CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP? Nine: Women Asking the Hard Questions

Now is the time to question the terms on which we organise our struggles and wage our battles.
Now is the time to claim our citizenship.
Now is the time to do the work that ensures our lasting freedom.
In this time of “transition” in Zimbabwe, we need to be asking the hard questions of ourselves and each other.  We need to organise, hold our structures accountable, make our demands and claim our visions and dreams.  Now.

For if not now, when?  

As women we have already lived through many empty promises and betrayals by men:  be they located within our homes, communities, nationalist movements, newly found states, emerging political parties or that unwieldy, amorphous civil society.  

Our lives as women have deteriorated dramatically in the last decade in Zimbabwe, by now we all know why.  This deterioration has impacted on how we organise.  It has made things harder and more chanllenging.  It has eroded our sense of humanity and community.  The regime has damaged us all, in one way or another.  

But now is the time to be creative in order to do the necessary radical change work. It’s difficult but not impossible. One starting point is articulating the vision of our struggle as women and finding ways to unite around its realisation.  This unity has to cut through the partisan politics, the suspicion, the political jockeying, the donor stangle hold and the organisational forms of this time.

For women in Zimbabwe, the horizon of liberation that was intimately connected to our early feminist agenda’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s was gradually left behind, as many of us started operating with a horizon of the law, policy, of governance and  gender.  Some argue that this was a strategic discursive move but it was at the expense of losing a destabilising power, and women’s organising losing its beating heart. 

Feminist consciousness refers to the political consciousness that the gender roles prescribed by societies all over the world for women are rooted in deep prejudices that put the women at social, political and economic disadvantages. It is the desire to counter and stamp out, through collective action and a broad ongoing cultural conversation, such restrictions imposed upon women. Feminist consciousness might have different roots for different women but the vision is the same.

Feminist consciousness challenges many of our deep-held assumptions which, if are not often noticed, is because they are pervasive like gravity.  Its complexity helps us understand other related oppressions based on race, class, age, sexual orientation, and disability amongst others.

Gender consciousness is the realization that gender is a socio-cultural construction and society has roles, not rooted in biology, specifically designed for those born into the male and female sexes.  But challenging and changing roles is not enough.

Ultimately, gender consciousness and feminist consciousness are related but different concepts.  (But I don’t want to get tangled in words.  Many women around Zimbabwe are engaging in acts of resistence that are feminist, even though they may have never heard of the word.  As long as we share the same commitment to our freedom, to confronting oppression wherever it may be found, let’s move ahead.)

Surely we, including our non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have learnt that gender policies alone ≠ an end to violence, to discrimination, to the bridging of the divides between the public and the private, to a redefinition of our relationships and re-organisation of society where all women can enjoy the fruits of freedom.  Almost always legislative, these policies have lacked financial resources and political will.  They have not altered the foundations of our oppression.  What they have done however, is help to conceal or assuage some of the most detrimental effects of our inequality.

What the so-called gender perspective hides is a total lack of perspective.  It’s a convenient myth that a depoliticised gender perspective will lead to equality and overcome sexism.

Now is the time to be critical.  To get to the heart of the matter.  To think differently.  To confront, unpick, challenge patriarchal and capitalist power in order to make lasting change real for women.

What vehicle is going to allow us to do this?  If our organizational forms are not going to allow us to get where we want to be, then we must be bold enough to say so.  To step out of the shell of the old and into the possibility of the new.

And of course it’s going to be dangerous.  You tamper with power, you feel the effects.

I know.  This is a rant.  It comes from the belief that the gender perspective is not going to get us as far as we need to go.

I don’t have all the answers but my experience tells me that women’s organising in Zimbabwe and the Southern African region needs to politicise.

Politicisation is the (im) pulse running through our organising. “The personal is the political” is a continuous process, a process of transformation which demands time and time again personal engagement, reflection and action.

To put it another way.  Opening spaces, to gather what I call feminist forces is a start.
This can be done anywhere and everywhere. 

It is literally the process of women getting together, telling each other the stories of the conditions of our lives, and crafting collective visions and practices of resistance out of them.  Channelling this into action. 

These autonomous dynamic spaces can ground our actions, visions and desires, thereby providing a basis to craft common ground, and create, rather than presume, a basis for collectivity and alliances. This is a start. 

The sustainability and radical democracy of this process relies precisely on creating new ways of relating to each other that undermine existing hierarchies and the depoliticisation of power inequalities. Also central to this strategy is the need to practice and nurture alliances between different struggles; the linking of scattered resistances cannot be underestimated. 

Much lip-service has been paid to these alliances, often skirting over the hard work they demand in practice. Alliances are about engaging with others, and hence also about dealing with positions invested with power.  These alliances are inevitably based on the involvement of our subjectivities; they are about working with differences and working through conflicts.  Perhaps they are about love. About humanism.  In any case, we cannot render them into abstract models.  But we can find words of inspiration for the yearnings that push us to engage in them. 

Feminism is about a shared engagement, in anger but more importantly in joy, in laughter, in desire, in solidarity. Right now with constitutionalism looming large in Zimbabwe, what we need to refuse, is performing “the woman’s question” within a larger civic or nationalist movement, that can be raised in certain moments of goodwill, only to be dropped later on when it’s time to get back to “the real business” or to have women’s rights relegated to a toothless policy. 

When Adrienne Rich asks women “to see from the centre”, she does so precisely in the context of refusing to be “the woman’s question” or the empty policy.  “We are not the ‘woman’s question’ asked by someone else” she comments, “we are the women who ask the questions.” 

Women need to ask the questions that disrupt, contaminate and create.  However we name them, our struggles are [should be] about nothing less.

(Photo Credit: Research and Advocacy Unit)

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP? Eight: Where have all the Women Gone?

To play the game you will need: 

  • Dice
  • Minimum of two players
  • Tiddleywink for each player.
  • Roll 6 on the dice to start.
  • Move along the game board and follow the instructions
  • Try to avoid finishing

Inspired by the game “Alternatives to Globalisation” designed by RW.


A rusted wire fence divides the old Zimbabwe from the new.

On the one side lies Effie Malamba, born in 1901 she was buried beneath a granite headstone 90 years later.

On the other is Sylvia Ncube, born in 1974 she was laid to rest just 35 years later.
The wire separates Bulawayo’s old Hyde Park cemetery from its extension.
Effie lies amid ordered ranks of stone epitaphs.
Sylvia lies in a chaos of churned earth. All around her the mounds of mud and stones, garlanded with plastic flowers, tell the story. 

Zimbabwe now has the lowest life expectancy for women anywhere in the world: 34.
A forest of black metal plates mark the mounting death toll and their hand-painted white numbers record the birth dates of a missing generation. Irene Phiri born 1972, Gugu Hlanbangana in 1971, Lulu Olomo in 1975, are just three of thousands.

This cull is not an act of God. It’s Zimbabwe’s game of health, of life, of death. 

CHII CHIRIKUITA: WHAT’S UP?: Eight: A Solo Encounter With Dudu Manhenga

Dudu Manhenga

The stage glows with shades of blue, the glitter ball casts a thousand stars …
She walks in tall and svelte, her eyes dancing
Her passion and enthusiasm is infectious
Her delivery is tight, on par with top music acts in the Southern African region, and indeed the world.
Her style is influenced by the great Afro jazz singers.
The power of her voice and the dignity of her delivery make the audience sit up and listen transporting them on the highways and byways of the rhythms of jazz. 

Meet Dudu Manhenga.  And the Color Blu. 

Involved in music from a very early age and influenced by Bulawayo based Amakhosi productions Dudu says, “the art called out to me, I never intended to be an artist. 

When my Mama first saw me perform on stage using a microphone, at my grade one  prize giving at St Bernards in Pumula, she said, “I knew this was going to be trouble!’” 

She has travelled a long road since and her current offering is Solo Encounter’s running at REPS theatre from the 17th – 21st of March.  It’s a close-up interaction with the afro-jazz artist.  “Most of the time when I perform in clubs I don’t get intimate time with my audience.  A solo encounter makes it feel like the audience has a one on one with me.  It’s an interactive show, people can make requests, ask questions and discuss the songs, they can actively be part of shaping the show”, she says. 

Her songs explore the politics of the self.   She sings different aspects of women being.   It’s an organic performance and it does indeed feel like we’re home, the audience responds, soon leaving their seats to dance in the aisles. 

Backing Dudu for this series is the jazz group Color Blu.  The current line-up is Blessing Muparutsa (drums), Nick Nare (keys), Enoch Piroro (bass), Strovas on percussion, David Machaka (watch out for him) and Victor Muparutsa (backing vocals).  Tino Bimha, and Zanele Manhenga also provide backing vocals or the show. 

She laughs as she says of the 5 men “I am the rose among the thorns” and then more seriously notes, “It’s a statement that says it’s ok for men, lots of them, to stand behind a women.  And still be men. The guys are beautiful, amazing and talented.”  The band also performs music from their forthcoming debut album. 

Solo Encounters will be recorded for Dudu’s next live album offering, and her first two CDs, Dudu Manhenga and the Colour Blu and Jula are available for sale along with her distinctive, funky merchandise. 

The diva is also a major contributor to the Female Literary Arts Music Enterprise (FLAME), for the development and promotion of women artists, run by Pamberi Trust. 

The programme includes workshops and performances for young women entering into the industry.  Sisters Open Mic is one such space, a performance programme for emerging women artists, that runs every second Saturday from 2pm – 5pm at the Book Café in Harare. 

She notes how in Zimbabwe “…being an artist is not considered worthwhile”. She laughs as she recounts how her mother’s friends would ask after her by enquiring whether “she had found a job yet?”  Zimbabwe has so much talent that is often unrecognised within the country.  The music industry is tough on women, sexism is rife and the economic climate means things are tough.  But the workshops provide up and coming performers with necessary skills, support and solidarity to begin navigating through the terrain. 

Dudu notes that the ground is fertile for artists to blossom as long as people think out of the box and pull together, “we need a culture where we are prepared to give to each other and to contribute to the change that we want.”  Ultimately we need to encounter each other as people.  She is under no illusion that it is going to take a lot for things to change in the lcaol music industry and the country, but despite this it is clear that Dudu Manhenga is here to stay. 

The lyrics of her last song in the solo encounters repertoire clearly communicates her message.  It’s hypnotic.  Her voice is clear:  “I want you to create, innovate, elevate, don’t be afraid. I want you to create, innovate, elevate, don’t be afraid.”  She explains in recitative that “if you are creative, I can create, if you are elevated, I can elevate”.

Look out for Dudu Manhenga and if she comes to a city near you go and enjoy the afro jazz of one of Zimbabwe’s foremost women in jazz who continues to thrill her listeners with beautiful melodies and exciting rhythms, fused with intricate contemporary styles and techniques of the world in which she lives. 

(Photo Credit: Bulawayo24)

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP?: Six: The Day The Rainbow Fell On The Floor

“Look” she said to me, pointing to the multi-coloured powder paint that had fallen onto the tarmac, “the rainbow fell on the floor.”  She stood there, eyes wide, hands on her hips, her oversized school uniform making her look smaller than her 6 years. 

Then, I watched her skip away, satchel in tow, to the school hall.  Yes, the rainbow had come crashing down from the sky and onto the floor landing in the car park of a private school.

In these, Associated Trust Schools (ATS), parents who are unable to pay school fees see their children excluded:  barred from the classroom, separated from their friends, these sprites are exiled to the school hall. There are many parents who struggle to make the fee payments which range from anything between US$500 – US$1500 per term (3 months) depending on the school.

And the handful of private and state schools where parents can pay large supplements to teachers’ salaries to subsidise the running of the school, are the only ones that are fully functional at the moment. 

But in a bold move this week, the new Minister of Education, Sports, Arts and Culture, David Coltart, announced that no child should be excluded from school for non-payment of fees. Arrangements for payment in instalment now have to be made to ensure that every child no matter the school has access to education.

This is just the beginning of what Mr Coltart, who reported for duty only a month ago, has had to deal with.

From once having one of the highest standards of education in Africa, recording a 72% national O-level pass rate in the mid 1990’s, last year it crashed to 11%.  With the mid 1990 implementation of Economic Structural Adjustment the Zimbabwean government spent less and less on education, so that by 2006 expenditure on education was only 13% of the national budget. By this time hyper-inflation had begun to bite, and it is estimated that in 2008, the value of government spending per child was equivalent to just 18 cents.

The many children in government run schools did not receive an education last year. The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe estimates that the majority of pupils in the country had a total of 23 days uninterrupted in the classroom.

The academic year should have just been cancelled!

2008 saw teachers go on strike, their salaries worthless, eroded by stagnation and inflation that was officially pegged at 231 million percent.  Many teachers simply could not afford to go to work because their monthly pay was less than the bus fare for the same period.  This, coupled with election violence, the assault of teachers by ZANU PF militia, the looting of schools and the use of some school premises as torture centres dealt the final blow to Zimbabwe’s education system.

And now, virtually all rural schools are closed as well as some urban ones.  Even if they were open and teachers tried to teach the vast majority of schools do not have desks, they do not have textbooks, chalk, exercise books.  Overwhelmed by water and power cuts, buildings are in a state of disrepair and children are adrift.

Nothing is more true than for some of Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable, homeless, hungry and abused:  street kids.   At a workshop held at Streets Ahead, a care and drop-in service for street children, girls write and paint their dreams – murals of beautiful visions of healthy and happy futures.  Here girls and boys can drop in during the day, take a shower, have a meal and engage in activities such as art, drama, craft.  It’s a classroom even though it may not be formally recognised as such, there are many such classroom spaces in and around Zimbabwe, without walls or desks. Its an unidyllic idyll.

The girls talk and discuss as they work. As economic orphans (children are left behind whilst their parents go in search of forex) girl headed households mean that girls shoulder the burden of care.  Sexual violence and rape has meant that many girls now nurse babies. 

But the small people go on with the business of living and learning.  There are many ways to learn, formal and informal and life in Zimbabwe teaches children skills to survive.

No matter where they are located, children always find time to play, run, laugh, have mud fights, right in the midst of everything.  Life always goes on for the living.   Children dream dreams even though the rainbow has fallen out of the sky.

In the formal learning domain, teachers have threatened to go on strike at the end of April 2009 if their salary demands are not met.  Coltart makes no bones of the fact that right now the coffers the empty.  Before he can fund teachers demands, he needs to know how many teachers he has.  There is no computerised database at present and the departments records are apparently in a chaotic state.  In the past few years, many teachers have left Zimbabwe, for jobs elsewhere. It is believed that the number of teachers currently in Zimbabwe is less than 50 percent of a full complement of 140 000.

A think tank comprised of educationalist from various sectors has been put together in order to provide strategic direction and advise in rebuilding and reviving education in Zimbabwe.  The board includes amongst others, former Minister of Education Dr Fay Chung, Zimbabwe Teachers Association President Tendai Chikoore, politician Ms Trudy Stevenson, clergy man Father Joe Arimoso as well as Dr Stanly Hadebe.

Infrastructure is important.  Having the teachers in place is important.  Having the money is important.  But one of the lessons that we can take from history is that it is not enough.  Education is one of those rights that requires active mobilisation, organisation and vigilance.  We have to think outside of the current parameters.  What kind of country do we want?  What kinds of citizens do we want in this country?  What kind of curriculum is going to facilitate that? 

In Zimbabwe today, education includes the participation of everyone from children, women, men, the young and the elderly, everyone has to work to construct new relations and consciousness both inside and outside the classroom.  This includes a broad, relevant and dynamic curriculum, healthy cultures of questioning, debate and critique.  It includes an expanded understanding of what constitutes education.  Participation in seminars, assemblies, walks, volunteer work, acts of solidarity, coming together across the divides to learn and teach reading and writing, to talk and discuss, and more than this, to read and write the reality of life.

This is the hard work.

The work that will reflect and refract a gazillion rainbows in the lives of that six year old little girl standing in the school parking lot and for hundreds and thousands like her all  around the country.    


CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP?: Five: Walking Parliament in High Heels

9 March 2009 

In an unprecedented move in Harare last week women cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs), from across party lines, gathered over lunch.  They gathered to celebrate the women who contested the March 2008 elections and to continue the process of building and strengthening a cross party women’s alliance in Parliament in order to push forward a women focused agenda. 

First to arrive was Lucia Matabenga MP (MDC-T), she was followed by Margret Zinyemba (MDC-T). Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga Minister of Regional Integration and International Cooperation (MDC-M) and the new Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Paurine Mpariwa (MDC-T) were joined by Flora Bhuka, head of ZANU-PF women’s league.  Next came Deputy Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs, Jessie Majome (MDC-T), Sekai Holland MP (MDC-T), Fay Chung and Rudo Gaidzanwa who stood as independents (linked to Muvambo) were followed Mai Dandajena (MDC-T) a long time community activist and now a senator. Oppah Muchinguri (ZANU-PF) former Minister of Women’s Affairs called in an apology, along with Olivia Muchena (ZANU-PF), current Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development and former Minister Shuvai Mahofa (ZANU-PF).  Still they continued arriving.

Despite the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development which stipulates that women should hold equal position to men in both public and private sectors by 2015, there are no provisions for quotas as a way to advance the representation of women in publicly elected bodies in the current Constitution of Zimbabwe (1980) or the electoral laws. 

Political parties are left to their own devices on this score and effective participation of women has been dramatically limited by the closed political environment and the “political competition and contestation” that has characterised opposition politics in Zimbabwe in the last 12 years. 

Women were caught and sacrificed in the party politics that characterised the last elections, literally and figuratively. Subsequently, there is a low representation of women politicians in the inclusive government, in fact the lowest in 15 years: only four women are part of the 35 member cabinet. Women make up 14% of the House of Assembly and 33% in the Senate. 

But getting bogged down in the math is tiring. 

Quotas are a step forward, but the numbers are not enough.  Quota’s arose out of a feminist strategy to get women into parliament in order to represent, fight for and be accountable to the needs and issues of women as a constituency. It was ultimately one of a number of strategies to ensure transformation and subsequently true and meaningful freedom for women.   But as we’ve discovered, just because you are in a women’s body, doesn’t necessarily mean you embody a transformatory politics.  As we’ve discovered too, a depoliticized uptake of quotas prevents the adoption of a political culture whereby women, however they may be positioned, are integrated into the political system.  Quotas  can circumvent meaningful structural change. 

Listening to the conversations around the table that day, I realised that once in, women face different challenges: quotas do not ensure real political participation or leadership by women; women’s activity in Parliament can often remain marginal and “women’s issues” become ghettoised and reduced to the implementation of “gender policies” often with the lack of financial resources to support their implementation. 

The dominant model of political leadership remains competitive, masculine, territorial, violent and dehumanising.  This limits not only women but also men with “non-traditional” approaches and now more than ever we need not only alternatives, but people who are willing to break rank in order to make them a reality.

The status quo is not going to do it for women in Zimbabwe and the women sitting around the table know this.  They know it for they have been in the patriarchal party political trenches.

There are no “women’s issues”.  Every issue facing Zimbabwe right now involves and impacts on Zimbabwean women. Ask them, they will tell you.

So.  Where does that leave us?

While I will always have a healthy skepticism about the extent of parliament as a radical site for change.  My hope lies in the energetic and vital link that some of these women parliamentarians have with their constituencies, through Constituency Consultative Forums, more commonly known as CCF’s.

Facilitated by a cutting edge Women’s Political Support Organisation, since 2005 these structures have been systematically established in constituencies where women MP’s committed to women served a term of office and/or were contesting elections, either under a ZANU PF or MDC ticket.

The CCF’s are comprised of a minimum of 70 women drawn from the various wards in the constituency.  Members participate in political education programmes and exchange visits to other, rural or urban, constituency forums.  The CCF’s provide both a support base for the women MP’s during elections and the vibrancy and dynamism of the CCF’s means that they also provide the necessary checks and balances in terms of accountability after the elections.

“In areas with CCF’s women contested elections and won.  In the two areas where women lost, the tide of internal party politics was too strong.  The CCF’s are powerful structures and the women members know what they want”, said a key organizer within the facilitation team.

In the chain of public participation in governance, we move from the CCF’s to another interesting women’s only space: The women’s parliamentary caucus. Many of the women who broke bread together that day were members of this body. From here, women MPs share, learn, support and startegise.  Women can and have caucused on issues, put forward positions and have even creatively blocked things detrimental to women at large from passing through parliament.  It’s certainly “safer” for women MP’s to come together under the banner of the women’s parliamentary caucus in order challenge the status quo, than for individual women to do so!

The party whip is never far away. It’s a fragile space.

In this period of “transition”, I guess my hope lies in the potentials and possibilities of  the space to contribute to a radical politics:  a politics that centers the needs and demands of ordinary Zimbabwean women wherever they may be found; a politics committed to real and sustainable change, not just the transfer of power from one elite patriarchal group to the next; a politics that interrogates our current political cultures and that refuses a paternalism that “allows” women to have their quotas, thereby fulfilling regional and international obligations around governance, with very little else.

No, this is not enough.

In this period of transition, whether the women’s parliamentary caucus and the CCF’s will haemorrhage from the wounds of partisan politics, be suffocated by the quest for individual power or be nurtured so that it can grow and form the beginnings of this new politics, remains to be seen.

I for one will be listening, following the click click of those heels as they walk from the far flung districts through to the corridors of parliament. 

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP? Two: In Search of a River

At 6.50am today, International Women’s Day, I joined hundreds of women all around Harare in search of a river. 

The search took me down the beautiful tree lined Josiah Tongogara Avenue, past what Zimbabweans now know as the hanging tree.  The tree where Mbuya Nehanda, a spiritual medium and revolutionary war heroine of Zimbabwe’s first chimurenga, was hanged, after capture by colonial forces in 1896.  

But the freedom from oppression for which she fought and died remains elusive.   Zimbabwean women are still waging wars against oppressions, a reality made even starker on this 8th of March.

Today the struggle takes the shape of resistance to deprivation.  To the lack of a basic need – water.   The entire city of Harare has been without water for the last 4 days. 

Harare City Council, which recently reclaimed water management functions from the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) said it was battling to restore supplies. 

The grapevine tells a story of sabotage.  That Zinwa is withholding much needed chemicals because of the takeback by the city council.  But Harare is a city rife with rumour.  The more conventional understandings speak of a lack of chemicals for water purification, an outdated and dilapidated water treatment system and a lack of electricity to pump.

Whatever the reason, the taps are dry and Zimbabwean women are taking to the streets.

Walking or driving, carrying plastic bottles, buckets, containers of all shapes and sizes, pushing wheel barrows or bearing the weight of full buckets on their heads women go in search of water.  It’s a massive movement that will continue throughout the day. Like a relay. A rolling demonstration for life, against all odds. It is a form of resistance.

For some women the only water source they have is unprotected and the chances of contamination are high. There are boreholes that are also contaminated due to the overflow of sceptic tanks. There are schools with wells and there are some private residences who have installed taps near the roadside of their properties for public use.

The one I found had a queue.  It took me an hour to reach the tap.  You learn to make the water stretch.  You bath in a litre – 4 cups. 

While waiting for my turn, we talk.  We talk about sanitation, cholera and how difficult it is to live in this man-made drought. 

Death is always imminent in this demonstration for life.  On this women’s day, standing around a tap on the side of a suburban road we also talk about Susan Tsvangirai. 

Mainstream news in Zimbabwe has been circumspect around the details of her death. While late last night the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) reported that the wife of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, bore the full impact when the landcruiser they were traveling in was sideswiped by a USAID truck near Beatrice, causing the vehicle to veer off the road and roll three times.   Today the news is more circumspect.  They are giving minimal detail.  Rumour, speculation and conspiracy theories are rife.

But for now, my bucket is full.  Who knows what will happen next in this place where water = life and where death is never far away.

Prespone Matawira

CHII CHIRIKUITA : WHAT’S UP?: What’s More Free Than A Free For All

In Harare now, some say heaven can be found in the middle class suburbs of Arundel, Borrowdale and the Avenues. This heaven comes in the form of Spar supermarket and the queues of people waiting to get through the metal gates are long.  After all, “Spar is good for you”!

Once inside you would be forgiven for thinking you are in any South African Supermarket. A walk down the aisle will land you ricotta cheese for $1.10; oven baked chips at $3.90; Flame grilled honey and mustard chicken breasts, $5.60 … anything and everything can be found here.  People navigate their way up and down the aisles their shopping carts rolling on the well oiled wheels of “hard currency”.

If you do not have the ma usa or ma rand, you are not permitted to enter heaven.  Infact currently in Zimbabwe, if you do not have the US dollar or South African rand, there is very little you can do. 

Venturing out of Harare, rural women run a roadside equivalent of a US dollar store.  They sell home-grown fresh produce to get forex.  The vegetables are stacked in piles, each valued at a dollar: 5 bunches of Muriwo (collard greens); 6 tomatoes; 4 green mealies; 15 small mapudzi (squash); 1 large pumpkin, a big bag of groundnuts. 

While the price is quoted in dollars, seeing me ruffle through Rands in order to pay for the giant pumpkin, the seller, Moreblessing, quietly says “10 Rand”.  There is no longer an exchange rate.   1 dollar = 10 rand.

When the deal is done, Moreblessing tells me she needs to get foreign currency.  That will buy her and her children a future. “I don’t want to talk about politics” she tells me. 

While she may not know that Morgan Tsvangirai is now the new Prime Minister, Moreblessing and many people like her, in rural and urban Zimbabwe are equally aware of the limitations and precariousness of the Zimbabwean currency caused by stratospheric inflation, unstable exchange rates and the inability of people to get their money out of the banks.

Gradually then, Zimbabweans began trading in hard currency on the parallel market.  In order to attract foreign currency back into the official market and reign in inflation, the central bank licensed some retailers, mostly multinationals, to charge for services in foreign currency.  (Although no one will admit it, currently dollarisation is the greatest threat to “national sovereignty” in Zimbabwe!)

But if the Zim dollar has led us to a dead-end, dollarisation has acted as a form of collective hypnosis. It’s created an illusion of possibility and freedom.  If only you have the hard currency, anything is possible. All people have to do is get with the programme. 

At first glance this has its merits.  Its true.  US dollars can buy you access to … Spar, to wealthier, healthier, more comfortable lives. But there are also problems here, for the one does not automatically translate into the other.  Freedom for the mighty is slavery for the weak and dollarisation only exacerbates this position.  It’s kind of like capitalism beyond control.

While some Zimbabweans revel in the availability of basic and luxury commodities, the devil lies silently in the detail.  Dollarisation is backfiring in the same way that the floatation of exchange rates back in May 2008 accelerated the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar.  For some dollarisation has translated into greater deprivation and a rising sense of injustice.

Economists argue that dollarisation can result in a rapid rise in the price of commodities which in turn results in a sharper increase in levels of poverty.  This trend is already apparent.  There has been an accelerated inflation of the US dollar in Zimbabwe, which is now estimated at more than 50%, compared to 5.3% in the US. What does this mean in reality?  It means that the prices of everything sold in US dollars in Zimbabwe is four to five times higher than in South Africa or other countries with convertible currencies.

The anesthesia created by dollarisation has also erased the fact that with an estimated 80% unemployment, foreign earnings capacity is less than 5% of the population. Of course cross border trading is rampant and besides remittances from the diaspora, there is very little other evidence to suggest that the majority of Zimbabweans have access to foreign currency.  

So it is logical that the effect will be a natural and legitimate demand by those who are employed to be paid in foreign currency.  This demand gained even more traction after the February 11th inauguration speech by Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, when he boldly committed to pay 150 000 civil servants in foreign currency until the economy is stabilised.   These empty promises are a brand of very dangerous populism. Where this money is going to come from is anyone’s guess. 

But for now, the current situation presents even more challenges for an already exhausted and abused people.  Not only does the country not have the foreign currency reserves, but the banking system itself is largely not a US dollar depository.  This means foreign currency circulation will fall outside the banking system which has the potential to ignite another banking crisis, as all Zim dollar accounts are now, de facto, frozen.

But as the cycle goes, with nearly everyone, licensed or not, attempting to sell goods and services in US $, what’s more free than a free for all?  

Prespone Matawira