HOW much more can we take? I was talking to a Zimbabwean of Asian extraction over the break and he told me that his father came from India in 1958. I remarked to him that we were doing pretty well then — we had peace, a rapidly growing economy, we were part of the wider world and it seemed that our politics was going in the right direction.
When the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland broke up, the white population rejected change and the first shots with live ammunition were fired after more than 60 years of no violence. The nationalists launched their armed struggle for change and from 1965 onwards we were increasingly isolated from the world around us.
What followed was 15 years of mandatory UN-backed sanctions and an armed conflict that drew in all our neighbours and in which we killed each other with enthusiasm. The Rhodesians won most of the battles and lost the war, leading to 37 years of dominance by Robert Mugabe and his liberation war colleagues. They never really settled down and by 2000 we were again locked in a toxic mix of international isolation, stagnant or declining economic output and domestic conflict and violence.
International and regional intervention hardly helped but did change the course of our history at key moments — the break-up of the Federation, the intervention of the Americans in 1976, then Lancaster House and finally the Thabo Mbeki-managed Sadc initiative that brought us four years of recovery and compromise from 2009 to 2013. But for the most part we mismanaged our political, economic and social situations ourselves and as a result we brought on ourselves political instability and increasing poverty and disparity.
During the 90 years of white settler control and government, the whole country worked for the welfare and interests of a small white community. After 1980, the whole country worked for a tiny minority of politically connect individuals who supported the systems that kept the Mugabe government in power and control. All other concerns were secondary. Whatever the system, the effect was the same — the majority suffered and experienced marginalisation and poverty.
Then came November 2017, the first time we took action as a people to rid ourselves of a regime that had run out of time and space. Like the decision in 1923 when we decided to stay out of the new Union of South Africa, this event was not in any way sponsored or engineered by outside forces and for the first time found almost universal support among all Zimbabweans. It was assisted by the military who overnight became heroes of the people. However, it did not change the centre of real power which had become the small group of people who ran the Joint Operations Command under the leadership of Emmerson Mnangagwa and General Constantino Chiwenga.
The first post-November government was drawn from this group and was dominated by elements linked to the military. Then the elections in 2018 when Zanu PF engineered a convincing victory with three-quarters of all council seats and two-thirds of Parliament. Mnangagwa could then claim, for the first time, to be the legitimate leader of government, even though his victory was with a tiny majority. It was only at that moment that we saw a new dispensation of sorts emerge in the form of the first really Mnangagwa-controlled Cabinet.
The President broke with the past at two crucial moments — after the march in November 2017 and then after the elections. In both cases he clearly committed himself and his new government to fundamental changes and to re-establishing a working relationship with the international community after decades of isolation and hostility. The response to these clear indications of intent was immediate, and the international community said that if we followed through on these undertakings, it would support our economic recovery and re-engagement efforts. It seemed at last that the world was at our feet again.
But it was not to be. We quickly appreciated that the President did not have the unfettered power that Mugabe had exercised over the country for 37 years. The first Cabinet was a divided house and little was achieved in respect to the reform agenda in the first seven months. This changed significantly with the elections but again there was evidence of conflict in the corridors of power where key decisions are made and executed. Then towards the end of 2019, the President restructured his Cabinet and made a number of key appointments.
And so we came to the end of a disastrous year in many respects. The Transitional Stabilisation Programme had required savage cuts in government expenditure, a controlled devaluation of unmanageable domestic debt accumulated in the past five years and a restructuring of costs in the economy to bring them more in line with regional realities. It has been a tough year for everyone, except a few individuals who seem to thrive no matter what happens to the rest of us. One young Zimbabwean drives around Harare in a Bugatti — perhaps the most expensive car in the world. His friends all boast luxury cars with brand names that put them in a similar bracket. Wealth with no visible means of support.
But we must look beyond these disparities and problems and recognise that our pain as a nation has borne significant fruit: our domestic debt is now a tiny fraction of what it was and is manageable, our international debt has only increased marginally and is now being serviced to some extent. Our civil service was costing us 100% of all our taxes a year ago, it now consumes 35%, our fiscal deficit was massive and equal to 40% of the entire budget of government, is now positive and we ended 2019 with nearly $2 billion in the bank. We have liberalised our foreign exchange market and restored the viability of our export industries which are now expanding rapidly with the result that we now have nearly US$1 billion in our bank accounts and government has a small surplus in the Treasury in hard currency.
These are not small achievements and what annoys me is that so little recognition has been given to the government and the President for their stance on these issues which have been very tough on the entire nation. I am pleased that at least the International Monetary Fund found sufficient reason at the year end to give us a cautious thumbs up for what we achieved last year despite some serious deviations.
So where are we going in the next decade? Is it more of the same? We just cannot handle that plus the changes now being inflicted on us by climate change. Everyone, and I mean everyone, not just those in power, must accept and acknowledge this — we have to start doing things differently. For me 2019 has set the stage — now we must move on and decisively. I hear that the MDC is planning a series of large-scale demonstrations in early 2020. Is that really the answer? Will it really bring change or simply lead to more street violence. I agree with Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo when he called for the police to escort demonstrations through the streets of our towns and make sure they do not spill over into looting and violence. But we all know that these events can only be managed so far.
Rather I think we need to work together to get things right in our country. Is that so difficult to understand and accept? But it will only happen if we put the country first in all that we do — and not the pursuit of power or wealth.
Eddie Cross is an economist and former MDC legislator. He writes in his personal capacity.