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Biti says ‘I’ve never gone to a night club’

On the day he delivered a post 2012 budget statement, Finance Minister Tendai Biti was Lance Guma’s guest on Question Time, answering questions from SW Radio Africa listeners. The MDC-T Secretary General tells Guma “I’ve grown up, I’m now 45 years. I’ve never gone to a night club because my life was cut short by Zanu PF, because I had to fight it.”

Tendai Biti
Tendai Biti

In the wide ranging interview he tackled issues around expenditure priorities in government, revenue from diamond mining, the shortage of coins in the country and conditions for credible elections.

Interview broadcast 14 March 2012

Lance Guma: Hallo Zimbabwe and thank you for joining me on Question Time. My guest tonight is Finance Minister Tendai Biti. He is also Secretary General of the MDC led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. We asked listeners to send in their questions and I’m happy to report that Minister Biti joins me now. Thank you for your time.

Tendai Biti: Thank you, thank you Lance.

Guma: You have been Finance Minister in this shaky coalition government for over three years now – how would you summarise your tenure in office? Do you regret joining what some have called a marriage of convenience?

Biti: Well it has not been easy and as you are aware, some of us were not interested in this stupid construction but we had to put our people first. There was a crisis in Zimbabwe; up to 2008, Zanu PF had failed and failed disastrously.

Millions had gone into the Diaspora looking for jobs, escaping political persecution. Our economy had lost 60% of its value; 85% of our people were living below the poverty datum line; thousands and thousands were dying from hunger, starvation and HIV and then of course political violence so we took a responsible decision to mitigate the suffering of our people so therefore we decided to join.

The inclusive government has been a pain and a pain that’s not worth it. We are dealing and working with a partner that is incorrigible; a partner that puts power and power at the forefront of its thinking; a partner that puts in personal aggrandisement and looting at the centre of its thinking.

Its DNA is violence; its DNA is personal accumulation so working with that partner where there is no common vision, where there is no common direction has really been a challenge for all of us.

Guma: Now a recent article by David Blair in the UK Telegraph newspaper accused the coalition government of spending nothing on equipping secondary schools while blowing 1% of public expenditure on trips for the president and the Prime Minister. The article says US$45,5 million was blown on travel last year alone. What’s your response?

Biti: Well I mean, criticism is a constitutional right of everyone, it is important to criticize but when we criticize we must have facts. It’s not true, I’ve seen reports the government is spending more on Mugabe’s trips than on education.

We are spending unacceptable amount of money on government trips – about 45 million US dollars last year – that is unacceptable but we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on education.

Remember education is not just infrastructure, it’s also education. Two thirds of our salaries are going to teachers; ninety thousand teachers and remember, so the bulk of our wage bill which is two thirds of the budget is going to teachers anyway.

Last year our wage bill was 2.4 billion dollars and two thirds of that went to teachers so that means about 1.5 billion went to teachers alone and that’s education. So criticize, so in fact education is getting more than any other head in the government because we are paying teachers and teachers are easily the most important tool in any education.

A teacher can teach outside a tree, under a tree, if the teacher is there, the students can learn and remember we have also put money for textbooks. The fact that the money came from donors, it’s us at government who looked for the money. So you can make your point, base it on facts, don’t over dramatise to create fiction.

Guma: Well its seems the criticism from the article is that organizations like DFID spent £80 million last year ensuring that children get textbooks, patients get medicine, slum dwellers getting sanitation and yet the coalition government, has the means to take care of these issues if they prioritise resources properly and he even gave the example of the money that is spent on foreign trips alone.

Biti: You know I’ve already made the point. We are spending unacceptable amounts of money on trips – that is a fair point but we are also spending the bulk of our resources towards education. The bulk of our money is going towards salaries and two thirds of those salaries are actually teachers who are 90 thousand, so let’s not argue on things that are not fact.

I am not proud of the money that I am being forced to spend on travelling but it is also wrong to say that the government is not financing education. Who is paying the teachers? Who’s paying the electricity for the teachers? Who is paying for desks? It is the government of Zimbabwe.

Guma: The Newsday newspaper recently reported that you resisted attempts by Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo to coerce you into forking out two million US dollars to buy vehicles for traditional chiefs. Is this the sort of pressure you face in the job?

Biti: That’s a tiny issue. I face bigger issues than that issue. If we hadn’t maintained fiscal prudence and fiscal austerity, this country, I don’t know where it would be. What I have found in government is that there is a psychosis, there’s a psychosis, there’s a total disconnect between revenues and expenditure.

It’s almost like there is a belief that you must just spend, spend, spend oblivious of where the money is coming from and so people make decisions as if the money grows on trees. So each time you are fighting with people to say this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work and so forth. So the chiefs example is just a minute, small indecent example of the kind of purchase that we are subjected to at Treasury.

Guma: One of Zimbabwe’s most famous cartoonists Tony Namate sent in a question for you via Twitter, he says and I quote: “Minister Biti why can’t you let Zimbabweans use the Zim dollar coins instead of having sweets as change?”

Biti: Well we are addressing the issue of coins. We are in the process right now of importing coins from the United States of America because we have dollarized. The issue of Zimbabwean coins, they are not available at the present moment; we would have mint these coins and in a situation where we are not yet, we don’t have the fundamentals of bringing back our own currency, it will be dangerous to tamper with that debate even if it means you are just restricting it to coins.

Zimbabweans have been vandalized by the Zimbabwean dollar; the Zimbabwean dollar became an instrument of arbitrage and if you want to cause lack of confidence in this country do anything that affects the fundamentals that we’ve run this economy in the last three years.

Those fundamentals have seen this economy grow by an average of nine per cent in the last three years; those fundamentals have seen inflation grow from 500 billion per cent to levels of below five per cent. So we’ve done a fantastic job in curtailing the macroeconomic de-stabilization.

Let’s not threaten that, let’s give our people room and a period of confidence because they were vandalized, they were abused during the crisis period.

Guma: Via email we have questions from Alex Stevenson and Martin Mapenduka who say – Minister Biti, what needs to be done to ensure transparency and equitable distribution of revenue from Marange? Does the MDC commit to do this should they gain power?

Biti: We can’t wait for the election because people are mining now and people are stealing now so you can’t wait for the election, we have to do things now. I met president Mugabe last week on Friday and I’ll be meeting the Minister of Mines soon.

It is clear from, I was part of the delegation that accompanied the Prime Minister on his trip to Marange on the 17th of February, it is clear that we have to do a number of things and a number of things urgently to ensure that there is greater transparency.

What is self-evident is the following – that you need a Diamond Act that regulates the entire activities of our diamonds at Marange. And this Diamond Act should incorporate the following things: One – the establishment of a diamond agency.

Diamonds are such a big exercise that you can’t have ZMDC, the Zimbabwe Mineral Development Corporation managing other minerals and other mines and then diamonds as well. So you need, under the Ministry of Mines, a new diamond agency that will take over the mining and everything to do with the diamonds at Chiadzwa.

Number two – you need to deal with the issue of exploration. Right now we don’t even have an exploration company so you have people, the companies themselves that are exploring and that when they explore they tell us – ah we only have two months to mine, we only have four months to mine. The state itself must do the exploration, determine the product it has, the merx as we lawyers call it.

After determining the merx then we can negotiate the price, the precium of the rights that we are selling. So the issue of a diamond exploration company owned by the state and the issue of diamond exploration is number two. Number three is the issue of ownership.

Right now we are busy parceling out very opaque diamond concessions at Marange. There’s need for a transparent process and what in fact the cabinet position which was that all diamond concessions should be owned at Marange and we let the companies that are already there, we can’t let this ruling apply retrospectively, that should be sorted.

Number four – is the mining, the marketing. We need a transparent process, in which the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and every agent is involved at the mining level. How many carats have been mined? It is involved at the marketing level how many carats have been sold to whom and at what value and then it’s involved in the distribution of resources, who gets what, what is government getting in terms of tax, in terms of royalties, in terms of ancillary taxes.

All these things must be cast in black and white. In Botswana the government gets 82% period from every dollar of a diamond sale; we need that. Number five – is education, we are illiterate. Diamonds are a huge industry so we need a university, a school of mines concentrating on diamonds that will teach students about the mining aspect of diamonds, the geology of diamonds, the marketing of diamonds, everything to do with the value chain of diamonds, we need a school and preferably we need that school located in Bocha in Marange.

Next we need value addition. As I speak to you right now, Surat in India is now employing 60 thousand people to clean and polish and cut diamonds. Why can’t we have a diamond industry in Marange, in Bocha We’ll employ jobs, we’ll create jobs, we’ll employ our people so that’s very important.

Next number six – is the issue of a sovereign wealth fund. The alluvial diamonds at Marange has got a life of anything between four to 21 years so they are a ephemeral resource that don’t last forever, so let’s create a sovereign wealth fund where we put money there that will look after the future so that the present generation doesn’t eat the diamonds alone from Marange.

Next we need adequate compensation and adequate participation of the peasant communities that are being displaced from Marange. It’s a pity that you were sitting and living on a rural household, the next thing you are being ejected and taken to Transau and where you were and where your father’s and father’s father have been it’s now a multi-million diamond company. That’s unfair; those people have to be genuine shareholders in the mining processes.

Then lastly is the issue of environment. Open cast mining is taking place at Chiadzwa. Thousands of trees which are a thousand year old, two thousand years old are being removed, it is a disaster, particularly the Chinese. I saw serious environmental destruction at the Chinese outfit Anjin. We need to make sure that environmental issues are dealt with. You can mine but don’t destroy our baobab trees and other natural resources there.

Then lastly, let’s make sure that every shareholder there, the stake is clear, you’ve got Anjin, nobody’s clear who is the, about the shareholder, that is unacceptable. ZMDC or the diamond agency must be involved.

Then of course there’s an issue of smuggling. This area where these diamonds are is one hundred and twenty thousand hectares, it’s half the size of Wales, it’s huge, Zimbabwe does not have the capacity of policing this territory so we need the international community, the KPCS to help us policing it. These are some of the things that have to be done and done immediately.

Guma: Now some will say everything that you have mentioned there would form part of an ideal scenario but the problem with this coalition government is that most MDC ministers were given responsibility without power and that you do not have the power to implement these very noble ideas.

Some have even given examples of the Home Affairs Ministry where the MDC has a co-Home Affairs Minister who has not been able to or does not have the power to stop the harassment of MDC party supporters. So would you accept that this is the problem with this coalition government, responsibility without power for MDC ministers?

Biti: Look the MDC ministers have changed the face of this country. People are eating, people are going to school, people are going to hospitals and so forth. It is the MDC that has done that. Zanu PF has failed but we still have to do more.

We still have to do more and that’s why I’m talking about a common vision, that’s why I’m talking about the obligation to ensure that we win an election, a sustainable election that can give a sustainable outcome to allow the people. But people must not underestimate what the MDC and MDC ministers have done. I remember 2008, all of us who lived in Zimbabwe in 2008 knew that we were living in hell, we were living in a visceral nightmare of conflict, violence, attrition.

I look after two little sisters; they didn’t go to school in 2007, 2008. People seem to have forgotten that so with that alone and we’ve done a lot because we’ve been able to exercise the spaces that we occupy. I’m a Minister of Finance and I make decisions and no-one will force me to make a decision that I don’t agree with.

And I’ve been attacked by Zanu PF, they even have resolutions at three successive conferences against me as Minister of Finance but I’ll look them in the face and I take as much as I give, I’m not lily-livered or yellow, we have been taking as much as we give.

I’m sure if you were to talk to someone, people in Zanu PF they will say zvivanhu zve MDC haziite, because they also know that we fight back and we are occupying the space, we are not victims, we are targets, and targets of an incorrigible regime. I’ve already spoken about Zanu PF but we are not victims, I refuse.

Guma: Several questions from SW Radio Africa listeners on the constitution making process; we’ve seen various conflicting statements back and forth in the media between the two MDC’s and Zanu PF. People want to know from you as one of the key individuals in this constitution making process. Where are we, at what stage are we and what’s going to happen from here on?

Biti: Yah we’ve made a lot of good and great progress on the constitution making process and the reason why the merchants of destruction and the shareholders of the past in Zanu PF are wailing is because they understand that they are losing ground and that this process is irreversible. So you’ll see nefarious nicodemous attempts of firing drafters that will not happen.

You’ll see nefarious and nicodemous attempts of stopping the whole process and hijacking the whole process, that will not happen. As of now, the COPAC, the select committee has gone through all the 18 chapters of the constitution, they are going to hand it over to us, the management committee. If there are any disputes, any deadlock issues, we will have to resolve them as the management committee.

The management committee, as you know are the political party negotiators who consist of Elton Mangoma and myself from MDC, Priscilla Mashonga and Mzila Ndlovu from MDC Welshman Ncube and then from Zanu PF Patrick Chinamasa and Nicholas Goche.

So far they’ve given us a number of issues that there’s a deadlock on; the issue of dual citizenship where Zanu PF doesn’t want dual citizenship even in this day and age; the issue of capital punishment; the issue of whether or not we should have an independent prosecuting authority; the issue of devolution – the two MDCs want proper devolution, Zanu PF is not interested; the issue of the structure of the executive – do you have a president, do you have a prime minister?

The MDCs are united that power shouldn’t be concentrated in the hands of one individual and that there must be clear separation of powers. So these are some of the disputed areas where they have referred to us. We have resolved some of them, we have resolved capital punishment with an agreement, we’ve also agreed that there will be an independent prosecuting office separate from the issue of the Attorney General.

We are still to agree on the issue of citizenship and on the issue of devolution. As MDC we feel that there must be multiple citizenship that if a citizen acquires citizenship particularly by birth he or she can’t lose it under any circumstances. Our colleagues in Zanu PF think about power and power alone, they are thinking differently so there’s a deadlock on that issue.

Guma: But when this process started the key word used was that this would be a people driven constitution, a people driven document. But it seems it’s now a negotiation between the three political parties.

Biti: Any person, you see, you know, illiteracy and ignorance is a problem. There is no constitution in the world that is not negotiated at some stage and when you negotiate a constitution, it doesn’t mean it’s not people driven.

So if you take the South African constitution which is generally considered to be the best constitution in the world, it was negotiated at CODESA and people were negotiating but people negotiated through organizations and CODESA, the two main organizations were ANC representing the black people and the National Party represented by Rolf Meyer representing the white people so you can’t say it was not negotiated by the people.

The question is – are your people the people that are driven to negotiate sufficiently representative of the people of Zimbabwe? And you can’t dispute that the parties that are represented in parliament are sufficiently representative of the people of Zimbabwe. So any constitution making process needs two processes.

It needs the legitimation process – have you gotten the views of the people. Then it needs the negotiating element because the constitution at the end of the day is a balance sheet of the power position.

Even the American constitution – when people like Jefferson, Hamilton and others met in Philadelphia in 1774, they were negotiating between powerful states like Virginia and smaller states like Arizona who didn’t want huge monarchical state power.

So negotiations took place but the people who were there were representing people. There were people who had won the war against the British who were sufficiently representative.

So any constitution has got two elements – the representative element, the legitimation element and the negotiating element because it is a document of power and whoever is represented in the power matrix must sit and negotiate, whatever constitution, without exception in the world.

Guma: Well my final question relates to the holding of elections in the country. There has been a lot of rhetoric from Zanu PF that elections should be held this year. They also accuse the MDC of being reluctant to go into an election and at times even calling you cowards. What’s the correct position relating to this, will the country have elections this year, next year, what’s the MDC position on when elections should be held.

Biti: Last week on Thursday on the 8th of March 2012, the MDC launched its document containing conditions for a sustainable election in Zimbabwe. We’ve posted this document on our web site. During this launch, our president, Dr Tsvangirai was very clear – we want an election and an election yesterday but no to a bloodbath.

We want a sustainable election because a sustainable election is a precondition to a sustainable Zimbabwe and four things are critical. The first is implementation. Let’s implement the things that we have agreed. We’ve agreed on the GPA – let’s implement it; we’ve agreed on the road map – let’s implement it. We’ve agreed on the 24 post-Maputo agreement – let’s implement those things.

SADC itself has agreed to send three people that will work with the JOMIC – let’s implement that. So the first thing is implement, because we’ve been reaching agreements and agreements without any movement.

Number two – let’s deal with those issues that affect the security of the vote. Do we have a good Electoral Act that guarantees that the results will be announced in the first 24 hours not six months that we saw in 2008? Do we have a good Electoral Act that will ensure that every Zimbabwean has access to the voters’ roll that every Zimbabwean can register to vote on the voters’ role?

Do we have a good Electoral Act that can ensure that electoral disputes are dealt with expeditiously and not post facto? Post facto, even the presidential petition of 2002 is still outstanding at the courts. Do we have Electoral Act that allows voter education? Do we have a good Electoral Act that allows media, each party having equal access to the media.

So that’s number one, technical issues to do with the integrity of the vote. Number three is security of the persons. Do we have sufficient mechanisms, instruments that vaccinate the election against assaults, attacks on individuals i.e. violence?

As long as you have not put in mechanisms to ensure that the integrity of the individual, of the person is protected then you can’t go to that election. Put simply, what measures have you put to ensure that the bloodbath of June 2008 is not played out, what reforms have to be done.

And are people able to campaign freely? Can the MDC go to a model A1 and model A2 farms? What is the role of POSA and a partisan police force? What is the role of POSA and a partisan judicial system. Those things are relevant to the security of the person.

And number four and perhaps most importantly, the security of the people’s will. What measures have you put to ensure that whoever is the winner will be able to walk to State House? Recent elections in Africa have shown that winning the election does not translate to walking and getting the keys to State House.

We saw this with Quattara in 2010. We saw this with Raila Odinga in December of 2007. We saw this with Morgan Tsvangirai in March 2008. What measures have you put to guarantee the security of the people’s will? What measures have you put to make sure that Steve Makoni’s song Handiende is not played out in Zimbabwe or any other country?

If you don’t deal with these four issues, implementing what you have agreed on, two – implementing the integrity of the vote; three – implementing measures to guarantee the security of the person and finally measures to guarantee the security of the people’s will then you’ve got a problem.

And among the things that you have to deal with is obviously media reform, obviously security sector reform, obviously a brand new voters’ roll, obviously new delimitation of constituencies. These things are all located under these various headings.

We want an election and we want Zanu PF to go. But we also know that there is a difference between a farce and an election. We don’t want a farce, we want an election and unless you attend to these four things that I’ve mentioned, you’ll have a farce.

People are tired of a farce because a farce gives in to ugly progeny like a GPA, like an unhappy coalition. So let’s have a sustainable election because a sustainable election is a precondition to a sustainable Zimbabwe. And people want a sustainable Zimbabwe.

I’ve grown up, I’m now 45 years. I’ve never gone to a night club because my life was cut short by Zanu PF, because I had to fight it. So at a very young age, at the age of 32, I found myself a member of parliament so I think there are many people like myself who have been denied normal growth because of Zanu PF. You are in the Diaspora not because of choice, because of Zanu PF so let’s have a sustainable election to have a sustainable Zimbabwe.

Guma: Well Zimbabwe that’s Finance Minister Tendai Biti who’s also the Secretary General of the MDC led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Many thanks to Minister Biti for joining us on Question Time.

Biti: Alright thank you Lance.

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