A FEW weeks ago, we woke up to a ‘research’ whose results showed a list of fifty wealthiest Zimbabweans. I do not know what benchmark the researchers used, but the message was simple: those men and women have more assets, more money and better quality of life than both you and I combined! Rather than agonising over the wealth of the woman or man next door, the question that resonated in my mind was why ten million Zimbabweans are languishing in abject poverty. How did a nation of educated, enlightened and hardworking people end up being so poor? The answer is one – bad politics.
As a product of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Lower Gweru, I grew up with a sizeable dose of gospel from the Beatitudes, paraphrased: Blessed are the poor: for theirs is the kingdom of God. However, I now know that poverty is more of a curse than a blessing. Zimbabwe is burdened with dysfunctional Zanu PF governance. Zanu PF, correctly interpreted, means President Robert Mugabe is the purveyor-in-chief of poverty.
Our rulers have exalted poverty by promoting lawlessness, expropriation, hatred and revenge. In their warped logic, President Mugabe and his henchmen believe that by taking from the white man and his companies; and doling out freebies to villagers, they are ‘creating’ wealth. He has soaked the nation in the semantics of deceit – that those like you and me who have ‘a piece of land’ are actually not as poor as we think we are.
We might differ on its meaning, but poverty is real in Zimbabwe. Wikipedia explains that general scarcity or the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money amounts to poverty. When it is absolute, it becomes destitution. When it has economic implications, it is relative. The World Bank estimates that about 400 million people are destitute, especially South of the Sahara.
As a leader of the MDC, my heart bleeds that 35 years after independence, there are ten million Zimbabweans who are in near-destitution and live on less than U$2 per day. Millions of our citizens suffer from not “having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, and not having access to credit”.
The World Bank goes further to say if you have “low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity… low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life”, consider yourself poor. “Severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information,” is what millions of Zimbabweans are now accustomed to.Advertisement
In rural and some urban areas of Zimbabwe, there are women who have no access to sanitary wear and pre-natal expertise. I often see the women of Mabvuku and Budiriro in Harare carrying water buckets and firewood on their heads, exactly like what my mother used to do in the sixties in Lower Gweru. How is it that in 2015, a country so endowed with natural and human resources cannot afford to deliver clean drinking water directly into taps even in urban homes?
Politicians in Zanu PF boast at rallies that Zimbabwe must not declare itself poor because we have diamond this, iron ore that and tobacco that yet we cannot pay a twelve billion dollar debt to the IMF. Our fictitious national ego is a product of ignorance, pride and superficial sovereignty. We benchmark our ‘successes’ against poor countries then claim to be better than them.
I have even heard Zanu PF politicians argue that there are also poor people in New York, Berlin and Tokyo. Of course there are, but the little money they get buys much more than the money we make in a month. Trade Union leaders have argued incessantly that in Zimbabwe, an average family of six cannot survive with less than $600 per month. The bad news is there are few families who actually have access to even $100 per month!
Let me throw a caution. All the talk about ZimAsset, industrial parks, foreign direct investment and ‘mega deals’ will turn out to be fiction if it does not bring food on the table of ordinary Zimbabweans. Occupation of land without title, community share ownership schemes and numbing propaganda on indigenisation has not brought electricity and clean water to the villages of Dombodema.
President Mugabe delivers long speeches in Geneva, Cairo, Jakarta and Cape Town – international solidarity while workers at NRZ have gone for months on end without pay and no longer afford three meals a day. That to me is poverty. If you go to Mbare’s Matererini Flats, you encounter destitution, poverty, misery and deprivation of unbelievable proportions while the privileged Zanu PF functionaries like Philip Chiyangwa boast of houses with twenty-five bedrooms, expensive cars and private jets.
Some aspects of poverty are not about money, but “unequal social status and inequitable social relationships, experienced as social exclusion, dependency, and diminished capacity to participate, or to develop meaningful connections with other people in society”. The World Bank’s “Voices of the Poor,” based on research with over 20,000 poor people in 23 countries, identifies a range of factors which poor people identify with as part of poverty. These include abuse by those in power, dis-empowering institutions, excluded locations, gender disparities, and lack of security, limited capabilities, precarious livelihoods and problems in social relationships.
How have Zimbabweans been impacted by poverty? Health wise, there is lower life expectancy, hunger, malnutrition and infectious diseases. Socially, we are victims of rising cost of living, poor quality of shelter (hence street children and squatters), and declining quality of education, inability to afford education, poor access to primary school education, and no guarantee of work after completion of college including university, domestic violence, internal displacements and prostitution.
We can fight it, but dreaming of eliminating poverty is a bridge too far. We could begin by enhancing farming and cattle rearing strategies, industrialisation, improving ease of doing business, eliminating corruption, reducing the size of government and downsizing the idle army and police to save money. Good politics starts from democratisation, stopping farm and company invasions, restoring property rights and reverting to the rule of law.
Internationally, greater access to markets brings more income to the poor; we can also take actions to get our national debt forgiven like the Zambians did, so that expensive debt repayments are channeled to social safety nets that benefit the poor. As someone quoted Nelson Mandela: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice.”