Time to win our hearts and minds, Professor Ncube!

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Stembile Mpofu

Zimbabwe’s future economic journey is now well defined. The Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP) has been unveiled and its implementation has begun.  The Budget Statement was read to Parliament last week and the various sectors have responded to it with mixed feelings. Whatever hopes, fears and expectations Zimbabweans had have been set aside and replaced by the cold reality of what lies ahead. It is very clear to all that we are headed for a rough ride. Zimbabweans know this because the turbulence has already begun. Their pockets have been hit hard by the inflationary effect of the TSP and the 2019 Budget Statement. The two percent transactional tax and the price increases on basic commodities have eroded incomes overnight and the pain of this is being felt at every level as the prospect of an unforgiving 2019 looms large.

The policies that have brought this pain are clear in their intent. The Minister is working on reducing Zimbabwe’s internal and external debt. The issue being that the economy can only experience unfettered growth after it has lessened its debt burden. The only way that debt can be cleared is by us Zimbabweans because no other institution in the world is willing to help us do that.  The importance of this action cannot be overstated. It is essential; our country’s future depends on it.

For now it is clear for most Zimbabweans that the Minister has done “something” and whatever that is it is causing them pain. What is not clear to most people is why they are experiencing this pain. The Minister has himself gone to great lengths to explain his plan to Parliament and to the public through various media and at different public fora. The Minister is a professor of economics and as can be expected he has been communicating like an economics professor. It is clear that very few people understand what he is saying. This is not because the Minister cannot articulate his ideas or because Zimbabweans are not intelligent. It is because economics is a specialised field and like most disciplines is loaded with its own jargon. This jargon creates a barrier ensuring that only those who have studied the subject have the benefit of understanding it. Much like the legal profession uses legal jargon to ensure only fellow legal scholars understand the dialect. This said in fond memory of the “fulcrum” and “pith” moment that was the highlight of the 2018 electoral court challenge.

It is already very difficult to communicate with an individual who is in severe pain. Their senses are overwhelmed by the intensity of their discomfort. It is not easy to find that the medicine you need to maintain your health is no longer affordable, or that you cannot pay school fees or that the business your family has been surviving on is no longer viable. It is extremely hard for such a person to absorb new information especially if it is being transmitted in a language s/he is unfamiliar with. Understanding what is happening and why does however bring some relief and can go a long way in making the pain bearable.

The success of this economic plan will rest on the people of Zimbabwe being able to endure these hardships by adapting to their current situation and pushing past the pain to go forward. The Minister has laid out his plan and he must now go about implementing it. That is the core business of his ministry. He must now assign others to do the work of winning the hearts and minds of the citizens. His economic plan needs a robust communication strategy whose purpose is to break down his plan into bite size pieces that are easy for the ordinary person to understand and absorb. Making the information available in such a way will allow Zimbabweans to begin to see beyond their personal circumstances and understand their role in the larger national picture.

This point is illustrated in an anecdotal story often told to show the importance of leaders sharing their vision with their teams. This is the story:

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

”A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m molding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

”A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

 “Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.”

 According to the Minister, Zimbabwe’s “cathedral” is vision 2030 when we will reach the status of being a middle income country. The problem is that most Zimbabweans have no idea what a middle income country looks like, it is just more jargon to most.  At the moment it is a blank space with the words Vision 2030 scribbled across it.  People will ask what their lives will be like in such a country? Who will they be in 2030? Where will they be living? What opportunities will there be for their children? What will the hospitals and schools look like? Such questions reveal that it is unclear to Zimbabweans what they are supposed to be working towards.

What needs to be done is for the Ministry of Finance to hire a real communications consultant (an agency with a team of experienced consultants) to help articulate this vision in a way ordinary Zimbabweans will understand. There is a need to “dumb down” the TSP and the Budget to a level that is digestable for all. The impact of the various measures must be explained simply in a way that helps the ordinary person see why he is going through the current difficulties and what benefits will accrue to him in the medium to long term as a result of enduring this pain now.

The communications strategy must include solid information that will assist the public in dealing with the negative impacts of the economic reforms. They should be advised of the negative consequences on their own well being of hoarding goods and other speculative practices. When the government is experiencing challenges in the provision of goods and services like fuel, the public should be informed on why this is happening. It must be communicated what steps are being taken to remedy the situation. There must be regular updates on what progress is being made if any or challenges that are being experienced.

The communications consultant must be informed of any new policies or regulations being implemented and given time to design messaging that articulates the attendant issues and informs the public of the policy’s intent and impact. Relevant messaging must be designed for all sectors of the Zimbabwean society from the rural folk to the business community.

The implementation of these economic reforms mean that before things get better they will have to get harder. Minister Ncube it is important to realise that a restive population will not play their role fully if they are disgruntled. Political stability will be difficult to maintain if the population is angry as a result of having little idea why they have to endure this pain. We must remember that logic alone can never win peoples’ hearts. If they are to endure hardship they must be inspired to do so each and every day. If this is achieved Zimbabwe’s citizens will become your allies on the road to prosperity because your success will mean their success too.