services.
Mining, manufacturing and finance have remained functional amidst harsh restrictions. Big retailers have managed to gain a monopoly of the market as small businesses have been forced to shut down. In a country where the informal economy is the biggest employer, contributing a staggering 42% to total employment and 48% to total Gross Domestic Product, this is a complete disregard for reality in policy formulation.
Amid the human suffering, the finance minister continues to announce recovery and budget surpluses that to every citizen sound fictitious as all they can content with is the debilitating poverty that has them trapped.
As the global pandemic rages on, statistics dominate the media, both mainstream and alternative. It has become common to wait for the daily Ministry of Health situational report to check how many people have tested positive, recovered or died from the pandemic. There are however no daily statistics informing the public about the dying neighbourhoods, the number of informal business that will never recover as well as the new cases of hunger and poverty-related illnesses and deaths. The world has united to fight a pandemic that has threatened the very existence of mankind and resources, both time and financial have been dedicated to mitigating the damage on society. Zimbabwe on the other hand is faced with a replacement pandemic, the symptoms which manifest as corruption, repression and poverty. This pandemic had already been spreading uncontrollably before Covid 19 and was inevitably exacerbated by the global health crisis.
The graffiti on that wall in one of the neighbourhoods most affected by the status quo, calling on the poor to rising and fight remains unheeded. The government has found a perfect instrument for repression in poverty. Citizens are preoccupied with their next meal rather than breaking news on government corruption.
In their desperation to provide for their families, the citizen has been forced to become co-conspirators with the police. They wake up in the morning to board commuter omnibuses that have been banned since March 2020, the understanding is that the driver has his understanding with the police. They order their merchandise in a market whose legality is conditional, if the local police are happy then trading can carry on unabated.
They come back into their neighbourhoods where they play a game of tag with the police to run their barely profitable retail markets. Every small business owner, receiving no exemption from the government relies on the goodwill of law enforcement. As the high ranking government officials prey on the nation’s resources destroying the already paralysed economy, the lower ones are busy lining their pockets at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Dissenting voices have however made an effort to call the government out. Citing corruption, demanding cushioning of workers and citizens and has resulted in monumental brutality from the state. #FreeMako, a hashtag calling for the release of the latest activist to be remanded in custody is the latest freedom hashtag on Zimbabwean social media. There have been at least fifteen of these hashtag campaigns in the last seven months.
All the campaigns relating to the pre-trial incarceration of Zimbabwean activists all arrested for cases related to the right to Freedom of Assembly, Association and Expression. This averages at least two of these arrests per month, all resulting in a period of pretrial incarceration, the latest phenomenon in the government’s bid to clampdown on civil liberties. Close examination shows that almost all these cases are directly limited to citizens rising against the plunder of state resources and the ultimate resulting poverty. The government has criminalised any form of demand for accountability.
The Covid 19 pandemic as real as it has provided a perfect smokescreen. The Statutory Instrument 77 of 2020 Public Health (COVID19 prevention, containment and treatment) (National Lockdown) order and other succeeding regulations have been more as an instrument to protect senior government official rather than citizens.
To properly demand accountability, citizens require their freedom of assembly and association. Enforcers of the Statutory Instrument have ensured that any form of protest is criminalised. Even the digital efforts are ultimately labelled as calls to influence citizens to flaunt Covid restrictions. Trapping citizens in abject poverty, the few who are privileged to be close to power are very keen on making sure that no space is open to threaten their looting.
The citizens who are expected to fight are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and the inevitable ennui resulting from a lengthy lockdown. This has manifested in a digital dependence rooted in addictive social commentary.
Stories about infidelity, witchcraft and celebrity scandals have a cult following. Yellow journalism represented in online tabloids that have very little regard for the editorial process has gained astonishing virility. Hungry for food, success and freedom they have found their release in stories that have virtually no bearing on their lives. The social commentary carries elements of malice and this further divides citizens as time is invested in personal attacks in these virtual catfights. This of course is perfect for a government that has a lot to hide from its citizens.
As the slogan “varombo tamuka” fades sadly on that wall the conscience of ordinary people is vanishing alongside it. They have been intimated by the public show of brutality and feel that the more irrelevant they are, the safer they would be in the second republic. They have begun to wear their poverty like a comfortable second skin.
As the real economy is being devastated beyond saving, the majority scramble to save the dollar for 2 economy, it’s all they have left because it’s all they see. As the world places hope in the vaccines that have been developed against the Covid 19 pandemic, there is no end in sight to the replacement pandemic Zimbabwe is currently trapped in.
Citizens must rise above the challenges of this pandemic, creating spaces that allow them to shift power dynamics. The power lies with the regime because they have managed to break the backbones of most viable movements. It does not have to be the end, by re-thinking struggles it can still be done. Communities can use the poverty this poverty that is so common to bring them together and safeguard the future. As the regime moves to close all spaces, civic spaces can still be claimed by the utilisation of virtual spaces. The freedom hashtags have shown us that citizens can still come together and achieve results, even at a time when a raging pandemic and state repression are conspiring to physically keep them away from each other. The prescription to roll over and play dead is one that cannot be submitted to.