Monday, 5 December 2016

(No) Nationalism and Money in Zimbabwe

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The introduction of bond notes in Zimbabwe has not been as apocalyptic as predicted by critics. Nor has it been as positive as anticipated by those that support their introduction.  And in both cases, the politics of the bond notes has been muted.  Despite some demonstrations planned and threats of arrest and detention of those opposed to them, no political party has gone full throttle in favour of or in rejection of them.

In fact most of the opinion battles have occurred largely through the media.  This was done mainly through editorials, columns and biased hard news stories.  But even the private mainstream media moderated its anti-bond note tone as the date of their introduction drew closer.  Not least because they were also now accepting revenue from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) promotional advertisements.

The default verdict of many Zimbabweans however is while suspicious and mistrusting of the government remains that of a ‘wait and see’ attitude. 

One security guard I recently talked to explained with reservation that if it doesn’t work, then he will cross the rejection bridge when he gets to it.  For now all he wants is an end to the bank queues and by dint of the same, not preoccupying his ‘off time’ in them.

In kombis, the key issue is always about the change that is returned and whether its in bond notes or in actual United States dollars.  But there is no rejection of change.  There may be a bit of consternation, a bit of grumbling about a lack of ‘fair’ aggregation of bond notes over the actual currency.  I assume that this would also apply to the exchanges in flea markets and other informal trade arenas. 

What is arguably true is that there is no nationalism that is accompanying the bond note.  Even from ruling party supporters and policy makers.  The big debate is about their utilitarian (or lack of it) value and nothing else.  From issues of shorter queues for cash, through to unpredictable exchange rates on the streets or via electronic money transfers, there’s no immediate sense of national ownership of the bond note.  It is currently being viewed, and understandably so, with derision, humour, and to the greater extent, resignation. 

In other words, the bond note is viewed as money, but money that is inferior and money that does not reflect any popular national acceptance.  For the government it does not have to. As long as it serves what Finance Minister Chinamasa has defined as the reduction of the import of US dollars and preventing the externalisation of those that are already in circulation.   

The default acceptance of bond notes is therefore an indicator of how far and the extent to which our nationalism is no longer defined by what would be conventional measurements. Having a national currency would be an easy one to point out.  Rejecting one proposed by government, even though not by popular dissent, would indicate that our nationalism is no longer conventional by a long shot.
And this does not matter to the ruling party.  It never claimed to have a brand of popular nationalism.  Instead it is clear that its view of nationalism leans heavily toward being ‘patriotic’.  The latter being a state of affairs that, in its probable view, does not require popular consent but a latter day version of democratic centralism (i.e the few deciding for the many). 

The downside of this lack of popular support for the bond note is that it is indicative of how the general view of the national economy is no longer determined by contextual factors.  Zimbabweans are increasingly global in their economic outlook.  This means that they tend to accept the economic systems/outlook of countries that they admire, including the USA whose currency they stubbornly want to hold on to.  As a result, and largely due to lack of economic trust in their government, there is a tendency by most Zimbabweans to defend neo-liberal economic policies even if the world and global financial institutions such as the World Bank are increasingly questioning their progressive economic impact. 

It is this sort of approach that the Zimbabwean government is also taking advantage of.  It knows, probably, that we will not question its economic policies beyond what they do to our individual pockets as citizens. Or at least as a national collective.  Nor in relation to social welfare and trying give every citizen a fair start in this cutthroat and individualistic/atomised national economic (dis)order.  Hence its tenacious and in part arrogant introduction of a currency no one really understands but will eventually end up using even if under some sort of protest or with an intention to fuel parallel money markets for illicit profit purposes.

Until such a time we approach our national economic challenges as holistically as practicable, and we stop having isolated responses to what we perceive to be challenges as they affect us individually or on the basis of our narrow class interests, we will remain beholden to a central government that believes it can always get its way. Even with money.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)