Chinyoka on Tuesday: Biti and his billions
By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
As Zimbabweans, it seems, we do not deal with small change. Back in 1980, we produced money that was a joy to look at, but looking back I think today it would be called small change.
I still recall that five cent piece with its rabbit ears: it was the only money that our family seemed to have most of the time, except for that time in high school when I got a letter in the mail and found two $2.00 notes, the blue ones with the tiger fish and Kariba Dam……, but that is another story, for another day perhaps.
We quickly decided, once Chidzero was safely gone, that we did not like his shiny little money, the blue, green, red and bluish gold notes that were the $2, $5, $10 and $20 notes that made our money. My mother’s salary one month, back when she started working and we finally could did not need to be selected for the mtandiza queue to fend off kwashiorkor (story for another day, perhaps), was $181.00. Small change now.
There are some of us that think that Chidzero was a good Finance Minister, at one point he was in the running to be UN Secretary General even, but that was before the age of Twitter, when trolls in a coven can sit together and agree that Mr You-Eat-What-You-Hunt or ZanuPF-Will-Not-Get-A-Cent, is the Best Finance Minister Ever. Just goes to show the unreliability of social media, where a whole grown pastor still refers to thin air (the Cloud?) for evidence of his 2,6million votes but, I digress.
Back to the Best Finance Minister Ever, the failed asylum seeker (in the UK and much of the West, this is a popular term for what happened in Zambia to the Best Finance Minister Ever, mind you). He came to the job just after Gono’s trillions. We made a soft landing, thanks to the work of the main partner in the GNU, but from how it is told, you would think that my brother fixed the economy all by himself and then some.
We stabilised. But I suspect that the Best Finance Minister Ever did not move away from the language of his Reserve Bank Governor turned client, Dr Gideon Gono. It would seem that the client’s language has rubbed off on the lawyer, who has rubbed off on his principal.
They do not speak in small change, it is just billions to them. Millions are reserved for the votes that Chamisa allegedly got, 2,6 million to be exact, nice round figure. 2, 600,000,000. Not untidy little numbers at the end, just a flat figure. Again, we digress.
So, pavakainda kunovona vaTrump, zvikahi vakomana, munoda marii, even Trump was on message. 15 billion. The same amount, it seems, that we had heard our retired and not missed President say we had lost through diamonds pilferage, even though everyone agrees that we couldn’t possibly have produced diamonds of that value by the time.
So it is not a surprise again that when the parliamentary committee that the Best Finance Minister Ever chairs produced its report, we would hear of billions stolen. In the preceding weeks, the Auditor-General has produced largely well received reports, whose figures were measured, tempered with evidence and generally well presented.
Amounts ranging from a few thousands to several millions were unaccounted for, she said, and she produced papers to match. Not to say that the theft of a few thousands is excusable, it is not. At all.
But, complete with bluster and contradiction, the Best Finance Minister Ever says that $3 billion was stolen and or diverted to command agriculture. Suddenly, everyone with a phone that can access Econet’s intermittent data is reporting this great theft. $3 billion, it seems, has entered our lexicon, to stay safely ensconced next to the 15 billion yavaTrump, 15 billion yema diamonds, and 2,6million yema votes for pastor in our lore.
There is not even the basic interrogation of these figures. Like this basic one: our entire national budget at the time was $4 billion. So, if $3 billion was stolen………? Is that even plausible?
Unfortunately, because of the polarised nature of our politics, there are politicians out there who know that no matter what they say, no matter how stupid it is, there is a large group of their constituents ready to accept it all and run with it. So the $3 billion story is doing the rounds.
Previously reasonable people are talking about it like it is gospel truth yet the most basic of analysis shows that it is a lie. It cannot possibly be true. How does 75% of the national budget get diverted to command agriculture and we don’t see civil servants going a year without pay? Given how much of the national budget goes to salaries?
Why do these lies matter? Because they increase the level of polarisation in our country, making it harder and harder for us to find each other. If there is one thing we are all agreed on, it is that our country was on a bad trajectory, and that we wanted 2017 to turn the tide.
In order to do that, many of us voted for ED Mnangagwa because we believe that he can fix this thing. But he is not President of Zanu PF supporters, but of the whole country. For him to do his job effectively, given where we were, we all need to be pulling together.
However, when we are as polarised as we are, the trouble is that everything that the government does is judged on a very highly critical scale precisely because the wells have been poisoned.
You hear stories about jets chartered from Dubai to take someone to the toilet, you hear about the President running in a maize field fleeing from his wife, and while every right thinking person can dismiss these ludicrous claims as rubbish, there is an audience that has been primed to believe them.
And the priming is done through these outlandish claims. If you have already been primed to picture how that $3 billion to fund command agriculture must have been spent, then the maize field that the President allegedly ran into becomes very easy to imagine. It is nonsense, but they do it because they know it works.
When you confront people about the absurdity of these claims, one of the most common responses you hear is “but, it could be true”. Sadly, that is not good enough. Just because something could be true does not mean it is true.
According to research on lies in politics carried out by Dr Daniel Effron, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School:
“What I find so interesting about events that could have been true is that, by definition, they didn’t actually happen. If people can justify coming to their moral conclusions simply by imagining what they want to imagine, that’s pretty scary….We should be wary of our ability to imagine whatever we want. …It allows us to hold the people we admire to lower moral standards than the people we don’t.” It makes us judge those we do not support harshly and unfairly.
Politicians in the opposition lie by making statements that they know to be and which are demonstrably false. Coltart lied about v11s being removed from polling stations after the elections. The Best Finance Minister Ever says $3 billion dollars was stolen.
With these stories, they manipulate their constituents into believing these lies because they know that supporters are happy to create explanations for obvious lies, explanations which are then used to suggest that “well, if this or that was the case, then what was said must be correct” even when it clearly is not. If you think that someone stole an election, then chartering a jet from Dubai to take them sightseeing 80 km away is not so far fetched.
The trouble is, we are not going to build a country by creating ill-will around a President who is trying to fix things. When I was asked to pay US$ for fuel at the weekend, I sent a tweet tagging Mthuli Ncube alerting him to this illegality and one of the replies to it said: “he owns Puma near Avondale and he is taking US$ there!”
Now, to people that have been primed to believe that this government stole our 15 billion dollars, and our 3 billion dollars, and their 2,6 million votes, the idea of a finance minister who is not the Best Finance Minister Ever owning a service station where he is charging for fuel in US$ is not too far fetched. Now, I don’t know who owns the Puma garage near Avondale but I know who doesn’t own it: Mthuli Ncube.
If this were back where I come from, where that five cent piece could buy you 15 sweets (on account of they were “senti-three” in price), the polite ones would look at the failed asylum seeker who is the Best Finance Minister Ever and say: nhema muite shoma. The not so polite? They would say: fodya itai shoma Bambo.
Me? I am polite, of course. So, to quote my good friend Albert Nyathi: I shall not speak.