Zimbabwe in Chaos As Currency Deadline Dawns

Zimbabwe Standard, August 21 – CHAOS was the order of the day throughout the country yesterday as Zimbabweans changed over from the old bearer cheques to the new ones.

Even before the expiry of the deadline for use of the old bearer cheques, shop owners, supermarkets and transport operators were refusing to accept them, leaving many people stranded.

People who had travelled long distances from rural areas went back empty-handed after being told that they could not make any withdrawals. Soldiers who were paid last week were among those affected. Normally, soldiers do their shopping on the weekend of their pay week.

Bank workers who did not want to waste their time explaining, just showed disappointed customers a notice from the RBZ which stated that they were only open for people exchanging the old bearer cheques for new ones.

There were heart-rending reports from areas such as Gutu, Chiredzi, Chinhoyi, Gwanda and Beitbridge of rural dwellers stranded after failing to access their money yesterday. They had not heard about the announcement that banks would not offer full services on Saturday.

In major cities such as Harare, filling stations, shops and commuter buses did not accept the old currency, which will cease to be legal tender tomorrow. This was despite a warning by the Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono, that those refusing the old bearer cheques would be dealt with accordingly.

Even the government controlled National Railways of Zimbabwe appeared suspicious of Gono’s arrangement. Notices pasted at the Harare main train station informed travellers that the parastatal was no longer accepting old bearer cheques.

"We wish to advise that as from Saturday, 19 August 2006, cash transactions with the NRZ shall be conducted using the new currency."

At fuel service stations around Harare, attendants refused to accept the old bearer cheques, leaving motorists stranded.

"We have been told by our employer not to accept the old bearer cheques because he fears the RBZ might refuse to accept the old currency in exchange for the new notes," an attendant told The Standard.

Several kombi drivers who needed to buy fuel using the new currency retaliated by demanding the new notes from commuters.

A fuel attendant at a service station in the city centre was taken away by plain-clothes officers after she was caught rejecting the old bearer cheques.

At flea markets around Harare, stall-holders were also not accepting the currency being phased out. "Some of us have savings accounts and banks will not accept explanations that we are cross-border traders who make money on the informal market. We are just playing it safe."

A shop owner in Highfield said: "We are not doing anything criminal but the kind of explanations the RBZ would insist on for returning old bearer cheques are just too many and would waste my time…"

Even banks felt the pinch as early as Friday when they were in the final stages of realigning their systems for the changeover. The RBZ’s Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS), an instant money transfer system, temporarily broke down leaving banks stranded with nowhere to get the money.

The central bank’s public relations office did not respond to questions sent by this paper yesterday but officials from the banking industry confirmed that business ground to a halt at most financial institutions on Friday morning.

"The RTGS was down the greater part of (Friday) morning but we did manage to get the money that we wanted later in the day," said an official from Stanbic.

An official with another bank confirmed that his bank faced problems accessing funds from the central bank although the problem was resolved "later".

A top official from the central bank, however, said the problem could have been limited to individual banks given the conversion of computer systems to the new currency.

The Standard heard that there was commotion outside the RBZ building emanating from the problem but the official said that was routine given the number of customers it had to deal with. Anti-riot police were also manning the RBZ entrance around 6PM on Friday.

The RBZ made last minute efforts to send money to remote areas through private logistics trucks which were escorted by heavily armed anti-riot police.

The chaos has had its light moments. In Gokwe a traveller from Harare nearly faced instant justice from shop owners when he tried to use the new bearer cheques. Shop owners said they had had enough of "crooks from Harare" and wanted to beat him up.

He was told any money changeover should have been communicated through chiefs.

The man bemoaned the lack of information, particularly in rural areas, saying in Gokwe many cotton growers were still holding onto the old currency in the hope of using it to purchase agricultural inputs.