When expanding media shrink our minds: Part One …case of the debate on chiefs

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

THIS is not a complaint against the growth of the media sector.
It is a demonstration of the failure of that phenomenal growth of the media sector to produce a dividend for the reader, the listener and the viewer commensurate with that growth.
Let me take as an example what the majority of the media platforms and outlets are telling us about the outcome of the meeting in Gweru between President E.D. Mnangagwa and the Chiefs Council on January 13 2018.
I listened to several radio talk shows about the outcome of that meeting before I decided to check other outlets where I found the following headlines among others:
l ‘ED accused of bribing chiefs’
l ‘(Chief Fortune) Charumbira defends chiefs’ luxury amidst poverty’
l ‘Chiefs back ED Mnangagwa administration’
l ‘Mnangagwa dishes out 226 vehicles to chiefs despite preaching cost-cutting’
l ‘Mnangagwa gives new luxury cars to chiefs’ and
l ‘When a chief becomes a lawyer’
For the majority of the media outlets two things from that Gweru indaba were used to stoke controversy:
l First, Government’s policy to offer twin-cab trucks to chiefs to make them mobile and more efficient when carrying out their duties; and
l Second, the statement by the Chiefs Council in support of the November 2017 transition in Government and in support of President E.D. Mnangagwa’s leadership of that transition.
Debate on the second item deserves a feature article on its own.
For now, let me focus on debate about the first item by pointing out the reasons the frame put on the issue by most media outlets amounts to shrinking our understanding of Zimbabwe’s history, our understanding of Zimbabwean society, our understanding of the economy of Zimbabwe and our understanding of the ideal which the Constitution of Zimbabwe in Section 13 (1) (d) calls ‘balanced development’:
l The first reason for my conclusion on the media’s framing of the chiefs’ benefits and the January 13 2018 Gweru meeting is that it deleted an item discussed at the meeting which is more fundamental for understanding the persistent urban-centric bias against chiefs; against rural communities; against the indigenous reconstruction and development of African living law; and against the application of African aesthetics to the dress codes for chiefs, judges and magistrates.
The issue which was deleted from most of the media reports was, however, reported briefly by The Patriot of January 19 2018 on Page 3 under the title ‘Zimbabwe needs cleansing’.
l The second reason for my conclusion on the media’s framing of the chiefs’ benefits is that the number of Senators and Members of National Assembly constituting our Parliament is far much bigger than the number of chiefs whose pending vehicles and benefits some media have turned into a scandal.
l The third is that in terms of the ideal of balanced development, Parliament is a captive of the capital city, not only because it is based there, but also because it is bombarded by NGOs, the press, broadcasters, urban lawyers and law-firms as well as state agencies who are all Harare-centric and who produce statistics and other information biased in favour of cities and towns and against rural communities. The fact that in some cases this bias is structural and not a conspiracy does not make the bias benign or irrelevant. The bias remains critical to development.
l The fourth reason for my conclusion is that the journalists, NGOs and opposition political parties claiming that a twin-cab truck is a luxury in the middle of rural poverty undermine and contradict their main argument when they admit that 75 percent of the vote at the upcoming elections will come from the very same rural areas where the chiefs work and live with the people everyday.
Indeed; the way forward in such a situation would not be to deny means of transport for community leaders of 75 percent of the people and restrict them to just donkeys and scotch carts: It would be to extend the vehicle policy to other key institutions in the same areas, including headmen, training centres, schools and any other structures making a contribution to the upgrading of livelihoods among 75 percent of the people!
l The fifth reason is that in addition to their central development function in rural areas, chiefs are also forced to work as judges and magistrates among their people because the Roman Dutch law-based Judicial Services Commission and its procedures and processes still remain too alien and too expensive for that same majority.
It follows from this reason that an intelligent journalist would challenge the opposition parties and activists at least to compare the actual daily productivity of a chief against that of a judge and a magistrate in relation to the entire people of Zimbabwe and the bulk of the economy.
l The sixth reason, which I shall elaborate later, is that the chiefs are not being scrutinised and evaluated on the basis of the values and needs of the majority who admittedly yield 75 percent of the vote in national elections.
Mostly, they are criticised according to imported or neo-colonial conventions popularised in cities.
The other side of this issue is that the bulk of the economy of Zimbabwe outside Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Gweru and Masvingo is also not being examined, understood and discussed in terms of what actually happens on the ground there but solely in terms of a mind-shrinking network of city-based and city-biased institutions and traditions who have also captured the soul of Parliament. These institutions include:
l Trade unions trained to only think in terms of jobs and salaries when discussing the economy;
l The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) whose idea of the bread basket is also urban-biased and inadequately researched in terms of the whole Zimbabwean economy and society;
l Journalists, editors and their media houses who are driven by the struggle for a shrinking urban-based advertising dollar and who tend to replace what they could experience in Muzarabani, Dotito, Chiredzi, Zaka, Chisumbanje and Gokwe with that they can ‘google’ and download;
l Retail chains and their corporate suppliers who collude on pricing of goods and services in order to retain existing market share while excluding the bulk of the population. These retailers are the source of the urban-biased statistics used by ZIMSTAT, Parliament, the trade unions and the CCZ.
l Bankers and so-called economists who also do not know what to do with the majority of the people. Some of them, during the same time of debate on chiefs, actually came out saying Bond Notes must be withdrawn from circulation while thousands of ordinary people were queuing for the same notes and while there was no substitute in sight. It is obvious that such urban-centric attitudes and practices can never lead to the ‘balanced development’ which the Constitution requires.
l Lawyers in general and the Zimbabwe Law Society who continue to ignore the subject of African living law as a way of maintaining its colonial straight jacket under the pejorative cliché of Native Customary Law.
Some of those opposing the provision of trucks to chiefs said that tractors should have been provided instead. This insight helped to acknowledge at least that there is a real economy out there which is not catered for in the usual urban-centred debates.
But the urban-biased suggestion failed to realise that tillage is not a substitute for transport. People using tractors still need fuel, spare parts and markets for the produce from the tilled land.
Rather than say, stop issuing trucks and issue tractors instead, the panellists should have challenged other institutions to now add tractors to the trucks. Such an approach would show understanding that there is a real economy out there where the chiefs work and live with the majority of the people.
One company, a few decades ago, built its niché upon a study and understanding of the entire Zimbabwe economy. Today it boasts a full national network of service provision: That is Nyaradzo Funeral Services.
So what are the national policy problems which arise from these stories; from the unusual collusion involving the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, ZIMSTAT, the press, NGOs, economists, urban-based politicians and the Law Society of Zimbabwe?
The first is that each institution in itself already assumes a problematic approach to economic reality, each one already uses a sort of short-hand or convention which is reductionist in that it oversimplifies reality.
It would be alright for the end-user of the joint output if the various conventions; consumerist, quantitative, legalistic and journalistic; mitigated one another.
Instead of mitigating one another, the urban-centric institutions and their conventions present a real hazard for policymakers and for citizens trying to understand the whole economy and its society.

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