The game of politics is for the well fed, an old timer in Mbare told me
New Zimbabwe.com columnist Alex Tawanda Magaisa recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe. He found a nation pre-occupied with survival. "The foremost human instinct is self-preservation, which is why most of those in the Diaspora are where they are," he writes. "And this is exactly what Zimbabweans at home are doing, in their own circumstances: trying to survive."
By Dr Alex T. Magaisa
“ZVINHU zvacho zvakadhakwa”. That catchphrase encapsulates the views and feelings of almost every Zimbabwean, when they describe the challenges they encounter in almost every facet of their daily struggles for survival. That everything appears to be in a state of inebriation aptly captures the uncertainty and lack of direction in desperately uncertain and economically turbulent times.
The economy or what remains of it, is literally staggering from one day to another. Ever creative, Zimbabweans continually develop a language of suffering, which is at once reflective and humorous. The last time I was there they captured it in zvakapressa, now they simply say zvakadhakwa.
Getting through on the mobile phone is a struggle because network yakadhakwa. Enquiring after one’s welfare often elicits one response: zvakadhakwa. It’s enough to capture the situation. Everyone understands. Language, it seems, remains the only free medium through which Zimbabweans carry and express collectively what would otherwise be individual burdens.
It is important to understand the process that has begun with the consensus between the MDC and Zanu PF in relation to Constitutional Amendment No. 18, within the context of the prevailing economic conditions in the country. It’s simply a question of necessity in light of what have become desperate conditions for the people. The qualitative aspects of change, however important, have become secondary to the imperative to find a solution to a situation that has gone out of hand, both for the ruling and the opposition party. The process is both a reflection of and a result of a new pragmatic approach to the crisis.
There are things, in modern life, that ought to be simple, such as buying a soft drink, milk or bread from the shop. Yet these things have become monumental, frustrating and sometimes hazardous, tasks. Basic goods such as meat, milk, sugar, salt, cooking oil, etc are not ordinarily available in the formal market. Most manufacturers of basic commodities have either ceased or scaled down operations in the wake of commodity price controls. When available, waiting in the long, meandering queues does not guarantee success.
When asked why the service is often slow, office workers and shop attendants simply say, “Mukuwasha, tinonoshanda zvinoenderana nemari yatinotambira” – that is to say, the quality of service they provide is commensurate with the levels of remuneration they are paid. Even alcoholic beverages are hard to come by and when available, there is really not much choice. There is a new but cheap alcoholic beverage called Eagle, which locals have nicknamed Jatropha. Only a few have kind words for it.
Fuel and spare parts are scarce, so that transport operators have suspended services to most rural areas. Most of the businesses at numerous townships along the country’s main roads have since closed shop. They have nothing to sell. Also, there is no transport to ferry the goods. Head-teachers at the numerous boarding schools dotted across the country are performing nothing short of miracles to keep the schools running. Even so, the kids now make do with a meat substitute called “Chunks” – Soya Mince, which they have struggled to cope with on a daily basis. Black tea because there is no milk. They are lucky to get bread. Maputi (popcorn), now constitute an essential part of the diet, if they are available. It is hard to imagine how they will get to the end of the academic year and the rumour is that non-exam classes may have to be sent home early before the end of the term.
Harare’s leafy suburbs in the north still host many beautiful houses. A new crop of mansions is mushrooming on the slopes and summits of the exclusive Shawasha Hills, north-east of Harare. Yet, despite all the apparent grandeur of the physical structures, there is often no running water or electricity. In many cases, street lights have become a feature of the past. These difficulties hit both the rich and poor. The situation is worse in “Young Africa”, the name they give to the sprawling dormitory city of Chitungwiza, a high-density residential district south east of Harare.
“Mazuvano tavakutoti magetsi auya, kwete kuti aenda”, is how one young fellow described the plight of Young Africa, emphasising that the unavailability of electricity is now the norm, so that they only comment on those rare occasions when the electricity returns.
But even so, he continues, when it does come, it returns at midnight and is cut off just before dawn, during which time most people will be in bed, so that one is never actually able to use it, unless they have to change their routine!
They have long since ceased to comment on the burst sewer pipes, whose unwelcome contents have become an almost permanent feature of the atmosphere. No wonder they say, everything zvakadhakwa.
Often, it does not matter how much money one has to hand – in most cases there is nothing to purchase, as the shops are bare. What’s available is often found on the parallel market, where prices are usually exorbitant. Mbare Musika is teeming with street vendors. Here, the vendors sell everything, from fresh vegetables to cooking oil, soft drinks, sugar, bread, salt and other basic commodities.
The Fourth Street district, close to the Roadport Bus Terminus, is the territory for “hustlers”, the name given to foreign currency dealers, mostly women. They are just intermediaries for the Big Men in the offices. Fuel is found in other parts of Harare, unless one has access to fuel coupons, where you can go to a proper fuel station. Few can afford the latter option because fuel coupons are bought with foreign currency, which, for most people is hard to come by. So the majority retreats to the parallel market.
Arguably, at this stage, it is a misnomer to say that Zimbabwe’s economy is “on the brink of collapse”, as is often repeated in the media. The reality is that, apart from the little that remains, the formal economy has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. The informal economy is the mainstay, where most economic activities and transactions are taking place.
What exists of the formal market is largely a source of cheap goods, credit and services, which are simply taken by the Big Men at ridiculously low values and then exchanged in the informal market at exorbitant prices, generating obscene profits. These are the ones who prowl the pot-holed streets in expensive, beautiful automobiles of all types, a feature that provides a misleading veneer of property in a sea of poverty.
Those who have only heard by word of mouth or rely on the media to understand the situation in Zimbabwe, can sometimes, be unfairly harsh in their assessment of the approach taken by Zimbabweans in the face of their circumstances. There is gross underestimation of the immediate challenges that face the people in Zimbabwe, so that their attention is not always on the political questions.
The game of politics is for the well fed, an old timer in Mbare told me. You cannot do much on an empty stomach, he says, adding that the threats of physical punishment deter most people. The foremost human instinct is self-preservation, which is why most of those in the Diaspora are where they are.
And this is exactly what Zimbabweans at home are doing, in their own circumstances: trying to survive. Their daily focus is to find food for their families. Days are spent in queues. Sometimes they return empty-handed. But they go again, in search of whatever they can find. The lifestyle is, literally, a modern day version of hunter-gatherers. It is an unwritten rule that one must join any queue upon encounter, as anything that is on sale is likely to be useful or where not immediately required, it can be resold at a profit. Time, therefore, is literally consumed by the daily efforts to satisfy the basic human need for survival.
Unsurprisingly, in most cases politics is not the issue that is uppermost in the minds of the men and women in the street. They are conscious of the political challenges that must be solved, but most appear to have resigned their fate to the politicians, to decide, so long as the economy gets sorted. So powerless have their voices been in the previous elections, that there is a high level of fatigue among a population that is, daily, struggling to survive. The climate of fear does not help and few are keen to engage in any extensive discussions involving political matters.
Against this background, the suggestion that the recent Constitutional Amendment No. 18 reflects that the two MDC formations (Tsvangirai and Mutambrara MDCs) have sold out to the ruling Zanu PF government appears to me to be a knee-jerk judgment reached without considered analysis.
Granted, some people are concerned that the opposition does not compromise its principles by entering into deals with the ruling party. But sometimes situations require practical solutions. Principles are important but they do not exist in order to imprison those who must consider them. Whilst the fear of betrayal by the opposition politicians is understandable, it is important not to overlook the circumstances under which Amendment No. 18 was agreed.
First, the economic circumstances of the country and the effects on the ordinary people, as described above, have created a collective feeling of unprecedented suffering, which can best be appreciated by those that are experiencing it. There is now a collective understanding across the political landscape, of the urgency of the need to salvage the economy and that there is a collective responsibility in this respect, as the usual blame game will not solve the situation.
The ordinary people’s most important concern at this point is that the politicians should do something to save the economy and provide them with resources for survival. Both the MDC and Zanu PF politicians recognise that the economy has broken down and whoever wins the elections and forms the next government will have a monumental task without at least retaining the remaining structures.
They both recognise that a “Scorched Earth policy” towards the economy, so far variously pursued by the various political players in their own ways, does not serve anyone, but instead, negatively impacts on the ordinary people. Perhaps those tasked with the negotiations know something that we do not know. We must wish them well rather than deride their efforts. If experience should teach us anything, it is that no amount of public insults can change the course of events in Zimbabwe.
Second, by acting in concert with Zanu PF on Amendment No. 18, the MDC is beginning to demonstrate an important understanding of the language of African politics and the negotiating game. The MDC knows that numerically and legally, it was powerless in the face of Zanu PF’s attempts to amend the Constitution because Zanu PF has a clear parliamentary majority. It could have passed the amendment with or without the MDC.
However, the MDC knew that, politically, Zanu PF was keen to legitimise the process and it required a show of consensus with the MDC to achieve that. Meanwhile, by appearing to go along with the Zanu PF proposals, and not opposing them in knowledge of obvious defeat, the MDC may have won friends within the African community, having demonstrated a positive attitude of give and take in negotiations and therefore garnered some goodwill. It shows they are not being unnecessarily oppositional at the instance of external forces but they are making their own decisions.
Put another way, MDC’s opposition was not going to achieve anything that has not been achieved before without any positive outcome, but in view of the negotiations, MDC’s apparent support is likely to be viewed positively by a previously sceptical African leaders’ community. The onus is now firmly and squarely on Zanu PF to demonstrate similar goodwill and a positive attitude to the negotiations and the points to be raised by the MDC. Therefore, from a tactical point of view in the negotiations, it could be a useful negotiating move.
Third, Amendment No. 18 has to be viewed within the overall context of the negotiations. Rather than be criticised as a singular event, it ought to be taken as a starting point in a process that is likely to be long, arduous and difficult but necessary to resolve the crisis and stop the suffering of the ordinary people.
Right now, Zimbabwe requires pragmatic solutions to the on-going crisis and the Pretoria-mediated negotiations represent a practical forum that must be used exhaustively. The ordinary people want to see steps that have an impact on the economic situation and if this negotiating process can produce such positive impact, let it be.
It is necessary to build a bridge in order to cross the flood and thereafter attend to the other issues. We cannot deal with all issues at once, however desirable that might be. Sometimes other aspects have to sacrificed for a while in order to move forward. It’s the crossing that’s difficult and right now these should be viewed as the first steps in that process, rather than an end in itself.
You have to experience it in order to understand why Mai Chipo, selling vegetables in Mbare or Givhi, the cobbler at the mission school, have left it to the politicians to work out whatever they can, in order to arrest the economic decline. They, like everyone around them, are primarily focussed on the most basic of human needs – survival.
Those of us observing from the outside, where food, water and other basic resources are within easy reach, might find it easy to sit back and bicker about principles, more sanctions and hard-line approaches to force change. It is because we can we can afford to do that. Those in Zimbabwe do not have the same luxury. We can argue over drinks and provide prescriptions. For Zimbabweans on the ground, finding that drink is hard enough!
Dr Magaisa is
a New Zimbabwe.com columnist and can be contacted at email@example.com
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