Thinking outside the Box – Eddie Cross

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HARARE – One of the problems of mankind, living on this small blue ball in space, is that we tend to go through life with certain accepted notions that we can almost classify as cubicles in a Changing room.

We live out our lives in that Changing room and get used to what each cubicle contains and represents and this then tends to dictate to us how we think and behave. The reality is that there is a whole world outside, that bears no resemblance to your Changing room and its cubicles.

Take the Zimbabwe economy for example, economists, business executives and senior Civil Servants might think that all there is to see is what the official statistics tell us. GDP figures, M3 data, inflation, life expectancy and they can be forgiven if they think that is all there is to our economic situation.

Then you experience a digital revolution – but it takes place outside your Changing room and you have no idea that the world “out there” has changed fundamentally and for ever. The first time you discover what has happened is when you collect data on electronic transfers and it comes in at a trillion dollars in 12 months.

You look at the official data for Diaspora remittances at US$850 million a year and think “those miserable goons in the Diaspora, is that all they can afford to send home?” Then you look outside and you see Zimbabwe has had a building boom for a decade, with millions of new homes under construction – no big building cranes in sight but nearly 4 million tonnes of cement and billions of bricks, going onto building sites in every Town and Village and City, 90 per cent funded by the Diaspora.

Then you look at the miserable education budget – the activists jumping up and down and saying we do not meet global standards in what we spend on education. Look into the education cubicle and it says we spend a tiny US$20 per month on every child in school. Then you look outside the window and you see private schools offering some of the best basic school education in the world. Producing students who are in so much demand that top universities come out to Zimbabwe every year to recruit students. You go out to dinner with the Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa and he tells you they could not survive without their 2 000 Zimbabwean students – either academically or financially.

Then just as you conclude that is not the norm for everyone, only the rich and privileged and you discover that the kid who was Head Boy of the local State managed High School attended by the poor and the children of the domestic workers in the area is a Physicist working on the Mars probe just launched from the USA. Then you discover that for every dollar spent on Education our “Goons” in the Diaspora spend two dollars on our children in school.

Inside the Changing room, the story about Zimbabwe is that half our population is food deficit, 70 per cent of our population is living on less than US$2 per day and that 94 per cent of our total population has no visible means of support? At one time we broke all the records – highest female mortality in child birth in the world, highest death rates for children under five and one of the most infected countries in the world with HIV/Aids.

Yet when I went to India a number of years ago (and they tell me things have changed since then) I was shocked by the absolute poverty I saw everywhere. I saw millions sleeping rough on the streets of the Capital City, wide colonial avenues covered in what looked like piles of rags. We were horrified to be told by the young banker who accompanied us, that many piles of rags would not move in the morning and refuse trucks were used to collect the dead bodies for burial. When I look out the window of my Changing room in Zimbabwe I see no sign of such widespread and absolute human deprivation.

The people I live and work among, are generally reasonably well dressed, look well fed if a bit on the lean side in many cases, speak several languages as well as reasonable English and seem to be busy. How do these millions outside what the rest of the world regards as the “real” economy live? Then you go to Beitbridge and you see 5 000 cross border traders crossing the Limpopo in both directions every day. You travel to Chirundu to fish for tiger on the Zambezi River and you pass 300 fully loaded trucks going to the north and when you get to the border the queue is 20 kilometres long.

Back in 2009, when I was a Member of Parliament for Bulawayo South, I sat in the House of Assembly with my colleagues to hear a statement by the Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa. He stood up and in 15 minutes he totally liberalised the Zimbabwean economy. He broke down the walls of the Changing room we had all been living in, in which there were no goods in the stores (literally), no fuel in the Petrol Stations, inflation was raging at 1 000 per cent per day, our local currency was worthless and it was illegal to carry foreign currency. He swept away price controls, swept away exchange control after 80 years of such practices which were regarded as sacred principles of economic management. He swept away restrictions on the use of foreign currency and gold and completely opened up the economy. Our Changing room was demolished. I walked up to the Minister after his speech and congratulated him on his courage. He looked like a man coming out of a dark room into the sunlight.

In a month every store was stocked to the ceiling, fuel was freely available and at prices lower than the region, there were queues at every till point in the supermarkets and despite the fact that my first post change salary was a miserable US$50 a month, everyone seemed to have money. How on earth do you survive on less than US$2 a day? We did, still cannot quite understand how.

I spent the next 4 years watching a miracle – GDP did not expand at double digits, it grew by over 70 per cent per annum, climbing from US$900 million in 2009 to US$16 billion in 2013. Out of nowhere Zimbabwe became the largest regional market for South Africa and the flight of refugees stopped and then began to reverse. How do you explain that?

Then Mr. Mugabe returned to full control of the State and he immediately rebuilt the Changing room. Inside the Changing room it was always warm and humid with plenty of money to be made – not by hard work or excellence but by theft and skimming off something from whatever you were doing outside. The Changing room became crowded and whenever they came out they flaunted their new wealth – fancy cars, big homes, flying visits to watch a football match in England or a Grand Prix race. Party time, but outside the Changing room darkness descended and under cover of darkness everyone who was not in the Changing room started to go back to doing what they do best – surviving.

Then the Military Assisted Transition in November 2017; we thought here we go again, we are knocking down the Changing room. The national mood was one of instant jubilation. Now three years later we have discovered that if you do not use a sledge hammer like Chinamassa did in 2009, the process of opening up and reform takes time and the guys in the Changing room are resisting the changes. But I am happy that we are again emerging from the dark days of control and theft and that at last the energy, vitality and courage that characterise the Zimbabwean population is going to be given the opportunity to do what they do best – make the damn economy work.

I think the outcome will surprise everyone.

Eddie Cross

19th September 2020

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