Shouting matches and even physical fights break out each time a mini-bus pulls up to drop off passengers at a crowded bus stop in downtown Harare. It’s all about not getting short-changed.
Hyperinflation forced Zimbabwe to trash its worthless local currency three years ago in a move that brought much-needed relief to the crippled economy, but created a surprising new headache: a lack of coins.
“Change is a big problem, and at the same time passengers are impatient with us. I have been slapped a few times for not having change for them,” bus conductor Walter Chakawata said.
The US dollar and the rand from South Africa are Zimbabwe’s main adopted currencies, but the greenback is preferred and all prices are pegged to it.
However, there is not enough US small change in circulation. The result is that prices are either rounded off — making goods and services more expensive — or customers brace themselves for a fight to get their change.
The average city commute costs US$0.50, but the dearth of coins means passengers — handing over bills — are always owed change. Some bus drivers pair the passengers, handing them a dollar bill in change and leaving the two riders to sort the rest out themselves.
Often their only alternative is to buy an item worth a dollar that they can then share — a packet of cookies, a pie or anything they agree to.
However, that has not gone down well with many, who feel obliged to make an unnecessary purchase. Others complain it forces them to spend time with a total stranger. Or what if one is in a hurry? And in a country where many live on less than US$2 a day, US$0.50 still remains a decent sum, not to be wasted.
The fights have at times turned deadly. Last year, independent papers reported that a state security agent pulled out a pistol and shot dead a bus conductor after he failed to give him change.
In another incident, a conductor and passenger scuffling over change fell into a ditch with live electricity cables and were both electrocuted.
Initially, drivers issued credit notes in the form of coupons, but they were not universal and only valid on specific routes.
Bus operators also ran into problems with fake coupons, on some days accumulating nothing but paper slips and not enough cash to pay for their fuel.
To get round the problem, a South African 5 rand coin has become widely accepted as equivalent to US$0.50, for the purposes of public transport, regardless of the actual exchange rate.
This in turn has prompted entrepreneurial-minded young men to smuggle in coins from South Africa to sell to bus conductors.
“We have agreed with the kombi [minibus] drivers to split the dollar into rand, so they come here to get change,” said Felix Munonyanya, a boilermaker who found the trade lucrative enough to quit his job of six years to sell rand on the roadside near the main working-class suburbs of Mbare and Highfields.
Not all merchants buy coins, however. Ice-cream and yoghurt vendor Locadia Chimimba conceded that “the situation is better these days because you can buy change if you want,” but she herself does not and still asks customers to buy more to make up the difference.
In supermarkets, when the grocery bill does not add up neatly to a round figure, shoppers are offered sweets, match boxes, chewing gum and even condoms to compensate.