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Tallying obsolete coins causes chaos in Zimbabwe

A man carried coins to a Harare bank. Lines grew as overwhelmed tellers counted the reintroduced coins, made obsolete in 2002. A man carried coins to a Harare bank. Lines grew as overwhelmed tellers counted the reintroduced coins, made obsolete in 2002. (Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Angus Shaw
Associated Press / August 3, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Zimbabweans dug out coins squirreled away years ago in jars and cupboards, and headed for the shops, where lines built up as overburdened tellers more accustomed to counting mounds of hyper-inflated dollar notes instead were juggling silver.

The central bank, overwhelmed by stratospheric inflation, last week cut 10 zeros from the currency and reintroduced coins made obsolete in 2002 when they became worthless.

A $1 coin now is worth 10 billion of the old dollars.

On Friday, about 20 $1 coins - or 200 billion Zimbabwe dollars - could buy a loaf of bread, if it could be found in a downtown supermarket. That's about $5 at the official rate and $2 at the black market rate that better reflects the value of the currency.

"It has been a chaotic day," said Farayi Chikomba, a teller filling plastic banking bags with coins at a small supermarket at closing time. "Customers have been digging out their old coins."

Lines grew as staff counted the coins.

"It's a bonus for anyone like me who didn't know what to do with coins and didn't throw them away," said businessman Frank Takavara, who carried a cookie jar full of coins that bought him a small sachet of powdered milk.

Chikomba said he received a few new $10 and $20 notes issued by banks Friday. But most purchasers still used coins, old notes, or checks. The old currency remains effective until December, being used alongside new bills in the "revalued" currency rate introduced Friday.

The biggest new bill is $500, equivalent to 5 trillion in the old denominations.

Two weeks ago, the bank had introduced a $100 billion dollar note.

In setting prices on its menu, a downtown cafe mistakenly slashed nine zeros from its prices instead of the required 10. Until December, prices must be quoted in both new and old dollars, according to a central bank directive.

"Everyone is totally confused. Maybe things will settle down in a few days. It's farcical at the moment," said the cafe manager, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Embattled President Robert Mugabe blamed profiteers and Western sanctions for the economic chaos in the southern African nation, and this week warned that if businesses tried to cash in on the mess, he would impose a state of emergency.

There were fears he could use emergency laws to punish rivals should power-sharing talks with the opposition not resolve in his favor.

Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai say they won elections this year. Talks being held in a secret location in South Africa under an agreed media blackout were due to resume today.

Tsvangirai said last week that he is fairly satisfied with the progress of the talks, adding that tomorrow's deadline for reaching an agreement was flexible. Negotiators said last month that they would try to find a way to end the political crisis by tomorrow.

An explosion shook the main police station in Harare yesterday, but the office that was hit was unoccupied and no injuries were reported.

Police were investigating the cause.

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since a guerrilla war forced an end to white minority rule in 1980, in recent years even overcoming opposition within his party.

Zimbabwe's woes began when Mugabe nearly 10 years ago sent supporters to invade white-owned commercial farms that drove the economy violently, saying he was reclaiming the land for poor, black peasants.

Instead, he gave the farms to his Cabinet minister, generals, and other cronies.

Most were left untended and today Zimbabwe, which once exported food, suffers chronic shortages of everything from food and medication to fuel and electricity.

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