US$ as deity in Zimbabwe

guest column Takura Zhangazha

THE Zimbabwean government recently did the unfathomable, at least according to social media pundits, some civil society organisations, unions and influential urbanites. It arbitrarily and abruptly re-introduced a local currency for all domestic financial transactions; at least at law.

As expected, there was an immediate outburst of anger on social media, in Press conferences, statements and I am pretty sure in the near future in anticipated or provisionally announced forms of physical protests, all of which can easily be attributed to the general mistrust of the government’s monetary policy.

As awkward as it sounds, the lack of trust in any form of national currency, the origins of which appear with the massive inflation that coincided with the global financial crisis in
2007/8 lasted in Zimbabwe, at least until the introduction of a multi-currency regime just before the formation of a unity government in 2009. In this, we had relatively a liberal use
of the United States dollar (US$), the South African rand and a host of other not so readily available currencies.

This led to the stabilisation of inflation, albeit at great cost to our ability to retain the global value of the US$ in tandem with developments in the global financial markets.

While I am not aware of any economic books that were written about the multi-currency, by 2015 it became almost unsustainable to rely on these multi-currencies (we had begun purchasing
them from their respective central banks). So, the government introduced the relatively unpopular, but utilitarian “bond coin” in order to deal with challenges of transactions by retailers. It was pegged at 1:1 with the popular US$. The then government went a step further and introduced bond notes almost a year later and suspicion was heightened that it was
about to re-introduce a full-fledged currency. Again, the bond note, like its predecessor, the coin, was pegged at the same value as the US$. Suspicions were abound, but both forms of
currency were utilised widely, especially by poor Zimbabweans who did not have regular access to the US$.

In between these ambiguities about currencies and suspicions about government, a “coup that was not a coup” happened in 2017 and a disputed, but legitimised election, occurred in
2018. By the time we got through the heady disputes over presidential election results, in early 2019, the government introduced a third version of the local currency called the Real
Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) in early 2019. This essentially meant we had a surrogate currency, one that would, with time, set the ground for the introduction of a somewhat formal
one, depending on our ability to meet the “fiscal requirements” of global financialised capital ( that is the IMF, World Bank and AfDB).

In no short while, the government introduced a “rated” multi-currency regime. It began officially at least with the RTGS trading (somehow) at 2,5 to the US$. This was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Again, in no short time, we were at higher official “bank rates” via the RTGS to the US$. It did not work as politically planned. Instead, what we
had was a quasi-free market currency trading system underpinned by State regulation.

Arguments about the capacity of the State to respond to the “financial markets” quickly abounded.

Acceptable as these were in a neo-liberal sense, the key questions that emerged were around the sustainability of the same, either in relation to imports of goods or just the
“extractive political economy” trying to lure foreign investors.

Now, the Zimbabwean government has gone the whole hog with the introduction of a new currency; the end effect of which is more in keeping with a neo-liberal economic policy than it is
intended at being populist. It is a move designed to satisfy domestic and foreign capital’s requirements to do business at a much lower cost. All this has been done in the now proven
vain hope that there will be a trickle-down effect for the creation of jobs as well as that the “free market” would be able to resolve social and economic challenges faced by the
majority poor. All of this is done under the mantra of a “return to normalcy”.

The knee-jerk and for now populist rejection of a local currency in favour of the US$ is, however, intriguing in two specific respects. The first being the political dimension of a
general mistrust of government with a currency whose (commodity exchange) value is not, in the view of the public, guaranteed by global capital. This public mistrust is also being
buttressed by the previous hyper-inflationary period (2007-2009) and the “stability” brought in by the introduction of a multi-currency system thereafter. This essentially means the
general mindset of the (urban) Zimbabwean public is in sync with global capitalism’s expectation of an economy that follows its laissez faire rules and despises contextual protectionist

The only difference being that apart from a currency, global capital understands with great sophistry that there are many other ways to bell the cat beyond a multi-currency system.
The latter point being rather ironic because it is also one that Finance minister Mthuli Ncube and his boss President Emmerson Mnangagwa understand too well, hence the general approval of their economic policy by the gatekeepers of global capital, namely the World Bank and the IMF; with the added approval of most southern African governments that are
implementing similar economic policies.

The second astounding aspect is that of how Zimbabweans now view “money” and in particular the USD as a commodity. In classical Marxist terms, we have now come to view it more like a
“fetish” or even a “deity”. It has come to mean more than it is in transactional terms. Its value now transcends what it actually is in reality. We are quite literally under the
spell of “commodity fetishism”, because it has also become a commodity that has/had become a social arbiter of how we relate to each other without really acknowledging it. All of
this until now, when talk of a local currency from government,, became louder and is now a reality. Even if an economist of repute were to explain to an educated Zimbabwean that
money is really imagined, they will find great resistance to that universally given notion.

To conclude, it is evident that the introduction of a local currency does not mean there will be economic abundance for all, but neither did the retention of a multi-currency regime.
It is, therefore, imperative that we examine the system behind the monetary policies in whatever form they come, and do so at the point of ideology in order to counter it. In our
case, neoliberalism (as an ideology) and austerity (as a strategy) are informing the current and previous currency exchange systems and the economic malaise we have had to endure. But then again, where money or the US$ becomes a fetish in and of itself, it is a hard ask to call on comrades to understand the system more than the deity.

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