Politics, livelihoods, the pandemic in Zim

FORTY years on, Independence feels like an illusion to millions of Zimbabweans; a bereft landscape of thwarted hopes and recurrent disappointment.
This sense of loss has been exacerbated by the dark dystopic clouds of Covid-19, and the perilous road ahead for the global citizenry faced with the cumulative economic, ecological, political and social damage of a world economic system based for centuries on the narrow interests of capital accumulation and labour degradation.

Brian Raftopoulos

As the scholar Simukai Chigudu aptly observed in his study of the 2008 cholera epidemic in 2008, “epidemics are tests of social and political systems”.
As in 2008, it appears that the current epidemic is likely to once again expose the weakness and incapacity of the Zimbabwean state with regards to the provision of social services for the public. The breakdown of health, water and sewerage systems in the urban structures only accentuates the limited growth in these areas beyond the racialised provisions of the colonial era.

These challenges could hardly have been met through local government structures that have been consistently undermined by the patronage and corrupt networks of the ruling Zanu PF, and more recently by the corruption in certain MDC-led bodies.

When combined with the fragility of livelihoods and incomes in a largely informalised economy, this combination of state incapacity in the area of basic social services, as opposed to its ever-present abilities in the coercive forms of rule, raises many questions about the capacity of the Zimbabwean state to respond to this epidemic.

As the philosopher Slavo Zizek has observed, the Covid-19 has exposed the “fatal limit of nationalist populism”, and its limited, and selective conception of state sovereignty, at a time when new and more egalitarian forms of international solidarity have become essential.

Several recent reports have begun to track the effects of Covid-19, providing a fair appraisal of the emerging challenges faced by the working population. In its report on the situation in Matabeleland, Ukuthula Trust noted that in the face of the 7,7 million people in need of food aid, there were widespread reports of corruption linked to maize meal in which those with access to this essential commodity at government-controlled price were selling it “onwards on the black market at the expense of the citizens of Zimbabwe”.

The report also explained the difficulty that the working majority face in maintaining the practice of social distancing, in the context of widespread hunger, the shortage of staple foods and the necessity of finding ways to earn an income in such desperate conditions.

This is a challenge that confronts most of the informalised workers in the Global South. As in other parts of the world, the pandemic has provided fertile ground for the state to move towards more authoritarian forms of rule. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) has already reported the growing number of arrests for violation of the shutdown curfew, accompanied by the disturbing ways in which those arrests have been handled which have further increased the risk of spreading the virus.

As the ZimRights report observes, placing detained people in close proximity to each other defeats the entire purpose of social distancing.
In its assessment of Covid-19, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) noted that the economic impact will be felt through several mechanisms, including: trade disruptions; travel bans; closure of borders; disruptions in agriculture, manufacturing, mining; reduction of exports; further depression in foreign direct investment; low remittances from Zimbabwe migrants.

Regarding the livelihoods of workers, the ZCTU is particularly concerned that the “lockdown in industry and business means that most workers, whose work is precarious, will lose incomes, exposing them to penury as most already earn low wages”.

The precariousness of family livelihoods will also be adversely affected by the loss of remittances of members in the diaspora. In 2019, diaspora remittances amounted to US$635 million, a 2,6% increase on the 2018 figure of US$619 million.

The Minister of Health and Child Welfare stated that on the eve of the lockdown in South Africa 13 000 migrants crossed the border back into Zimbabwe.
As the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) has correctly observed, with the share from migrants in South Africa amounting to 56% of total remittances into the country, the restrictions in movement and goods will negatively affect many Zimbabweans.

The negative impact of the loss of such family support from remittances will be felt even more severely because of the fact that, according to the 2019 Labour Forces and Child Labour Survey, a miniscule 2% of the population is covered by some form of social security scheme.

The announcement by the government that ZW$600 million will be extended to small businesses, vendors, and the elderly, will, according to the Veritas estimate, amount to “a paltry ZW$200” per month for each recipient.

The limited form of this intervention once again draws attention to the massive crisis of social reproduction in Zimbabwe, and the glaring inability and incapacity of the current state to confront the challenges ahead.

One of the major limits on state action is the growing domestic and external debt in Zimbabwe. The former stood at US$10,4 billion in 2019, while the latter grew from US$10,2 billion in 2013 to US$13,1 billion in 2018.

As with other African countries, state interventions around the coronavirus crisis and future development plans will, in large measure, depend on re-negotiation with the international financial institutions. More specifically, this will require progressive measures around assistance with the clearance of foreign debt, as well as the loss of foreign currency earnings from the decline of exports.

As Zimbabweans once again reflect on their experiences of post-colonial life, it is important to remember the key role that workers’ struggles have played in keeping the democratic debate alive. For over a year, healthcare and other public sector workers have demanded more meaningful salaries and working conditions, with incapacitation forcing these sectors of the workforce to take strike action.

Covid-19 has placed essential service workers under further strain because of the absence of safe working conditions and equipment to deal with the perils of the pandemic.

Complementing the basic demands of healthcare workers, residents’ associations have sought legal judgements to enforce their fundamental constitutional rights to water, health care and life.

These struggles of workers and residents’ associations are a reminder of the key role that broader citizens actions have played in expanding the constitutional and democratic debates, both in the fight against colonial rule, and in the period after Independence.

These major contributions are often not recognised in the annual state Independence Day commemorative rituals. Instead the predictable and selective narrative of the liberation struggle delivered by the ruling party leadership, either ignores, marginalises or patronises these broader citizen struggles.

This issue is particularly poignant at a moment when the country’s major opposition party is mired in the controversy resulting from the recent Supreme Court judgement, declaring the illegitimacy of Nelson Chamisa’s leadership.

This judgment, whatever one’s view of its efficacy, has brought key political dynamics to the fore. On the one hand, the Chamisa leadership shot itself in the foot by the unruly and at the very least constitutionally questionable manner in which his succession was carried out. Unfortunately, the MDC has a longer history of dealing with political leadership issues in ways that raise serious questions about its commitment to constitutionality.

Predictably, this judgement has provided a political gift for Zanu PF who, as history has taught us, are the masters of debasing constitutionalism. Thokozani Khupe’s politically marginal MDC has already been drawn into Emerson Mnangagwa’s controlled and constrained dialogue process.

The recent Supreme Court judgment will only confirm the imprint of Mnangagwa’s current dialogue strategy, effectively marginalising any prospects for the Thabo Mbeki initiative towards a broader national dialogue process in the near future.

As the MDC formations sink further into a battle for the control of party assets and parliamentary political funding, the ruling party is likely to deepen its long-term strategy of weakening the opposition by any means necessary, ahead of the 2023 elections. With the question of “legal” legitimacy hanging over the Chamisa presidency, the arrow of illegitimacy against Mnangagwa that was a key weapon in the quiver of the opposition offensive, has lost some of its force. There can be little doubt that Zanu PF’s 2023 election campaign is underway.

For the ruling party, Covid-19 represents not just a major public health threat, but also a valuable political opportunity to entrench its rule. Part of the strategy to further this goal is likely to be a move to push for the sanctions issue to be sidelined in the face of the need for global international humanitarian intervention and cooperation.

Sadc and the African Union will more than likely endorse such an approach. In opportunistically using the pandemic to deepen its hold on power, Zanu PF will join many other authoritarian states on this path.

Raftopoulos, Director of Research and Advocacy, Ukuthula Trust, and Research Fellow, International Studies Group, University of the Free State.