A passport is a privilege in Zimbabwe
My passport is one of my most prized possessions. You can’t always get another one even if you have the money.
This is the third essay in the six-part series guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola. Additional editing by Ayodeji Rotinwa. Illustrations by Diana Ejaita.
I got my current passport in 2016, three years after the election that ended the Government of National Unity. This was also the year the government introduced bond coins and bond notes, and foreign currency became, once again, scarce.
I opted for the 24-hour delivery, which can mean three working days or literally the next day, depending on the mood of the officer who serves you. The passport cost me just over $260 (this was, in theory, exactly equivalent to the 260 bond notes but not in practice). I was harassed, infantilised and generally condescended by the officers at the passport office but my work involves travel, so it was a business expense and a worthy investment.
The next time I was at the passport office was in March 2017 during Zimbabwe’s cash crunch. I applied for a passport for my infant daughter. By then, the situation had deteriorated and getting an emergency passport was the only sure way of securing one, regardless of the cost. But in Zimbabwe, “emergency” doesn’t mean fast. We were lucky to get it. In January 2020, when I checked the progress of a relative’s passport, I found that they had just begun processing applications from September 2018.
A passport is a privilege in Zimbabwe. It is one of my most prized possessions – more than my favourite gadgets of similar or greater value – because you can’t always get another one even if you have the money. It is my guarantee that I can exit the country and breathe every once in a while. The currency crisis means that most now cannot afford it, even at 150 Zimbabwe dollars ($6). I know from the financial literacy classes I teach across Zimbabwe that it remains amongst the things for which many students and young people save and aspire.
Sadly, the government just does not produce them fast enough. Materials are an issue because of insufficient foreign currency, even though money is seemingly available for other things like government travel. It is about control. In late 2019, the situation was so dire that it was said even the largest bribe could not get you one and fewer than 50 passports were being produced in a day at any one centre. Insiders were quoted saying “kurikupisa” (“it is getting hot”) as the corruption also naturally escalated, until the few that were produced were sanctioned literally from the highest offices in the land.
As the passport situation has deteriorated, many Zimbabweans have suffered serious personal losses. Families had loved ones who were sick to the point of death but could not get medical assistance outside the country while our largest referral hospitals were understaffed and poorly resourced. Young bright students from underprivileged backgrounds that had miraculously secured full scholarships for further study at top international colleges could not make visa and admissions cut-off dates. Professionals who could not renew their permits for great jobs got stuck in foreign countries, unable to communicate a clear date to employers. There was a deep anguish and helplessness of being a victim of dysfunction that you cannot individually hack or correct, no matter how well resourced you are. Who can account for the damage and impact on social relationships when you cannot join a spouse or family for a wedding, graduation, birth or funeral, or the actual deaths of citizens that risked it all and attempted to cross crocodile-infested rivers to a better life and lost the very life they had?
The Zimbabwean passport is supposedly a symbol of escape, possibilities and access to better. But having a Zimbabwean passport also comes with being victimised at certain ports of entry. It sometimes means being ruthlessly and mercilessly interrogated at the borders of Western countries based on stereotypes. This has been a cyclical experience in the past two decades. We are numb to the dysfunction and grateful when it improves momentarily, suffering silently when it worsens.
While the constitution clearly guarantees a passport as an entitlement, the right cannot be easily enforced. The system seems to be deliberately mismanaged and designed to give you grief until you bribe your way through. The processes are slow and the processors are not helpful or kind. There are an unforgivable number of “children” that cannot secure these basic documents – children who are in fact adults now, orphaned during the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s. You need a birth certificate to secure a passport, and in turn you need your late parents’ death certificates to get a birth certificate. Unless it is an election year, when there are more mobile registration exercises, these documents have not been easy to obtain for those who are victims of these unfortunate events. Many of them who want to cross borders in search of a better life have resorted to illegal border jumping. Those that do have basic documents have to jump through the next hoop, finding the money to pay for the application.
Zimbabweans based outside the country often apply for an emergency passport by paying $318, making this one of the most expensive passports in the world. The same “diaspora” that contributes a billion US dollars in remittances annually is being milked, assuming that they will find the money somehow in order to prolong their stay outside Zimbabwe. Just before lockdown in March, the government announced that locals too could pay for the quick passport at the same $318, whilst raising the price of the ordinary passport from 53 Zimbabwean dollars ($2) to 150 ($6 at official rate). The US dollar denominated one is the only real chance at securing a passport, even though the fee is equal to almost ten months’ salary for a teacher in the civil service.
Even so, many Zimbabweans are willing to sacrifice and pay top dollar, if only for the assurance that they can get one. The irony is that in the same government offices are many uncollected passports, and many Zimbabweans have unused or barely used passports, acquired just in case, yet never used because travelling costs money. They sacrifice for it because that passport is a promise. It is a promise of a better life beyond borders – any border – where at least there is running water, constant power, decent roads, schools and hospitals, and a proper stable currency.
Even the most privileged Zimbabweans are humbled when seeking a passport. Many athletes have needed emergency interventions to obtain them. Members of the legislature have no guarantee they can get one when they need one, and opposing parties have gladly and cynically united around the requirement of a diplomatic passport for every MP. Citizens are on their own and will remain victims of a system trying to control free movement – whether deliberately or by simple incompetence.
Foreign currency shortages may be the obvious scapegoat, but there is no political will in present Zimbabwe to ease the passport situation. Today in Zimbabwe, people have “acquire a new passport” as a new year’s resolution. My genuine thoughts and prayers are with them. For while the average Zimbabwean can always find a workaround for every other situation they fall victim to, on this one hands, and especially feet, are tied.