A nation in dire straits: law, politics and crisis in Zimbabwe
New Zimbabwe.com columnist Dr Alex Tawanda Magaisa delivered the inaugural annual Basker Vashee (read more about him) Memorial Lecture on the Zimbabwean situation in Amsterdam. Here is the full lecture:
By Dr Alex Magaisa
A Nation in Dire Straits: Law, Politics and the Crisis in Zimbabwe
The Inaugural Annual Basker Vashee Memorial Lecture, 8 June 2006, 20h00 – 22h00, De Balie, Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen 10, Amsterdam
1. Zvakapressa in Zimbabwe
When Zimbabweans say “Zvakapressa” they are describing the terrible state of their circumstances but at the same time this Shonglish1 word reveals a certain creative quality about the people, which helps them to cope during hard times. It symbolises from a linguistic perspective, how people manage to make use of and balance both the local and the foreign.
Having been brought up in Zimbabwean society, I am familiar with the way in which we sometimes make fun of our own hardships, how we create jokes about things in ways that elsewhere might be considered rude and disrespectful. I profess no expertise in psychology or sociology but I sometimes think that this capacity to laugh and even smile about our tough circumstances helps us cope with the difficulties. I suppose it also explains how we tend to have such durable stress and hardship absorbers so that when in any other society people would have revolted we are still taking more.
Zvakapressa in Zimbabwe - things are very difficult. Looking at the political and socio-economic landscape, it is easy to appreciate why a whole generation will grow having known only conditions of poverty. What appeared to be a blip at the bridge between this and the last millennium has become a permanent scar that will define the character and behaviour of generations to come.
2. In the Footsteps of Basker Vashee
Before I proceed, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the organisers of this event for inviting me to present this Inaugural Lecture, to honour a great man who dedicated his life to scholarship and the welfare of mankind. As a young generation Zimbabwean who tasted freedom because of the efforts of men and women such as Basker Vashee, I feel honoured to be here, presenting this lecture in his honour. When I received the invitation, it was totally unexpected but a pleasant surprise nonetheless. It was said that they had seen in my work a new generation of Zimbabwean intellectuals, keen to chart a progressive way and new kind of politics. There are so many dedicated Zimbabweans out there, wishing to be heard and I was happy to take this opportunity. We in Zimbabwe are very keen to tell our story and we are also dedicated to generating ideas to shape the future of our country.
I have learnt of Basker Vashee’s work and contributions towards Zimbabwe during his days in ZAPU during the struggle for independence and I am proud to share the same origins with a great intellectual and activist. I was only two years old in 1977 when he became Director at this Institute – I am sure he would be proud to know that a younger generation of Zimbabweans has taken the torch and will carry on from where he left. Let me now turn to the substance of my lecture, which is dedicated to the memory of Basker Vashee.
3. Purpose and Perspectives of the lecture: Principles and Values
The purpose of the lecture is not to demonise the ruling ZANU PF party and government or to laud the opposition forces such as the MDC and Civil Society Organisations but to present what I consider to be an objective assessment of the current political situation, highlighting the key challenges that the project for democratization faces and offer views on the construction of a vision on how to extricate Zimbabwe from the current difficulties.
I am under no illusions that I have perfect answers to the problems we Zimbabweans face as a nation. I have written and spoken in different forums and each time I have been preoccupied by the desire to participate in mapping a better future for my country2. In looking at the situation I am not swayed by the political actors but by the desire to promote individual freedom in all respects. I am wary of backing any specific individuals because rightly or wrongly I am very sceptical of politicians as a tribe. The trouble with politicians is that you can back one today and tomorrow he will perform a spectacular somersault and you are left bare and looking stupid.
Rather, I prefer to stand on my permanent interests: points of principle and values. That is also why one of my principal arguments has always been that true change lies at the core of society – that is, at the individual level; the ordinary men and women that make up society more than at the level of political leadership. The political leadership comes in different forms and appearances and unless members of society accept the demands of change in the way they conduct their affairs at the basic level the type of change that everyone seeks will remain a distant dream. Political leaders come and go, each time making their promises – but society remains. I place the real obligation for change at the doorstep of each individual member of society. That, for me, is how they take ownership of the process of change – by taking responsibility.
4. From Where I Stand: Insider-Looking-In
I speak and comment about Zimbabwe from the vantage position of both an insider and outsider – an insider because I have spent much of life in Zimbabwe and an outsider because I have spent the last few years of my professional life outside Zimbabwe. I am familiar with the way we see ourselves internally and also with the way in which we see ourselves from the outside. I am also aware of how the world looks at us. So in essence my views are shaped by this position of being an Insider-Looking-In. I have been looked at as a Zimbabwean and I have looked at fellow Zimbabweans from a distance. I like to think that such a position, far from being confusing, gives one a chance to develop a balanced opinion of the subject under observation.
I am particularly impressed by this opportunity because many Zimbabweans and myself often express reservations about everyone but Zimbabweans writing and speaking about ourselves as if we have no capacity to communicate our feelings, thoughts and positions on the issues that affect us. It is not because we are incapable – very often it is because we never get the opportunities to do so.
5. A Battered and Tired Economy
It is common knowledge that Zimbabwe is a country in deep crisis and I do not want to spent much time and space repeating a lot of what is already in the public domain. Zimbabwe has a very tired economy. The statistics are staggering. Hyperinflation is running at more than 1000 per cent. Unemployment is more than 80 per cent and according to the World Bank GDP has contracted by about 40 per cent in the last 6 years alone. There is shortage of food and about 90 per cent of the people are living below the poverty datum line. Life expectancy stands at around 35 years. I will recount a personal testimony to illustrate the lived experience of the fall of a nation.
I graduated from the University of Zimbabwe in 1997 and landed a beautiful job in a large Harare law firm. It was all that I had dreamt of when I decided I would become a lawyer. To be sure, I had never contemplated doing anything else or going somewhere other than to become a top Harare lawyer. I remember my great friend Tapiwa Muzvondiwa boasting while still in law school, that in a few years time people would refer to him as a “Harare lawyer and businessman”. We had high hopes and dreams. Tapiwa is now in London practising his trade. From time to time we talk about what could have been. But hope has not dissipated yet.
A lifelong student of history, I always carry a small suitcase that bears important episodes of my life – letters, photographs, old books – anything that might remind me of the past, because I love memories. I was going through my case recently when I discovered an old pay-slip from 1998. It showed I was earning a 9 000ZWD per month, which by all accounts was an excellent salary for a first professional job. That salary liberated me to live on my own in a new apartment. It enabled me to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle befitting a bachelor. I was even able to relieve my parents of the burden of paying school fees for my siblings. And yes, the clan in the village could expect a few dollars as well. Today however, 9 000 ZWD is not enough to buy a loaf of bread which costs ten times that amount. I will leave the rest to your imagination, if you can bear it.
But what has caused such a dramatic downfall of one of the most beautiful African countries, which before the demise was one of the leading economies on the continent?
2. Demands of the Neo-Liberal Policies and Pressures of Social Justice
1. Short-Term Triggers and Deep-Seated Roots
A lot has been said of the problems bedevilling Zimbabwe but the current crisis has both immediate triggers and deep-seated roots3. However, the immediate triggers often receive the most attention. These include the farm invasions since the year 2000, which resulted in the forcible eviction of commercial farmers and consequently a breakdown in the agricultural sector. They also include the general hostile human rights and security situation, which has driven away potential investment, tourists and caused Zimbabwe to have an unfavourable international profile. There is also corruption and cronyism within the government and ruling party. Overall, there have been poor economic policies and mismanagement – incompetence to put it starkly. There have undoubtedly been a plethora of factors that have triggered the economic meltdown most of which centre on mismanagement of the political situation by the government.
A balanced assessment of the Zimbabwe situation cannot however discount the long-term problems whose genesis precedes the current crisis. I characterize these problems as emanating from a struggle between the demands of market reforms and the pressure to promote social justice. A failure to balance these demands over the years by the ZANU PF led to massive difficulties, which gave birth to the current crisis. As I will elaborate later, this central problem is a continuing one, which will require the attention of any new government. I shall endeavour to explain this phenomenon.
2. Primitive Accumulation and the Culture of Impunity
When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, it enjoyed a relatively strong economy. Years of sanctions during the latter stages of colonialism had given rise to growth in innovation and vibrant import-substitution industries. However, the legacy of colonialism always meant that the balance was tilted in favour of the minority white community. It is within that context that we must also understand the imbalance in the land ownership system. Most of those that had been marginalized expected to have a share of the economic cake. The government led by the then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe publicly espoused the ideals of socialism but privately pursued capitalist dictates. One suspects that while keen to put up a show of solidarity with the general citizens, the ministers were also secretly admiring and coveting the white community privileges.
There was, one could say, ideological confusion but from that period we also see the leadership beginning to engage in the process of primitive accumulation. The ruling ZANU PF party abandoned its Leadership Code, a set of principles by which they sought to govern the conduct of the leadership4. Needless to say, it was hardly followed, as each leader sought to gain the best advantage. True to Franz Fanon’s predictions, the pre-occupation was to step into the shoes of the former white masters and not really to change anything for the generality of the people5.
It must also be recalled that the crushing of political dissent has its roots in this period – characterized by what are today referred to as the Matabeleland Massacres but to which most people and countries around the world were happy at the time to turn a blind eye. When one considers the blatant use of violence at the time, and the silence of the majority in the face of such calamities, it becomes easier to appreciate how the culture of violence and impunity has grown to be part of the political culture in Zimbabwe. People have grown up knowing that opponents are supposed to be silenced and one easy way to do so is to inflict pain. The silence of the majority encouraged impunity – something we see again today and more worryingly even in opposition politics. The abnormal, as the late Professor Masipula Sithole would put it, became normalised.
3. Lancaster and the Land Issue: A Lost Opportunity
I am also critical of the constitutional arrangements that were made at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in 19796 especially in relation to the arrangements over land ownership. Perhaps it is easier to say this with the benefit of hindsight removed from the contextual circumstances of the time, but in my view the arrangements over land simply postponed a problem rather than seeking to solve it. The problem was inequality in land ownership and instead of putting in place clear mechanisms and processes to resolve it (other than the “willing buyer willing seller” basis, a free market idea which frankly was never going to completely resolve the problem), Lancaster postponed it by simply entrenching in the Bill of Rights a provision protecting the right to private property7.
Given the primacy and political sensitivity of the land question, it is not surprising that Section 168 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe became one of the most bitterly contested clauses in the Bill of Rights – not only in the courts of law but also in parliament and in extra-legal forms such as the land invasions that took place with the consent of the government.
What is worse in my view is that the failure to put closure to this issue and consequently the perpetuation of land inequality provided the present government with a perfect and convenient platform to launch their campaign based on the rhetoric of Pan-African agenda and social justice, thereby gaining an ear and the sympathy of fellow African governments and people around the world who are also sympathetic to the cause of social justice9. What these supporters do not appreciate is that given the manner in which the land acquisition has been done, it has been a convenient pretext for the leadership’s pursuit of primitive accumulation and therefore that there is no real social justice for the generality of the citizens10. If Lancaster had dealt with the land problem more conclusively, the current government would not have had a claim on the ground of land imbalances.
4. Structural Adjustment Programme and Social Collapse
Having said that, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR in the early 1990s caused changes on the global political landscape and in the case of Zimbabwe, changed the way in which the government of Zimbabwe government had played its game during the Cold War. Also, the global powers began to change their tactics in the post-Cold War era. Faced with problems of economic stagnation characterised by rising unemployment and lack of investment after the first decade of independence the socialist rhetoric had to give way to the Western ideas of free-market capitalism. Consequently, the government accepted the IMF-WB led economic reform programme known more commonly in Zimbabwe by the acronym “ESAP” - economic structural adjustment programme.
This package came complete on the foundation of the ideals of liberalization, deregulation and open markets. Indeed, it also included prescriptions for cuts in social spending, privatization, retrenchments and other cost-cutting measures. However, the demands of the free market economic agenda did not feed into the agenda of social justice. Indeed life for most ordinary people began to deteriorate in the 1990s as a result of these economic policies, to which the government, with an eye of maintaining its popularity through the rhetoric of social justice, paid only half-hearted attention.
Also notable is that attempts to redistribute land after the expiry of the ten year period of the entrenchment of the right to private property in the Bill of Rights were thwarted through legal process. In my view what they saw as legal impediments must have caused some frustration on the part of the State11. Indeed, while most people tend to focus on the recent hostility against judges, as early as the 1990s politicians began to make hostile statements critical of the judiciary, whom they saw as protecting the existing economic order through the interpretation of property rights in ways that appeared to maintain the status quo12. It appears to me that the government began to see the law as an impediment but it also saw it as a means for justifying and legitimising its agenda. The law is relevant to the government only when it facilitates the deployment of its power and not when it limits its powers. That is why despite its actions in the last 6 years, the government has always tried to change the law as justification.
5. War Veterans - Threat and Opportunity
As more people descended into poverty while the government lacked any solutions for its difficulties, those who could constitute themselves into social and political groups began to seek attention from the government. The largest and most vocal of those was the veterans of the liberation struggle who began to demand a share of the spoils of independence. This was in part because the generality of the veterans perceived that only those in government positions among their comrades had actually reaped benefits while they had gained very little. Their vociferous demands represented a threat to the position of government but in that threat the ruling party also saw an opportunity. The government gave in to their demands paying a massive 50 000 ZWD to each veteran plus other monthly benefits (all of which was unbudgeted) but also gained a loyal constituency, to which they would turn when it came to the challenge of clinging on to power in the year 2000. Add to this the Congo Misadventure13, which gobbled funds in a war that we could hardly afford. Unsurprisingly, from the end of 1998, with these massive expenditures, the currency began to fall dramatically14. The rest of the story of the farm invasions led by the veterans and agricultural decline is now common knowledge.
Suffice to state in a nutshell that the government was faced with the challenge of promoting economic progress and simultaneously having to promote social justice. Through a combination of incompetence, corruption and poor judgment it failed both tasks. In trying to promote market reforms in the 1990s it paid lip service to social justice and I also think that the sponsors of these policies – the IMF and WB also take a measure of the blame for the failure of ESAP and its effects on the condition of the people. Much has already been written elsewhere about the poor application by the Bretton-Woods institutions of ill-suited neo-liberal policies in developing and emerging economies. It is easy to blame Mugabe and his government for everything that is wrong about Zimbabwe but I also think that if we must find solutions to problems our diagnosis must reveal all the agents responsible for the general ailment15. In trying to talk the language of social justice post-2000 the government ignored the demands of economic progress, throwing out of the window all known tools of economic management. In any event, a combination of corruption and poor management has meant that there is really no social justice as the leadership retains most of the productive land, although without using it productively16>>>>>>>PLEASE GO TO PAGE 2
Dr Magaisa is
a lawyer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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