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game of politics is for the well fed, an old timer in Mbare told
September 28, 2007
"ZVINHU zvacho zvakadhakwa".
That catchphrase encapsulates the views and feelings of almost every
Zimbabwean, when they describe the challenges they encounter in
almost every facet of their daily struggles for survival. That everything
appears to be in a state of inebriation aptly captures the uncertainty
and lack of direction in desperately uncertain and economically
The economy or what remains
of it, is literally staggering from one day to another. Ever creative,
Zimbabweans continually develop a language of suffering, which is
at once reflective and humorous. The last time I was there they
captured it in zvakapressa, now they simply say zvakadhakwa.
Getting through on the
mobile phone is a struggle because network yakadhakwa. Enquiring
after one's welfare often elicits one response: zvakadhakwa. It's
enough to capture the situation. Everyone understands. Language,
it seems, remains the only free medium through which Zimbabweans
carry and express collectively what would otherwise be individual
It is important
to understand the process that has begun with the consensus between
the MDC and Zanu PF in relation to Constitutional
Amendment No. 18, within the context of the prevailing economic
conditions in the country. It's simply a question of necessity in
light of what have become desperate conditions for the people. The
qualitative aspects of change, however important, have become secondary
to the imperative to find a solution to a situation that has gone
out of hand, both for the ruling and the opposition party. The process
is both a reflection of and a result of a new pragmatic approach
to the crisis.
There are things, in
modern life, that ought to be simple, such as buying a soft drink,
milk or bread from the shop. Yet these things have become monumental,
frustrating and sometimes hazardous, tasks. Basic goods such as
meat, milk, sugar, salt, cooking oil, etc are not ordinarily available
in the formal market. Most manufacturers of basic commodities have
either ceased or scaled down operations in the wake of commodity
price controls. When available, waiting in the long, meandering
queues does not guarantee success.
When asked why the service
is often slow, office workers and shop attendants simply say, "Mukuwasha,
tinonoshanda zvinoenderana nemari yatinotambira" - that is
to say, the quality of service they provide is commensurate with
the levels of remuneration they are paid. Even alcoholic beverages
are hard to come by and when available, there is really not much
choice. There is a new but cheap alcoholic beverage called Eagle,
which locals have nicknamed Jatropha. Only a few have kind words
Fuel and spare parts
are scarce, so that transport operators have suspended services
to most rural areas. Most of the businesses at numerous townships
along the country's main roads have since closed shop. They have
nothing to sell. Also, there is no transport to ferry the goods.
Head-teachers at the numerous boarding schools dotted across the
country are performing nothing short of miracles to keep the schools
running. Even so, the kids now make do with a meat substitute called
"Chunks" - Soya Mince, which they have struggled to cope
with on a daily basis. Black tea because there is no milk. They
are lucky to get bread. Maputi (popcorn), now constitute an essential
part of the diet, if they are available. It is hard to imagine how
they will get to the end of the academic year and the rumour is
that non-exam classes may have to be sent home early before the
end of the term.
Harare's leafy suburbs
in the north still host many beautiful houses. A new crop of mansions
is mushrooming on the slopes and summits of the exclusive Shawasha
Hills, north-east of Harare. Yet, despite all the apparent grandeur
of the physical structures, there is often no running water or electricity.
In many cases, street lights have become a feature of the past.
These difficulties hit both the rich and poor. The situation is
worse in "Young Africa", the name they give to the sprawling
dormitory city of Chitungwiza, a high-density residential district
south east of Harare.
magetsi auya, kwete kuti aenda", is how one young fellow described
the plight of Young Africa, emphasising that the unavailability
of electricity is now the norm, so that they only comment on those
rare occasions when the electricity returns.
But even so, he continues,
when it does come, it returns at midnight and is cut off just before
dawn, during which time most people will be in bed, so that one
is never actually able to use it, unless they have to change their
They have long since
ceased to comment on the burst sewer pipes, whose unwelcome contents
have become an almost permanent feature of the atmosphere. No wonder
they say, everything zvakadhakwa.
Often, it does not matter
how much money one has to hand - in most cases there is nothing
to purchase, as the shops are bare. What's available is often found
on the parallel market, where prices are usually exorbitant. Mbare
Musika is teeming with street vendors. Here, the vendors sell everything,
from fresh vegetables to cooking oil, soft drinks, sugar, bread,
salt and other basic commodities.
The Fourth Street district,
close to the Roadport Bus Terminus, is the territory for "hustlers",
the name given to foreign currency dealers, mostly women. They are
just intermediaries for the Big Men in the offices. Fuel is found
in other parts of Harare, unless one has access to fuel coupons,
where you can go to a proper fuel station. Few can afford the latter
option because fuel coupons are bought with foreign currency, which,
for most people is hard to come by. So the majority retreats to
the parallel market.
Arguably, at this stage,
it is a misnomer to say that Zimbabwe's economy is "on the
brink of collapse", as is often repeated in the media. The
reality is that, apart from the little that remains, the formal
economy has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. The informal
economy is the mainstay, where most economic activities and transactions
are taking place.
What exists of the formal
market is largely a source of cheap goods, credit and services,
which are simply taken by the Big Men at ridiculously low values
and then exchanged in the informal market at exorbitant prices,
generating obscene profits. These are the ones who prowl the pot-holed
streets in expensive, beautiful automobiles of all types, a feature
that provides a misleading veneer of property in a sea of poverty.
Those who have only heard
by word of mouth or rely on the media to understand the situation
in Zimbabwe, can sometimes, be unfairly harsh in their assessment
of the approach taken by Zimbabweans in the face of their circumstances.
There is gross underestimation of the immediate challenges that
face the people in Zimbabwe, so that their attention is not always
on the political questions.
The game of politics
is for the well fed, an old timer in Mbare told me. You cannot do
much on an empty stomach, he says, adding that the threats of physical
punishment deter most people. The foremost human instinct is self-preservation,
which is why most of those in the Diaspora are where they are.
And this is exactly what
Zimbabweans at home are doing, in their own circumstances: trying
to survive. Their daily focus is to find food for their families.
Days are spent in queues. Sometimes they return empty-handed. But
they go again, in search of whatever they can find. The lifestyle
is, literally, a modern day version of hunter-gatherers. It is an
unwritten rule that one must join any queue upon encounter, as anything
that is on sale is likely to be useful or where not immediately
required, it can be resold at a profit. Time, therefore, is literally
consumed by the daily efforts to satisfy the basic human need for
Unsurprisingly, in most
cases politics is not the issue that is uppermost in the minds of
the men and women in the street. They are conscious of the political
challenges that must be solved, but most appear to have resigned
their fate to the politicians, to decide, so long as the economy
gets sorted. So powerless have their voices been in the previous
elections, that there is a high level of fatigue among a population
that is, daily, struggling to survive. The climate of fear does
not help and few are keen to engage in any extensive discussions
involving political matters.
Against this background,
the suggestion that the recent Constitutional Amendment No. 18 reflects
that the two MDC formations (Tsvangirai and Mutambrara MDCs) have
sold out to the ruling Zanu PF government appears to me to be a
knee-jerk judgment reached without considered analysis.
Granted, some people
are concerned that the opposition does not compromise its principles
by entering into deals with the ruling party. But sometimes situations
require practical solutions. Principles are important but they do
not exist in order to imprison those who must consider them. Whilst
the fear of betrayal by the opposition politicians is understandable,
it is important not to overlook the circumstances under which Amendment
No. 18 was agreed.
First, the economic circumstances
of the country and the effects on the ordinary people, as described
above, have created a collective feeling of unprecedented suffering,
which can best be appreciated by those that are experiencing it.
There is now a collective understanding across the political landscape,
of the urgency of the need to salvage the economy and that there
is a collective responsibility in this respect, as the usual blame
game will not solve the situation.
The ordinary people's
most important concern at this point is that the politicians should
do something to save the economy and provide them with resources
for survival. Both the MDC and Zanu PF politicians recognise that
the economy has broken down and whoever wins the elections and forms
the next government will have a monumental task without at least
retaining the remaining structures.
They both recognise that
a "Scorched Earth policy" towards the economy, so far
variously pursued by the various political players in their own
ways, does not serve anyone, but instead, negatively impacts on
the ordinary people. Perhaps those tasked with the negotiations
know something that we do not know. We must wish them well rather
than deride their efforts. If experience should teach us anything,
it is that no amount of public insults can change the course of
events in Zimbabwe.
Second, by acting in
concert with Zanu PF on Amendment No. 18, the MDC is beginning to
demonstrate an important understanding of the language of African
politics and the negotiating game. The MDC knows that numerically
and legally, it was powerless in the face of Zanu PF's attempts
to amend the Constitution because Zanu PF has a clear parliamentary
majority. It could have passed the amendment with or without the
However, the MDC knew
that, politically, Zanu PF was keen to legitimise the process and
it required a show of consensus with the MDC to achieve that. Meanwhile,
by appearing to go along with the Zanu PF proposals, and not opposing
them in knowledge of obvious defeat, the MDC may have won friends
within the African community, having demonstrated a positive attitude
of give and take in negotiations and therefore garnered some goodwill.
It shows they are not being unnecessarily oppositional at the instance
of external forces but they are making their own decisions.
Put another way, MDC's
opposition was not going to achieve anything that has not been achieved
before without any positive outcome, but in view of the negotiations,
MDC's apparent support is likely to be viewed positively by a previously
sceptical African leaders' community. The onus is now firmly and
squarely on Zanu PF to demonstrate similar goodwill and a positive
attitude to the negotiations and the points to be raised by the
MDC. Therefore, from a tactical point of view in the negotiations,
it could be a useful negotiating move.
Third, Amendment No.
18 has to be viewed within the overall context of the negotiations.
Rather than be criticised as a singular event, it ought to be taken
as a starting point in a process that is likely to be long, arduous
and difficult but necessary to resolve the crisis and stop the suffering
of the ordinary people.
Right now, Zimbabwe requires
pragmatic solutions to the on-going crisis and the Pretoria-mediated
negotiations represent a practical forum that must be used exhaustively.
The ordinary people want to see steps that have an impact on the
economic situation and if this negotiating process can produce such
positive impact, let it be.
It is necessary to build
a bridge in order to cross the flood and thereafter attend to the
other issues. We cannot deal with all issues at once, however desirable
that might be. Sometimes other aspects have to sacrificed for a
while in order to move forward. It's the crossing that's difficult
and right now these should be viewed as the first steps in that
process, rather than an end in itself.
You have to experience
it in order to understand why Mai Chipo, selling vegetables in Mbare
or Givhi, the cobbler at the mission school, have left it to the
politicians to work out whatever they can, in order to arrest the
economic decline. They, like everyone around them, are primarily
focussed on the most basic of human needs - survival.
Those of us observing
from the outside, where food, water and other basic resources are
within easy reach, might find it easy to sit back and bicker about
principles, more sanctions and hard-line approaches to force change.
It is because we can we can afford to do that. Those in Zimbabwe
do not have the same luxury. We can argue over drinks and provide
prescriptions. For Zimbabweans on the ground, finding that drink
is hard enough!
Dr Magaisa is a New Zimbabwe.com
columnist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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