COVID-19: skewed outcomes for African-Americans

Lori Lightfoot, chair of the Chicago Police Board, addresses community leaders and members of the news media about the findings of the Police Accountability Task Force on April 13, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The task force found the Chicago Police Department was plagued by systematic racism and had lost the trust of the community. PHOTO AFP

Social distancing and mass quarantine have added to racial stereotyping and stigmatisation

Those who contend that a pandemic is a great equaliser, affecting both rich and poor of every race, would do well to delve deeper into the facts. In April this year, the mayor of Chicago in the USA, Lori Lightfoot, announced that although black people make up less than a third of the city’s population, they accounted for  72,2%  of virus-related fatalities. In Louisiana, reports in the same month showed that 70% of coronavirus victims were black. These are just two examples showing that although social distancing and mass quarantine target entire populations, the outcomes reflect great inequality.

Although social distancing and mass quarantines target entire populations, the outcomes reflect great inequality.

The reasons for these and other societal disparities are studied by scholars in the emerging academic field of African diaspora – the study of Africans settled in places other than their ancestral homelands, and the communities that emerge from such migration.

There are, of course, other diasporas.

When humans of any race move from their ancestral locations, driven by instinct and the need to hunt for food, to find better shelter or other means of survival, this migration could lead to a diasporic community settled elsewhere. If people were always comfortable in their original homes and if migration was always a choice, there may not be any need for scholars to devote their time to the field of diaspora, whether African or other.

Migrations leading to diaspora also do not take place in a vacuum. Many external factors are responsible for people migrating from their ancestral homes, either individually or in groups, to other parts of the world. Enslavement, bad governance, corruption, man’s inhumanity to man and colonisation are just some of these factors.

Slave trade resulted in the forced migration of millions of Africans to America and Europe, leading to a high concentration of enslaved Africans     in other colonies. The direct descendants of enslaved African people in the United States are referred to as old diaspora, and new diaspora are those who voluntarily migrated. New African diaspora had their own share of home- grown experiences that led to their voluntary migration. Chief among these are bad governance, corruption, unemployment, kidnapping, poverty, robberies and the need for a better future. Failure of leadership resulting in an insecure socio-political and economic environment compelled most of these migrants to leave the shores of Africa in search of greener pastures.

Members of a caravan of migrants from DR Congo, Ghana and Ivory Coast remain on the Pan-American highway after being stopped by agents of the Honduran National Police near Choluteca, as they were heading to Tegucigalpa to make a stop on their way to Mexico, in Honduras on June 2, 2020 amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP

And when they arrive, lack of comprehensive integration and discrimination are at the core of the challenges confronting diaspora worldwide.

The divide between black and white people in the US has been deepened by the measures adopted to contain the virus.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, both old and new African diaspora had been subjected to racial stereotyping, stigmatisation, prejudice and discrimination in the US, as shown by several studies. A study by Villanova

University in Pennsylvania in 2007 observed that America is notorious for stereotyping black people, especially males, as criminals. Another, published in the American Journal of Political Science in 1997, showed that black women are stereotyped as dominant and lazy, and that the belief exists that they want to live on welfare. Yet other studies have shown that black people are subject to discrimination and prejudice in the spheres of education, employment, housing and more.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, African diaspora have been facing increased challenges in America. The pandemic is certainly not responsible for the political, economic and geographic divide between white and black people in the US, but the divide was deepened by the measures adopted to contain the virus. Social distancing and mass quarantine added to the already-existing rights violations associated with racial stereotyping and stigmatisation, while the patterns of infection and death reflect long-existing social inequalities.

The pandemic has changed and continues to change everything in life, from political and economic aspects to social, cultural and family ties. People have become strangers, even in their own families. Friends are no longer welcomed by friends, families avoid relatives as though they are strangers and employees are no longer allowed in their workplaces. These challenges heighten discrimination and the fate of both the old and the new African diaspora, given their experiences prior to the pandemic.

And, as the numbers show, the impact on African-Americans is greater than on white people. There are many contributing factors one could fathom. Whereas white Americans live mainly in middle class neighbourhoods, many African-Americans live in slums and highly populated areas, as do other people of colour who are often poor and disadvantaged. This makes them more vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus, as COVID-19 spreads faster through personal contact.

Given the fact that the negative outcomes of social distancing and mass quarantine weighs more heavily on African-Americans, and that the African diaspora in America have a history of being stereotyped and stigmatised, one can confidently say that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problems besetting them. And, even if an opportunity were to arise for them to go back to their ancestral homes, the measures adopted in the fight against the pandemic means they will likely be rejected by their own people.

DR NICHOLAS UCHECHUKWU ASOGWA is a senior lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He specialises in ethics.

What black scholars can teach the post-pandemic world

US student James Meredith arrives at the University of Mississippi, on October 01, 1962 in Oxford, under the protection of federal forces, becoming the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. Photo AFP

History shows that diaspora thinkers have had distinctive insight into the nature and operation of the geopolitics of place and race

As we begin to consider  the global transformations  bound to follow the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, parallels are  being drawn to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the global disorder that followed. The interwar and World War II years (1919-1945) were characterised by rising nationalism and xenophobia, the collapse of the global economy and the Great Depression, and the failure of international institutions.

These factors impacted Africa and its diaspora (African migrant communities living elsewhere in the  world)  in unique and profound ways. It was in this tumultuous time that an animated black Atlantic world of scholar-activists emerged, including W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and  C.L.R.  James. The black cosmopolitanism they forged helped spawn the decolonisation movements of the 1940s-50s.  They  also seized this period of flux to fundamentally rethink the nature of the geopolitical international order, and the role that race and imperialism played in perpetuating it.

Black scholars from across the diaspora, many of them concentrated  on the campus of Howard University in Washington D.C. in the United States, broke away both from the mainstream American disciplinary approaches  of the time and from the institutional limitations of black universities –instead engaging in a project of institution building, transformative scholarship and intellectual theories on race and empire in the US and around the world. The Howard School, as it became known, included notable figures such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan, Eric Williams, E. Franklin Frazier and Merze Tate. Collectively, they offered novel theories, frameworks and methods to address the most pressing issues of their time.

Founded in 1867, the history of Howard University shows how American universities and American intellectual thought, over time, has mirrored racial attitudes in broader society – actively spreading racist views and supporting the racist notion that blacks are innately inferior.

But things changed when the university’s first black president was appointed in 1926 during what has been described as the golden age of black scholarship. Under Mordecai W. Johnson’s leadership, Howard successfully positioned itself to become  the leading centre of black scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The campus fostered a unique Afro-diasporan, cosmopolitan environment with rich ties to activists and nationalists in Africa and non-European territories such as India and China. It offered a glaring counter to the growing isolationism and nationalism dominating many American institutions at the time.

The Howard scholars established institutions and produced knowledge with a  unique  mission,  vision  and  methods  of research, and played a vital role in critiquing mainstream thinking on race and imperialism. They erected the scaffolding to promote the scientific study of African- American schooling and to analyse political, economic and social structures of race and racism globally.

The Founders Library – MSRC, located on the upper Quad on the Howard University Campus.

One such initiative was the Journal of Negro Education, founded in 1932 by Charles H. Thompson, which sought to cultivate black cosmopolitan thinking and encouraged black people to adopt a global approach to racial oppression. A key feature of the journal was the way contributors showed a commitment to the colonised and oppressed, and connected the differing fortunes of the people of the colonising metropoles with those at the periphery. For example, contributors diverged sharply with the mainstream political thinking on fascism, engaging instead with the racialised politics of fascism – to them, anti-fascism was related to anti-colonialism and the struggles against racial oppression in the US. These and other analyses are included in a 1943 special edition of the journal, The American Negro and World War I and World War

  1. It included a piece by Merze Tate titled The war aims of World War I and World War II and their relation to the darker peoples of the world, in which she offers a  direct  and  passionate rebuke of her white contemporaries’ writing on global peace. Tate argued that the dangers to world peace lie in the European powers perpetuating the “imperialist mentality” of “master and subject peoples”, concluding with a warning: “The way the United States behaves toward its coloured citizens and the way Great Britain behaves toward India and Africa represent the criteria by which Anglo-American war aims must be judged.”

The Howard School’s institution-building is also demonstrated by the annual conferences of the Social Sciences Division, which began in 1935. The first, titled Programmes and Philosophies of Minority Groups, was intended to be a springboard for a scholarly research programme on minority problems and programmes, positioning Howard as the premier academic institution   in the study of minorities and set a high bar for subsequent conferences. The framework they had in mind for such a research programme was decidedly world oriented. W.E.B. DuBois’s paper  Militant Tactics as Illustrated by Negro Experience was read in tandem with Rabbi Weinstein’s paper Militant Tactics as Illustrated by Jewish Experience. Alain Locke’s paper The Negro Paradox was read with Rabbi Eisenstein’s paper The Jewish Problem and Dr Taraknath Das‘s The Position of the Oriental in the Present-Day World. Ralph Bunche’s Colonial Status: Mandates and Indirect Rule was accompanied by E. Franklin Frazier’s Bi-Racialism in the United States.

Throughout history, diaspora thinkers have had distinctive, indeed special, insight into the nature and operation of the geopolitics of place and race. Confronted with a momentous moment in global politics and history, the Howard School forced a collective recognition of racism  and  imperialism and their consequences to globalisation – insisting that matters of race not  be pushed to the periphery of consciousness. Their work constitutes part of what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has referred to as an “African archive”, and serves as an example of the transformative thinking required in times of global uncertainty and change.

KRISTA JOHNSON is an associate professor and director of graduate studies at the Center for African Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, Howard University.



Editorial: The old and new African diaspora

The articles in this special issue are derived from a virtual activity lasting just over five months between May and October 2020. Dubbed the Old and New African Diaspora: Before and After COVID-19, the series of activities kicked off with a half-day virtual conference on May 21, 2020.

The virtual presentations were a partnership of the African Centre for the Study  of the US at Wits University and the African Studies Center and the Alliance for African Partnerships, both based at the Michigan State University. The initiative also received support from the African Centre for Migration Studies at Wits and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network, a New York-based think tank.

The virtual activities were initially planned as a physical conference, as part of a longer-term initiative aimed  at  stimulating  discussions  around  the research, teaching and engagement on African diaspora. The fact that challenges triggered by the suddenness of COVID-19 did not dampen interest in the conference goes to demonstrate the significance, commitment, and attachment to the subject. In fact, as fate would have it, Mr George Floyd,     an African American man, was killed on May 25, only three days after the launch of the virtual initiative. With hindsight, George Floyd’s death and the spiral of protests that followed was not a simple coincidence but part of the wider African American experience in the US, linked to the African diasporic encounters around the world.

The articles in this volume are divided into four thematic areas: diaspora and the COVID-19 pandemic, migration-related issues, discipline-specific contributions frameworks, and diaspora in specific regions of world.

In the first batch of articles, Krista Johnson and Nicholas Asogwa provide linkages with the pandemic. Drawing on the events unfolding after the 1918 influenza pandemic, Krista implicitly suggests that the post COVID-19 period will see to a rebound in scholarship radically different from racialised mainstream Western scholarship. Anchoring the article on African diaspora at Howard University, she provides evidence of the theoretical thrusts that animated the “the black cosmopolitanism” that inspired decolonisation movements. Readers will get an introduction the African American scholars and their minority counterparts and the enduring legacy of the works they produced.

Asogwa approaches the question of race from a statistical starting point, showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the pandemic before seeking answers as to why that is the case. The article is helpful in providing some basic definitions of new and old African diaspora as a foundation to discussing their plights before and during COVID-19.

Tapiwa Mucheri and Munyaradzi A Dzimbo’s article approaches the question of migration from an economic angle. One of their key arguments    is that diasporic communities should be involved in policy formulation and implementation by home (and destination) countries rather than being merely seen as sources of resources such as money transfers, trade, investment, and skills and knowledge transfer. They offer specific pandemic-related suggestions by way of conclusion.

Wilmot Allen begins his article by noting the highly publicised “Year of Return”, an initiative of the Ghanaian government in 2019. While the initiative may have had successes, he believes more benefits can be gained between African Americans and Africans. He offers a three-pronged method that includes “direct, influencer and enabler partnerships”. Readers looking for pragmatic steps that can be leveraged across sectors will find the article a good primer.

Shifting to what may be referred to intra-African migrations – part of the “new diaspora” – Emmanuel Chima discusses the plight that many African refugees find themselves in at Dzaleka, a notorious former prison in Malawi. The refugees, argues Chima, face double trouble in that they are targeted by both government agents and ordinary Malawians.

Elena Clarke’s article focuses on African migrations to Europe via the treacherous routes through the Sahara, war-torn countries such as Libya and the Mediterranean Sea. As Clarke states, even “after arriving in Europe, some migrants have been left homeless for long periods of time, while others have been exploited”. Significantly, she notes that some scholars have suggested that the migration phenomenon be “renamed the European racial crisis”, in line with critical race theory (CRT). She then discusses this from the point of view of the uneven circumstances faced by West African diaspora in Rome.

While all the articles in the volume have a disciplinary and/or theoretical anchor, a set of articles can be characterised as more explicit in these respects. One example is Paul Schauert’s article which deals with the history of art and culture, drawing on musical performances in New York, Chicago, and Detroit  in the US. Using the make-believe-world of “Afrotopia”, Schauert narrates a scintillating ethnographic tale filled with performative recreations bringing together historical and contemporary African American diaspora. Schauert rightly labels the multiple fusion and blend a revolution, but more importantly provides snippets on the musicians and the details of their interesting encounters, some of which happened during the civil rights movement era of the 1960s!

In another discipline-inclined article, Bob Wekesa discusses the link between digital diplomacy and digital diaspora, concluding that African countries have not utilised the opportunity that digital platforms offer to do digital diaspora diplomacy. Peggy A. Honoré follows the stories of Dr Michael Okoronkwo,     a medical graduate from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Centre (LSUHSC) School of Medicine in New Orleans, and Stephen Igwe, entering third year at the same university. The article tracks the development of these two medics with Nigerian links to show how university training in the US can contribute towards the increased medical personnel in Africa.

The final set of articles relates to African diaspora and non-African diaspora. Benji Shulman kicks off this section with a discussion of the Africa-Jewish diaspora ties in the 1950s and 1960s. Seeking to correct gaps in scholarship, he argues that: “For nearly half a century, African and Jewish diasporic intellectuals and activists, based mostly in Europe and America, paved the way for state-based co-operation after independence – and set the agenda for future engagement”. Shulman then provides a detailed account of diplomatic, academic, and political links between Africa and Israel covering different epochs.

The point of departure for István Tarrósy’s article is that “African communities living in Central and Eastern Europe are often neglected in studies of global African diaspora”. Moreover, he argues, African migration  in these regions is increasing not just due to migrations but also due to an increase in diplomatic and economic frameworks.

Tracey L. Walters turns the spotlight on black activism in Britain, pointing out a resurgence in these respects linked to the global African resistance to racialism – Black Lives Matter (BLM). This is an important perspective because African diaspora struggles in Western European nations, of which the UK is a major part, are often lost as the focus is directed to the US. An interesting distinguisher is that Walters writes about grassroots movements led by millennials using online and offline tactics in the UK. The conclusion drawn by Walters, however, is that the protests have not translated into systematic and systemic changes to address root causes. Importantly, Walters discusses some of the difficulties faced by movements in the UK compared to their American counterparts.

The volume concludes with the review of African Americans and Africa: A New History authored by George Washington University’s Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden. This is one of the most sweeping accounts of how African Americans view Africans, one that came out in 2019 coinciding with the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, US.

We are grateful to Africa in Fact for this publication platform.

Bob Wekesa

October 2020

BOB WEKESA is the director of communications, research and partnerships at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, and adjunct lecturer in journalism and media studies, at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is widely published in fields at the intersection of communications and international relations, including Africa-China-US and global studies. He is a member of the research groups; African Cities and Internationalisation and African Digital Diplomacy.

Science isn’t enough to prevent disaster: the case of the desert locust plague in East Africa

East Africa is experiencing the worst desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) outbreak in decades. The outbreak began in early 2019 and science isn’t enough to save the livelihoods and ensure the food security of at least 39 million people who are currently at risk. Implementing existing environmental protection policies and consistent resource allocation to national and regional organisations will ultimately be the difference.

Naturally, these policies and actions should be supported by expert scientists and researchers. Desert locusts have plagued farmers in Africa and Asia since Pharaonic times and is mentioned in both the Bible and Koran. Since the United Kingdom’s establishment of the Anti-Locust Research Centre in 1945, four major international conferences have been held to formally establish a method of monitoring, controlling and preparing for future outbreaks.

Two factors have impacted the success and failure of desert locust management. First, desert locusts ignore international boundaries which means that international cooperation is crucial for successful intervention. Second, plague outbreaks are intermittent, so funding for both research and control fluctuates and needs to be more consistent. Oscillation between recession and outbreak periods can cause a lack of available funding for monitoring and control operations. Countries have become poorly equipped to cope with an upsurge because of these seasonal fluctuations.

Cooperation and coordination

The very nature of the desert locust problem calls for an approach to environmental governance that involves both state and non-state actors. Despite international organisations like the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) being a central actor in dealing with the desert locust outbreaks, states in the affected regions need to have internal policy measures implemented to ensure preparedness for predicted outbreaks. In 1962, the Convention for the Establishment of the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) was held to unify cooperation between the governments of Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

The DLCO-EA hoped to ensure cooperation in the control of desert locust plauges across the region. Despite having the necessary scientific understanding of how to deal with the locusts, the organisation has been unable to deal with the magnitude of the current outbreak. Lack of membership payment by Uganda, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan, all of which owed an estimated $8 million to the organisation, is clearly a primary problem. This is nearly half of its members failing to contribute to the capacity and maintenance of the DLCO-EA. Environmental problems are inherently challenging to solve because they are embedded in complex biological systems.

Their impacts are often time-lagged so if political leaders are short-sighted, it’s unlikely that they will cooperate effectively. Effective locust control requires a well-timed coordinated response. Consider, for instance, that warning signs of a severe outbreak surfaced after the North Indian Ocean experienced its most active cyclone season ever recorded. This created ideal breeding and survival grounds across the Arabian Peninsula. Desert locusts occur in swarms due to a particular combination of weather, soil and vegetation conditions that complements its reproduction and mutation from an otherwise solitary creature into one which matures and develops into speedy swarms (gregarisation) of up to 150 million locusts⁠.

This mutation makes the desert locust one of the most destructive insect groups when met with cropland. The Desert Locust Watch agency of the FAO released frequent warning bulletins during the cyclone season and from late 2019 it was clear that breeding had gone uncontrolled in Yemen. Despite the warnings, the DLCO-EA and member states did not have sufficient supplies of pesticides, protective gear and locust control authority to allow for effective control.

Why science isn’t enough

In a recent article published in Nature, the authors demonstrate that researchers are improving their understanding of how the locusts communicate, using predictive modelling to determine outbreak locations before they happen. They consequently call for more data-driven agricultural policies. No one should disagree, but if governments aren’t prioritising this research or actively monitoring and evaluating their current strategies then the science may come too late.

In Ethiopia, for instance, there are environmental policies in place, but they lack the necessary resources, implementation and expert involvement to make a difference or show positive outcomes. Conflict and instability in Somalia have made certain areas inaccessible to control operation groups. Kenya were initially not fully prepared for the scale of the outbreak but have managed to fight back and clear the infestations. Swarm breeding in northeast Africa and Yemen is currently threatening a second wave that could migrate south into eastern Ethiopia, central Somalia and northern Kenya. The fight is not over yet.

Transnational governance on environmental issues cannot act as a substitute for strong state-based governance. Research shows that strong national environmental policies create incentives for state and non-state actors to cooperage and engage transnationally. The DLCO-EA should be complemented by member state investment into national locust control policies so that they are better able to work in synergy. The most recent Locust Watch bulletin indicates that more swarms are forming and breeding has commenced in the Red Sea near to Somalia.

Kenya is likely to be affected from mid-November but the situation seems less severe than in 2019. The Kenyan based IGAD Climate Prediction & Applications Centre (ICPAC) is using satellite technology to help monitor breeding and movement forecasts of the desert locusts. They are cooperating with environmental ministries to help inform resource allocation and control operations across the region. This kind of cooperation and coordination between science and politicians will surely make the difference in preventing future environmental disaster.

This article was first published by Daily Maverick here

Monique Bennett is a senior researcher at Good Governance Africa. She has a keen interest in data science, data visualisation and statistics using the R programming language. Throughout her studies, research topics such as development, democracy and the environment within the context of developing countries have been her focus areas.

Zimbabwe’s ban on mobile money adds to suffering of its citizens

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which has also closed the stock exchange over forex concerns, has hit people already losing livelihood options during the Covid-19 lockdown hard

A man shows a wad of the new Zimbabwean ten-dollar notes received from an ATM outside a bank in Harare on May 20, 2020. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced this higher denomination bank note into circulation together with the Zimbabwean two-dollar and Zimbabwean five-dollar notes to ease perennial shortages of cash experienced in the country. Photo JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP

The Zimbabwean government has, for a prolonged period, been engaged in a losing battle to stem illegal foreign exchange market activities. As has been the fashion, the regime has blamed runaway inflation and spiraling price increases on nefarious activities by “market saboteurs”.

Among these innumerable efforts, in the first week of June, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) threatened to embark on an unusual exercise. It sought to pursue illegal foreign currency dealers via the surveillance of WhatsApp groups through its financial intelligence unit, in collaboration with the police, banks, mobile-money service providers and relevant regulatory agencies. It threatened to bar and freeze suspects’ mobile numbers and accounts. This proved impossible.

On June 23, the RBZ then introduced a foreign exchange auction system (FEAS), which resulted in a move from a fixed exchange rate on the interbank market, which had, since March, been pegged at one US dollar to 25 Zimbabwe dollars (ZWL). After the introduction of the FEAS, the US dollar is now officially trading at 57 ZWL, against a black-market rate of between 80 and 100 ZWL.

On June 26, three days after the introduction of the FEAS, the permanent secretary in the ministry of information and publicity, Nick Mangwana, announced a ban, with immediate effect, on all mobile-money transactions (MMTs) and trading on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE). These drastic measures were described as making way for “intrusive investigations” into illegal dealings linked to the foreign currency black market, in which EcoCash is cited as the “centre pivot”.

In terms of market share, EcoCash, a subsidiary of Econet, accounts for about 97% of Zimbabwe’s mobile-money services. In addressing a crucial gap in Zimbabwe’s cash crisis, MMT services have, nonetheless, made the country’s economy vulnerable to a multiplicity of illicit foreign currency activities.

That said, the RBZ must not lose sight of its contributory role to this crisis through its (mis)management of the nation’s banking system that led to the liquidity crisis in the first place. This birthed and nurtured the mobile-money system that has since spiraled off its radar and, hence, out of its control.

Like any other stock exchange, the ZSE serves as a critical link for investors in the country. The loudest, yet most unfortunate, message from the temporary ban on its trading is that Zimbabwe is not only closed for business but also has no regard for investors’ property rights. Indeed, typical of the proverbial “burning down the house to kill a rat” or “throwing the baby out with the bath water”, this drastic measure is not good for investor confidence.

Further to this looming ZSE national catastrophe, the repercussions of which are yet to fully play out, is the plight of citizens already burdened by a loss of livelihood options during this indefinitely extended Covid-19 lockdown, that is most concerning. After the shock announcement of a blanket suspension of mobile-money services, the RBZ emerged, seemingly to avert a crisis, and reviewed the ban. This reviewed statement indicated that the ban is on MMT agents and merchant mobile-money account holders, while individual transactions up to a maximum of 5,000 ZWL are permitted.

Despite this reversal of the blanket ban and the assurance given by RBZ, Mangwana’s utterance has led to anxiety and a loss of confidence, with some street vendors and supermarkets already declining mobile-money payments.

For citizens battling a worsening economic crisis under the lockdown, this unfortunate development further impoverishes people, most of whom are Econet subscribers, who constitute an unbanked population that has found relief in transacting through mobile-money services.

For the few that are banked, the protracted liquidity crisis has seen citizens brave endless days and nights in long, winding queues in an effort to secure limited withdrawals each week. It is not unusual to leave the bank empty-handed even after dedicating oneself to these queues.

Apart from the often prohibitive costs associated with opening and maintaining a bank account, MMTs have offered a lifeline amid Zimbabwe’s protracted liquidity crisis. The Covid-19 context has also increased the demand for mobile-money services. This is because in light of the increasing levels of police abuse and brutality, they are a safer option in the current context in which citizen mobility, even for access to essential services, is restricted.

MMT services have also fulfilled transacting needs within an already failing banking sector, which, due to Covid-19 social-distancing regulations, has been operating below capacity. The digitalised transacting on mobile-money platforms offered by EcoCash, OneMoney, MyCash and Telecash have come to the rescue of consumers.

Last Friday’s announcement is evidence of a huge climbdown by the RBZ. Mangwana retweeted the climbdown with no hint of irony. This announcement has the potential to decimate what is left of Zimbabwe’s meagre economy and points to a governance system that has failed to subordinate itself to the rule of law.

The government should manage its communications system and segment information outflows so that announcements are delivered by the appropriate authorities, in this case the RBZ and the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Since this is not the first example of such a case in Zimbabwe, until such time as public officials are brought to publicly account for their utterances, with consequences, not much reform can be expected in this regard.

As observed by telecommunications expert Dennis Magaya, the government’s failure to contain illegal foreign currency activities confirms a “widening gap” between a fast-changing digital world and Zimbabwe’s current monetary policy framework. This should be subject to regular review, in line with prevailing digital advances, to ensure that while monetary operations are not beyond its purview, they remain investor- and citizen-friendly.

A long-term solution to Zimbabwe’s liquidity crisis, which inevitably fuels the illegal foreign currency exchange market, must be found. Beyond the concerns of manipulation and illegality and hyperinflation as a result of money supply mismanagement, the latest crackdown compounds already immeasurable suffering for the majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens.

This article first appeared on Business Day here

Sikhululekile Mashingaidze currently serves as Senior Researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa. Being engaged as a part-time enumerator for Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years ushered her into and nurtured her passion for the governance field. She has worked with Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution(CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively. This has, over the years, enriched her grassroots and national level governance projects’ implementation and management experience. Her academic research interests are in the field of genocide studies with a commitment to deepen her understanding of girls and women’s experiences, their agency in reconstituting everyday life and their inclusion in peace-building and transitional justice processes. Socially she has a keen commitment in supporting girls education, women’s economic empowerment and the fulfilment of their equitable and sustainable development in Africa’s underserved, often hard to reach communities. She enjoys writing and telling the stories of navigating everyday life.