By Lenox Mhlanga
Finance Minister Tendai Laxton Biti [who coincidentally was my roommate at the University of Zimbabwe] recently presented his mid-term budget review. The gist of that presentation to an expectant nation, besides revealing little on where the diamond ‘moola’ was going, seemed to lean on incentives and controls designed to allow local industries to recover.
This is a noble idea all things being equal, yet they are not. Picture this scenario: since the formation of the National Pricing and Incomes Commission in the mid 2000s, it would seem the government was hell bent on ensuring that commerce and industry did not see the light of day. In fact, it had nearly succeeded when the subsequent recession put the final nail in the coffin of business as we knew it.
Now, putting all this into proper context, everyone in Zimbabwe knows that from 2007 it became totally absurd to be in paid employment, unless you worked in the banking sector, or more precisely, the Reserve Bank. In those days, you would think those guys were gods. How the mighty have fallen!
In any case, most of us found it prudent to survive by any means necessary because, you guessed right, we were simply not getting paid! Inventive we became, and Zimbabwe turned out to be the only country in the world that had gone beyond Plan B. In fact we went beyond Plan Z!
Now, have I written this before? Never mind, my point is that by taking ourselves out of formal employment, we plunged headlong into the murky, unpredictable world of informal trade. In short, we became a nation of dealers.
Everyone was selling something, yet none was making or creating anything, because quite naturally, it made sense to make the quick buck. This was because entities were collapsing around us and if you delayed to get your dues, there would be no-one to pay you.
Zimbabwe fell spectacularly from employing 70 percent of the population – those figures being disputed — to that of somewhere above 10 per cent. The stupid question is, would that 70% still be twiddling their fingers while waiting for the economy to recover? NO dread NO!
The second stupid question is; would people who have literally immersed themselves in wheeling and dealing, be prepared to go back to slogging it off at some salt mine only to be paid at the end of the month? Do I really have to answer that one?
So, in a way, Biti’s MTP is skewed somewhat in focus. It’s more like treating the symptoms and not the cause of the economic epidemic. What Zimbabweans need is complete re-orientation. Our kids are now convinced that money can literally fall from trees, or more correctly, can be dug from the ground. You do not need an O’ Level certificate to take a shovel and a dish to go to some river to pan for your thousands.
The more daring preferred to duck bullets and climb barbed wire to obtain that elusive stone. The smarter ones, not necessarily in terms of brains, have gone into what one could term speculating. It goes like this: somebody has something and this other person who doesn’t needs it, yet does not know how to get it. In comes the dealer who knows both.
It’s a simple law of supply and demand, just not exactly. The middleman knows what both these people want and sees the potential to gain from the deal. The dealer approaches the one with the ‘item’ and initiates the deal through a technique called fishing:
‘Know what mzala, I can get a very good price for your item even though you don’t want to sell it.’
‘Is that a fact, how much?’
‘Let me scout around and I will come back to you,’ the dealer has set his bait.
The dealer approaches the potential buyer and drives a bargain.
‘I got what you are looking for but the buyer is reluctant to sell. Give him an offer’
‘I am prepared to pay US$1,000 but can up it a bit,’ the potential buyer offers.
Back with the reluctant seller who is told that he could be US$900 richer if he let go of his ‘item.’
‘Really?’ he exclaims, drooling like a lap dog.
Dealer goes back to the buyer and ups the ante.
‘The guy says US$1,500 take it or leave it,’ he offers.
‘I can only afford US$1,300 tops, not more,’ the buyer responds.
Now guaranteed US$400 from absolute fresh air, the dealers seals it with by taking the ‘item’ to the buyer who pays him US$1,300, retains his US$400, and pays the seller his US$900. Done deal.
At least it’s better than that Nigerian phenomenon – with apologies to Oga globally — called air supply. They are said to have perfected the art of getting paid for supplying nothing.
Now tell me, if one can make money like the dealer above, how can one convince him that only an honest day’s work can sustain him and that he or she would have wait for the month end to get his dues?
We got our fingers burnt in the various schemes that ranged from the notorious pyramids to the pervasive ‘burning’ of the local currency which brought about its inevitable demise.
One may point to the ingenuity of the Zimbabwean for finding ways outside the conventional economics textbook to survive the situation. But the reality is that it will take a lot to move a large number of Zimbabweans, including those who moved from the sticks into towns, to change their get rich quick orientation for a more demure and honest way of earning a living. This includes re-educating people to the fact that we can’t all be sellers when there are things to be made.
That precludes the fact that we should be approaching technological parity where the future is that of a plant being run by a man and a dog. The job of the dog would be to keep the man from touching the controls, and that of the man is to feed the dog. But we will still need the man all the same!
No amount of ideological brain washing of the youth fed on a diet of patriotism and mantras on the liberation struggle will produce the much needed mindset shift. One way is to tap the abundant innovativeness and channel it to create opportunities via initiatives similar to Botswana’s Innovation Hub.
I might be barking up the wrong tree but believe me this is a serious problem that requires urgent redress if we are to have a genuine revival of industry in Zimbabwe. Another problem is that this ‘dealer’ syndrome is also fed from the top. The lack of proper corporate governance and ethical conduct in state enterprises that were in the thick of dealing at the height of the collapse added to the confusion.
There is need to disabuse state institutions on the futility of the notion that for one to get services that every tax payer deserves, one has to grease a succession of palms. That Ministers at the head of some of these institutions seem to pay lip service to corruption under their watch lends credence to claims from some quarters that indeed Zimbabwe is a country run by dealers.
Lenox Mhlanga is a writer, motivational speaker and a communications consultant. He has over 15 years experience in the journalism, public relations and teaching fields.