Taking back Control

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STEMBILE MPOFU

A few years back I read a story about a grumpy grandfather who had a very negative attitude towards life. He lived with his mischievous grand children. One afternoon while taking an afternoon nap on the living room sofa, his two grand children decided to play a trick on him. They took a few tiny pieces of Roquefort cheese and gently sprinkled them on his moustache right under his nose. Some of you will know that Roquefort cheese does not have a very pleasant smell. It is considered one of the world’s smelliest cheeses because it is injected with mold to give it its very pungent aroma and strong taste. As intended, grandfather was soon woken up by this very unpleasant smell and shouted, “It stinks in here!” He walked around the house trying to find the source of the smell but couldn’t find it. He became more and more frustrated as he asked everyone around him where this smell was coming from but no one else could smell anything. He went outside and could still smell the odor. In a fit of rage and frustration he shouted “it stinks, everything here stinks, the whole world stinks!”.

This story is a reflection of Zimbabwe’s current situation. We have a citizenry living in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. As far as Zimbabweans are concerned the whole country stinks. Zimbabweans have come to this conclusion because like our grumpy grandfather we have not taken time to critically analyse our current situation and understand it enough to realise that our problems have been created by all of us creating a stink in our own different ways. Before you skip to the next article and mutter about the writer being a government apologist, please stop and take time to read this article and reflect.

Since 2000 the ordinary Zimbabwean has focused on Zimbabwe’s political situation. We believe that the country’s problems have been created by the politicians and can only be resolved by them. As a result we spent 20 years working for Mugabe to go because we “knew” our problems began and ended with him. In November 2017 Mugabe went and the country celebrated with great relief, but the problems did not go away. In July 2018 Zimbabweans voted for President Mnangagwa and his Zanu PF party that won the majority in Parliament. After less than a year of this government being in place, the citizens’ mantra is ED and Zanu PF must go, they have failed. Others are calling for a Transitional Authority so that MDC Alliance participates in the governing of the country. The belief being that a different political dispensation will solve our problems.

The truth of the matter is that neither Zanu PF nor MDC Alliance or any political party for that matter has the capacity to change the direction the country is headed. That can only be done by all Zimbabweans. Many do not want to hear this for a variety of reasons that they may or may not admit to. Most want to believe that it is the government that has the power to change everything. They believe that because the government runs the country their actions as the leadership are what influence our day-to-day lives. This is a wrong conclusion because it is our individual actions and decisions that influence our day-to-day lives. Accepting this reality means that we must take responsibility for the events that are happening in our lives and this is not something that many of us are willing to do. Doing so means taking responsibility for being that smelly cheese that is making our country stink. I have several examples that will demonstrate this.

The Kombi drivers, in response to the difficulty they encountered acquiring fuel, took the decision to begin overcharging commuters for public transport services. The transport fees being charged were exorbitant and exploitative even in light of the prevailing fuel shortages and the black market rates being charged by fuel dealers. (These fuel dealers have direct links to service station owners that took the decision to siphon fuel from the formal market to sell for a greater profit on the black market.) The decision made by these transport operators was to make as much as they could out of the situation.

In response to the desperate situation being faced by commuters, government resurrected the ZUPCO bus service. This was a welcome development for the exploited commuters after undergoing real abuse by the Kombi operators. Transport fares for the areas with bus routes became affordable. Now apart from the doomsday prophets who have predicted that the service will collapse soon, we have seen viral videos circulating of commuters boarding buses through windows to avoid paying the heavily subsidised fee of 50cents.

Instead of being outraged by this behaviour those circulating the video found the behaviour amusing. This week we see reports that 100 ZUPCO ticket sellers have been fired and some arrested because they were issuing recycled tickets. This Zimbabweans, is who we are. Which political party is responsible for this attitude? If the ZUPCO bus service collapses soon, let us own our part in that drama.

Many Zimbabweans in their bid to dodge responsibility for their part in the drama will say that it is government that has created the problem because of the corrupt fuel cartels controlling the fuel industry. The fuel cartels are real indeed, however they are only part of the Zimbabwean cartel story.  The Zimbabwean private sector is teeming with cartels. We hardly hear about them because freedom of the press only exists to the point where advertising revenue is threatened. In other words our newspapers cannot publish negative information on private sector cartels because the possibility of having these companies pulling all advertising from them is a reality and this will threaten their survival. So the newspapers will print all manner of political exposés but will not do so about private sector companies. The effect is that the public only smells the rot from government actors and does not know that there are other players contributing to the smell. These cartels are having a negative impact on the economy at the expense of citizens but no one talks about it.

Cartels are created where a group of competing players in a market agree to fix prices and the quantities produced of a particular good or service. Private sector cartels are the norm the world over. More so now where they create the illusion that there are many different companies when in actual fact the controlling stake sits in the hands of one entity. To ensure my article gets published I shall shy away from using Zimbabwean examples and give examples of US companies from an article published last year by Business Insider. I trust the reader will be able to join the dots. With regards the beverage industry in the US, two corporations control 90% of the beer Americans drink. With regards medical aid, most states have two insurers that control at least 80% of market share. Similar to the Zimbabwean situation, high speed Internet access is limited to a single player. With regards agricultural markets, three companies control 80% of the corn-seed market in the US. In the finance sector five Banks control about half of the nation’s banking assets. I’m sure the picture is emerging clearly. What happens in situations as these described by the Business Insider article is that, these dominant players determine what products they wish to sell, when they wish to sell them, to whom and at what price. The article calls these players, “benign dictators”.

We have seen tiny clues emerge in as far as some of the private sector shenanigans in our own country. Chris Mutsvangwa has torched a storm raising questions about the annihilation of pensions by Old Mutual when in fact pension investments are long term and designed to stand the unpredictable tides of inflation. A few months ago, while all fingers were pointing at government players for being responsible for forex distortions in the market, a story came and went quietly in the local press. Bank tellers from the regional banking outfit Nedbank were hauled before the courts for fiddling with customer’s forex deposits. I would bet my last dollar that whatever it is they were doing was not confined to mere tellers or even to that bank alone. The banking sector the world over is notorious for manipulating currencies while the rest of us sit and stare gaping at the forex rate as if it is moved by some spiritual entity that only some divine being has power over. UK banks Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Citigroup and JP Morgan were recently fined I billion Euro by the European Union for rigging foreign exchange markets. The European commission said the banks formed two cartels to manipulate the spot foreign exchange market for 11 currencies that included the euro, pound and US dollar. This should have us asking the extent to which our own forex rates are being manipulated. When we see the rate moving up or down we need to ask what it is that is triggering those changes and not just jump to the conclusion that it is corrupt government players.

Lastly I turn to the civil society sector whose relevance over the last 20 years, has been derived from anti-government marches and protests. Unfortunately it has not yet dawned on many groups that protests do little to improve the lot of Zimbabweans. At this stage in our journey where we are looking to build our country, protests will only take whatever efforts have been made back. Many of the reforms that civil society groups have been calling for are actually taking place with little input from civil society because energy is being spent on looking for things that are not working. While there are many things not working in Zimbabwe today, there are those that are slowly beginning to work. But because the default mode for civil society organisations has been to criticise and confront the opportunity to contribute constructively to current changes is being lost. Civil society needs to ask what value they are adding to the positive development of the country because those in the business sector feel the ramifications of these protests keenly as investors shy away from instability.

The intent of this article is not to diminish the impact that government actions have on our day-to-day lives and the future of Zimbabwe. We are confronted by stories of government corruption and mismanagement each time we open any newspaper. The intent of this article is to request the people of Zimbabwe to begin to appreciate the impact of the decisions and actions other players, both individuals and organisations are having on our country.

Like the grandfather in the story, we are habitual proclaimers of the phrase “it stinks, everything here stinks, the whole world stinks”. While saying that we believe that it is only the politics and our government that makes the world stink. Yet like the government players we make choices everyday that contribute to the stink. So while there are those of us who sit wherever we are in the world composing voice notes about the President being under house arrest, or military coups taking place in Zimbabwe, take time to think of the impact of your actions.

When we use social media platforms to urge people to withdraw their forex from the banks based on speculation and fear rather than facts, and when we share and post negative stories about the country which make things seem ten times worse than they actually are, let us own the fact that we are adding to the stink. Government players, private sector players, bankers, kombi drivers, fuel station owners, commuters stealing a 50cent ride just because you can, let us all fully own our stink. It is not just a Zanu PF or MDC stink, it is ours because we created it and add to it everyday. Once we own it, we gain power over it, can control it and begin to change it through the daily decisions we make. We will no longer need to wait for a political messiah but begin to take control of our own destiny because no messiah will ever come.