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Zim on flight against civilisation

By Rejoice Ngwenya

HAVING just returned from an epic journey to Arab North Africa, I have been scanning through several local newspapers and been hit with astounding frequency by headlines relating to an int

erventionist Zimbabwe government that unashamedly steps in to clean up its own mess and wants us to celebrate.

If memory saves me right, the last time government “stepped in” to solve our petrol problems, all pumps subsequently dried up! The audacity and the courage with which our government exposes its crude naivety is simply award-winning. But before I bore you with bad news on topical issues of the government’s latest “step-ins”, Chitungwiza and Air Zimbabwe, I will share a few pleasant experiences on Al-Mamlakah al-Maghrebiyah, The Kingdom of Morocco.

Casablanca is one of the five cities in this not-so-Mediterranean country literally sharing a coast with Spain. There is Marrakesh to the south; Rabat, Fez, Meknes and Tangiers to the north. Casablanca is not your typical African city, but a unique blend of French finesse and Arab monotony. Four million residents crowd around mainly two-storey, colourless buildings dotted along four-way lanes that stream with fast-moving European cars. I say not typically African because you do not see potholes, street kids, pickpockets and uncollected dustbins at street corners.

Most, if not all “educated” Moroccan urbanites speak French, with few citizens in international hotels and banks hazarding English words. What this means for a Zimbabwean is that one’s shopping experience is a nightmare, although I found the late-evening flea market business hours refreshing.

Once a vendor gets onto your case, he will stick to you like a flea until you are persuaded to part with whatever little currency you have. The Moroccan dirham is absolutely strong, commanding a mere nine units to the US dollar.
I therefore found it extremely cumbersome to bargain in two digits, since my mind is locked into Gideon Gono’s triple zero currency mode.

The hospitality of Moroccans is astounding. If you get an invitation to dinner, be prepared for a six-course meal that has an eternal variety of fish dishes and sweets that are the envy of the world’s most ravenous diabetic! I cannot comment much about their social life, but the reformist King Mohammed VI’s liberal political policies seem to give Moroccans a kind of freedom that is unique in Arab countries, in fact, even more freedom than our local system under a ruling party obsessed with political control.

Casablancans sit and chat freely at pavement drinking holes, spending many hours gazing at televised football matches. Our tour bus drove past the Rajah Casablanca FC stadium, situated in the city’s wealthiest suburb nicknamed Little California. However, with my French “disability”, it was impossible to enjoy some of the scores of television channels spoiled by the hieroglyphics of Arabic sub-titles.

Talking of free expression, Morocco is inevitably a multi-party democracy, results of the reformist youthful king who not only commands a lot of respect, but also I gather played a big role in “influencing” political plurality. Although I have a permanent suspicion of monarchies – and have reason to, knowing how King Mswati’s antics are ripping democracy apart in poor Swaziland – the nature of King Mohammed VI’s intervention can in no way be compared to our own version of Napoleon Bonaparte. My Moroccan host, a seasoned politician in his own right, knows all there is to about Zimbabwe all for the wrong reasons. When he was told I like writing political satire, he dragged me kicking and screaming to his local newspaper, but cautioned against getting entangled in separatist and ethnic politics.

Inevitably it happened, since every political journalist there seems to know that club mates Thabo Mbeki and Robert Mugabe are specialist in commenting about issues except their own – especially the Western Sahara.

I stuck to my single point that anyone is free to pursue liberty in the best way they see fit. It is a God-given right. I also ventured to explain that were it that African political systems are tolerant of minorities, we would not have ethnic groups gravitating towards separatism in pursuit of self-determination.

My personal philosophy is of small, unobtrusive, efficient government. This is why my heart bleeds for the people of Chitungwiza. Since 1980, bloated Zanu PF local administrations have been watching water and sewerage services slowly collapse. For 20 years, the residents of Chitungwiza have co-existed with raw sewage, potholes and mud houses. Some areas around Makoni shopping centre blossomed into squatter camps under the very eyes of Zanu PF. Because of the collapsing economy, property giants Old Mutual could not even fulfil their vision of a satellite metropolitan and civic centre in Seke. Under the supervision of Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF, Cone Textiles, the single biggest employer in Chitungwiza, faded away. Many years before Misheck Shoko ever dreamt of leadership, Zanu PF had already taken Chitungwiza citizens through consecutive nightmares of false promises about a rail service that never was.

All the time, informal trade became the only source of survival for people of Seke, struggling under the yoke of Zanu PF-induced transport problems and poverty. Only a few years into his tenure, Shoko is being castigated for depleting the ozone layer, an excuse for vultures to plunder the few resources that trickle into the coffers of a forgotten town. Sometimes I wish I could just fly away. Certainly not on Air Zimbabwe!

Our national airline was once the pride of Africa before cronyism plundered its operational base. Free flights for ministers and their relatives, numerous incidences of alleged commandeering by the presidency, corruptive practises by subsequent boards and their general managers and a long list of unpaid bills. The parastatal bled and haemorrhaged until its assets disappeared. Now the omnipresent government “steps in” as if it was outside, and prepares to cremate the organisation. Why is it that the South Africans, Kenyans and Ethiopians have got their passenger avionics right? Zimbabwe has so many of these so-called investment parastatals that could have advised the government on the importance of an independent airline: Zimbabwe Investment Centre, Export Processing Zones Authority, Privatisation Agency of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority etc. But alas, because somebody, somewhere, wanted to have unlimited access to free flights to all sorts of valueless conferences in the world, they kept Air Zimbabwe under the control of the Zanu PF government. Now they “step in” to solve the problem – my foot! How on earth Zimbabwe will ever catch up with international travel trends I do not know, considering the cost of acquiring modern aircraft. We are condemned forever to mediocrity. But there is hope at the end of the runway, because there is life after Mugabe.

When he goes – for no dictator lives forever – we will regain some of the political and business sanity we have lost.
As it is, Zimbabwe is flying further and further away from the galaxy of civilisation and unless you and I take the initiative to offload the political excess baggage our airline carries, we will be lost in the mists of time.

* Rejoice Ngwenya is a Harare-based writer.

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