There is a lot of politicking and rhetoric, which is natural in an election season. But we must not forget that it is ideas that build and transform people’s lives. We must posit, test and debate ideas. Whoever gets the mandate must understand the challenges that stand before us, challenges that must be overcome. And have plans to do so.
On this occasion, I focus on the idea of how government works and why it has to change fundamentally if Zimbabwe is to make progress post-30 July. It applies regardless of who prevails. Naturally, I have my political preference, but I like to think the idea applies universally to all parties. In writing this, I rely on personal experience and observations.
After getting a glimpse of how government operates back in 2012-13 when I was invited to serve during the GNU, I got convinced that nothing short of a fundamental overhaul in the way government works is needed to move Zimbabwe forward. It needs disruption and a new approach. After 38 years in power, I struggle to imagine that ZANU PF is the right agent for the kind of disruption that is required.
The biggest problem is not that we lack rules. We have plenty of them. In fact, the problem is we have too many rules and most of them are old and inefficient. They are rules and protocols designed for a bygone era. They are impediments rather than facilitators. To use a technological metaphor, if the modern world has gone digital, the government in Zimbabwe is still in analogue mode. It has refused to change. It is a government that time forgot, to use an old cliche.
Sometimes government gets new people. But they are quickly swallowed by the old system. That’s how powerful and enticing it is. This is why you sometimes ask: “but what happened to X? He/she used to be a good person before they started working for the government. Now they have changed”. It’s because of the system! You come in with enthusiasm but it is very easy to get swallowed. It is so powerful that you end up defending instead of challenging it.
A challenge that new people face is that new ideas aren’t warmly received. New is not trusted. The standard reaction to the new can be summed up like this: “That’s not how government operates. Here, we do things this and that way”. It is precisely this mindset that has held us back as a nation. That’s how government remains stuck in old and inefficient ways.
Take technology for example. The average Zimbabwean makes use of technology in their daily lives far more than their government does. Government remains averse to new technology and is stuck in old ways. They think opening new Internet cafes and donating computers to schools is the definition of technological progress. Things that were being done by former President Mugabe 10 years ago are still being done today. While the average citizen is in the technological fast lane, when engaging their government, they have to readjust and move into the slow lane.
Another vice is government’s poor attitude to time. It’s a societal problem but government sets the tone. If you have an appointment with a minister at 2pm, he will turn up at 4pm, if he does at all. Even serious investors have to endure this. Ministers still turn up 2-3 hours late for meetings and conferences where they are guests of honour. They deliver a prepared speech and leave soon afterwards. There is no engagement with the audience during or afterwards.
One of the qualities I admired the most in Morgan Tsvangirai was his loyalty to time-keeping. It was almost an obsession. When dealing with him you knew he would be at the appointment at least 10 minutes before time. He hated being late or keeping guests waiting. All his staff knew this. Sometimes they would be caught unawares as he came out of the office or house and went straight to the car. Over time they knew that they had to be alert. I respected his attitude to time, something that should be emulated.
There is also our foreign policy. It's one area where there has been some visible effort to change in the last seven months since the coup. But the problem goes deeper and needs a bold, no-nonsense approach. At multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, Zimbabwe found itself taking positions that did little to advance the national interest. We became the poster-boy of rebellion. Our fellow African nations egged us on, while privately, they looked after their own interests. They got ahead of us, while we stood still, limited to a tiny group of friends. Solidarity is great, but we have to be more worldly-wise and savvy, learning to look after our own interests first before fighting other people's wars.
On the domestic front, Ministers are still treated like little gods. And they believe they are small gods. Ditto senior government officials. They talk down to people, not with the people. There is no time to engage and listen to the people. Juniors fear rather than respect them. It seems being a Minister brings out the worst in people. Arrogance. It is an affliction that did not spare us when we were in the GNU.
To be fair, opportunities were missed during the GNU to make some of these changes. We fell into the old system and complied instead of challenging it. Granted, we really had little power but we could have done more to change. To be better, we must accept our shortcomings. We should have done more to challenge the system and how it works.
But I think we learnt our lessons from the GNU. If the MDC Alliance is given a mandate on 30 July, a key challenge will be to lead a fundamental disruption and overhaul of how government works. If ZANU PF prevails, they too must confront this beast. It can’t be business as usual. Disruption requires courage because the lead agent of such disruption is bound to make enemies among former allies. Disruption is unpopular among the elites who are used to the rent-seeking opportunities of the old system. This has held Mnangagwa back, even if he might have intended to effect changes. He kept old and corrupt ministers because he feared the consequences of disruption on his election campaign.
To use a technological metaphor favoured by the new generation, the government in Zimbabwe needs new settings. Completely new settings. It needs a leader who is prepared to take that gamble and disrupt the status quo. The last 7 months have not shown promise that the new ZANU PF has the appetite or inclination for the kind of disruption that government needs.