In Cash-Strapped Zimbabwe, Some Churches Now Take Debit Cards

When it’s time to pass around the collection basket, congregants in some Zimbabwe churches can now donate with plastic instead of cash. It’s a way to cope with the country’s liquidity crisis, but some people find the new practice jarring.

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In Cash-Strapped Zimbabwe, Some Churches Now Take Debit Cards

Talent Gumpo, GPJ Zimbabwe

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — At church on Sunday morning, Sikhumbuzo Dube is in attendance as usual.

Midway through the service at the Apostolic Faith Mission in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, he sees the collection basket coming his way.

Dube hesitates before placing one U.S. dollar in the basket and then quickly passes it on.

Political Revolution in Zimbabwe

After 37 years of controversial rule, Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe on Nov. 21.

Mugabe, 93, was the only leader Zimbabwe has known since the country gained independence in 1980. Once considered a hero of his country’s independence movement, he became an all-powerful ruler who urged his supporters to use violence to implement his policies. Zimbabwe’s economy disintegrated under Mugabe’s rule, and the nation has suffered under strict global sanctions for decades.

Mugabe was placed under house arrest by Zimbabwe’s military after a Nov. 14 takeover. Days later, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party fired him as party leader on Nov. 19. That day, thousands of people marched peacefully in Harare to celebrate Mugabe’s dismissal. The party gave him a deadline of midday on Nov. 20 to resign as president, which he did not do.

Zimbabwe’s parliament began the impeachment process on Nov. 21, during which they received and read a letter of resignation from Mugabe. Celebrations erupted in the capital and throughout the country. Recently fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa will be sworn in as president in the coming days, and he is expected to serve the remainder of Mugabe’s last term. General elections are tentatively scheduled for late 2018.

In the weeks and months to come, Global Press Journal will continue to provide holistic coverage of the changing nation.

Dube is a salesman, but says he isn’t formally employed. There are some weeks when he can’t afford to put anything in the collection basket at church, thanks to Zimbabwe’s free-falling economy. When the country introduced bond notes in late 2016, cash became even harder to come by.

Dube says his problem at work is the same as his problem at church – he lacks access to plastic money, a common term for debit cards and card readers.

“In this erratic economy, I am not formally employed,” he says. “Very few people buy from me because I do not have a swiping machine. They go to grocery stores instead. This means I have less cash that I have to feed my family and buy essentials, so very little is left to give in church.”

Like many businesses in Zimbabwe, churches across the country are also struggling to cover their basic costs, as congregants have less cash to give each Sunday. In response, some churches are introducing debit card readers, called swipe machines locally, to encourage regular giving. But some congregants are not fond of the modern version of the collection basket.

After the Zimbabwean dollar collapsed in 2009, the country switched to a multi-currency system that included the use of the U.S. dollar, the South African rand and the Botswana Pula. Last year, bond notes were added to the list of legal tenders, a move the government said would mitigate cash shortages.

To increase spending power, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe recently began encouraging the use of debit cards, or plastic money. In May, the bank reported that plastic money and other electronic transactions account for 70 percent of retail transactions in Zimbabwe – although critics have pointed out that cash transactions are informal and difficult, or even impossible, to track.

With nearly 93 percent of the country’s population identifying as Christian, Zimbabwe’s Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and Apostolic churches are feeling the cash shortage too. Pastors in particular have been hard hit by the decline in congregant giving, since in most churches their salaries are not predetermined, but calculated each month based on money that has been collected from congregants during services, says Kelvin Mpofu, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC), an interdenominational organization of 26 churches, dioceses and religious organizations.

Recently, some churches have not been able to pay their pastors for months at a time, he says.

Other church operations have also been limited.

“It has become difficult to fund evangelism campaigns to grow the congregation,” says Stanely Mushava, the pastor of an evangelical church in Bulawayo.

So Mushava introduced a debit card option about a year ago. Slowly, over the course of 2017, he says, church members have warmed to the new giving method. Today, he says electronic giving accounts for 30 percent of church income.

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Talent Gumpo, GPJ Zimbabwe

Congregants gather outside Brethren in Christ church, which debuted swipe machines in place of the collection basket earlier this year.

When a card reader was introduced in the Catholic church that Mduduzi Ncube attends, he says it was a shock.

“We are used to giving cash in church and we are not yet used to using the new money transfer methods, we have not adjusted,” says Ncube.

Bernard Sibanda, who works at Eagle Life Centre, a Pentecostal church in Bulawayo, says church members should quickly adapt and accept modern technology. He says he knows it’s hard for congregants to give regularly because of the economy. Regardless, he says, obeying the Bible is more important than personal cash constraints.

Mushava agrees. “In the past, churches accepted farm crops as an offering from congregants but that has changed,” he says, adding that embracing electronic transactions is the only option amid the country’s ongoing economic turmoil.


Talent Gumpo, GPJ, translated interviews from Ndebele.