By Daniel Mususa
If the famous American rapper 2pac Shakur was Zimbabwean the first line in his hit song California love would have sounded like “Now let me welcome everybody to Zimbabwe, a State that’s untouchable like an alien’s nest.” According to fables about aliens, they are a very secretive lot, hiding as much information about themselves as possible, meeting humans as and when it suits them. In fact, most narratives from alien abductees or alien “experiencers” as they are referred to in some circles, aliens only abduct humans from whom they have specific requirements and they release their abductees as soon as they are done with them, only returning when they need something else. I find clear parallels between this reported typical alien behaviour and the behaviour of the Zimbabwean government with specific regard to accountability and report/feedback mechanisms. The simple appraisal at the provision of services by the government and local councils in Zimbabwe shows an array of maladies that can be eased if accountability structures are functional. This absence of or dysfunctionality of accountability structures has its roots in the aloof state or as I would like to call it, the untouchable alien’s nest in 2pac’s song.
The Bond Coins
On December 2014, the government of Zimbabwe introduced new coins, termed “Bond coins”, into circulation, for use as legal tender. The explanation for this was that the government was responding to the public’s complaints about being ripped off in the country’s shops where people were being forced to buy sweets and bubble gums due to the shortage of Rand coins. The bond coins have met with strong resistance across the socio-ecomonic strata in Zimbabwe including among retailers, vendors, kombis, barbers and hairstylists. While the coins are legal tender, society has so far refused to embrace the new bond coins. But why? One might ask. Is it because people want the Rand and the US dollar so much? Is it a lack of patriotism? Neo- colonialism? Post colonialism? Ideological interpellation? By who? Europe, America or Asia? Who told the airtime and vegetable vendors that American and South African money is “safe”? Who has told us that our money is not safe, that it is a cancer to be feared and avoided at all costs? The answers are much close to home. Flashback to some not-so-distant 7/8 years ago…
Growing up, I always understood and wished that if I could become a billionaire it would be from my earnings from my efforts. Little did I know that I could become a billionaire just by being given a single note. That was the reality we faced in 2008 when Zimbabwe was teetering under hyperinflation-the first time a country had experienced that negative milestone this century. I became a billionaire and pretty much everyone even the pavement-bound street beggars became billionaires. Inflation was skyrocketing daily, in fact by the hour. The unabated escalation of prices had become a normal and inescapable part of the fibre of daily life. Accompanying this was the sordid reality of shortage of basic necessities such as mealie-meal, cooking oil, salt and the unavailability of medical essentials such as pain killers, cotton wool and bandages. Queues for fuel, water, money and the entire sort that seems falsely hyperbolised now, were a permanent feature of the urban topography. We became billionaires-government made billionaires but had to queue for “maputi”-snacks from roasted corn, petrol, diesel, paraffin, bread, sugar, soap. So severe were the shortages that merely having a meal containing such things as rice, potatoes, beef or chicken, tomato sauce, eggs meant that you were a success in life!!Such was the depth of the scarcity that it is reported you could even pay your kombi fare by giving the hwindi a kilogram of rice if you found it, that is. Someone told me they once paid rent in 2008 by giving the landlord 5 pints of lacto. That basic transport fares could go up three or four times within the same day is highly unreplicable and yet feared so much by the common man whose savings were wiped away almost instantly in the hyperinflation era.
I now return to the alien analogy. Aliens are mythical creatures whose existence is subject to unending debates. Everyone has a view of them, from the drunkard at mai George’s shabeen to the technocrat in the 9th floor of some government office complex. What is incontrovertible is that in folklore, witness accounts or the movies, aliens rarely communicate with people, they do not converse with people to establish what the people want, what their fears are, why and so on. Their agenda is supreme and overrides all others. Aliens do not ask whether or not people they want to abduct actually want to be abducted and neither do they tell the abductees the reasons for the abductions. When the abductees are returned to their homes, they are never told exactly why all that has happened or when they are going to be abducted again. Strange? This runs perfectly parallel to the State-Citizens accountability structures that exist in Zimbabwe. Residents just cannot get access to the “responsible authorities” to register their complaints about water cuts, electricity faults and pot holes to name but a few. If they have the courage to make a physical visit to the concerned offices, they face even more resistance in the form of the cyclic referrals from one office to the other, one floor to the other. In essence, the space for citizen feedback to policy makers, implementers and the state as the main service provider and regulator or referee in service provision is non-existent in practical terms. Theoretically, there are guidelines, mission statements and contact numbers or email or even physical suggestion boxes but the reality is that no one, among the authorities pays attention to them. I am waiting for a day- that day-when citizens register a complaint for example, on pot holes and they bring it to a council and within days, the potholes are covered. I am waiting for a day, that day when the government makes a concerted effort to gather people’s views on a new policy, goes far and wide across the span of Zimbabwe, synthesises the views, reverts to the people to check on the accuracy of what has been gathered, carries out the said policy and openly encourages feedback/appraisal of the same from the public. Sounds theoretical? Yes? But is it not what the politicians claim when they come to encourage us to vote them in office? Some even claim that “ndichakuvakirai bridge ipapa” (I will construct a bridge here) even if there is no river to talk about. Quite frankly, this is not a call for census-like consultation but it is a call for the “Open door policy” that our politicians and technocrats buzz around with and vaunt over, becomes a reality.
One critical aspect of a working democratic governance system is citizen participation which should be expressed through citizens’ contributions to policymaking, implementation and review. Put simply, citizens cannot contribute participate by merely voting legislators into office and never meeting them in between the elections and having durable dialogue with them as regards the people’s lived realities. That things are imposed on people without consultation is the hallmark of alien relationships with humans. Should this also be the same with governments and their people? Should policies/programs/activities be carried out roughshod, irrespective of communities’ development priorities? I think not. Herein lies the crux of this matter: when the government introduced the bond coins, what purpose were they supposed to serve? Who was consulted and identified coins as the most pressing need when exports are falling further below imports, the civil service is unhappy with working conditions and remuneration, human rights abuses are happening everyday, accidents are killing people daily because of poor roads or that commuter omnibuses are running away from the police demanding bribes, the government is raising taxes, spreading the net to rope in informal traders, government policy on fuel pricing and duty mutates within the same week, home seekers are being fleeced of their earning by unscrupulous land barons and cartels, hospitals lack medicines and personnel? I could go on and on and on.
A fear of the return of the local currency (as generally suspected by many people) does not make financial sense. Likewise, the bond coins do not make much sense. While shops generally fleeced people off their precious Rand cents by giving them sweets and bubble gums in lieu of the unavailable change, the timing of the bond coins some 6 years after the official introduction of the multi-currency system is questionable. In fact it shows aloof the state is, a state that has no effective ways and desire to hear what the ordinary Rudo, John and Sithembile on the streets have to say. That people had evolved ways of coping and the government then acts on this now, is testament of “kurapa pasingarwadzi”. This is akin to a doctor prescribing pills to a patient who has yet to say a word on what ails him/her and the doctor says “Mr patient here is your medication, take it everyday”
Analysis by the CATO Institute shows that in the first instance the local currency slipped into hyperinflation because of poor fiscal policies, absence of a strong basis/backing of the currency, continued deindustrialisation, the land reform and startlingly, the locals expected the currency to fall into hyperinflation. According to the recent World Economic Situation and Prospects 2015, primary commodity prices and the net inflow of private capital into emerging economies have been subdued and will remain so for some time. Institutionalisation of good economic fundamentals is ineffective in cushioning the ordinary citizen against the effects of low exports and declining investment in a country. The people that can enjoy some bit of shielding are those in countries that have relatively strong national financial markets. For the already stressed economies like Zimbabwe, the turbulence from falls in international prices in primary products (which our economy is so reliant upon by the way) will be much harder. The resultant company closures and deindustrialisation can only mean one thing; the floating of the local currency presently does not and in the foreseeable future, cannot have a credible a basis. Without delving much into the economics of currency floating, financial backing and the like, one reason why the bond coins are facing resistance amongst the ordinary is the belief that the coins are a form of rigging, to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar through the back door. With the unenviable difficulties experienced in the hyperinflation era, it is understandable why people fear, not dislike, the Zimbabwean Dollar’s return. We have seen and heard mildly comforting assurances that the “dhora harisi kudzoka anytime soon” but the bond coins are a shocking, potent and unnerving omen that anything can happen if the state does not communicate with its citizens, just like aliens.
When discussion of governance, participation processes, indicators and the responsible authorities is censured, the consequences are grave for the ordinary citizen whose views, priorities are never heard and afforded the chance to inform policy. The bond coins debacle, the creation of game reserves in farming communities inhabited by ex-farm workers are just a few examples of the absence of participation. If the state does not communicate with the citizenry, we could all become billionaires again. Zimbabweans are hard workers but the opportunities are constrained. Indeed, able-bodied people have to resort to vegetable vending. If only the government communicated with citizens and mutually shaped the progression of life for the benefit of all.