Eric Bloch Column

Protests: Yes, destruction and death: No!

mso-fareast-language: JA”>RES Cook, in his letter to the editor of this esteemed newspaper, takes me to task, whilst concurrently suggesting that most economists and economic commentators are divorced from reality. He charges them with allowing their economic dictates to obscure the need for actions which may not be economically justified, but which should be pursued for other good and sound reasons. In particular, he challenges the views which I expressed three weeks ago when I contended that the mass action called by the Movement for Democratic Change by way of a “stayaway” from work and protest marches was ill-considered and destructive.

I welcome his disagreement with me to the extent that one of my objectives in writing is to motivate and provoke dialogue and exchanges of opinion, for I believe that as none know it all (yes, not even the honourable Minister of Information and Publicity knows it all, even if he may believe otherwise!) it is advantageous for frank and open exchanges of opinion to be forthcoming, thereby enhancing the formulation of informed views and of policies. However, I do not welcome the fact that his disagreement with my perspectives of the mass action was founded upon a complete misunderstanding of the foundations upon which my views were based.

It cannot justly be considered that a populace should not take actions of protest against any absence of good governance, against blatant disregard for the fundamental precepts of law and order, the basic principles of human rights, against destruction of democracy, against dictatorial rule and against tyranny. It is not only the moral right of people to oppose such unacceptable governorship, whensoever it may occur in the world.

It is also their moral obligation to do so for the greater good of the population, provided that such opposition is voiced in ways that comply with just and equitable law, respect for the freedom of determination of others and in such manner as has a possibility of a successful reversal of that against which the protest is directed. The protest must be such as has the prospect of success, instead of one which, with the possible exception of attaining increased international awareness of the causes of the protest, cannot achieve anything other than further to divide a desperately severed nation and of causing even greater hardships, poverty and death for hundreds and thousands, if not millions.

It was with the latter in mind that I condemned the recent MDC-organised mass action. The strategies pursued could only play into the hands of those against whom the MDC wished to protest. If there was overwhelming support for the stayaway, government could blame the economic devastation that it had caused upon the MDC and its protest action. If large numbers supported the action, government could claim that that support was solely due to intimidation, employer-created lockouts, and the like.

If, on the other hand, support was minimal, the government and ruling party publicity machines and propaganda trumpets would be able to capitalise thereon, claiming that it evidences an absence of support for MDC and support for the government. This would be so even if limited support would be attributable to totally different factors. So, such a form of protest could only place government in a “win-win” situation. Surely that was not the MDC intent!

On the other hand, that manner of mass action, whilst incapable of yielding any beneficial outcome, inevitably causes numerous negative circumstances, as was evidenced by the recent stayaway. A sadly ailing economy was rendered even more ill. Many businesses that have been parlously teetering on the edge of the precipice of collapse were subjected to further crippling losses, making their ability to survive even more uncertain. Should the stayaway have been “the last straw” which brings about the liquidation of enterprises, then that stayaway would be culpable for the creation of yet further unemployment, in a country wherein an estimated 80% of the employable population is already unemployed. The resultant poverty for not only those deprived of employment, but also for their wives, children and extended families, will be massive. They will be faced with intensively increased hardships and with their very survival in doubt.

Many of those fortunate enough not to lose their employment as a direct consequence of politically-driven work stoppages nevertheless suffer great discomforts and hardships. The disastrous state to which government has, through gross economic mismanagement, reduced much of commerce and industry, mining, tourism and agriculture results in an inability of many employers to pay salaries and wages for services not rendered. So stressed are many enterprises that the loss of revenues for a few days have prolonged repercussions, and their cash flows precluded paying of wages to those who supported the protest, even in instances where the employers were supportive of the principles upon which the protest was based. As most employees are desperately struggling to make ends meet, with rampant hyperinflation continuously eroding their spending power, any loss of wages is cataclysmic.

Other long-term adverse repercussions include a reluctance of customers abroad to source supplies from Zimbabwean industries, fearing that recurrent work stoppages will cause unreliability of deliveries or, at best, prolonged delays. As a result, Zimbabwe’s gravely decimated foreign exchange reserves decline even further, intensifying shortages of fuel, energy, industrial inputs, health-care requisites and much else. Thus the hardships of the Zimbabwean people (with the exception of the corrupt, and the exception of those at the helm of government enabling ready access to whatsoever limited resource remains), intensify more and more. Already, the insufficiency of food and of adequate health care is creating a fast accelerating death rate, with the life expectancy of most of the population falling sharply. In rural areas, and in high-density suburbs of Zimbabwe’s cities and towns, malnutrition and ill-health are increasing rapidly. That this is so is primarily due to government’s acts of omission and commission, but work-stoppages are an undoubted contributor.

It could be argued that all this, as dismal and distressing as it is, is a justified sacrifice in order to achieve much needed transformation, a return to all facets of good, democratic governance. However, as work stoppages and stayaways cannot be the catalyst of metamorphosis, and only play into government’s hands, they serve no constructive purpose and the resultant sacrifices are therefore meaningless. This was the intended thrust of my article which provoked RES Cook’s criticism of me and other economic commentators.

In contradistinction, I submit that if a mass action is not only embarked upon for the right motives, but is also pursued in such a form as can yield the desired results, and is undertaken in compliance with any fair and just laws, equitably applied (as distinct from those laws which are designed to remove from the mass of the people the fundamental principles of freedom, inclusive of the right of freedom of speech) then not only should there be the entitlement to resort to such action, but those oppressed by unjust law, tyranny and inhuman dictate must do so.

However, one of the characteristics of the “right” action must be that it has reasonable prospects of achieving its declared objectives. There was no way that last month’s stayaway could do so. It could only be damaging and the source of even greater misery and intensified oppression.

In contrast, one must ponder why a proposal voiced some time ago by Tendai Biti was never positively pursued. He advocated an organised boycott of all businesses in which the ruling party owns shares, and of all businesses in which members of the ruling party own substantial shareholdings. If properly researched and details of such enterprises widely disseminated, inclusive of inclusion in the plethora of full-page press advertisements so extensively published by the opponents of government, such a boycott could be very extensive, widespread and effective. It’s amazing how many politicians bleed more from a wound to their wallets than they do from a wound to the flesh!

Properly orchestrated, such forms of mass action could exert great pressures for change, without the disastrous prejudices to the country as a whole that the stayaways create. So I say to RES Cook: Thank you for voicing your disagreement with me. Dialogue can only be useful. However, don’t imply that economic commentators are not prepared to stand up and be counted, and that they allow their perceptions of economic objectives as omnipotent and overriding all else.

I for one support mass action, but not if it can only fail and, in doing so, the lot of the majority is worsened, and the target of the action is strengthened.