By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

WHEN Anna Tibaijuka was sent to Zimbabwe by the United Nations on a fact-finding mission to investigate a slum-clearance project, then called Murambatsvina, I wrote on a chapter on the same issue which concluded that Tibaijuka’s report had been so badly politicised as to miss critical reasons for the project.  

The summary can be found under ‘Reading the 2005 Tibaijuka Report on Zimbabwe in Global Context,’ www.researchgate.net.

Sure enough, 15 years after Tibaijuka’s report, the Harare City Council has carried out an operation which is almost an identical repeat of Operation Murambatsvina without being attacked by the UN, NGOs, the Press and opposition parties the same way the Government of Zimbabwe was attacked in 2005-2006.  

COVID-19 has transformed perspectives.

The purpose of this instalment is not to revisit Operation Murambatsvina but to point out the way in which African countries, including Zimbabwe, often fail to respond to the needs of their own people in their own original ways and according to their own means.  Because of the political polarisation resulting from the illegal regime change politics of the time, Zimbabwe’s own side of the story in the Tibaijuka inquiry was ignored.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it back with a vengeance.  There would be no need now, 15 years after Operation Murambatsvina, for the Harare City Council, under the opposition MDC Alliance, to imitate in 2020 exactly what Central Government did in 2005, if we, as Zimbabweans, had handled the on-going challenge of neo-colonial settlement patterns in cities in our own way and with long-term foresight. 

Likewise, we risk missing the significance of the COVID-19 for neo-liberal ‘Reform’ if we do not think of the pandemic in terms of the indigenous long-term requirements and needs of all our people.  

The risk arises from the fact that neo-liberal reforms, since the Economic Structural Adjustment of the 1990s, have been externally defined and driven.  

In the same way the stock responses to COVID-19 are externally defined and driven, pausing the risk that we miss out on what we need to do for the long-term for our own people.  

It is not only the double-standards demonstrated by coverage of Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 as opposed to 2020 which expose the weakness of our self-analysis and self-criticism.  

The following introduction to a Herald story on the COVID-19 shows that the blinkers revealed in the media treatment of urban slum clearance still persist to this day and are affecting our national response to COVID-19.  Here is The Herald intro:

“The legal list of essential services was widened to allow farmers to prepare for the winter cropping season and harvesting during the 21-day lockdown.” (The Herald, 14 April 2020).

The story went on to suggest that what made farms essential services was the fact that they were going to grow winter wheat which was needed for bread.  

The reality was, however, that the majority of farmers in Zimbabwe at present cannot afford to grow wheat because all the inputs from seed, fertilisers, water and harvesting equipment are much too expensive if not completely scarce and out of reach.  

Moreover, from the perspective of the majority of farmers and the people in Zimbabwe, especially those who remember the recession of 2007-2009, it would have been easy to foresee that the original Statutory Instrument which left out farming as an essential service during the lockdown was the real news story because it revealed a most dangerous top-down and office-bound bias in Government when it came to the day-to-day experience of the majority.  

After all, it was the resettled African farmer who saved the towns and cities from hunger during the 2007-2009 recession when all the shelves in supermarkets became bare. In Harare, at that time, even foreign diplomats had to go to Mbare Musika to buy food provided by smallholder farmers.

The Patriot newspaper is not alone in calling for African governments to put together multidisciplinary teams of intellectuals and technocrats to think ahead about long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

There is a continental document called ‘Open Letter from African Intellectuals to African Leaders Over COVID-19’. It can be found on Aljazeera.com/amp/indep.

The concerns of the 50 or so African intellectuals and academics are almost identical to those same concerns which The Patriot has warned Government about since the beginning of the new dispensation and even before.

λ The first one has to do with the almost universal euphoria throughout Africa that this region is on the verge of phenomenal prosperity. The problem with this sort of pentecostal economics is that it is (or it was until COVID-19) entirely based on questionable projections of GDP growth.  These projections have now vanished and have been replaced dire warnings of impending economic disaster in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the African intellectuals are pointing out that it is going to be easy for African leaders to use the pandemic as an alibi, when in fact the euphoria about impending prosperity was always questionable even before the pandemic.  

There were always nagging questions about whether or not neoliberal economic reforms had thoroughly been thought through to begin with. 

The Patriot, on several occasions, asked how and whether Zimbabwe’s austerity and stabilisation phases of reform had ben reconciled with the lingering long-term effects of sanctions under ZDERA, with effects of drought on the people and the economy, with effects of Cyclone Idai, and with the on-going effects of HIV-AIDS.

This means the coronavirus pandemic has now to be included in that equation.  This means the COVID-19 is only revealing and worsening challenges which already existed long before its outbreak.

λ The second concern by the African scholars is that the African governing elite may be tempted to respond to the coronavirus pandemic only or mainly from its own class position without taking into full account the potential differential impacts of the crisis across the whole society. 

 This would be catastrophic for the povo because COVID-19 is only one of the cumulative service disasters and crises which the people have gone through. Indeed the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies trying to help different national health services in the wake of COVID-19 have been struck by a fact which we already knew:  

For those countries, especially under US sanctions, the health sector was one of the earliest to suffer right from the beginning of the sanctions regime.  Therefore, sanctions, in fact, destroy national health systems.  Cuba understood this from the very beginning of the US blockade in 1960 and therefore

went about reorganising its health sector with the precise aim of enabling the povo to withstand the effects of sanctions on health.  

As a result, Cuban doctors and medical brigades are on demand in more than 80 countries, including Italy, as we go to press. 

In other words, the African intellectuals and academics are calling on African governments to use the COVID-19 as a chance to pay attention to the peculiar and particular living conditions of the majority of the people and not to assume that what the elites in the cities need or want is also what the povo everywhere need or want. 

 In the case of Zimbabwe, for instance, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe (BAZ) both assumed at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown that the entire population of Zimbabwe could rely on point-of-sale (POS) swipe cards, telecom money transfer platforms and the internet to carry out transactions.

These wrong assumptions failed to take into account the cost of POS machines for small and informal operators; the cost of operating debit-swipe cards for ordinary households; the cost of cellphone handsets, airtime and data bundles for the same people and so on.

λ The third concern is over the relevance to or resonance of national institutions in relation to the real needs of the majority. A crisis has the potential to expose the bankruptcy or irrelevance of key national institutions on which the governing elites lavish big budgets.  

In the North, this has happened with technology-intensive and highly privatised health services which have been found to be irrelevant when it comes to the need for public service health accessible to everybody in the face of an indiscriminate pandemic.  

National security institutions in the North have also been exposed as inadequate or irrelevant because they have tended to under-rate or ignore public health as a national security matter.  

So, the question arises:  Which national institutions have performed badly in response to the COVID-19 crisis?  Did we find the planning function using Integrated Result-Based Management (IRBM) to be relevant to our national response to the COVID-19 challenge against all sectors of society and the economy? 

Or is ‘strategic planning’ something that remains strategic only on paper and is set aside during crises, only to be dusted up and imposed again when the challenges constituting the crisis are forgotten?

λ The last concern, for lack of space here, is the question of the national ethos or value system underlying state activity, state intervention in society and social activities of the people.

  The challenge is that the state, as set up by imperialists and settlerists alike, was an instrument of oppression against the povo. 

 Did African liberation movements, who replaced settler-regimes, indeed create a qualitatively different state or does the state remain basically the same? 

This question goes back to the founding of pan-Africanism and to the older generation of intellectuals and academics represented, for instance, by Maimire Mennasmay’s essay Political Theory, Political Science and African Development in the Journal of African Studies, Volume 16 Number 2 of 1982. 

“The specific historical development of African polities is such that, at present [in the 1980s], the political system in each of the African countries is the state and its agencies. 

The African state claims to ‘develop’ the country, to ‘modernise’ society, to ‘build a nation’; it claims to feed, educate and take care of the health of the people.  It sees itself as the creator of a better future and a new community.

  This is indeed a unique claim within the history of African societies, and it is radically different from the history of the relationships of the state and society in the West. 

In other words, the problematic of African politics designate the state itself as the primary agency of economic, political, and cultural oppression, and consequently calls for the development of a theory of the state which can show what type of state, in view of the historical characteristics of each African country, can express the aims of emancipation. 

This means that the primary question for political inquiry does not arise from the concerns of the performance of the political system in utilizing human and material resources, but from concerns regarding the telos of such utilization: oppression or emancipation… it is possible to see a divorce between   the two problematics.  The primary questions of one differ from the primary questions of the other.”

Mennasmay’s observations are based on a long history of the evolution of the state. In the age of absolute monarchies, it was an instrument to enrich, strengthen and extend the power of the monarch.

In the age of chattel slavery, the state benefitted from the slave trade while extending and defending it as one of its institutions.

In the age of empires, the imperial state was an instrument to manage imperialism and its extension and expansion through colonialisation and settlerism.

When the capitalist bourgeois defeated the monarchy, the state became an instrument for the expansion, promotion and defence of bourgeois class exploitation of workers under capitalism. 

When the working class organised against capitalist exploitation, there was a short-lived period of what was called the welfare state, which is what neo-liberal reform has decimated through privatisation.

When colonised Africans waged their liberation struggles, they promised to construct a transformed revolutionary state which would meet the needs and requirements of the masses.

However, all over Africa, the African ruling class has maintained colonial boundaries and made the African state and African nationalism to fit into the straightjacket left by colonialism.  Even the definition of basic state institutions has remained, at best, neo-colonial.

This is the status quo which the COVID-19 pandemic has torn apart both at the global and the local level. It is not only the borders which have been rendered more ridiculous now than ever in the history of independent Africa; even national state assets have become questionable.  

Differential development of African nations and regions is no longer an obvious advantage for those who claim to be better developed.

Enjoying a so-called better lifestyle in a suburb or in Cape Town than in Chirundu or Harare cannot, and does not, make the more prosperous areas immune from this borderless scourge.  

At a global level, the UN can no longer afford to be united in rhetoric alone.  

The threat of COVID-19 has spread far beyond the threats posed by Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.  

Even worse, under COVID-19, no power can afford unilaterally to amass troops and to wage a hot war against weaker neighbours.  

Such an attempt would provoke a sharp mutiny from the serving soldiers.  

So, COVID-19 demobilises even the mass armies which gave Hitler and his nemesis such glory.  

COVID-19 has achieved Hitler’s blitzkrieg, overrunning borders, without massed armies.


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