30 May 2003

Zimbabwe: Mugabenomics: Zimbabwe's Fast Track to Economic Ruin


Johannesburg — NOTHING typifies Harare's way of doing things more than the hilarious interview that talk show radio 702 recently had with one of President Robert Mugabe's most trusted lieutenants, which the station occasionally replays to my utter glee.

In the interview, bubbly early morning host John Robbie asks Nathan Shamuyarira a politburo member of the ruling Zanu (PF) and former senior cabinet minister what Harare is doing to resolve Zimbabwe's worsening political and economic crisis.

In his sleepy baritone voice, Shamuyarira asks "What crisis?", à la one of those television creatures from outer space. All of the irrepressible Robbie's subsequent efforts to elicit some comprehensible response on Zimbabwe's much-publicised food, fuel and foreign exchange crises are met with an emotionless and depressingly disinterested "no". It is staggering wonderful journalistic work.

However, to those who know how Mugabe and Zanu (PF) operate, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about Shamuyarira's replies. This is the ruling party's way of doing things, the way that has brought Zimbabwe to its knees: a cold world where nothing means anything, so to speak.

A bizarre story, which was an ominous pointer to the economic disaster that has befallen Zimbabwe, did the rounds in Harare at independence in 1980, when Mugabe was appointed prime minister. The new team of officials at the finance ministry made up of some of the finest economists the country has ever produced decided to develop a very comprehensive fact sheet, to be delivered to the crown prince every day to tell him about the state of the economy.

Just a few months after the fact sheet was introduced, there was a hitch in its preparation one day and someone was dispatched to the prime minister's office to apologise for the delay. To the surprise and horror of the adviser, the private secretary told him not to worry because the prime minister never read the fact sheet anyway, as he did not consider it particularly necessary.

As one of the advisers who claims to have been around then puts it: "It was like working for a mechanic who does not believe in checking oil in the car." So, not surprisingly, Zimbabwe's economy is on the verge of collapse.

With an inflation rate probably nearer 500% than the official figure of 300%, prices are shooting up daily, making Zimbabwe possibly the world's fastest-documented contracting economy all thanks to Uncle Bob, who has always seemingly been bent on defying even the most basic laws of economics.

Take for example his legendary dismissal of his finance ministers (the last one to taste his wrath was the literate but timid Simba Makoni, now tragically being touted as a presidential hopeful) and his passionate belief that the law of supply and demand does not apply to Zimbabwe. If anything is in short supply, Mugabe imposes price controls.

The absurdity of Mugabenomics reached its zenith in the late 1980s when former cabinet minister Maurice Nyagumbo the liberation hero who had been incarcerated in prison the longest (20 years) by white minority leader Ian Smith committed suicide (or was he done in) after he could not understand why he was being humiliated in public for helping an agricultural co-operative to acquire a vehicle and selling it for above prescribed prices.

One of the principal pillars of Mugabenomics, of course, is his apparent belief that a country cannot go broke. Under this misguided approach, he has used fixed assets to pay for recurrent expenditure: to the extent that he has even mortgaged land in his desperate attempts to get fuel from the Libyans the same land that he says he is so keen to see get into the hands of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Many Zimbabweans trace the beginning of their economic problems to payments made by Mugabe to war veterans in 1997, which cost the fiscus billions of unbudgeted Zimbabwe dollars. This launched the now official policy of printing paper money, which has fuelled inflation.

Then there was the devastating blow dealt to the economy a year later, in 1998, when Mugabe greedily and expediently decided to get enmeshed in the Congo war. Although this war benefited many of his cronies as they looted the Congo's resources it proved to be a misadventure of monumental proportions; the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Zimbabwe has never been the same since then.

But why am I writing about all this? I am gatvol with Mugabe's apologists, who keep harping on about the cause of the crisis as essentially the unintended, but consistent, consequences of the dear leader's good intentions for his nation. What claptrap.

If there is any consistency in Mugabe's policies, it is that they have been founded on arrogance, incompetence and an inexplicable callousness that should not be associated with a man who had the opportunity to be revered as one of Africa's greatest sons.

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