By FELIX MBONDERI
STRATEGY as a political tool is vastly overrated. It’s obvious what needs to be done by our leaders to get Zimbabwe working for everyone. When leaders fail to do the obvious, people rightfully accuse the leaders of protecting vested interests. The recent Cabinet reshuffle is one clear such example of people’s disappointment ventilated through all sorts of accusations.
After the military takeover in November 2017 which ushered in the Presidency of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabweans from all walks of life were euphoric. People in public transport, bars, and other public spaces could now openly criticize the new Head of State and his Cabinet Ministers without having to look over their shoulder in fear of reprisals. For years before that, a rule of thumb was that the State President had ears and eyes on every square mile of Zimbabwe.
However, this intense this national intense excitement and goodwill towards President Emmerson Mnangagwa in particular and Zanu-PF in general started to peter out after the July 2018 elections. By November 2018, a year after seeing Mugabe’s back, political discussions in public spaces were now typically hushed tones and grumbles.
The Cabinet that had been appointed after the general elections was fast proving to be not fit for the nation’s purpose, but very much suited for political and narrow interests. The old pensioners in their homes, the young professionals at workplaces, and the unemployed in the streets felt they had been sold bottled smoke. The “ED euphoria” was getting laid to waste by runaway inflation, lack of support for farmers, galloping prices and civil servants’ strife.
14 November 2019 marks exactly two years since Operation Restore Legacy was officially announced by Retired Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Busi Moyo on State television. The general feeling is that we haven’t moved as far, or as fast, as we should have since that day. Because Zimbabwe is dominated by one political party, significant change to people’s lives generally takes place within Zanu-PF than outside of it. A strategic Cabinet reshuffle would have brought back lost hope.
It has been a long yawn since the Cabinet appointed in September 2018. Evidence of that weariness is that city bars now fill up with old and young professionals who merely go there to “cry into their beers.” Some people feel they could use a beer to hasten the achingly slow pace of economic revival promised during the campaign trail. Public buses now fill up with tired, angry workers. Their incomes are instantly ravaged by a three-eyed monster called a three-tier pricing system: cash, swipe and mobile money have varying purchasing powers.
The hope that a Cabinet reshuffle would solve matters was last week dashed when the reshuffle turned out to be just a rearrangement of chairs – wrong chairs, in fact. To understand why the hope was dashed, it is necessary to look into how the modern Zimbabwean state was founded in the 1890s by Cecil John Rhodes and his fellow colonialists.
Rhodes was more of a businessman than a politician. He funded the Pioneer Column to cross the Limpopo River into present-day Zimbabwe in September 1890 basing on the myth of the day which said that the land north of Limpopo was the Second Rand. The Rand, South Africa’s own version of the Great Dyke, was fast getting depleted of minerals and Cecil Rhodes looked up north. He was not disappointed, as the minerals, soils and weather up here turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
By 1900, this our land was a giant melting pot resting on three legs: mining, agriculture and tourism. It is not a coincidence that John Rhodes himself had homes in Matebeleland, Kwekwe and Nyanga: the three places where early commercial agriculture (livestock), gold mining and tourism (good weather), respectively, took off at a breath-taking pace.
To date, the Zimbabwean economy stands on these three legs, and the President’s Cabinet appointments and reshuffles must both be influenced by and judged based on what happens in the mining, agriculture and tourism portfolios. Zimbabweans clearly know this, and were baffled at how the recent Cabinet reshuffle left these sectors untouched.
Zimbabweans also know they have a Finance and Economic Development Minister who is brilliant on financial matters, but pathetic on economic development. He has successfully tamed budget deficits, and kudos to him. But what is the point of a budget surplus when the man on the street, the farmer in the village, and the worker on the factory floor does not feel the surplus?
The finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) both frustrated tobacco farmers last season. Reports now say the majority of the farmers cannot go back to farm this season after being paid a pittance for their crop. Communal farmers have had subsidized inputs taken away from them, and the support is now replaced by a market-based financing model. This model will only make the whole nation food-insecure even if enough rains fall. That’s agriculture, a key leg of our economy, being decimated while we watch.
Miners, just like the rest of the exporters, have been fighting the same battles with the central bank over forex retention facilities. Subsidies on fuel and electricity have been removed, making it expensive to produce. Virtually all our SADC neighbours and beyond subsidize farmers and other vital economic players so that they also compete on the export market. We removed subsidies, and it will hit our exports hard.
As such, the finance Minister has so far failed the three key pillars of the Zimbabwean economy. The best President Mnangagwa would have done would have been to split the ministry into Finance on one hand, and Economic Development on another. Finance as a portfolio must support farmers, miners, industry and the entire productive sectors. Whoever holds that key ministry must have political gravitas and unquestionable authority, which the current Minister clearly lacks.
President Mnangagwa’s Cabinet reshuffle axe missed all the three cogs that have been failing to perform since his election last year: agriculture, mining, finance. This is why his reshuffle last Friday failed to ignite meaningful debate. The only debate is that he simply moved chairs around a room. But who can fault him?
With the main opposition MDC in a state of flux and tearing itself apart, and Zanu-PF factions seemingly tamed, ED is having all the fun under the Sun. He can afford to retain Ministers who have performed woefully over the past twelve months, or those implicated in corruption, or those whose only reason for being in Cabinet is loyalty. It’s a luxury even Robert Mugabe rarely had.
Without zeroing in on any particular Minister of those recently removed or appointed, last Friday’s reshuffle appeared calculated at consolidating power and managing a political dynamic, more than anything else.
Another clear proof that the Cabinet reshuffle was carried out for purely political purposes is the elevation of the President’s known loyalists. Social media chatter and indeed genuine discussions on the streets of Zimbabwe indicate that the reshuffle was done to clear out “leftover inventory” in Zanu-PF, meaning party comrades who for one reason or another were in line for a Cabinet position last year, but hadn’t gotten one. Again, a President who faces virtually no political pressure from within or outside his own party has all the luxury to make such purely political changes.
Zimbabweans of all walks of life just want a stable, prosperous nation where farms are productive, cities are buzzing with industry and commerce, and wages can sustain families. Of course, it is wrong to assume that Cabinet appointments and/or reshuffles are the panacea to our ills. All other corners of the State have to play ball. An active Parliament, an independent judiciary, and a media and opposition that play strong watchdog roles are also essential. Some of these pillars have also been found wanting, pushing their vested interests to the detriment of the common good.
“Zimbabwe is open for business” is just as slogan; it is not a magic wand. We each have to pour in our energy to make it work, because it takes a village to succeed. However, leadership from the key State actors must do more.
Otherwise Vision 2030 risks dying before it has made any of us smile. Zimbabwe’s rear-view mirror is littered with many such flattering blueprints and visions that have proved to have been nothing but catch-phrases.
A past source of hope for some, the opposition MDC, has also reached its ceiling, and the party now appears like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The recent infighting at their party headquarters on the day their few last remaining rural supporters were being beaten in three by-elections across the country, will add to the number of people who will soon be visiting bars and pubs every Friday to just “cry into their beers.”
And before Zanu-PF celebrates its landslide wins in these by-elections, it must do take note of the glaring voter apathy among its structures as a sure sign there is massive disillusionment and disgruntlement that may soon boil over. None of us can see even a minute into the future, so the “boiling over” may happen before the 2023 elections, with disastrous consequences.
Bars and public spaces are now filled with eerie silence. This is not because people fear the mythical State agent in dark glasses, but because they have no ounce of hope left.