Does Zim economy need a Thatcher-like ‘witch’?

Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

By Collins Rudzuna

If you are wondering about the origins of that saying, it is the name of a song from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”.

In the movie, the song was meant to celebrate the death of a witch-like character. The song has recently entered the charts, peaking at number 10 in the official UK Singles Chart.

Popularity of the song was revived after the death of former British prime minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher. Next to wartime hero Sir Winston Churchill, Thatcher is perhaps Britain’s most respected prime minister ever and the only female one at that.

Even in death, British and world opinion on Thatcher is so highly polarised, with many labelling her a heroine while others, a much lesser number, have apparently dismissed her as a witch, hence revival of the song.

Thatcher’s legacy is filled with examples of the firm type of leadership which earned her the nickname “Iron Lady”. She was regarded as utterly fearless in defending her convictions that the socialist policies pursued by the administration that she succeeded were misplaced.

Going against what was then a consensus, she advocated reducing the role of government, minimising state intervention and instead creating an economy which was underpinned by private sector initiative and participation.

In keeping with this thinking, Thatcher oversaw the closure of Britain’s unviable coal mines.

As prime minister, Thatcher stood firm against union-led strikes in a sometimes-violent crackdown; she brought an end to the heavy subsidies that had artificially kept the coal industry, the mainstay of Northern England’s economy, afloat. Effectively, that move killed the whole industry and left the region in economic despair.

Even today the region has unemployment of above 22%.

Not surprisingly, news of Thatcher’s death sparked spontaneous a across Britain, especially among those who worked in the mines and their families. Others such as those who were against apartheid rule in South Africa, which she was reluctant to see ended by armed conflict, have joined in the festivities.

As condolence messages poured in from around the world, including from Zimbabwe, some of Thatcher’s countrymen imbibed cheap cider and made merry. Some of the Thatcher death parties had been planned years ahead and drew hundreds of protesters to places such as Trafalgar Square.

Partiers who are members of the National Union of Mineworkers travelled to the capital from northeast England, with others joining them from Scotland and Wales.

So, was Margaret Thatcher a heroine or “witch”? Proponents of her ideas, now known as Thatcherism, have suggested the demise of the coal industry was a necessary evil, along with other reforms. It ushered in a new era for the British economy, characterised by private sector growth, especially of the banking sector.

They argue that inhuman as it may seem to take away the livelihood of a whole region, without it Britain would have been doomed to suffer the same fate as socialist and statist economies influenced by the Soviet Union, which eventually crumbled.

Closer to home, it is tempting to consider if a dose of Thatcherism is perhaps part of what the economy needs to achieve self-sustaining economic growth.

Zimbabwe’s pre-independence economy was dominated by state participation and parastatals were an integral feature. Just think of the Grain Marketing Board, Dairy Marketing Board, Cotton Marketing Board, Cold Storage Commission and other such entities.

After independence, most of these institutions, which were essentially formed as sanctions-busting measures by the illegal UDI regime, were inherited and their existence perpetuated.

As with the British coal mines, with time it became increasingly apparent that these institutions, funded and run by government, were not sustainable.

As part of the conditions for qualifying for aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), government was encouraged to adopt an Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap)  between 1991 and 1995.

Part of the measures Esap advocated was the reduction of state participation in business.

This paved the way for the privatisation of some of the aforementioned institutions, giving birth to companies such as Dairibord and what is now known as Aico Africa Limited.

There has been a glaring difference in the relative success of these privatised companies compared to those that remained as parastatals. State enterprises have become perennial loss-makers and are well-known for providing poor service at a snail’s pace. In contrast, the privatised companies, some of which still have a residual government shareholding, are largely successful.

Privatisation, of course, brings with it a different view of business and some painful and unpopular decisions have to be implemented. Parastatals, for example, typically carry excess staff and have bloated operating processes laden with incredible amounts of bureaucratic red tape.

All this excess “fat” has to be trimmed and the loss of some employees’ jobs is usually part of the collateral damage.

Surprisingly, government seems to have a renewed appetite for state-run enterprises.

In addition to continued participation in bleeding entities like Air Zimbabwe and Sable Chemicals, new ones like the CMED Driving School have been opened. Why the state needs to run a driving school, an enterprise that the private sector is quite capable of doing, is quite confounding. Perhaps a dose of Thatcherism is called for.

Implementing such changes would obviously be politically unpopular. It may even result in a leader being labelled a witch like Margaret Thatcher. But was the label a fair one? That is, of course, open to debate.

Was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, a witch or a fearless leader willing to make hard decisions where they were needed? That again is still open to debate.

Even in death Margaret Thatcher has divided a nation. The state is planning on funding her funeral to the tune of £10 million. Rival politicians have labelled it a waste of funds on “canonisation of a wicked woman”. Protesters were reportedly planning to turn their backs on the funeral procession.

A number of economists agree that Margaret Thatcher’s reforms were good for the economy overall. Her legacy paid a huge price for being brave enough to implement them.

Perhaps Zimbabwe could do with a witch of its own.

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