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Eric Bloch Column

Poll win supersedes national needs


ALLY, the next parliamentary elections are to take place a full nine months away, in March 2005.

Whether that will be so or whether the elections will suddenly be brought forward to an earlier date remains to be seen, although the president has outspokenly said that there is no intent to spring an earlier than as yet announced poll.

After all, he may well suddenly decide that it is strategically merited to do so, in order to catch the opposition unaware and ill-prepared. And it could well be politically prudent to do so ahead of inevitably pronounced food shortages.

Despite the categorical statements by several ministers that Zimbabwe will have a surfeit of food this year, on the ground it is well and widely known that the reverse is the case. All but those who find it in their own best interests to be oblivious to the realities are very conscious of the fact that the 2004 commercial maize crop will, at the most, be 30% of that projected by the government.

And present indications are that despite strenuous, albeit belated, efforts by the government, the winter wheat crop will also be markedly less than the government expects.

However, whether or not the elections are brought forward from March 2005, it is undeniably apparent that the government is strenuously preparing itself for the polls, for once again — as has been the case prior to all previous — the virtually sole motivant for any governmental actions and ministerial statements is clearly in order to garner votes.

There is a total disregard for that which would be in the best interests of the electorate. Instead, the acts embarked upon are such as perceived to influence the electorate to support the ruling party, and to eliminate support for the opposition.

So too are the many statements made by the governmental hierarchy, encompassing assurances which cannot credibly be expected to be fulfilled. The determination to hijack the elections with diverse actions which are, prima facie — but not in actuality — in the best interests of the populace, is of such magnitude that there is a total disregard for any prejudicial consequences of such actions.

In particular, no consideration is given to the extent that the economy may suffer as a result of those actions and, therefore, to the probable medium and long-term prejudice to the populace which the government is pretending to assist, solely in order to obtain the voter support which it needs if it is to be returned to power.

Examples are numerous, but among the highlights was the foolhardy, immensely damaging confrontation, some six weeks ago, launched by the Education, Sport and Culture minister against the independent schools. He forced 46 schools into temporary closure, contending that their fees were excessive and, therefore, he refused approval of such fees.

The facts that none of the schools operated for financial gain, that they are as subject to the impacts of inflation as are all commercial enterprises, the populace and the government and that in most instances the majority of parents had accepted the need for the fee increases were all of no consequence to him.

The minister was prepared to place the education of tens of thousands of children in jeopardy and, if necessary, have the schools become insolvent and close for the sake of a short-term political gain of being able to demonstrate to the electorate the depth of the ruling party’s concerns to minimise costs of education.

In like manner, the Local Government and National Housing minister last week unilaterally imposed a freeze upon scheduled increases in rates chargeable by the city of Bulawayo. Although the city is faced with massively rising costs, including salaries and wages, imported requirements for road maintenance, water supply, sewerage management and much else, he applied severe, authoritarian dictate to prevent the city from obtaining the funding it needs.

And the only conceivable motive for doing so is in order to impress the city’s residents as to how vigorously the government — ie the ruling party — is conscious of their hardships and is determined to minimise them.

The minister is in a “win-win” situation for, when the municipality becomes even less able then it is at present let alone as it was previously — to service the city’s needs, he can attribute all blame to the city fathers, most of whom are members of the opposition party.

He will be able to assert that all responsibility for a further collapse in the city’s street-lighting systems, its traffic lights, refuse collection and so forth lies wholly in the hands of the Bulawayo City Council, notwithstanding that it will have been his actions as he deprived the council of the required wherewithal to service the city’s needs.

The minister sought to justify his action on the grounds of an improving economy, but there is little to support any contention that the economy is undergoing an upturn. Admittedly, inflation has declined over the last five months, and is now at a backbreaking rate of 448,75% only.

But there is little, if anything else, to support his contention. Between 1998 and 2003, total manufacturing output fell by 40% and continues to fall in the face of shrinking consumer spending power and loss of export viability for most exporters.

It is recognised by all other than the myopic leaders of the ruling party that agriculture is in a continuing decline, with a near-total destruction of the tobacco industry, a massive shrinkage in output of maize and other cereals, decimation of the national herd and unemployment for more than 300 000 former farm workers.

Tourism is similarly deeply distressed, with no recovery in numbers of tourist arrivals — exclusive of cross-border traders defined by the government as tourists. Much of the mining industry is on a care-and-maintenance basis.

Moreover, although the year-on-year inflation rate has fallen from 622,8% in January 2004 to 448,75% in May 2004, the compounded month-on-month inflation for the period of January to May was a devastating 42%. Not exactly indicative of an improving economy!

Again, it must be with elections in mind — over and above trying to please “the Boss” by telling him what he would like to hear — that motivated the Agriculture and Rural Resettlement minister to claim a 2004 total grains crop of over 2,8 million tonnes, including a crop of commercially produced maize in excess of 2,4 million tonnes. The minister must know that such figures defy the wildest of imagination.

After all, the commercial farmers, inclusive of newly resettled farmers, the suppliers of agricultural inputs, the relief organisations and many others are fully aware that there is as much prospect of Zimbabwe achieving such crop levels this year as there is of it having a rocket scientist who can successfully launch a spaceship to Mars before the end of 2004!

By now an almost traditional vote-gathering modality is for the government to give vociferously expressed assurances that the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, first conceived of in 1912, is about to come into being. It is irrelevant to point out that the government does not have the trillions of dollars necessary to convert that project from a mirage into reality.

It is equally irrelevant to point out that if the funding is sought commercially, the resultant debt- servicing burden will be unsustainable and the cost of water will be prohibitive for all consumers — be they in agriculture, industry, commerce, domestic consumption or otherwise. The project can only be viably funded with international aid and soft loans, and those will not be forthcoming for so long as Zimbabwe is an international pariah.

Despite those realities, the government assured the populace of Matabeleland — ahead of the 2005 elections — that commencement of the project was imminent. The same assurances were forthcoming ahead of the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential poll.

One waits with bated breath to witness the government’s next attempt at collecting votes. Perhaps, by mistake, it will be some act which will benefit economic recovery.

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