End of Ideology, Return of Economic Realism – By Rashweat Mukundu

OPINION – For many years Zimbabwe's ruling elite has lived far beyond its means. Many activities of the past government, especially in the 1990s to 2 000, to a large extent contributed to the current economic crisis.

Examples that immediately come to mind include the Congo war adventure in which at some point Zimbabwe was spending more than US$1 million a day.

Those in power now might as well look at those days with both envy and regret. The cost of the Congo war to Zimbabwe has never been fully accounted to date, both in human and monetary terms.

The Congo adventure combined with the unbudgeted payments to war veterans and the looting of the same fund have also never been fully revealed in as far as how they dented the country’s purse and their contribution to the current economic crisis.

The social strife that arose from the economic challenges led to half- hearted political machinations such as the constitutional reform process meant to pacify a restive civil society.

When this failed the ruling elite went for broke, instigating farm invasions and political violence under such hollow slogans as "the land is the economy and the economy is the land".

Zimbabwe has been poisoned by divisive politicians who churned out doses of meaningless ideological mantras. This only brought successive years of hunger and increased poverty.

Zimbabwe never recovered from this and has never been the same. The rest, as they say, is history.

This background brings us to the latest efforts by the unity government to settle the wrongs of the past 15 years or so.

The new economic programme launched by President Robert Mugabe and crafted by the Ministry of Finance is probably the most realistic assessment of the economic and social quagmire that the previous government sunk this country into.

At the centre of this new document is the reality that Zimbabwe is broke and that this is the time to live within available means.

We will eat what we gather or collect, were the words of Finance minister Tendai Biti. In other words the living beyond our means by a few that continued even as Zimbabwe collapsed has to stop.

This included printing money to buy foreign currency, and the splashing of foreign currency to buy vehicles for senior military and government officials.

The days of government officials going to the Reserve Bank with a truckload of Zimbabwe dollars and coming out with wads of US dollars in their pockets have to stop.

The days of the Reserve Bank bankrolling political projects of Zanu PF and paying the "green bombers" have to stop.

And the days of army generals and brigadiers receiving the latest 4x4s on the market, every year, must come to an end.

This is the sole reason why the generals are sulking like little children: it’s not politics, trust me. Hiding under fighting sanctions and fighting imperialists, these economic evils were perpetuated to the detriment of the real national interests.

They promoted a culture of patronage, corruption and clientelism.

The new economic programme comes against the background of the formation of the unity government whose thrust is to resolve a number of challenges Zimbabwe is facing in all aspects of social life.

An important element of the Global Political Agreement upon which the economic programme is based is the absence of the usual ideological rhetoric of fighting imperialists, and "looking east where the sun rises" and hollow slogans of "Zimbabwe will never be a colony again".

With the widespread and legal use of foreign currencies and dominance of foreign products in our shops, Zimbabwe seems very much like a colony again.

It seems finally the former ruling elite and former government has run full circle in understanding that the world has long since abandoned ideological leanings as the basis to conduct business.

The Chinese and Russians and others might have supported the liberation struggle in the 1970s purely on the basis of expanding their political beliefs and influence.

The realities of seeking economic growth and ultimately happiness for their societies have since led them to embrace market-based economic policies and the world, albeit maintaining a tight grip on politics.

In Zimbabwe Zanu PF succeeded in only one of these, that is maintaining a stranglehold on political discourse and participation while completely failing on the economic side.

While the Chinese maintain solidarity with Zimbabwe at the United Nations, this has not extended to broad-based economic support. Indeed China is concerned that it might not get economic returns for its investments and like the West, China sees Zimbabwe as risky.

The reporting by Chinese news agencies such as Xinhua also show how desperate the Chinese are for this unity government to work, because it gives their interactions with Zimbabwe legitimacy and a moral grounding. Zimbabwe, more than being a friend was becoming an irritant and one of those "friends" you want to keep at arm’s length and speak to in hushed tones.

President Mugabe visited China a few years ago and came back with a load of maize, the same stuff that USAid and the European Union are giving millions of starving people in Zimbabwe.

Basing economic policies and growth on utopian ideological beliefs of fighting and defeating phantom enemies has been the hallmark of the previous government.

This did not yield any results. Examples abound from which the unity government can learn from on how the world is moving.

These include the new thrust by the Obama government to reboot its relations with China, Iran, Syria and many other so-called rogue states.

While there are geo-political and security concerns for the USA, the bottom line is that ideology is no longer driving foreign relations, but national interest and survival.

China is the single largest buyer of US investments and it is China’s trillions that are expected to prop up the economic stimulus plan in the USA. In the USA, the federal government is becoming an active player in the economy, almost turning upside down the sacred principles of capitalism.

This reality demonstrates that Zimbabwe’s relations with the outside should be driven first by national interest and not personal egos or ideologies of a few who feel they are embodiments of the struggle and revolution.

Instead of travelling with army generals and bootlickers, we hope the president and prime minister can travel with CEOs of leading Zimbabwe industries, invite civil society to the table and engage academia.

Army generals and soldiers should keep their place in the barracks or follow the example of the late general Vitalis Zvinavashe into fulltime farming and business, and stop telling us who they want to salute or not: Zimbabwe is not one of their barracks or police camp.

Apart from reengaging the West which the unity government is already doing, the government should actively engage the east, not on the basis of hollow talk of the east being "where the sun rises" but the real business of investment, trade and assistance. It matters no more where the sun rises.

I don’t see anything wrong with the prime minister making a visit to Beijing one of his first priority trips abroad; it was so with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is far better positioned to unlock assistance from China than President Mugabe.

The world is a maze of shifting alliances now driven by economic realities and not ideology.

This is the time for the unity government to make a realistic assessment of where help can come from and when.

A key matter as we move forward is to determine and have a clear timetable and benchmark on how Zimbabwe can move out of this current situation.

This programme cannot be one with infinite objectives, the people of Zimbabwe would want to see what the measurements of success are and when we attain them.

This programme has to take into account the real possibility that the West wants to see Zanu PF change its ways in some areas.

If President Mugabe is serious about this programme succeeding then he should release all political prisoners and stop unnecessary farm invasions.

He should rein in the army generals and police chiefs who are now a law unto themselves. The world might have gone through a lot, especially around the time of the cold war. Africa and Zimbabwe might have received some benefits from that division.

It seems now the present world has changed, and ideology and rhetoric can no longer bring a plate of food.

The days of President Mugabe haranguing the world won’t bring cholera medicine. Much thinking is needed and developing people and our society is the only key to national success. (Origionally published by the Zimbabwe Independent)

Rashweat Mukundu is a programme specialist for Media Freedom Monitoring, Misa regional secretariat, Windhoek.