Zimbabwe’s Rent-Seekers

I am not one for political writing, but I certainly do have some very strong feelings and thoughts about what has happened and is happening in my beautiful country. I love Zimbabwe, and I believe in seeing the full picture before allowing your mind to be made up about anything.

I have been living outside of Zimbabwe for just over 10 years. I have visited regularly in that time but certainly couldn’t answer for understanding the struggles of those that have not left. Whether inside or outside the country over the last 10 years, it is clear you can make one judgment without too much concern for getting things wrong. The country has been mismanaged.

The Zimbabwe I grew up in was not the early Zimbabwe or Rhodesia that I have heard so much about. I only have vague memories of regular petrol, in fact once I had got my driver’s license and first car, I had never filled up my car at a petrol station. Power cuts were the norm, and my pocket money was very normally over $20,000 and this was just enough for some goodies from “tuck” shop. I was brought up with different reasons for the problems in Zimbabwe ranging from the war and its toll on the countries infrastructure, the colonial powers, the farmers, the government, Zanu-PF, MDC, and even the curse of Nyami Nyami.

The country now shows the very clear evidence of utter fatigue. Fatigue without clear access to resources or time for recovery. The resources have been consumed as a result of removing lucrative and successful farmers from the market, and further exacerbated by the lack of investment in or mere maintenance of key industries. We don’t have time, as there is no food to feed those that cannot afford the imported produce. Those that can afford it in banked value, struggle to actually purchase it as their is no cash to complete the transaction.

I know this is not new to anyone that lives in Zimbabwe, or still follows the happenings of Zimbabwe. I am not informed enough to be able to lay out a reform program that will start to change the country’s path and future, but perhaps by understanding the inner workings of our current situation, rather than simply viewing the headline titles of the issues we may be better equipped to start our own reform processes in the way we do business or even participate in the community.

Today I came across a piece of writing by a Zimbabwean called Merve Mberi, that really defined the culture that our politicians exist within. We are responsible for the cultures we live within as there are always more of us than them, so I have decided to share this, with his permission so that it might give you the same insights it gave me. The purpose of this is not to inspire an uprising, but more to inspire some personal benchmarking in our values. Let’s reset what we are prepared to accept from ourselves, our relationships,  our businesses, our suppliers, and even our government both local and national.

There is a concept called rent-seeking. A rent-seeker is a political actor who uses their political power to extract as much as possible from a system. We have had rent seekers for 35 years in our beautiful country. Rent seekers aren’t actually concerned with creating value and will typically frustrate progress because a frustrated man is more likely to pay the rent. Anytime you see a piece of useless bureaucracy in the system or unclear and uncertain laws, it is an indication of rent-seeking activity. The more red tape there is, the better for a rent-seeker. What happens is that after 35 years, so much progress has been frustrated that the nation falters. No new power stations exist, no new roads, no new investment, no national savings. Once the traditional avenues of obtaining rents have dried up the rent seekers need to find new ways to extract from the country. If there are no businesses to extract from then we need to extract from citizens through road blocks, radio licenses, vending licenses, prepaid water, prepaid electricity, examinations tax, tithes tax, shebeen tax, VAT on tourist accommodation etc.

Another key characteristic of a rent-seeker is that his/her personal fortune will invariably increase while the nation’s fortunes dwindle. Even in these tough times you will find rent-seekers bringing in the latest cars to drive on our potholed roads. The explanation for their wealth is that it is as a result of their business acumen or farming prowess yet judging by the number of rent-seeker banks, mines, hotels that have collapsed they should be in the same predicament as the rest of the country. My question though is if our government has such exceptionally talented businessmen why are all the state-owned businesses defunct and bankrupt? The answer is that the rent-seekers use their positions in state-owned companies to supply uniforms at three times the commercial rate, sell snow graders to rural authorities, pay fraudulent insurance premiums through companies managed by their children etc. Our politicians are rent seeking pretend-businessmen aided and abetted by genuine business people who are too scared (or greedy) to do what they know in their hearts is right.

The only skill you really need as a rent-seeker is the ability to retain political power because it is the political power that makes money available to you. In the mind of a rent-seeker retaining power is the ultimate goal and the only benchmark against which you are judged. Unfortunately, 90% of our country does not understand this and it is not in the best interests of the rent-seeking class to make them understand this. As a result, we have a country that is 98% literate but is unaware of how their government works or is supposed to work. We have a country with 98% literacy, but we do not know anything about the functioning of our civil service, local authorities, judiciary etc. A nation only develops when its people develop and so far we have shown very little interest in developing our people.”

I am sure that anyone with any knowledge of the workings of Zimbabwe will agree that we do have a “rent-seeking” problem. My challenge is this: Is rent-seeking purely a political problem or are we all equally as guilty for allowing this culture into our businesses and jobs?

We are responsible for the cultures that surround us, and we are responsible for ourselves. Business owners, business leaders, and leaders of homes become equally responsible for the cultures in your businesses, teams, and homes. We cannot control other people and therefore, cannot control government, especially in a state that is lacking key democratic qualities. We can only influence other people, and in the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing”

Thank you for reading, I hope that you are able to extract insight, knowledge, challenge, or even just a new point of view. I am certain not everyone will agree with my thinking at this time, so I welcome any discussion so we are better informed.

Special thanks to Mr. Merve Mberi for taking the time to put his thoughts on paper, and even more so for allowing me to share it within this piece. If you have any questions, comments, or even praise for Merve he can be reached on tawi.mbei@gmail.com.

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