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Wither the state, Big rich men to the rescue: The privatized Covid-19 Zim response.

It is an apparent but rarely acknowledged fact that Zimbabwe’s big business scenes (big capital) are run by either a monopoly or oligopoly in different industries and markets. Corporates such as Econet (telecommunications), Delta (Beverages) Innscor (Fast moving goods) the tobacco syndicate led by British America Tobacco, Sakunda, SEEDCO, and many others come to mind. As noted by the Reserve Bank earlier this year, only 200 bank accounts control half of the money supply in this nation. With such a jaw-dropping fact in mind, it makes sense that businesses have come out to lead the response against Covid-19 in Zimbabwe. As we breathe a national sigh of relief thanking the private sector for its efforts, I would like to shed light on my worries and fears about this situation. What does this mean for the government as we know it? Is this out of the kindness of the private sector’s hearts? Where to from here?

The Zimbabwean government was famous worldwide for its social policies. Alongside running one of the most successful mass education policies in the 1980s, Zimbabwe’s AIDS policy at the turn of the century was the flagship followed by most sub-Saharan nations. There has always been a deep sense in this nation that the government had certain duties that it could not relinquish, duties such as water provision, health, education etc. It was such a normal, that we took that for granted.

In the 1990s however, a tectonic shift was occurring in the halls of government. Cajoled by the International Monetary Fund, the government began to privatize a lot of these functions. It started in banking and then into the industry. Whereas in the 1980s, government officials were being nabbed for corruption scandals (the Watergate Scandal comes to mind) the privatization policy allowed for something peculiar to happen. Government officials and their henchmen no longer had to be in government to steal money; they could function in businesses linked to government and still make handsome profits. To be sure, privatization was needed in some cases, just think of what Econet, Kingdom Bank, Innscor have managed to do since they came along. But the success stories were the small minority.

From the 1990s to 2000s, repeated calls were given to privatizing State-Owned Enterprises. The indigenization policy got black men to enter into even more boardrooms of the largest corporates in the nation. The reasoning was that the government was corrupt, inefficient and all the usual misgovernance fireballs. Dairiboard, Cottco are results of that drive. This drive against state-owned enterprises stripped the government of profit-making entities and left them with health and education as their core activities outside general bureaucratic work.

These areas were somewhat respected and valued under Robert Mugabe but the coup led by ED Mnangagwa and the appointment of Mthuli Ncube changed that too. No longer were health and education important pinnacles of government. Mthuli Ncube unapologetically called for the need to reduce the government wage bill. To do this, he has devalued the Zimbabwe dollar progressively and fought the medical and teachers trade unions, leaving education a sore eye and more importantly, the health system a shamble. But he did all of this before Covid-19.

The coming in of Covid-19 has laid bare the full incapacity to deal with any health crises by government. It has turned into a shadow of itself and it is not only because of the corruption, economic downturn etc. The ideology that has underpinned what the ZANU government is and what we expect from it has changed. ZANU PF changed the government institution from being a space of public good to one of private gain not only by corrupt officials but by allowing its activities to be privatized too. This is apparent because even though the government cannot handle Covid-19, our private sector seems to be able to. Sakunda which holds a monopoly on the fuel industry with favourable access to the Presidency has committed to re-furbish two closed hospitals within seven days. Strive Masiyiwa, the owner of Econet has been paying for Doctors upkeep since January and they have upped the ante to fight Covid-19. Before this, during the cholera crisis in Harare, Econet businesses came in with the requisite assistance and saved the day. Other corporations have pitched in to aid the hollowed government in their abysmal preparation for Covid-19.

The most important result of this private intervention is that it will save some lives that would have died from Covid-19. The long-term effects are what will keep me up at night. A government that has healthcare at its centre is impossible under this administration. After a year of fighting doctors, private players are giving the government a free ride relinquishing them of the duty to provide healthcare. And may we not be misled; public healthcare systems are a better form of governance compared to private care for the general masses especially during a crisis. Spain, Ireland have nationalized healthcare for the period of Covid-19. Zimbabwe has gone in the opposite direction and effectively privatized healthcare during the crisis.

Beyond that, a post-Covid 19 Zimbabwe will have an, even more, privatized healthcare system that the majority will not be able to afford. This will be the entry point for private players to gain more favours from the government as payback for helping during the Covid-19 crisis. After Strive Masiyiwa helped with the cholera outbreak, one of Econet’s subsidiaries (Clean City) received a contract for waste collection. Their hearts may be in the right place, but the private players (who are already monopolies and oligopolies) are not doing this for free. The impending privatization of medical care is the next stage of siphoning money from the public goods arena into the private sector. This will just exacerbate the inequality that is already in this country. Some would term this state capture. However, state capture assumes there is still a state to speak of. This is more of state stripping with the best parts being distributed to the big businesses.

On the political front, seeing a few men ‘get things done’ has had a grave impact on what we expect and understand from political leadership. There is a growing belief in Zimbabwe in ‘big men politics.’ This is the politics that believes in a ‘good dictator’ that just gets things done by telling people what to do. People give examples of Paul Kagame which is ironic because we had Robert Mugabe who played big man politics and left us in a terrible condition after initial success. I do concede that during a crisis you do need directives. But that calls for decisive leadership, not dictatorial leadership. Big men politics is a problem because big men eat away at any form of democratic participation you can hope for in a country. Such politics turns government into primarily a service provider (like an ATM) instead of the government being a place where people meet to draw a progressive future. The more we have big men dominating public imagination, the more dangerous it is for women, youth and other minorities who do not fit into these networks.

It is now nearly four months of Covid-19 pulverizing the world and they say it changes you. In China, there was a spike in divorces after the lockdown was lifted as people realized, they actually do not like their partners. Some people have found time to reconnect with their families. Some people like in Japan are re-thinking what work means to them. For me, Covid-19 has been a brutal awakening that the Zimbabwean government under the ZANU PF leadership has hollowed out the state’s capacity to respond to crises and more fundamentally, to be a progressive entity. It has done it so much so that even if the opposition comes into power, it might have to abide by the rules of the big men who control the largest business firms in the land. A post-covid-19 Zimbabwe will see the military and big businesses having effective control over the state. These two groups will play tennis with government structures as it suits them. This relegates hoping for a progressive state from being a pipedream to a deceitful lie.

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