Billy Mhere is in a fix. His hopes of a new financial dispensation that would usher in a workable personal cash budgeting system have been dashed.
This was after use of the local currency, which had been reduced to manure, had been scraped in preference of the more stable US dollar and the South African rand.
Much to his ire, the country’s adoption of a multiple currency system has not lived up to his expectations.
Because he earns a meagre $175, he has to carefully draw up priorities right — making considerations right down to the last cent — if he is to live within his means.
“This has proved virtually impossible,” he says with resignation. “These guys (supermarkets) seem determined to make sure that we’ll leave all our money with them.”
The demon of inflation which haunted the discarded Zimbabwe dollar has returned to haunt him, as the shortage of change keeps mauling his earnings in “forced” transactions, where he has to trade his precious coins for sweets, a ballpoint pen or a small pack of matches.
“I think there is a deliberate ploy by these guys to lie that they have no coins, even if they have them,” he adds. “They are just bent on ripping us off.”
Commuter omnibus crews, who charge R5 for a single trip on most routes into the city, often pair commuters they owe change and offload the burden of looking for change on them. Unless one opts to make a purchase, then there will be a stalemate.
If Mhere does a calculation of all the coins he has been forced to leave behind after every purchase, they will probably run into hundreds of dollars, meaning, he has “donated” a pot, a microwave, even a refrigerator to the unscrupulous traders.
The nightmare of securing coins was deeply felt just after the changeover to the US dollar dispensation. Of late, however, plenty more South African coins have found their way into Zimbabwe, much to the relief of hard-pressed consumers.
Recent media reports that banks are burdened with coins that supermarkets are reluctant to collect to ease the problem of change do not sit well with consumers, and for Mhere, this is the clearest official indication yet that supermarkets are deliberately hell-bent on milking consumers dry.
At a pre-budget consultative meeting early this week, the Bankers’ Association of Zimbabwe (Baz), retailers and consumer groups traded accusations on the matter.
Baz chairman John Mushayavanhu says the large volumes of coins in local banks’ vaults have had no takers as retailers are unhappy with exchanging notes for coins at the going exchange rate, preferring the commonly used flat rate of 1:10.
Mushayavanhu blames retailers for their hard-headedness, indicating that banks are considering repatriating the coins back to South Africa.
“Banks have loads of coins ranging from 1c to R10 totaling ZAR8 to ZAR9 million but the problem is the retailers want an exchange rate of 1:10,” says Mushayavanhu. “If the retailers insist on their own rate, they want the banks to make a loss.”
Perhaps the availability of US coins — which seem to have virtually failed to penetrate into Zimbabwe — would have made the mathematics easier. Paul Mutani, a civil servant from Zengeza, says he has had “headaches over the issue of coins”.
“It’s terrible,” he says, “What it basically means is that if I earn $150, I’m not going to use it all as I intend, because those little cents for which the supermarkets and other shops will be giving me sweets during every purchase will accumulate into a good number of dollars.”
He is convinced that supermarkets are out to make colossal profits at the expense of consumers given the lack of a swift uptake of the coins with which banks are currently saddled.
“So they’d rather you have sweets while they pocket the money, both that which you had budgeted for particular groceries, and your change too,” he says.
Mushayavanhu believes using sweets in place of change is frustrating and that it is imperative for government to step in and curtail this unfair practice.
He says: “My children used to enjoy having sweets, but not anymore.” Consumer rights watchdog, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) says it is time that government acted to restore sanity in the market.
Denford Mberi, the Retailers’ Association of Zimbabwe chairman, however says the buck does not stop with the 15-member association, but there is need for a holistic approach.
Following the formal introduction of the US dollar last year, the Z$3 trillion survived well beyond the general lifespan of the local currency as it was used as a token equivalent to R5 in commuter bus trips.
By the time the multi-currency system was introduced, Z$3 trillion was equivalent to $0,50 or alternatively R5. A business ethics and corporate governance expert, Bradwell Mhonderwa, says retailers are “ripping off consumers and . . . coming up with flimsy and unconvincing excuses to justify their insatiable and unsavoury greed”.
Ostensibly, the lack of coins for change has become some kind of “money-spinning mill” for many supermarkets, thus the suspected resistance to collect coins sitting idle in banks.
For Mhere and many others in his circumstances who have been compelled into operating outside the margins of their budgets, sparing an extra cent, when looked at from a cumulative perspective, is something they cannot afford.
But for now, as retailers and banks continue to haggle over the appropriate exchange rates, the ordinary consumer will have to watch helplessly as they are literally robbed in broad daylight.