It is the sort of thing you see in spy and crime thrillers, the protagonist or some bad guy walks into a bank and accesses their safety deposit boxes without questions asked. The bank doesn’t know or care what is stored therein. It could be certificates, bonds (like real bonds, not the pseudo-currency we used to have), cash in various currencies, jewellery, important documents or a crypto-currency wallet. It’s something so useful you wonder why Zimbabwean banks are not offering such an important service given our economic history.
These days most people and banks in Zimbabwe are opting to use what is now colloquially known as the NMB bank. No, it has nothing to do with the very popular and real NMB Bank. This acronym instead refers to the National Mattress Bank which is a humorous name for the common practice of storing your precious USD in your mattress, pillow, wardrobe or some other nook and cranny. This is because if you are foolish enough to take that money to the bank it might be the last time you see it. Time and time again we have seen the economic system, driven by the government and RBZ disappear people’s hard-earned currency and replace it with the worthless currency of the day at the “official rate” which is invariably much lower than what the market is offering at the time.
This effectively means that taking your money to a bank is not a good option for informal traders who form the bulk of Zimbabwe’s economy. Banks have tried to offer various types of enticements but the fact that the government can take it all away with the wave of the magical Statutory Instrument wand has dissuaded many people from taking the leap. The mattress bank has a big downside. It has made many prominent people and informal businesses a prime target for robbers. Robberies are on the rise due to the fact that most robbers know that informal businesses have a lot of cash on their premises because they are afraid of taking the money to the bank. Sometimes these robbers are made up of current and former members of the security services who tend to be well-armed and trained with some robberies turn deadly.
A good case for safety deposit boxes in Zimbabwe
Unlike a traditional bank account where you walk in and deposit your hard-earned money into an account a safety deposit box is simply just that. A box offered by a bank or a security establishment where you can go and store your valuables. You can just declare the value of your precious valuables and pay a storage fee based on this value which fee also includes insurance. The bank or the establishment provides security to make sure that those valuables are protected. They don’t have to know exactly what’s in the box nor do they care. In the case of a robbery the establishment can reimburse and indemnify you but such robberies are rare as the bank would be set up to deal with exactly such a scenario.
The upside is that you can store your precious USD, Euro or Rands cash in your box and since it is a physical container. You can declare the total value of your currency (valuables) to the bank. They keep it safe for you and when you want to access it you just take your key, sign in and take your money out. Making a deposit is you putting more cash into that box. The bank is not involved here. You get exactly what you put in. No 2% tax since the money is never converted into electronic form. That would suit informal businesses just fine.
I know what you are thinking, what is to stop the RBZ or our shameless friends in the ministry of Finance from raiding those safety deposit boxes? Well, the truth is nothing really except when they do so it will be an explicit raid rather than the surreptitious raids they already carry out on people’s accounts through devices such as the forcible conversion of people’s USD into RTGS and then calmly saying that the USD was never yours, to begin with since you are not an exporter. The stupidest argument I have ever heard. If they come for safety deposit boxes there would be no flimsy computer to hide behind. The optics would be bad, as they would have to pry people’s boxes open and physically steal that cash. I seriously doubt such an operation would scale as easily as swiping people’s foreign currency from their accounts.
There would be demand for safety deposit boxes. I am just shocked that not a lot of banks are doing it really.