ONE way to exercise power is by influencing opinion. Even military dictatorships in which power is exercised mainly by the raw form of armed control recognise that this ki
nd of power can be over-turned if enough people are convinced to rise up against it, even at great cost to themselves.
They implicitly acknowledge this by working hard to try to control the kind of information their citizens have access to.
Newspapers and other publications are closely monitored, some are banned, radio stations are jammed and so forth. They would not go to the trouble of doing all this if they did not acknowledge the power of shaping opinion.
In a country like Zimbabwe in which most people would agree that most facets of life are rapidly deteriorating, but with a government that is largely unmoved by the people’s plight, how can concerned citizens with any kind of prominence use it to try to effect positive change?
There are many people who are concerned about national affairs who may not care to become involved in the rough and tumble of active, traditional politics. One way they can play a role without having to become politicians is to simply speak out on issues of national importance from the perspective of their areas of expertise.
The fact that public figures express an opinion on a particular topic is no guarantee that the governing authorities will pay any attention to it, nor heed it, particularly if it goes against the authorities’ ruling ideology.
Religious figures could speak out against state violence for instance, and be completely ignored. That is not sufficient reason to then keep quiet about it and other ills of the society. Lobbying the ruling authorities to act in a certain way may be one of the most important aims of speaking out, but there are others that are just as important.
It could also be to make the abused population begin to understand that they should not expect to be mistreated as a matter of course by their government, and that it is an aberration whose correction they should push for. Speaking out could be to give them the courage to challenge the government as is their constitutional right.
In the economic sphere, apart from speaking out to encourage government to turn back from ruinous policies, business leaders have the additional role of explaining to both government and public the interplay between policy and economic performance. Whether they are formal advisors to the government or not, business leaders have the responsibility to use their influence, access to money, the respect many of them enjoy from the public, as well as the ear of the politicians to take a stand, particularly in times of economic crisis such as these.
Businesspeople may be aggressive in running their businesses, but they are often very timid in facing up to politicians. This is understandable as politicians are quick to use the threat of political muscle to interfere in the conduct of business. There are countless ways that business needs or is forced to interact with government, and even a small time government bureaucrat can cost considerable losses in time and money by simply delaying the issuance of some vital permit for instance.
The world over, therefore, business is loath to challenge government unless really forced to.
In Zimbabwe, being seen to be opposed to the countless ways the government has shown itself to have only the dimmest view of how a modern economy works quickly earns critics the label “enemies of the state”. This can have dire consequences on the operations of a business, from loss of lucrative government contracts, to delays in payment, withdrawals of licences, etc.
So I recognise it is not a trivial thing for a business leader to take the stance of contradicting government on issues of economic policy. But these are times in Zimbabwe when it will require the combined efforts of every sector to get us out of our deep morass.
Both for that reason, and for the fact that many businesses are operating at sub-optimal and declining capacity because of the economic and political crisis, it is time for more business leaders to shed their traditional fear of the political authorities.
More of them must simply state the truths about the horrible mismanagement of our economy by government, with far-reaching effects on every aspect of life, including the continued existence of the very companies that are so worried about being labelled as “anti-government”.
All the problems that make it difficult for business leaders to be seen to be crossing the paths of politicians particularly apply to those working for state-related institutions, such as the Reserve Bank, but that does not let them off the hook.
Leonard Tsumba has just stepped down as the governor of the central bank. Officially he took early retirement after serving his two terms, others say he was pushed to go a little earlier as a scapegoat for the nationally disgraceful bank-notes shortage. Which ever it was, Tsumba certainly did not go out in style. For a man holding a post that is supposed to be so central to a country’s economic direction, after 10 years at the helm of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Tsumba left that lofty office with a pitiful whimper instead of the bang that should have been expected.
It is not my purpose here to critique his 10 years as governor, but I do have some things to say about how he left his post. Everybody understands that this is a country run more by presidential whim and decree than by economic pragmatism and law. It would be unfair to put too much blame on Tsumba and the central bank for the mess our financial system is in. It is merely the latest embarrassing manifestation of how poorly ruled we have been for years, a case of the chickens coming home to roost.
I don’t know anyway who would suggest that the RBZ has any degree of autonomy from the politicians. No one seriously believes the RBZ has the power, without blatant political interference, to regulate and supervise banking without fear or favour, keep the system stable, set monetary policy or influence money supply and credit conditions. I am sure he did his best, but all these crucial parameters by which the independence of a central bank are judged can in Zimbabwe simply be overturned by a phone call from the presidential palace.
So he was not able to put his stamp on Zimbabwe’s economy the way an autonomous central bank governor is traditionally expected to do because of the way we are ruled. But by not making a final bold speech or statement on his retirement or firing, he squandered a wonderful opportunity to level with both us and the government about why the financial system is just the latest of our institutions to fall into shambles, with some banks being forced to limit cash withdrawals to $5 000 a day, less than US$2!
At the end of his term of office, no longer chafing under the need to avoid stepping on the toes of interfering politicians, presumably free to finally really speak his mind, he would have done the nation a wonderful service by forcefully speaking out on several key issues. Among them would have been a no-holds barred dissection of the main causes of our hyperinflation and what is needed to begin to address it.
Chido Makunike is a Harare-based commentator on social issues.