The man in the middle

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Stembile Mpofu

President Mnangagwa’s long awaited statement to the nation came on Saturday evening, January the 12th. After a holiday season characterised by doctor’s strikes, teacher’s protest marches and winding fuel queues, the citizens waited anxiously to hear what the President had to say. The President announced an increase in the price of fuel. The effect of his statement was witnessed on the morning of Monday January 15 when violent protests rocked the high-density suburbs of Harare, Bulawayo and some smaller towns like Kadoma.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions together with some civil society groups and activist groups took to social media on Sunday to urge citizens to participate in a Stay Away to register their protest at the increasingly difficult economic conditions. Most citizens did not plan to respond to the call, not because they had no economic grievances but because most could not afford to miss a day of work. Their daily income is what is used to buy food on a daily basis so no income for the day is likely to mean no food for the day. As a result most people started the day as normal. Children were sent off to school and adults prepared to travel to their workplaces.

By 8am many streets were filled with people waiting for public transport to ferry them to their various daily activities. In some areas the few commuter omnibuses that were available to ferry people took advantage of the scarcity of transport to charge five dollars per trip, up from the $1,50 and $2,00 dollars they had recently begun charging. In some areas of the city angry commuters pelted the few available commuter omnibuses with stones irked at the obvious profiteering exhibited by the transporters. In other areas commuters were met by angry mobs of youths burning tyres and blockading roads forcing them to go back home or extorting money from them to grant them safe passage.

The majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens were caught in the middle of these competing forces. The risk of physical harm from angry protestors, the desire by the government for them to keep soldiering on in the face of harsh economic conditions, the unjustifiable price increases being set by service providers like transport operators and their own desperate need to make that extra dollar to survive to the next day.

The same angry scenes had been taking place in the petrol queues as frustrated motorists spent hours waiting in queues only to be told that the petrol delivery was only for those willing to pay for fuel in US dollars. Petrol attendants and fuel station owners took the opportunity to make extra dollars as most fuel found its way to the black market to be sold at more than 200% profit. The rising tensions provided perfect conditions for the violent protests that accompanied the ZCTU and civil society call for a three-day nation wide Stay Away. The call was for the action to be peaceful and many people felt that they could decide whether to participate or not. The barricades set up on roads leading out of the high-density areas made it clear that this was not a voluntary exercise but one that had enforcers willing to use violence to ensure their action was successful.

The events that took place on Monday did not take place in pursuit of the betterment of Zimbabwe. What was witnessed was violent conflict taking place in an environment created by the unavailability of information and lack of visible leadership in an increasingly difficult economic environment. The violent destruction of property, the deaths and injury of a policeman and several citizens were actions that would not result in an improvement of the lives of citizens. In fact, in the short term and long term these events left the ordinary Zimbabwean in a worse off position. They are akin to shooting oneself in the foot as the country’s national and international image has been battered making it harder to secure domestic and international investment.

These events are the result of a poor communication strategy on the part of government. Many destructive conflicts are the result of a lack of information that is reliable, timely and consistent. Where there is a lack of information those who need the information will put together whatever information they have and come to conclusions based on their own deductions. The demonstrations that led to the August 1 killings illustrate this point well, where in the absence of election results for presidential votes opposition members declared victory for Nelson Chamisa. In this instance voter education needed to include educating the citizens on the voting process and the counting and announcement processes so as to ensure that all the delays were clearly accounted for. Lessons should have been learnt from the election experiences and informed government on the importance of communication in any situation that has the potential to become volatile.

Poor communication and a lack of reliable and consistent information has characterised the economic reforms that have been undertaken by government. Unless individual citizens take it upon themselves to seek information to understand the economic events taking place there is little or no information available. What the government has failed to realise is that it began its tenure in a position of diminished trust. After years of economic mismanagement characterised by brazen acts of corruption, in the court of public opinion this government is judged as guilty until proven innocent. So far government has failed to prove its innocence and is governing a deeply disillusioned citizenry. Urgent measures must be taken to deal with this disenchantment or the violent scenes of Monday 14 January will become the regular actions of a restive populace.

In the last six months the Ministry of Information has been missing in action. The role of this Ministry is like that of the marketing department of an organisation, it does not have products of its own but is set up to sell the goods produced by the company, in this case to sell government’s policy agenda to the citizens. This ministry sits at the core of government, making it one of the most powerful government ministries. This ministry needs to take up its space. The implementation of economic reforms is government’s main policy. The ministry should have created strong links with all ministries at the centre of the implementation of these reforms. Ministries dealing with finance, industry, energy, agriculture, health and education should be their core clients for whom they should have developed a robust communication strategy. The strategy should seek to inform citizens on the policy direction itself, the challenges likely to be experienced before they are felt and to keep citizens updated on developments when difficulties are experienced. Thereafter milestones achieved should also be communicated and celebrated so that a sense of progress is felt.

What is prevailing currently is that there is an information vacuum into which anyone can deposit any information they have in the manner they wish. With the advent of social media little accountability exists on the part of the purveyors of information to reflect on the effect of their information on the national environment. What has been experienced so far are statements from various business actors stating their difficulties and their intent to shutdown, as in the case of Olivine and Wilmar Industries. There has been no response from government on these statements.

Worse than a lack of response have been pronouncements on the fuel crisis that do not correspond with the reality on the ground. Citizens are told that the country has adequate fuel when there are long winding queues at most service stations.

Creative communication mechanisms that conform to the current communication methods must be devised to deliver information to Zimbabweans as a whole. Local comedians, road shows, radio skits, animation and social media can be used to relay information in entertaining and digestible ways so that there is less reliance on issuing formal statements. The President himself must be more visible and must be seen to be engaging with the issues being experienced by the general populace. So far the President has been far removed from the daily struggles being experienced by the people. It is very important that he displays a level of concern and interest in certain details of the reforms and the challenges they are presenting. It is important that citizens see evidence of his engagement on these issues to provide them with the confidence that the ship has a captain that is in control. Apart from engaging with the challenges, the President and his ministers must regularly update citizens on the achievements and milestones reached. This is vital so that any progress in the attainment of certain milestones can bring relief to the economically stretched citizens. These measures should not be seen as “nice to have” but as essential tools of the economic reform agenda. As things stand the lack of communication on economic issues has resulted in exacerbating an already tense situation. The space has been left wide open for any individual, institution or group to deposit any information they please in the public domain. The importance of this is highlighted by the fact that the government was forced to take the drastic action to block Internet services in a bid to stop the circulation of toxic content on social media. The effect is that no economic activity can take place leading to huge losses in revenue generation for the country. This should never have to happen again. What must be realised is that in the absence of consistent and reliable information from government to rebut or disprove available information, people will respond positively or negatively to the information that is availed to them.