Eric Bloch Column

Lies and threats accelerate economic collapse

“FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana; mso-fareast-language: JA”>FROM the point of view of the Zimbabwean economy, last week’s mass protests called by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to motivate President Robert Mugabe to retire, were catastrophic. The economy has been progressively weakened over the last six years, almost wholly due to the acts of omission and commission of government. By 2003 an economy which had been showing great promise of growth and virility, was fragile and debilitated. Desperately struggling to survive, it was then ambushed and beaten last week by both the MDC and government, bringing it even further to its knees.

The issue of whether or not the president should retire is not relative to the futility of, and destruction by, the mass protests. (It takes a great and wise man to know when it is time to go, and to do so gracefully). The point in evaluating the merits or otherwise of a mass protest structured to comprise work stoppages and stayaways, accompanied by peaceful demonstrations and marches, is whether or not such protests have any prospects of success and, if so, whether those prospects would outweigh a barrage of negative consequences. The answer must be a categoric no on both counts, and it is therefore regrettable that the MDC did not take cognisance of that negative before embarking upon an ill-conceived path which achieved nothing other than to devastate the economy.

That the MDC may have done so with a sense of desperation, through its awareness of a near-total absence of genuine democracy, law and order, and good governance is understandable but most unfortunate. Not only was it evident that Zanu PF would cling to power by any means and that, therefore, the protests would be doomed to failure, but at the same time the only conceivable outcomes of the protests in the form adopted by the MDC were greater hardships for the populace, further abuses of law, greater decimation of the economy, and a discrediting of the MDC and much of the good that it espouses.

How can the MDC credibly pursue certain actions in the Zimbabwean courts whilst it concurrently flouts other court orders, no matter that it may have been immoral and undemocratic of government to seek such orders, and many may disagree with the court’s determinations? But the MDC can’t “have its cake and eat it”! As a result of its trying to do so, some inevitably ponder whether the MDC’s policies on the preservation of law and order are not as distorted as those of Zanu PF and, if so, whether there is any future for Zimbabwe. Such doubts further weaken the already frail confidence of the business community and of investors, causing them to hold back from the very actions necessary for economic wellbeing and recovery.

Worse still was the quandary with which many of the population were confronted. There are indications that great numbers were desirous of supporting the proposed peaceful protests, perceiving a need to voice their strong objection to the manner in which government pursues policies which they consider to be most objectionable. They wished to voice their distaste for the manner in which government seeks to assure its grasp for all time on the tools of sate control, for the destruction that government has wrought upon the economy, with consequential ever-intensifying suffering for millions, and for government’s determined misuse of law to further its objectives. But those who wished to support the protests also knew that they could not afford to do so, and that they and their families would greatly suffer from doing so.

They were fully aware that most employers could not afford to pay wages to those that did not work for their businesses were already battling to survive and that battle would be far greater with the loss of a week’s production. With real inflation running well over 300% (as compared to an official year-on-year inflation rate in April of 269,2%), few workers have been able to accumulate any savings to sustain them and their families through a week of protests.

Nevertheless, in practice very large numbers did stay away from work. They did so reluctantly due to their awareness of resultant intensified economic hardship.

But they did so either because they could not access transport to work (for most commuter bus operators feared the of risks of attacks on them and their vehicles by extremists trying to assure a total stayaway), or because they were victims of intimidation, or they feared that they would become victims of intimidation. So tens of thousands stayed away from work, not in order to support the MDC protests, but in the absence of an acceptable alternative and, in so doing, knew that they were subjecting themselves and their families to the ills of intensified poverty.

Government certainly did not cover itself with glory, and its conduct and misconduct will impact very negatively upon the economy. First, it demonstrated to the populace and to the world that despite its protestations that democracy prevails in Zimbabwe, the reverse is the case. This became evident when actions proved that despite all contentions to the contrary, Zimbabwe is effectively under martial law, even if not declared. How else can it be explained that Zimbabwean soldiers demanded sight of people’s identity documents, even to the extent that they went to numerous homes in high-density areas and subjected residents to near-inquisitions? Possibly the police have such authority, but what empowers the army to do so?

Secondly, abusing its authority over the state-controlled media, government promoted such blatant lies that even the most gullible could not have been deceived. After the first day of the scheduled protests, the government media trumpeted that the stayaway had been “a total flop”. They alleged that virtually all businesses were open and that economic normality prevailed. But the next day the same media proudly announced that most banks had reopened (How could they do that if they had not been closed?), and that most of the businesses that had been closed on the previous day were again operational. But yet another day later the same media bewailed the extent to which businesses were closed, and alleged that that was due to connivance and conspiracy between white-owned businessmen, the MDC and the British government.

If, as previously stated, the businesses were all open, how is it that they were all closed? And if it was white-owned businesses that were guilty of confrontation with government, how is it that banks in which government is a major shareholder were closed, as were industries partially owned by the ruling party, and others owned by leading members of Zanu PF, and some departments of Zimpost? Must one now assume that Zanu PF government and parastatals are composed of white, British conspirators? Surely not! But such spurious lies further destroy Zimbabwe’s image at home and abroad, deterring investment, discouraging trade, alienating donor support, and curbing tourism.

But that did not suffice! The economy was struggling, but not yet dead! So ministerial venom and threats were let loose against the private sector. At least two, and possibly more, ministers announced the intent to revoke licences of businesses that were closed during the protests. In doing so they disregarded the fact that many businesses are not required to have licenses (There is no requirement for manufacturing industries to have any form of operating licence. They are required, for reasons of health and safety, to be registered under the Factories Act, but not to be licensed). And, insofar as businesses are required to be licensed, those licences are issued by municipalities, not by government, and the legislated qualifying requirements for licences do not prescribe mandatory continuous operations of the licensees.

Most of all, government saw fit to disregard the fact that the businesses that were closed were, with almost no exception, precluded from operating because of the extent that worker absences prevented effective operation, or because the businesses were the recipients of threats of dire consequences if they remained open. So businesses had to close, and others understandably succumbed to intimidation and threats, rather than have the businesses, their owners, and such staff as were present, placed at risk.

Government threats of withdrawal of licences were, no matter how devoid of substance, yet another demotivant for the business community and for investors and, therefore, another nail in the economy’s coffin. The MDC’s actions were ill-advised and economically destructive, butgovernment’s responses were evenmore so. Its lies, through its media, and its threats, have undoubtedly accelerated Zimbabwe’s already rapidly approaching economic collapse.