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Candid Comment

Critical thinking has become taboo

By Joram Nyathi

IF I had my way I would cause a number of tertiary institutions in this country to shut down to liberate the students being exposed to a lot of intellectual atrophy. I w

ould also conduct a survey of industry to ask their leaders what they believe should be their contribution to national development.

One of the pretensions among Zimbabweans is that we have the most educated populations in Africa. I don’t know who started the myth and why it has managed to endure for so long. It’s all humbug. There is nothing on the ground to prove this.

In other countries, including South Africa just across the border, intellectuals contribute the most to national debate in both the print and electronic media. This is as it should be because, as the saying goes, if the wise choose not to take part in national politics they should live with the decisions of idiots. Those who don’t want to vote should not complain about how they are ruled. Zimbabwe’s educated elite appears to prefer this abnormality.

One of my biggest frustrations was a confrontation I had with one of my former lecturers at UZ. He complained that our paper was “too critical of government” as opposed to government policies. This was at the height of the land reform programme in 2001. To him there was no difference between the method and the envisioned outcome.

I asked him to put his views in writing in the form of an opinion piece. He baulked. He was not going to contribute on anything, he insisted. We parted on that note. It would be interesting to hear from him whether he believes those noble goals have been achieved.

Unfortunately, that incident is typical of our academics. Once they have been conferred with their doctorates they retreat into nothingness at the University of Zimbabwe. Some have become specialists in less “offensive” subjects like culture and tradition.

But what I find most frustrating is their refusal to contribute to national debate even as the nation burns. Those who do so seem to believe the only legitimate debate is to attack the privately-owned media or the opposition for “misleading” the masses.

I wonder what they teach the youth who join our universities if critical thinking has become taboo. Given the violence by the police against student protests at UZ, one would expect a molten torrent against human rights violations and death of academic freedom. Over your dead body!

Their counterparts are to be found in industry and commerce. How many times do we find contributions from these leaders of industry? Apart from isolated comments in response to queries from journalists, they are hard to find. This is despite the fact that businesses are the first to be affected by government policies such as price controls, fixed exchange rates, foreign currency and fuel shortages and erratic power supplies. Last week we carried a report suggesting that much of industry was operating at less than 70% of capacity.

You would expect an immediate and informed response on what it means to investor and depositor confidence when the Reserve Bank decides overnight that every bank now has to renew its licence every year, or that all Money Transfer Agencies’ licences have been cancelled.

This is the same Reserve Bank that is trying to assure an inflation-ravaged and sceptical public that it is safe to keep their money in the formal banking system.It is fine for Gideon Gono to want to control speculative activity on the stock market but surely the public needs to trust their investment markets instead of living in fear of official ambuscades.

Aren’t these monetary policy flip-flops responsible for much of the volatility that Gono is trying to “stabilise”? What does all this mean for the would-be foreign investor?

You would expect industry to be among the first to raise their voice. Not so in Zimbabwe. Industry is supposed to remain apolitical to avoid causing offence to the authorities!

I find all this peculiar and a gross betrayal of those of our citizens who should depend on us to explain what is going on. It is a duty. For I believe what sets us apart from animals in their natural state is that every political decision of national significance should stir in us ethical, aesthetic or moral ambiguities and impulses which urge us to talk, to explain or to seek a better understanding of the world around us.

This is particularly imperative when we occupy positions in society where we are regarded with respect as significant stakeholders, opinion-makers or as able to influence decision-makers. The academic brotherhood appears to have sealed a lucrative Faustian pact with an establishment running riot in the china shop of public duty since the launch of the land reform.

There are disturbing ramifications from this conspiracy of silence by industry and academia. National debate is trivialised and viewed cynically as a business for editors and a few wayward malcontents. They are expected to discern and explain the direction of politics and the economy. They are left to tell the nation how the political and economic crisis is going to unravel and who will succeed President Robert Mugabe and what will happen to the MDC and why.

Debate on possible candidates to succeed Mugabe has been confined to a few names chosen by the reporters themselves without these men explaining who they are — their philosophies and policies. What should be the qualities that qualify one to be president? Is it all about going to war, being jailed or being beaten by the police? What is the potential leader’s interest in your welfare to be entrusted with your life?

In short, where are our political scientists, economists and other academics when their country most needs their input? What is missing in our nation? Do we have too much politics or too much economics in politics?

Why has the opposition been so hopelessly ineffective despite so much goodwill? If it’s a problem of leadership why do we cling on to leaders who have failed us? For there is more than enough evidence that despite his many catastrophic policy failures, Mugabe will be at the helm of Zimbabwean politics for a long time — a very bad omen.

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