AMHVoices: Cholera, inequality and Zim’s elite political class

THE latest cholera and typhoid outbreak in Zimbabwe is the glaring evidence of failed public policies, an indifferent political elite and toxic central-local government policy terrain. It tragically points to growing inequality in the national political economy. Beginning in the 1990s, under economic structural adjustment, extending through the 2000s (the Mugabe years) under an authoritarian government and in the contemporary scene, political elites are more concerned with power than the public good.

But let us revisit the gut-wrenching scenes of makeshift clinics, donated tents, drips, sewage and a traumatised citizenry. It was a spectacle of tragic proportions — political bigwigs trooping in their swanky imported vehicles, personal bodyguards, expensive suits and smartphones to the scenes of death and cholera infection.

The new Health minister, Obadiah Moyo, was busy pointing fingers at others in the midst of a national disaster, in which poor people dying.

Begging or crowdfunding?

There have been no national mitigation and eradication plan, no forming of joint ministerial and council committees to combat the outbreak and no immediate call for Harare City Council or the National Assembly to have a special sitting even after 30 people have died, while thousands infected.

It was just smiles at cameras, Facebook statements and Twitter “outrage”. There were pictures across local media and social networks of the ruling elite with sick people. In picture you could see a political elite hug a sick kid; in another an elite smiling right into the camera and another one wearing anti-infection regalia.

After a few hours of this spectacle, the elites, across the political divide, go back to their mansions in the northern suburbs of Harare, where there are well-maintained roads, no blocked sewers and certainly better-equipped private hospitals. When they get really sick, they are flown to South Africa or overseas, at the public’s expense.

While every citizen has this and that type of funeral insurance, the citizen’s taxes will be plundered to spare no luxury, even in death, for the elites. These elites will drive on well-paved roads, sleep in guarded and durawalled properties and, when the electricity switches off, they have standby generators.

On the other end of town and in rural areas, the level of poverty is escalating at an alarming level. Government priorities are definitely upside down that is why it is shameful that Finance minister Mthuli Ncube has set up a “crowdfunding” campaign.

Failed policies, death traps

The persistent cholera and typhoidoutbreak is broader than just sewage openly flowing in streets, uncollected garbage and lack of potable water. This is not the first time that cholera has struck.

In 2008-2009, thousands were infected, and it is estimated that over 4 000 citizens succumbed to the disease.

Africa’s demography is becoming younger, the population is growing and moving into cities at an astonishing rate.

Our political elites are designing new schemes of plunder — from land barons, acting as runners for extractive capital and, if all fails outright, looting of the national purse.

When poor people move to cities, they end up in slums, where there is no potable water, no energy, no infrastructure, no public health facilities and certainly no jobs. But the challenge is definitely broader, historical and structural.

Sweeping across the “Global South” in the early 1980s and into the 1990s, a powerful and hegemonic idea of “free market economies” was coupled with the promise of “liberal democracy” to replace state-led development.

Governments, especially the very corrupt ones, were targeted as the source of structural impediments to the free reign of markets. International financial institutions (the IMF, World Bank, etc) were at the apex of cutting government subsidies and became powerful relays of a “free market” ideology which reproduced inequality and extracted profits. The result of this policy regime was the removal of government subsidies in social services like health, education and even food subsidies.

Rethinking public policies

We are arguing, like others have done before, that Zimbabwe and the Global South need to “bring back the state”, but not as currently constituted. In the 1980s and 1990s, Africa’s social, labour and citizen movements revolted against the post-colonial nationalist state which had been hijacked by liberation elites.

In some cases, it was a one-party state; in others it was a military state, and a mafia state promising liberation in some others, while only serving the interests of an elite comprador strata (elite political class and their local run around boys).

That contest was not complete, and it must be revisited very quickly. What the “waves of democracy” in Africa triggered was the reconstitution of the post-colonial state through democratic constitutions to put people first and not profits.

We are arguing for the return of the state. The type of state we advocate for is one that is at the centre of deploying public power and resources and its capacity for people-based type of economic and social transformation.

Firstly, it means the state must be made more democratic, accountable and responsive. This can be done through the institutions of representative democracy like the National Assembly, the senate and various local government structures.

But there is need for a nationally-mobilised civil society which organises collective counter-power to keep them accountable.

Secondly, it is important that the letter and spirit of devolution in the new constitution be fully implemented as this will decentralise power and make local level democratic practice possible. This will be critical for detoxifying the ongoing contestation for budgetary control and responsibility between municipalities and central government.

The polarising political contests between the opposition and the ruling party can only be cured by a return to the latter and by upholding the constitution. Thirdly, local and national budgeting must become social, in the sense that the process of making the national and local government budgets must be based on people’s needs.

This type of budgeting must be distinguished from “financial modelling” type of budgeting, likely to be led by Mthuli Ncube, who would do well for a budget in a European country and not in Africa, where the political economy is very different. Fourthly, national socio-economic transformation must pay particular attention to the systemic subjugation and domination of women. Attendant to this, the level of “youth poverty” is a dangerous powder keg, not only Zimbabwe, but across Africa. This means the state must get back to the business of rebuilding meaningful social protection, which encompasses decommodifying public goods like education and health.

This entails waging a war against economic models that put a premium on education and health, while preaching the profit fetish. Fifthly, private investment “deals” have to be designed with a balance between profit-making and solving socio-economic challenges.

This means a strategic rethinking of the type of “capital” investing and carting away raw materials out of the country, while leaving behind immiseration — as happened with diamond mining and currently happening with chrome mining.

Recently, businessman Strive Masiyiwa, on his Facebook page, wrote about how “gorillas are minting millions” for a devolved economic growth in Rwanda and not just in the urban enclaves left over by the colonial settler political economy.

In our view this opens the possibility of the realisation of the liberation promise.

Tinashe Chimedza & Tamuka Chirimambowa, Co-editors of Gravitas, gravitas@ipazim.com.

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