At the height of the global financial crisis, executives from the "Big Three" American automakers, General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler LLC, travelled to Washington DC to beg for US$25 billion in federal bailouts from the administration to help pay their suppliers, workers other costs. But, to get to DC, the CEOs flew, each in their own private jet. They could have flown first class or even shared one plane, lawmakers argued. Could they consider selling their planes and fly back first class, they were asked. Not one volunteered.
Of course, these are people that ran what were otherwise huge companies, with revenues in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. Their personal salaries alone were in the region of US$25 million a year, each. So, flying by jet to an important meeting must have seemed like a no-brainer.
To their credit, the American public and their lawmakers were shocked at this blatantly tone-deaf approach to begging. It spoke of how out of touch these rich people were.
We have had our own share of people with tone-deaf approaches to personal salaries of course. Right here in Zimbabwe.
We had Cuthbert-something who earned hundreds of thousands of United States dollars from PSMAS at a time when the society was cutting cover and failing to pay suppliers. We had those obscene Harare City Council salaries, when the municipality was/is failing to provide a single service.
We have had boards that slept on the job (honestly, how does one fail to see that a whole lake is running out of water until it's too late, then lie that there are no load-shedding schedules in place only to introduce load shedding the very day it published expensive full colour denials in the media?!) but did not lose their benefits. We had Simba Chikore earning those salaries from Air Zimbabwe while siphoning assets from the national airline to the one that he and his wife owned, only we are told now that we were also paying Boeing US$1 million to teach him to fly the planes but that he never got round to learning anything because he probably had no time.
We are the country that has allowed NSSA to lose billions of dollars without sending a single person to remand prison to answer for it at least: you know, the one where they just taste prison for two to three days before their lawyers get them out.
We are the country where people will lynch you for suggesting that a "prophet" earning US$1 million a month in order to sleep with 17-year-old girls in his church is wrong. Where a whole country conveniently forgets that there were stories that the same prophet stole more than US$105 million for stands that never materialised.
We have lost the ability to be shocked by the shocking. A civil servant must not be able to build a multimillion-dollar house when their lifetime salary will never get to half the cost of their house, but they do. Executives in NSSA, ZINARA, ZIMRA, Air Zimbabwe, etc, live like they were Jeff Bezos and we are fine with this. Hell, some of us even aspire to get there. Politicians who have never held a private sector job own houses in Gunhill, etc, and we dare anyone to question it. You are just envious, is the most polite thing you will hear.
Except that for one to be envious, there needs to be something virtuous about that which is envied. Criticising theft, chicanery or ill-gotten wealth is not envy, but is perhaps the only way to provide public oversight in a country where anti-corruption bodies have failed us.
When civil servants can afford to send their children to Arundel or Falcon College, when their gazetted salaries suggest they can't afford it, citizens must worry about the effect of "deals".
When a father flies to a parents' day event at an expensive private school in a helicopter, when a businessman is photographed holding loads of Gucci bags or sitting behind cash a-la-Floyd Mayweather, when a politician buys a Lamborghini in this time of austerity as we are told, it's not envy that makes people stop and say: wait a minute, what?
Rather, it is the obvious surprise that someone that's not known for inventing anything, someone that doesn't even employ many or any people, someone that's not started an Econet/Facebook-type business can flaunt wealth like they are richer than Strive Masiyiwa or Mark Zuckerburg. It is because the obvious impression created by their not being known for starting a business commensurate with their ostentatiousness is that they did "deals". Sadly, in this country, there aren't many known honest "deals".
Besides Econet, Zimbabweans have not invented or set up anything as would justify some lifestyles we see in our country. The inevitable suspicion that's created is that whoever manages to, must have done "deals" and "made a killing". The trouble is, whatever gets killed in these deals is likely something that would have benefited the whole country. And when it is diverted to the connected few, it leaves nothing for the common man.
In a country in which some people earn RTGS92,00 a month as their pension, the idea that someone who has never invented anything but just flown a helicopter for one family can buy a R32 million house in Cape Town or that a boy with no job but a civil servant father can buy a Rolls Royce, is obscene. At some point, we must be ashamed enough to call these things what they really are: fruits of corruption.
Of course, it could very well be that some people did make legitimate money from all those diamonds before . . . whatever did happen to our diamonds? Why aren't we selling them again?
Perhaps, someone needs to fly a helicopter to somewhere and find out?