This ambulance demonstrates both the deterioration in living standards in Zimbabwe as well as the constant daily search to find creative ways to survive.
Almost eight years of political, economic and social turmoil has been both a curse and for some elites, a blessing for Zimbabweans. The tragic experience has revealed a resilient nation with a strong culture of self-reliance, pride and resourcefulness. From a nation of certainty and prosperity as recent as 10 years ago, daily the world’s media talks about a pariah state on the verge of collapse and focuses on what has, or is, going wrong in the landlocked southern African nation. I acknowledge that we have also been labeled docile, cowardly and afraid of change. The deterioration in living standards and the constant daily search for ways to survive is the major preoccupation of life. Less often are the stories about how Zimbabweans are coping and what lessons of survival can be applied elsewhere in the future.
In 1980, Zimbabwe won independence from British colonial rule and white supremacist Rhodesia. It inherited a nation rich in mineral resources, with a solid and highly profitable agricultural industry and a superb infrastructure. Led by Prime Minister Robert Gabriel Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the newly elected – by universal franchise — government’s policy of reconciliation not only allayed fears of persecution among the minority whites but became a symbol of a new Zimbabwe that could be emulated by other African countries. In addition, the country’s 92 percent literacy rate was the highest in Africa. The country was an attractive destination for direct foreign investment and tourism while its currency (the Zimbabwe dollar) was valued above the United States dollar in 1980 and business was booming.
Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has been the dominant political party since independence. In 1987 a revised constitution made Mugabe Executive President holding powers as head of state and head of government. His ZANU-PF has won every election since 1980, with outside observers alleging massive irregularities every time. In particular, the elections of 1990 were nationally and internationally condemned with the now defunct Zimbabwe Unity Movement, winning only 20 percent of the vote. Presidential elections were last held in 2002 amid even greater allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and fraud. The next presidential elections are due to be held in 2008.
Immediately after Independence, the new black majority government adopted the progressive policy of reconciliation, inclusivity, independence of thought and creativity — at least on paper. The country thrived and became a beacon of hope for much of the rest of Africa and the world’s liberal democracies like Canada pronounced themselves well satisfied. The mainline churches, long supporters of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, were elated.
Significant gains were made in the social and economic spheres and the country had sound institutions of governance that worked efficiently and effectively despite the fact that they had been designed and intended to serve the minority white population.
The government introduced a directive in 1980 to level the playing field in the public service and to allow as many highly qualified, but inexperienced, black Zimbabweans as possible to enter the public service. Before 1980, Africans could only enter the public service as clerks. White Zimbabweans started at the officer level. This differentiation in status and pay levels was not only confined to the public service. In the banking sector for instance, the top two grades were white only. No black person, regardless of academic and or professional background, could enter the bank at these levels In order to address these inequalities; the new government established the National Manpower Survey in 1982 and moved swiftly to ensure that all workers were paid equally for the same work regardless of race and gender. The Zimbabwe Public Service Commission visited countries like the United Kingdom and Canada to lure Zimbabweans back home to actively participate in building their country. Economic power, however especially in agriculture, manufacturing, mining and tourism, remained largely in the hands of the whites while blacks lagged behind even though they held the reins of power in government.
THE POLITICS OF EXCLUSION
However, ZANU PF’s internal policies started to gradually practice what could be called “the politics of exclusion” in order to consolidate its political power and prevent the growth of an active political opposition. The culture of ZANU PF manifested itself in cronyism and patronage and currently, most institutions have ceased to serve the public while some have been systematically militarized. One either belonged or was regarded with suspicion People were in or out. Whites stayed out and controlled the economy. This has not changed in 27 years and, indeed has become the norm.
Exclusion has contributed immensely to Zimbabwe’s current problems and its imminent collapse as a functioning state. It is not a new phenomena. Historically, political, social and economic exclusion during the colonial era, white minority rule and, since 1980, through the policies of ZANU PF has created a people attuned to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ with all the benefits which accrue to insiders and the poverty of outsiders.
Political exclusion is more than simply denying basic citizenship rights, such as the right to vote and associate. When imposed on such a large scale, it prevents groups and categories of people from participating in political life, and inhibits democratization. Government response to citizen complaints is usually haphazard and misdirected thereby creating a society that is perpetually in crisis.
This is especially obvious in the past seven years. Zimbabweans are well-known survivors who create opportunities where they improvise creatively to manage the day-to-day demands of life. Every obstacle is met with resourcefulness and a deep resolve not to give up. The abnormal becomes normal.
Social exclusion in Zimbabwe has manifested itself in a weakened extended family support structure, chronic poverty, isolation and vulnerability especially amongst women, children and the elderly. Women need to over-extend their nurturing skills and community involvement in order to fill the vacuum left by government. They are forced to risk their lives by crossing into neighboring countries in search of ways to make a living. With 80 percent unemployment and raging inflation, there are not many prospects for formal employment in Zimbabwe. It is a desperate situation for the vast majority. Governments worldwide have responsibility for their citizens. By systematically employing the politics of exclusion, the Zimbabwe government reneges on all its obligations towards its peoples A combination of social and economic exclusion breeds distrust and anxiety.
Economic exclusion in Zimbabwe has occurred rapidly due to a number of factors. The gap between the tiny wealthy elite and the rest of the citizens continues to widen, as Zimbabwe has violated the most basic rules of economic theory and practice. Everything is so politicized that the only relief for ordinary citizens is to be as creative as possible in order to survive the daily challenges.
There were 19 documented and well-publicized corruption cases in Zimbabwe between 1987 and 2001 involving high-ranking politicians, some of whom still hold positions of authority. The Anti-Corruption Commission of Zimbabwe (ACCZ) was established in September 2005 and it is a signatory of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol as well as the African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) Convention on Anti-Corruption. There have been a handful of prominent citizens like a former minister of finance that have been hauled before the courts and jailed only to be cleared of all charges by the courts.
A presidential decree of June 18 2007, ordered business to revert to prices that were current on that date and reduce them by 50 percent. What followed has been referred to as state-sanctioned looting as people grabbed as much as they could in the shops. Food items and various other goods quickly disappeared because of panic buying. The situation has since deteriorated because business cannot produce and sell goods at a loss. Some 7,000 business owners or operators were arrested for flouting the price controls and were subsequently accused of corruption and sabotage. The Zimbabwe Stock Exchange also suffered huge losses with some corporate listings losing up to 40 percent of their share value in a single day. Many companies are closing factories and have stopped importing goods and raw materials.
This economic exclusion could lead to rebellion and violence against the system that causes exclusion, ZANU PF and its securocratic system of oppression. The sporadic and persistent labor unrest in Zimbabwe could be the beginning of the end, had the government not acted so ruthlessly to stifle all forms of protest. By withholding their labor, workers — among them doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers — are using the only weapon that they have to fight back.
Zimbabweans cannot openly hold peaceful demonstrations so they resort to passive resistance like the popular go-slow strategy, job-stayaways, absenteeism, and sabotage. Moonlighting is common as workers try to supplement their meager wages. The government would prefer that it controls every economic activity to its advantage but the ingenuity of Zimbabweans makes this an arduous task.
In practicing such politics of exclusion, the government has progressively walked the path of self-destruction and exposed its populace to extreme poverty. The people have responded by continuously perfecting the art of survival.
The Zimbabwe Central Statistical Office (CSO), reports that Zimbabwe’s rate of inflation surged to 3,731.9 percent in May 2007, driven by higher energy and food costs, and further amplified by a drop in its currency value. Rampant inflation is a sure sign of a deep economic crisis that requires hard policy decisions by the government. By July 2007 inflation had surged to 7,634 percent, the highest in the world, and continues to rise.
In July, 100, 000 Zimbabwe dollars could buy one four loaves of poor quality white bread at the government controlled price while take-out lunch for four comprising chicken burgers and small fries cost a whooping $1,9 million Zimbabwe dollars. In September 2007 the price of a loaf of bread had risen to $145,000 when available in the shops despite the official price of $30,000. Zimbabwe is a country full of poor millionaires and everyone carries wads of cash all the time in case they come across a queue for bread, fuel, cooking oil or sugar. These foodstuffs are all in short supply but in abundance on the parallel or black market at ten times the official controlled price. Waiting in endless queues with no guarantee of getting food or other items not only affects productivity but results in risen tempers and fatigue. Employers and employees alike in both the public and private sectors feel cornered and operate in an environment characterized by fear and uncertainty.
Furthermore, the constant power outages in Zimbabwe have created a nation of “night-shifters” Electricity goes off at dawn and again in the early afternoon so much cannot be done during these periods. The most productive hours are late at night and early morning especially for those fortunate enough to have access to computers and work from home. The work culture as we know it is fast-changing such that it is impossible for supervisors and managers to enforce workplace rules and regulations. Preparing meals over an open fire is the only alternative for most people but this has far-reaching environmental degradation due to the rampant cutting down of trees.
Apart from severe shortages of basic foodstuffs, many city dwellers also struggle with water, electricity and transport shortages. On days that water is available, drinking water is strictly rationed. For example, after bathing, the same bath water is re-cycled and used for flushing the toilet. It is a wonder why there has not been a serious cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. During these extraordinary days that call for extraordinary response, Zimbabweans do not leave home without one or all of items like backpacks, plastic containers, plastic bags and lots of cash. The city is awash with residents on the move either searching for anything that they might come across in the queues or offering goods and services. The cell phone has become a treasured possession and a survival gadget. Throughout the day and night text Messages are sent and received notifying friend, family and colleagues about where such and such is available. When the government ordered a reduction by 50 percent on the price of goods and services in June, the telecommunications industry was hardest hit. Time spent trying to get through on the phone meant many lost opportunities for an already weary nation. Zimbabwe has turned into a place where one quickly learns the techniques of improvising and compromising on quality and quantity.
City life in Zimbabwe is now worse than life in the rural areas for the 80 percent of urban poor. The definition of poverty has taken on new meaning in Zimbabwe. Whereas people in the West associate the black market with illegal activities, in Zimbabwe the black or parallel market is a lifeline for families that can afford paying for essential goods at an inflated price. It comes as no surprise that even when the officials, in a desperate attempt to crush the black market, offer cash incentives to whistle blowers, there are no takers because food in Zimbabwe has not only become politicized but a rare commodity. Moreover, Zimbabweans suffer one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world and as with everything else, all types of medicines are scarce. Zimbabweans now make regular trips to Botswana, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania to do grocery and other shopping. The irony is that in Malawi one can buy products made in Zimbabwe like fresh milk which has been in short supply for a long time in Zimbabwe, but is abundantly available in Malawi.
In May 2005, the implementation of Operation Murambatsvina or “Operation Drive Out Filth” was said to be an urban renewal exercise. The government claimed growing urban sprawl was contributing to crime and was a potential health hazard. The exercise involved the indiscriminate destruction of property for the urban poor rendering them destitute. The UN estimates that about 700,000 people became unemployed as a direct result of the operation, while government maintains that a total of 120,000 were actually affected.
There have been many theories about why Murambatsvina happened and the timing of the exercise. One such theory is that because of the government policy “Look East” Murambatsvina was intended to make way for Chinese small business by putting small street vendors out of existence. Others saw it as an attempt to destroy the opposition support base in the urban centers. Another theory was that by destroying urban slums, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would kill off the lucrative illegal foreign exchange market. Contrary to this, in early September 2007 when government adjusted the official, as opposed to black market, exchange rate for the U.S dollar from $250 to 3,000 Zimbabwe dollars, the rates jumped from 200,000 to 280,000 Zimbabwe dollars. The perpetual demand for foreign currency by the population and its availability on the black market has kept most businesses and government afloat. It is the remittances from the Diaspora that fuel the black market and enable family and friends to buy medicine, food and fuel. Speculation in foreign currency and its exchange for local currency is a lucrative but dangerous occupation prone to random raids by the police because it is mostly conducted on the city streets.
Earlier this year the governor for the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe could only describe the economic meltdown and its devastating effects as “Economic HIV”. Even he has failed to eliminate the illegal foreign currency dealings with Zimbabweans referring to one location in the city limits notorious for these activities as “The World Bank.”
A repressive administration and ruling party formulates government policy in isolation and has no time to assess or evaluate both the advantages and disadvantages of such punitive laws and decrees.
SURVIVING and finding SOLUTIONS
Every single hour in Zimbabwe requires its own survival strategy. Each creative move or strategy is met with state interference contempt and violence. Zimbabweans respond yet again with ways to circumvent the latest onslaught on their livelihoods because they perceive themselves as a nation on high alert.
Varying contributors to the on-going debate about Zimbabwe argue over a wide range of solutions but few acknowledge that a stable, prosperous future requires diversity, inclusion and tolerance for all players in charting the way forward. Inclusion in the political arena should be a careful exercise that not only considers political or liberation war credentials but ability and selflessness. The “what-is-in-it-for me” syndrome must be avoided at all costs if we, as Zimbabweans, want to create a future that will be an example for Africa. There are numerous Zimbabweans all over the world and within the country who would be happy to contribute to the debate as long as their views are respected and taken seriously without fear of retribution, imprisonment, torture and even death.
An example of how ordinary Zimbabweans and government can work together to alleviate the current crisis is the recent launch of the Zimbabwe Health Access Trust (ZIHAT), a collaborative initiative involving local business, professionals and the Diaspora in restoring the country’s collapsed health-care system. Time will tell if this bold initiative will work and then perhaps other forms of think-tanks to tackle a variety of challenges can be modeled along ZIHAT. An economic think-tank would certainly be a priority to correct the inherent distortions that have been dogging the Zimbabwean economy for the past ten years. The formation of strategic alliances by Zimbabweans and for Zimbabweans could create the impetus needed to begin the slow but necessary process to re-build the once beautiful Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s rescue plan is unlikely to come from the efforts of either the ruling party, Zanu-PF or the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) but from simple civic organizations or pressure groups like the Combined Harare Resident’s Association (CHRA). This is so because they are capable of mobilizing masses of ratepayers around simple bread and butter issues like service delivery. They pick and focus on issues that anyone can easily identify with before calling on residents to demonstrate. Such organizations must be supported but they need to be cautioned against the temptation of turning into political parties. We need to exert a different kind but perhaps more effective pressure on the ruling elite. Moreover, there is urgent need to shift the power dynamics in order to include capable people in policy formulation and national debates. Finally, for survival, Zimbabweans improvise, preserve and use wisely the little that they have with zero tolerance for wastage. Neighbors share with those that do not have anything or lack support from relatives in the Diaspora. The current challenge is the chronic shortage of most basic food and other items on the formal market forcing many to resort to the black market.
Zimbabweans in the Diaspora contribute tremendously to the survival of Zimbabwe through various creative means. For instance, families in Zimbabwe are able to receive groceries, medicine, fuel, school fees and a variety of other essentials through online supermarkets. One such England-based facility can be found at www.zimbuyer.com. There are several other such websites in the Diaspora making it possible for Zimbabweans fortunate enough to have family overseas survive.
While the international community continues to offer humanitarian support to the Southern African region, donors say the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is “man-made” so resources must be directed to other more “urgent and genuine disasters” around the globe. There is evidence of donor fatigue in every sector. According to the World Food Programme (WFP) more than 4 million Zimbabweans will at some point, require food aid and yet scarce resources are being channeled to purchasing luxury vehicles for the police, secret services and army. Government’s priorities are obviously not the nation’s priorities.
A respected friend of mine who holds a top executive position in the private sector told me that what is happening in Zimbabwe has compelled everyone to inadvertently resort to criminal activities because of the harsh economic, social and political environment. As the economy continues to slide, those in positions of power have accelerated the looting from state coffers as though in anticipation of total collapse.
A lethal cocktail of bad policies, intolerance, lack of a national vision and a propensity to view the country as the personal property of a few have contributed to the near destruction of Zimbabwe. Policies are enacted as a response to the whims of the ruling elite. It is a vicious cycle of reviewing bad policies through the formulation of even more damaging and ineffective rules. The common theme in all government policies has been the lack of acceptance and inclusion of a wide spectrum of stakeholders. In 2007, access to state resources and privileges still remains restricted to those with connections to the ruling party. The government continues to enact punitive policies to induce fear and uncertainty among ordinary Zimbabweans with no end in sight.
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