Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga
IT is difficult to let history stay in the past. My university professor taught me that we need to understand the past to prepare for the future. Particularly when past mistakes are instructive as to why we should never repeat the same mistakes.
Now, putting all this into proper context, everyone in Zimbabwe knows that from 2007 it became absurd to be in paid employment unless you worked in a bank or a petrol station. Most of us found it prudent to survive by any means necessary. It became a slogan.
We became innovative and Zimbabwe turned out to be the only country in the world that had run out of ideas. Being involuntarily denied of a regular salary meant plunging headlong into the murky, unpredictable world of informal trade. In short, we were transformed into a nation of dealers.
Everyone was selling something, yet no one was making or creating anything. Because quite naturally, it made sense to make a quick buck. This was because business entities were collapsing around us. If you delayed in getting your dues, there would be no one to pay you the next day.
Zimbabwe fell spectacularly from employing 70 percent of the population (those figures being disputed) to that of somewhere less than 10 percent. The stupid question was, would that 70 percent still be twiddling their thumbs waiting for the economy to recover? No!
The second stupid question was; would people who have literally immersed themselves in wheeling and dealing, be prepared to go back to formal employment that entailed waiting for the month end to get paid? Do I really have to answer that one?
So, any solution emerging from any Government attempt at rectifying the situation was treated with contempt. They were wired to treating the symptoms and not the cause of the economic malaise.
The economic environment, and the political one in its wake, became toxic. Okoth Obado, a visiting Kenyan public relations expert described the situation more succinctly just this week at a talk we hosted in Harare. He called it the effect of autocratic leadership tenure. An experience that has become all too familiar in African countries.
During such periods, Okoth said, complacency and lack of competitiveness set in. Businesses became more inward looking because the external environment did not matter anymore. The Government led the assault on global capital by attacking its institutions wherever ears could hear.
“Innovation is relegated to the back banner while some organisations with good political connections thrived because of protectionism and cronyism,” Okoth said. “Because of heightened political competition and activity, less focus was placed on key socio-economic issues.”
I am sure you can identify with analysis that a sense of resentment weaves around the entire public psyche, both internally and externally. The negative narrative began to influence how we are seen and regarded as a country and a people.
What Zimbabweans desperately need is a complete re-orientation. Our children are convinced that money can literally fall from trees, or more correctly, can be dug straight from the ground. It’s worse than the time when some of us thought milk came from a bottle!
One does not need an O-Level certificate to grab a shovel and go dig up some river bed for instant wealth. And consequently, it has done untold damage to our moral fibre.
The more daring preferred to duck bullets and climb barbed wire to obtain that elusive shining stone in Marange. The smarter ones, not necessarily in terms of brains, went into what one could call speculation.
It went like this; somebody has something and this other person who doesn’t, needs it. Yet he does not know how and where to get it. In comes the dealer who knows both. It’s the 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 sets 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. Make an offer.”
“I am prepared to pay US$100 but can you up it a bit,’ the potential buyer says.
Back with the reluctant seller who is told that he could be US$90 richer if he let go of his ‘item.’
“Really?” he exclaims, drooling like a lap dog.
Dealer goes back to the buyer and like a bream, reals him in.
“The guy says US$150 take it or leave it,” he offers.
“I can only afford US$130 tops, not more,” the buyer responds.
Now guaranteed US$40 from absolute fresh air, the dealer seals it with by taking the ‘item’ to the buyer who pays him US$130. He retains his US$40 and pays the seller his US$90. Done deal.
At least it’s much better than that Nigerian phenomenon called air supply. They are said to have perfected the art of getting paid for supplying nothing.
They disappear into thin air leaving both buyer and seller grasping fresh air.
Now tell me, if one can make money like our dealer, how can one convince him that it is via an honest day’s work that they can sustain a livelihood? And not only that, the fact that he or she should have to wait for the month end to get his dues!
Notwithstanding, we got our fingers burnt in all manner of schemes that ranged from the pyramids to ‘burning’ currency.
One must hand it to us Zimbabweans for the ingenuity of finding ways outside the conventional economics textbook to survive. Yet the reality is that it will take a lot to move many Zimbabweans, including those who moved from the rural areas into towns, to change their get rich quick orientation.
This includes re-educating people to the fact that we can’t all be dealers when there are things to be manufactured.
That should take account the fact that we should be approaching technological parity where the future is that of new technology. Crying for the days of intuthu ezithunqayo is as backward as longing for the days of the postman in the age of mobile phones and social media.
No amount of ideological brain washing of the youth fed on a diet of patriotism and liberation struggle mantras will lead to a mindset shift. One sure way is to tap the abundant innovativeness and channel it to create opportunities via initiatives like Botswana’s Innovation Hub.
Okoth also has a message for local business that faces unbridled competition as Zimbabwe throws open the doors for foreign business to enter the fray.
“Because memories are fragile, brands are substitutable but the customer with long lasting memories remains King.” Lingathi angilitshelanga!