BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
ORDINARY people, including civil servants and many in the informal sector, have become increasingly disillusioned with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s highly touted “new dispensation” anchored on economic development, which seemingly have collapsed in spectacular fashion.
A snap survey by NewsDay Weekender revealed that many ordinary people believe the political elites, who live in the lap of comfort and luxury, were far removed from the hardships of a population at its wits’ end on how to live through the next day.
When it was first rumoured that Mnangagwa was considering Mthuli Ncube for the post of Finance minister, there was a ripple of public excitement given the man’s glossy CV.
But in just two years, those who have been hit hard by the continued downward spiral of the economy have even been suggesting that for all his ills, the late former President Robert Mugabe was probably a better leader who felt for the people and pushed pro-poor policies.
With the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans earning less than $2 000 a month, surviving through the month has become a tall order.
According to the Poverty Reduction Forum Trust (PRFT)’s Basic Needs Basket survey — which monitors the cost of accessing basic needs in urban areas — by October last year, a family of five required $4 307,16 for their basic needs.
Before the re-introduction of the Zimbabwe dollar, US$100 was sufficient to fill a trolley of groceries, but now, $100 in local currency is not even sufficient to purchase four litres of cooking oil.
Several people who spoke to this publication revealed that they were no longer doing monthly budgets like in the past, but were now living from day to day.
A researcher and development economist with PRFT, Tafara Chiremba, said the increasing cost of living demanded families to be more prudent in their spending habits.
“They need to have a plan on the basic needs, when they will need to buy and where they can buy goods at cheaper prices,” he said.
“Given availability of income, there is need for households to buy goods that can last a month. In the face of increasing inflation and cost of transport, this strategy can help households to save money.”
In January this year, civil servants agreed to a 140% pay hike after the top public workers union, Apex Council, had earlier rejected a government offer to double the pay for the government employees, saying it was too little.
They eventually settled for a pay deal where the lowest paid State employees would get $2 450, up from $1 033, a month.
With people forking out between $8 and $10 for a single trip into the central business district using public transport, that translates to between $320 and $500 for transport the whole month.
If the individual has three children who commute to school everyday, the figure would treble.
In a bid to alleviate the transport woes, the government availed a subsidised facility for public transport through the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco), where an individual would pay just $1 or $2 for a single trip into town, but the buses have proved too few in light of the demand for affordable transport.
In December last year, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Local Government indicated that the Zupco bus management scheme was gobbling $51 million per month, with committee chairperson Miriam Chikukwa claiming the money was not enough.
According to Chiremba, while it was the responsibility of government to provide social protection to vulnerable groups, such did not have to be reactionary.
“By any standard, the Zupco buses are also in limited supply, hence they are not able to cater for all Zimbabweans who need cheaper transport in the face of inflation and general increase in cost of living,” he observed. “The programme itself is a reactionary measure and it is not addressing the root of the problems that have led the country to where it is right now.”
Rentals in high-density suburbs, where landlords have now opted to charge in United States dollars to lock value, are now going for between US$10 and US$12 a room, which roughly translates to about $250 in local currency.
With a kilogramme of beef costing between $85 and $150, many families have cut their beef rations for alternatives such as soya mince, beans and a variety of vegetables to remain within their monthly budgets.
Though dismissed in government as a joke, Mnangagwa’s encouragement for people to opt for vegetables following concerns that meat was now too expensive, was viewed as a show of how those in power were far removed from the hardships experienced by ordinary people.
“You should eat vegetables, they are recommended by doctors. Doctors want you to eat vegetables so that you stay healthy. Meat is not good at all. We have differed there; I listen to doctors, so I eat vegetables. They said vitamins are found in vegetables and potatoes. You see,” he said, amid grumbling from the crowd during a clean-up campaign in Harare’s Kuwadzana high-density suburb last month.
Vegetables have also become expensive, with a small bundle of between three and five leaves going for between $4 and $5.
There have been concerns that the re-introduction of the local currency has fuelled the instability on the market as life was relatively affordable before that.
“The introduction of the local currency was not properly thought of and this has caused untold suffering on people,” Chiremba noted.
“The government should make sure it addresses the root causes of the problems, which is in this case lack of a broader and shared national policy framework, corruption and mismanagement of public resources.”
Harare-based social worker Robert Mapurisa said the disconnect between salaries and human needs was huge given that prices of basic commodities were shooting up everyday.
He said many working people were increasingly under pressure to support their families and meet society’s expectations by virtue of going to work.
“This has many social and psychological implications. You will end up with stress because your mind is failing to process all the forces that are coming in. You will be thinking too much about how to solve problems and meet the needs,” Mapurisa said.
“It can then lead to depression, and you can end up sick. Poor health kicks in, things like hypertension.”
He cited other ills such as children developing anti-social behaviours, a spike in divorces, family disintegration and an increase in suicides.
“You end up with low self-esteem. You can lose your dignity before your family and friends. You end up ashamed of telling people that you are working,” he said, adding that in the worst case scenarios, where the individual has no alternative source of income, they would end up engaging in corruption.
Prior to Ncube being appointed Finance minister, he drew up a list of alternatives that he said he would consider, including re-introducing the US dollar or considering the use of the South African rand, but none of those suggestions has been implemented, amid indications that he could have faced stiff resistance from some Zanu PF hardliners.
With indications that extensive consumer spending was a significant contributor to economic development in the Asian tigers and other countries whose economies are growing, economic prospects for Zimbabwe remain dim as the public’s spending power is continually diminished.