3 years of economic mirage

Source: 3 years of economic mirage – NewsDay Zimbabwe

By Paidamoyo Muzulu

RECONSTRUCTION is a hard job. It means redoing what was once there. And in Zimbabwe, so many things had broken down, including morals of its citizens.

It is now a good three years, yes slightly over 36 months after President Emmerson Mnangagwa took over via a coup as the country’s leader. He appointed an economics professor, Mthuli Ncube, to be his Treasury czar.

Mnangagwa promised big on jobs, infrastructure, economy, housing and health. He also promised to crack down on the cancer of corruption in the country.

Three years on, the country and its citizens may need to look at the scorecard. The numbers are not pleasing in many fronts.

Yes, agricultural production in the 2020/21 season broke records. Zimbabwe produced a surplus of its staple food — maize. Slightly more than three million tonnes of maize were produced by both commercial and subsistence farmers.

This is a milestone worth celebrating. However, the cold fact that some five million people are food insecure stands as a big blot on the supposed surplus.

It is important to clearly state that the majority of the food insecure families are in urban areas. Both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have recorded that urban poverty is on the rise.

The phenomenon of urban poverty is a bad omen — having thousands of people staying in a built-up area all staring empty pots, dry water taps and slowly sinking in debt.

Urban poverty is an indicator that industry is not growing, hence employment numbers are suppressed. The majority of the employed are in the informal sector, where salaries and working conditions are largely unregulated.

For the few, 10% or so, in the civil service and formal economy, they are facing what the International Labour Organisation calls wage theft. Wage theft is a condition that arises when a person earns less than what is necessary to meet his/her basic needs.

Ncube, the Treasury boss, has over the same period  tried to tax the informal sector. He introduced a 2% tax on intermediated mobile money transfer transactions. The tax has been onerous and in many instances, has been passed onto the consumer. In many ways, this has been a burden for the poor workers with shrinking buying power.

It is, therefore, no doubt that on the issue of jobs, Mnangagwa has struggled. He has stumbled on the hurdles.

The economy has registered nominal GDP growth, some 6% to 7% according to the Treasury. This is far bigger than any other country in the Sadc region. Statistically, this is good, but the question of riding urban poor would jolt any administration to re-look at its policies.

Among other things, the economy is distorted by the dual pricing. At a policy level, Ncube has failed on de-dollarisation. By allowing some goods and services to be priced in US dollars in a country with 95% of workers earning in Zimbabwe dollars, this is a recipe for disaster.

The widening exchange rate gap between the interbank market and the so-called parallel market has driven many a family into penury. So long this currency policy inconsistence persists, Zimbabweans should brace for a gloomy future.

On the health front, many Zimbabweans are dying at home. They cannot afford the healthcare costs at private hospitals. On the other hand, the public hospitals have empty dispensary shelves except for the donor-funded ARVs, TB and malaria tablets.

While on health, it is important to draw the country’s attention to the emerging Animal Farm scenario. The rich and powerful, despite having the capacity to pay for private health, have been blessed by the State through the new Manyame Airbase VVIP hospital. I dare say, this is an investment which could have had far-reaching impact had it been developed at Parirenyatwa or the UZ School of Medicine.

It would be unjust not to acknowledge Mnangagwa’s strides in infrastructure development. There is significant improvement on the roads infrastructure across the country. He has also done well on expanding and refurbishing the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. It is also noteworthy to record developments at Beitbridge Border Post. These initiatives and efforts are worth applauding.

Finally, Mnangagwa’s scorecard on housing is dismal to say the least. Harare and other urban centres have recorded significant growth of slums. These are new unregulated developments with neither onsite nor off-site infrastructure. Harare’s Caledonia and Hopley settlements are classic examples of slums. With time,these settlements could compete with Kenya’s Kibera or the Fravelos of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The sad scenario depicted above is worrisome. This cannot be overemphasised, especially that we are in the festive season. To millions of families in Zimbabwe, the festive season is only a season they can see on their wall calendars, but cannot experience.

It is also the same period that Zimbabweans are exposed to the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. Social media will be awash with pictures of the rich wining and dining at exclusive or exotic resorts. Some would be posting pictures of their new private jets, luxury cars, penthouses, summer homes or even the sprawling State-funded farms.

In the spirit of sharing that is the hallmark of the festive season, it is important to remind Zimbabwe’s political and economic leaders of the need to share the country’s wealth and reduce the widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Ncube and business owners should move from the rapacious neoliberal economic policies to democratic socialism. It is important that government and business should agree on having a fair model of determining a minimum wage. A minimum wage that meets basic human needs — above the poverty datum line.

Discussions around national health insurance should be expedited and concluded for the good of all citizens. Health should not only be a right on the Constitution, but should be enjoyed by all.

Urban poverty should be eliminated, the economy should be formalised. Ncube should take a clear and consistent policy position on de-dollarisation. The current dual currency pricing is bad not only for the economy, but also the general citizens.

Zimbabwe has chased the economic growth mirage for the past three years. This cannot continue. The results and success of the economy should be felt and shared by all. Austerity is not the panacea, probably the excesses of capital have to be  curbed for the greater good of all.

After all is said and done, Mnangagwa must bring back the Christmas cheer to citizens. The starting point could be having some corrupt honchos behind bars. He has to clean up the system. A bit of tough love is needed, but can Mnangagwa dispense associates and acolytes?

Happy festive season.

  • Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity.