A fish rots from the head

THERE is an ancient proverb, whose origins are not precisely known as it has been placed in different societies, which says “a fish rots from the head down”.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

Of course, ichthyologists (people who study fish) have said literally, this is not true because a fish actually rots from the guts first. However, since this is not piscine biology or fish autopsy, it is clear it has always been used metaphorically.

Figuratively, a denotes that problems in a family, company or country can be traced back to the head of that entity. It suggests, in the context of corruption, venality in a country can be shown to be linked to the behaviour of that nation’s leadership.

Corruption, both a legal and moral issue even if it is always contextual, generally starts with leaders at the top and then filters down to citizens. Depending on the attitude of leaders and other factors such as policies, bureaucratic traditions, political environment and social history, people can join the fray or shun it.

In Zimbabwe, public officials are evidently part of entrenched corruption as most of them, who own big houses in upmarket suburbs and drive top-of-the-range vehicles, live beyond their legitimate means.

Their children attend foreign colleges and universities and they also go on overseas holidays with families or girlfriends even if they are unable to prove how they are making the money to live that large.
The late Edison Zvobgo once said in Zimbabwe there is really no need to investigate corruption in the public sector because where senior government officials live and their assets are on their own monuments to corruption, one way or the other. Most of them can’t account for their wealth because it’s ill-gotten. Of course, there are some who are hard workers, but the majority live through dishonest means.

Given recent media disclosures which showed top executives of parastatals and quasi-state enterprises have been systematically looting public entities through scandalous remunerations, the question is: does the saying “a fish rots from the head” holds true in Zimbabwe, or the rot, if you will, starts with the people?

Some of the entities where largely corrupt and incompetent executives have been exposed for awarding themselves disproportionate salaries, benefits and allowances without even the pretence of efficient service include ZBC, Psmas, AirZim and Harare City Council. But the problem permeates the whole vast swathe of public enterprises, most of which have been negligently run down through extended periods of mismanagement and graft, leaving them technically insolvent shells.

The revelations and attendant impunity were not only damaging to the pillagers, but also to their superiors, including relevant ministers themselves. Beyond this, the disclosures are instructive and give an insight on how the state is being run.

Not that anybody is surprised; there is really nothing new except the brazen nature and extent of corruption. It has always been known public enterprises and associated entities are badly run, which is why most of them are bankrupt anyway.

Yet the latest exposures have inevitably prompted new questions: Is Zimbabwe run by an elected and accountable leadership, or a kleptocracy (rule by thieves)? Why are government officials allowed to treat Treasury and state enterprises’ coffers as their own personal piggy banks, plundering them at will? And more importantly, why are public officials who abuse office or steal from the people being allowed to walk away with the loot with impunity? When will this fishy rot be put to a stop? The people are watching.