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Candid Comment

Collaborators on highway to hell

By Joram Nyathi

REMOVING the zeros was the easiest part for both the Reserve Bank and members of the public. The monetary policy statement was presented with the customary gusto underpinn

ed by the “failure is not an option” jingoism. The policy measures were to be implemented with immediate effect.

RBZ governor Gideon Gono announced the deployment of army personnel, the police and members of the youth brigade to the country’s highways and border posts to ensure compliance with the country’s laws — to ensure that people take their money to the banks instead of keeping it in their trunks for use in speculative deals or to buy foreign currency or gold. It was indeed a military operation in its swiftness and ferocity. The commander-in-chief duly gave executive authority.

Gono also deployed a cavalcade of vehicles full of his infantry across the country to spread the word about the new currency and to alert villagers not to be duped by people offloading billions of dollars in old bearer cheques in the name of buying cattle or other assets. The element of surprise must have overwhelmed many. And there ends the good news.

The planning was not meticulous in detail. In fact a key element of the project — the education campaign — was executed in reverse, more or less as an afterthought when the foot soldiers were already in the trenches. I fully appreciate Gono’s strategy not to forearm his quarry by indulging in too much publicity. But that has been the cause of the greatest pain to the majority of innocent Zimbabweans.

There is confusion about what figures to write on cheques for instance. Which bearer cheques do you use to settle your $12 million bill to Zesa? Do you add an explanatory note if it’s going to be cleared in new bearers? How are accountants and accounting systems supposed to compute the figures for the old and new bearer cheques?

In one supermarket they were forced to re-enter the missing zeros.

As Gono later discovered in his street campaign on Tuesday, some retail shops were not just lopping zeros from the old prices, it was also an opportunity to hike prices. The consumer was made to pay more on the smaller figure for bread from $130 000 to $200.

There is no standard price for goods and services and so there is no way consumers can expose malpractices as suggested by Gono. The educational campaign that should have preceded the blitz is being carried out in reverse.

The biggest abnormality in Zimbabwe’s economy is of course that there is no equitable relationship between interest on deposits and bank charges because of high inflation. This is especially so for the ordinary man who hasn’t much leverage about investment alternatives. This has had a huge psychological impact about keeping money in banks. You lose.

Beneath the surface, the crisis has bred among Zimbabweans a fatalistic, masochistic cynicism towards any and every effort to change the way things are going. Gono’s every missed target is taken as a sign of personal failure. More than that, it is celebrated even as the criminals undermining that effort devise new tricks to circumvent the legal system for quick personal self-enrichment.

If Gono’s painful but necessary surgical operation could cure that mental attitude, he shall have succeeded more than if he brought inflation down to 10%.

I am here reminded of Karl Marx’s dictum that the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, what is left is to change it. Every economist, every politician, every crook and everybody in Zimbabwe will glibly tell you the problems and what needs to be done. But nobody wants to walk the talk.

Gono is not seen as part of or seeking a solution, but as a collaborationist with a rotten establishment even as there is evidence of paralysis in the opposition on how to end our problems. Hence Gono’s plea against “casting blame”.

Sadly, there are more collaborators on the highway to hell than those seeking a solution, for everybody says “who is not corrupt? Who doesn’t hoard foreign currency?” Or “why should I waste time and risk a loss on the farm when I can immediately transmute the money I have into my dream car or mansion? After all things can only get worse!”

It is this negativity that the nation is up against more than any visible manifestations of the crisis such as power and fuel shortages and anti-social behaviour that needs to be changed before we can move forward. Gono should not expect a swift military victory in the war on corruption. It is more psychological than physical, more like the Americans are facing in Iraq, minus the collectivity. In Zimbabwe we are fighting against our own interest.

This is at the pedestrian level of the “ignorant” man fighting to survive today, the man on the street “without a vision”, hopping from one sub-crisis to another like fuel, school fees, rent, sugar or a little foreign currency. It is a hopeless case of schizophrenia. He imagines that in being part of the corruption he can beat it. He is abetting a cause that is beyond his comprehension.

Behind the crisis are contending political power blocs on all sides feeding the illusion of an intractable problem, hoping that when the final implosion occurs it will yield them political office. This is the nub of Zimbabwe’s economic malaise.

Those who precipitated the crisis can no longer resolve it because it has assumed a life of its own. That is why Gono, for all his good intentions, still misses the point when he appeals for “economic patriotism”. It’s way beyond that.

The redeeming thing is that his is a crime of ignorance and lack of savvy, not of intent. Can he get the real corruption barons? Otherwise soon we will witness the return of the biblical seven evil spirits of zeros.

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