Scripture tells a story about a leper who, itching for his healing, implored Jesus saying: “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus gracefully responded: “Yes I am willing, be clean!” And — presto! The man was healed.
The profundity of this incident lies not only in the demonstration of the Lord’s omnipotence, compassion and empathy, but also in the fact that those in power sometimes effect positive change for the common good simply because they want to. And because they can.
As Zimbabwe continues to slide into an abyss of a terrible socio-economic quagmire characterised by a moribund industry, high unemployment and a galloping inflation amid stagnant wages and salaries; calls for our political leaders to dialogue and rescue the economy has never been louder. Meanwhile, the hitherto political brinkmanship between Zanu PF and the MDC-Alliance is redolent of the zero-sum mentality of the biblical harlot who, after fatally sleeping over her newborn infant and exchanged hers with her friend’s live one, later hotly agitated for the live baby to be bifurcated to settle the maternity dispute that ensued after the babies were swapped.
With such bickering, it very conceivable that unless they take decisive steps to resolve the ongoing political logjam, our political leaders might proceed to fulfil our worst fears and tear the country apart in a way they can never put it back together again. Although the current political crisis emanates from the disputed 2018 harmonised elections, this dispute, like many before and arguably more to come, is merely a tip of a historically-shaped iceberg, rooted in colonial-era political institutions which set the political playing field tilted at an angle favouring those in power. So far, instead of earnestly working towards altering this imbalance, the MDC-Alliance as the main opposition party seems hell-bent only on securing its seat on the table by any means necessary. But in the grand scheme of things, this may not meaningfully transform the political landscape into tangible socio-economic benefits for the generality of the citizenry.
History is littered with petitions and protests, civil and liberation war struggles, revolutions and coups which have culminated in regime changes and even political independence for some States. However, whether the new political dispensations would broaden economic and political rights for all following these transitions was largely up to the victors to decide. Some leaders chose inclusive political and economic institutions that upheld the rule of law and created opportunities and incentives for technological innovation and change through competition and creative destruction. The outcome was shared prosperity, rapid and sustainable economic growth under conditions of political stability, law and order.
Others on the other hand — in a classic case of things changing but remaining the same — wholly adopted and accentuated extractive and absolutist political institutions, which exclusively served their interests at the expense of the majority. Over time, these choices has evolved to spell inequalities in wealth and opportunities within and between nations. And what boggles the mind is how some societies, by almost a random contingence path of history, got so lucky having these leaders at these defining moments. This is because ultimately, as history shows, unless leaders are willing, the status quo may remain unchanged.
Think, for instance, about the late Nelson Mandela or America’s founding fathers, especially George Washington. These leaders were not only highly esteemed by their compatriots, but faced no serious constraints on their power that had they chosen, they would have created absolutist institutions and governed for life. But instead they chose inclusive political and economic institutions that are still upheld in their respective countries, a bedrock upon which their continued economic success and political stability is predicated.
The ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe is in itself a critical juncture at which our leaders once again face an opportunity and a responsibility to decide the future of the country. The much-awaited and apparently inevitable talks between Zanu PF and the MDC-Alliance presents a unique chance for the leaders to create more inclusive political institutions that ensure checks and balances and accountability in the exercise of power. This in turn would birth economic institutions which promote and reward the interplay of productivity and knowledge through a vital open society pursuing positive change. A virtuous cycle of stability and shared prosperity which feeds upon itself would follow; creating more opportunities for upward social mobility, lifting many out of poverty in the process.
A case is often made that poor countries are poor because their leaders are simply ignorant of what needs to be done to avert crises and improve standards of living for their citizens. Although this has a ring of truth to it, the hypothesis ignores the fact that sometimes leaders wilfully ignore expert advice and proceed to obstruct initiatives that might drive their economies forward. For instance, Zambia, like Zimbabwe, is experiencing electricity challenges today despite experts’ prescient warning in 1997 that the crisis will hit the nation by 2016. Down south, in Zimbabwe, fear of creative destruction associated with revolutionary technological breakthroughs led the government to vehemently block the nation’s now telecoms giant Econet Wireless from acquiring a trading licence. Our leaders could thus save the economy by strengthening institutions to ensure accountability and place serious checks and balances on the exercise of power by the Executive.
I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life. —Deuteronomy 30:19.
Livison Bhebhe is a social commentator and writes in his personal capacity