The 25th of November marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. From its origins in 1991, the annual campaign is designed to raise awareness on the scourge of violence against women and girls. Originating from the sterling efforts of civil society, it has since been embraced and championed by the United Nations.
The importance of this campaign cannot be overstated. But violence against women is not a historical phenomenon. It is an on-going lived reality, one that manifests in multiple forms.
In the Zimbabwean context, it was always bound to present an awkward moment for political leaders of all shades. It’s fair to say they have not acquitted themselves well when it comes to matters of gender equality and protection of women against violence. The political terrain is particularly hazardous.
This year the commemoration was a particularly bothersome moment for the Zimbabwean government given the behaviour of members of the security services. The brutality has been heinous, carried out in broad daylight and in the full glare of cameras.
This year, rather late in the day, and what looked like an afterthought, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s president, tweeted his thoughts. “Today is the International Day for the #EliminationOfViolenceAgainstWomen,” he wrote. “We must all strive for a more equal & peaceful society, where violence has no place,” he said aspiringly before declaring matter-of-factly, “In Zimbabwe we are working hard to protect women from violence, to eliminate this evil phenomenon once & for all.”
All good words, indeed. But this was most awkward, a point that was reiterated by a majority of his respondents. “How are you working hard to protect women from violence when your government is administering so much violence on women and girls?,” is the question that best encapsulates the responses. They reminded him of the jarring gap between his words and the actual behaviour of his government towards women and girls.
Perturbing picture of violence
Just a week before, members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) had viciously assaulted people in central Harare on the assumption that they were opposition supporters who had gathered to listen to a speech by their leader, Nelson Chamisa. Among those who suffered the savage treatment were women and girls of various ages. Some had nothing to do with the gathering. They were just caught up in the police-induced melee and paid a terrible price.
One image that went around the world depicted a heavily clad police officer deliberately and callously tripping a woman who was fleeing the scene of assault. One of her shoes had already fallen off. It was plain in the posture in one of the images that she had subsequently met the ground with heavy force, a circumstance that would almost certainly have caused her grievous physical harm. It was an alarming image of violence.
Another showed an elderly woman with a blood-stained head, evidencing a nasty gash caused by the force of a police officer’s truncheon. The officer who caused this would have intended serious harm upon a woman old enough to be their parent. A third unsettling image showed a young woman sitting helplessly on the pavement, her leg broken and in excruciating pain as members of the Fourth Estate solicited information for their copy. These were all victims of disturbing violence administered by members of the police, on behalf of the state.
But here was Mnangagwa on social media, hardly a week later nonchalantly claiming “In Zimbabwe, we are working hard to protect women from violence, to eliminate this evil phenomenon once & for all.” He not commented, as if nothing had happened, when police officers were violent towards women just the week before.
The level of dissonance is astounding. Is it because he is simply out of touch? Surely, he knows what’s happening, so he both approves of it and believes it is justified. But how does someone who knows that violence is his regime’s stock-in-trade still go on to claim they are working hard to protect women from violence, the exact opposite?
Some will say he has little control over his Twitter handle, which is managed by his agents. But this would be an easy cop out; a cheap way to abdicate responsibility. He is not the one who physically beat up people in Harare but we hold him responsible because the police officers are agents of the state that he leads. He is not the one paving roads but his supporters give him credit because those doing it are agents of the government that he runs. Therefore, what appears on his verified Twitter handle is his output. If he did not approve of the contents produced on that Twitter handle he would have disowned it long back. The output from that account is legitimately his unless and until he disowns it.
Perception v Reality
In any event, this is not the only instance of dissonance between what Mnangagwa thinks of his performance and actual reality. He has claimed several times that his administration is doing well despite evidence to the contrary. The same is true of his Cabinet ministers. For example, his Finance Minister, Professor Mthuli Ncube genuinely believes he is doing a fantastic job. His most ardent supporters genuinely think so too. He spent months cooing about a “surplus”, for him a mark of success even as vexed citizens found themselves sinking deeper into poverty.
So does the governor of the central bank, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, John Mangundya. He is convinced that he is performing well or he would have kept his word and resigned upon the failure of the bond note. Likewise, the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, Obadiah Moyo might also regard himself as doing very well even though the public healthcare system has virtually broken down. He fires doctors because, in his opinion, they are wrong, not him.
How is it that these people, who are so obviously failing, believe they are doing very well? This is a question that I have grappled with for some time. I was trying to understand why there is such a gap between the performance of these men and their perceptions of their performance. There are no answers in law. I doubt there are easy answers in politics. It’s more than a Machiavellian strategy of deception. Those who seek to deceive at least know that they are lying. They can separate the truth from the lies they present to the people. These people actually believe their version of events. They do not think they are lies. When Mnangagwa says his government is “working hard to eradicate violence against women” he actually believes this to be true. I thought if there are answers, they must lie elsewhere, perhaps in other fields.
Perhaps there is some psycho-social explanation for this behaviour quite distinct from egotism and misplaced hopefulness.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
As I wrestled with these questions, I remembered reading an article describing a psychological phenomenon that might provide an explanation for this behaviour. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after two researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
I first read it a couple of years ago when interest in it spiked following the election of Donald Trump as US President. He is someone who despite his apparent dislike of reading claims to know everything, even challenging the existing body of scientific opinion regarding climate change. Simply put, the Dunning-Kruger Effect explains why people who are incompetent at a particular task tend to overestimate their abilities and think they are actually very competent. If they are given a task and asked to rate themselves they would put themselves in the top tier even though in reality they would be in the lowest tier. This is because, research has concluded, a person who is incompetent at a particular task does not possess the skill to know that he is incompetent.
The research by Dunning and Kruger was sparked by a rather bizarre case in 1995, when a man robbed two banks in broad daylight. He did not bother to wear a mask when he carried out the robbery, believing instead that he was invisible to the CCTV cameras. He held this belief because he had smeared lemon juice on his face. He was convinced that lemon juice would make him invisible to the cameras. He genuinely believed that lemon juice would protect him.
Dunning and Kruger ran several experiments on their students. They gave them tasks to do, then asked them to rate their performance against others. They found that those who had the lowest scores always thought they had done very well. Poor performers always overestimated their abilities. Conversely those who had done well had underestimated themselves.
They concluded that low performers hold that view not just because of ego or high confidence, but because they lacked the capacity to accurately assess themselves. The high performers on the other hand tend to underestimate themselves because they are conscious of what they know and take it for granted that everyone else can do it.
Or in the case of high performers, it could just be said knowledge is humbling. When you read more and acquire knowledge, you are reminded that there is so much more that you don’t know whereas those with little knowledge think there is not much else beyond what they already know. As Charles Darwin once wrote in the book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.
We can all remember the chap who couldn’t kick a football but never understood why no one was picking him for their team. In his mind, he was convinced that he was a top player. We have all seen people who appear on television talent shows and are disappointed when they are not picked to progress. They would have performed atrociously but in their minds they would have done exceptionally well to warrant further progress.
Also, in social settings, there is always a chap who presents himself as more knowledgeable than the rest of the group at their first meeting. Later it becomes clear that they really don’t know much.
In our own context, it’s not surprising that there is an epidemic of “doctorates” some of which are literally bought from dubious institutions or ghost-written on behalf of paying elites. If you ask holders of these purchased doctoral degrees, they will claim to have superior knowledge than they actually possess.
The thing in common among these people is that they overestimate themselves despite their deficiencies.
These examples might seem innocuous. But this could be doctors who are responsible for people’s lives. Imagine the consequences if a surgeon overestimates his ability? It would put patients’ lives in great jeopardy. It could also be political leaders in charge of nations. Overestimating their abilities puts the entire nation at serious risk. Overestimating their performance means they continue to do the wrong things, while still convinced that they are doing very well.
When Mnangagwa, Ncube and other ministers say they are doing well, they mean it. They genuinely think they are performing wonders. Therefore, when Mnangagwa says his government is working hard to fight violence against women, he believes this is true despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
If at one of the annual gatherings of the African Union in Addis Ababa a researcher asked leaders of the 54 African countries to rate their performance against each other, it wouldn’t be surprising if more than 90 percent place themselves in the top 5 percent, never mind that this is a mathematical impossibility. Mnangagwa will most likely include himself among the top performers. Likewise if you asked the 54 African Finance Ministers and central bank governors, Mthuli Ncube and John Mangundya would probably place themselves among the best performers.
Mnangagwa’s opponents and critics might take it for granted that the man’s failings are obvious even to him and people around him. This is a gross miscalculation. They don’t know that the man does not recognise that he is failing. Instead, he is convinced that he is doing very well. The trouble with people in that zone of zero self-awareness is that they are not receptive to criticism. They are arrogant and stubborn. It’s because they believe they know it all and everyone else is wrong. If there is a problem they truly believe it is someone else’s fault.
It’s important to get out of this illusion of superior performance. But this is hard to do when one has limited knowledge. A much-quoted line in this context is from Socrates who is reputed to have said “wisdom is knowing you know nothing”. If you know that you do not know, you will not think you know a lot.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari calls it “the discovery of ignorance”, a circumstance that was critical to humankind’s inventive capability and progress. Only when humans discovered that they did not know, he argues, did they begin find out more and in the process, made progress. When humans thought they knew all that they needed to know, they were content with what they had but there was no improvement because there was no search for further knowledge.
Likewise, if leaders discover that they do not know, they might strive to find out more and to do more. If Mnangagwa discovers his ignorance, he might stop overrating his performance and instead do more to improve. But as long as he believes he knows, and refuses to take criticism, he will continue to make the same errors and incompetences.
It’s not just a Zimbabwean phenomenon. The Washington Post called it “the confidence of the incompetent”. It could apply to leaders in the U.K., Uganda, Rwanda, the US, China,Russia, or another country. It could apply anywhere in the world. I have merely applied it to the Zimbabwean context. It is also not limited to the ruling parties in these countries. The Dunning-Kruger phenomenon is present in all of us depending on issues. I have only used it in relation to the Zimbabwean government and to its performance in economic and violence against women and girls where there is a clear cognitive bias on the part of the leaders.
Gata-gate at ZESA
I’m old enough to remember a time when the saying “ZESA moto muzhinji” was a popular cliché among Zimbabweans. It was a cliché which meant everything was going swimmingly. It represented efficiency. The cliché had its origins from the national power utility’s reputation for efficiency in delivering electricity.
If your household did not have electricity, it would only be on account of your failure to pay the bill. The ZESA man would come and switch off the power. Zimbabwe’s industry was running at full throttle but ZESA was able to meet demand. Few at the time could have foreseen that ZESA would become a museum of failure. With daily power-cuts of up to 18 hours a day, ZESA is so unreliable that it has turned into a symbol of gross inefficiency.
There are several factors that account for ZESA’s current decrepit state and its inability to deliver regular power supplies. The persistent drought and low water levels at Kariba Dam have not helped the situation. But the causes of ZESA’s challenges cannot be attributed to the hand of nature alone. The bulk of them are man-made (and the culprits are almost exclusively men).
One of the deep-rooted causes is gross mismanagement. A second is sheer incompetence. The other is egregious corruption. A fourth factor is political interference. All of these factors owe their existence to human agents. They are entirely avoidable, if the men entrusted to lead and direct ZESA had the appetite to prevent them. You need the right people at the head of ZESA, preferably new names that have new ideas and detachment from old failures. The case of ZESA is not isolated. It is the same at almost all state-owned entities, both commercial and non-commercial.
When the current Minister of Energy and Power Development, Fortune Chasi was appointed earlier this year, he made an undertaking to improve corporate governance in the institutions under his charge. One of them is ZESA, the struggling power utility. The amount of corruption at ZESA and its subsidiaries uncovered by the Auditor General was staggering.
There is the notorious case of Pito Investments which was paid US$4.9 million by a ZESA subsidiary to supply transformers. Not a single transformer was ever delivered. Nobody has been held accountable and the money has not been recovered. Another is the case of Wicknell Chivhayo, paid US$5 million for a solar power project in Gwanda. Apart from amassing a variety of shoes which he displays on social media, Chivhayo managed to build a shack at the site. Still, he sued the power utility and won his case. The amount of incompetence and corruption at ZESA is scandalous.
Many hopes were raised when Chasi made a swashbuckling entrance into the ministry. He announced a call for nominations and applications for board positions at ZESA. He had promptly sacked the existing board which had been appointed by his struggling and blundering predecessor, Joram Gumbo, pointing out that it was not showing the urgency demanded by the seriousness of ZESA’s challenges. This suggested a man on a big mission to revolutionise the way things were done at ZESA and beyond - a new era of modern and progressive corporate governance.
Nevertheless, the process of appointing the new board took some time. It may have had something to do with the volume of applications that were received. As the months passed, the market almost forgot about the appointments. Then a bombshell was dropped in the third week of November.
It was announced that Sydney Gata was the new Executive Chairman of ZESA. The rest of the board was announced a few days later. It was Gata’s appointment that drew the headlines, unsurprising because not even the most adventurous mind could have imagined it. It was an unlikely return for a man who just over a decade before had been fired from the same organization and from the same position.
The appointment of Gata in many ways symbolises the tragic character of the Zimbabwean story since that heady week of November 2017 when the then long-serving ruler Robert Mugabe was dethroned in a coup. The subsequent regime has tried to build a facade of newness, even touting itself the New Dispensation. But just as day follows night, the reality of its oldness always outshines the facade. It is like an old man trying too hard to present an appearance of youth but failing dismally and embarrassingly at the task.
Gata at ZESA may be a new name to readers of a younger generation but to those of older stock, he is a disappointingly familiar name. Gata was fired from ZESA in 2006. Gata had been at the helm of ZESA for a long time, first as General Manager, then as Chief Executive Officer in 2000 and Executive Chairman in 2003. He enjoyed the advantage of proximity to political power as he was married to Regina Gata, sister to the then president, Robert Mugabe. He was something of an untouchable, at least until that sacking in 2006.
An old and hardened hand
So point number one, is that Gata is not a new hand at ZESA; not a breath of fresh air at all. He is part of the old order that had a role in the failings of the institution. As news website NewZwire says when he was last at ZESA, “he ran the organisation as if it was a family grocery store”. NewZwire chronicles Gata’s legacy of failure and improper conduct which included misuse of corporate property for personal benefit and costly deals which left ZESA in huge debt.
One of his major legacies was splitting ZESA into several entities, which resulted in a multilayered and costly management structure. This fact has become apparent to the government and incredibly it is choosing the man who once described the unbundling as a success to rebuild dole it again. To quote NewZWire again, “the man who unbundled ZESA, now has the job to rebundle it”.
It is difficult to see what else he might do now that he didn’t do 15 years ago when he was in charge of the same institution. He was Executive Chairman then and he is Executive Chairman now. It’s almost a joke under a regime that calls itself a New Dispensation but it is tragically true.
A thoroughly conflicted man
The second point is that Gata is a seriously conflicted man on account of his previous relationship with ZESA. He contested his sacking and got compensation from ZESA including cash, a house in an upmarket residential area of Harare and luxury vehicles. He even sued ZESA for US$10 million at the Labour Court. That labour case was thrown out by the court in just last year. Now, incredibly he is back in the all-powerful role as Executive Chairman.
So here is a man who fought a bitter battle with the organisation and lost but in a dramatic turn of events he is now back as the top dog. It defies logic, let alone sound principles of corporate governance. It’s as if the shareholder is saying to an ex-Chairman, “Sorry you lost your case against us, but don’t worry we are going to give you your job back”. How the stars have lined up perfectly for Gata, to emerge a winner from a moment of defeat defies rational explanation. It’s the stuff of banana republics.
At least three things are certain to happen:
In the first place, Gata will make maximum use of his newly-acquired power to make up for what he lost over the past 13 years, including the court case. As Executive Chairman, his is no ordinary power.
In addition, Gata will vindictively target members of the organisation who were against him during his struggles against ZESA. NewZWire notes that he already has form when it comes to aggression towards staff that are not in his favour. There will be casualties among staff at ZESA and not always because they are corrupt. ZESA needs a clean-up, but not by someone who has previously been discarded in a previous clean-up. Vindictiveness will be packaged as reform.
Finally, since existing staff are conscious of the enormous power that Gata wields on his third coming, there will be a lot of fawning as they try to be on his good side. Sycophants will turn into super-charged sycophants while otherwise rational staff will be forced into kowtowing to avoid rocking the boat. Sooner or later ZESA will resemble a flock of sheep obeying every command of an iron-fisted shepherd. We have already seen a bizarre ritual at one of the ZESA sites, where the returning Gata was inspecting a mock guard of honour, as if he were a commander. It is a ridiculous sight but probably apt as a symbol of the fiefdom that ZESA will be under his charge.
Contrary to Corporate Governance
Third, appointing Gata to the role of Executive Chairman goes against principles of
modern corporate governance. If Gata was running a family business, the desire to control the board and management might be understandable even if that’s undesirable. But this is a major national corporation. There is a good reason why the legislature enacted the Public Enterprise Corporate Governance Act. It was to ensure public enterprises like ZESA are run on the basis of sound principles of corporate governance.
While the Act provides for exceptions, it relegates it to the point of uselessness when Ministers ignore its provisions to suit expediency. What is the point of this Act if a major public enterprise like ZESA is run by an Executive Chairman, the equivalent of an authoritarian figure in corporate circles? There is supposed to be a healthy distance between the Chairman and the executive management so that one exercises supervisory authority over the other. But as Executive Chairman, Gata is both an active player and referee at the same time. It goes against the letter and spirit of sound corporate governance.
This is a highly disappointing outcome, you wonder whether this was Chasi’s decision or it was one from the top that he could not refuse. But as long as he is the Minister in charge, the presumption is that it is his decision unless he disowns it. Chasi was supposed to be the modern politician who would breathe in a new wave of corporate governance and he promised as much when he arrived. But the appointment of Gata as Executive Chairman is the exact opposite not just in age and history but also in his station.
This BSR dealt with two issues.
First, we inquired into why Mnangagwa and his team make extraordinary claims of their performance that aren’t backed by reality. This was prompted by Mnangagwa’s claim this week that his government was working hard to protect women from violence when it is busy using violence against women. It’s easy to dismiss this as a political act of deception. I suspect it’s more than that. Mnangagwa and his team believe their claims. I have suggested that answers may lie in other fields beyond politics and I have drawn on the Dunning-Kruger Effect to try and make sense of this incredulous behavior. They do not possess the capacity to recognise their own incompetence. They must discover ignorance so that they learn more and improve.
The second issue was the recent re-appointment of Sydney Gata as Executive Chairman of ZESA. It is a shocking appointment that defies logic both in respect of the person and the position of Executive Chairman which is against the spirit of modern rules of corporate governance. There is so much about the man and his history with the company, against which he fought and lost, that militates against the appointment. It was already plain that there was nothing new in this dispensation, despite claims to the contrary, but the return of Gata clears any benefit of doubt that observers may have been prepared to extend to it. Tragically, Mnangagwa and his minister believes they actually did the right thing.
It is a tragic failure of leadership, to use the words of Nelson Mandela.