When Finance minister Tendai Biti speaks, what is unmistakable is his exuberance of youth, often couched in alluring language, laced with terminology that etymologists have yet to discover.
Choicest terms from his lingo basket include juntacratisation which refers to the militarisation of state institutions.
He has also given us thugocracy; the art of using brutish tactics to ensure that opponents toe the line.
At Wednesday’s breakfast meeting for chief executives of big corporates — organised by our sister publication the Zimbabwe Independent and accounting firm Ernst & Young — the temptation for Biti to roll out another term was always going to be there, despite the attendant restraint expected at such a formal meeting.
He did not really do that but gave another dimension of the art of being a thug.
On Wednesday, in front of key decision-makers in business, Biti employed this almost reckless artistry to dramatise the point that a new generation of leaders was required to take this “vandalised society” forward in the face of immense adversity.
He is leading the charge. He says he has taken many blows on the way but has survived because he is a “thug”. He invited business leaders to take up the cudgels and join him in this fight.
“Are you prepared to take up the challenge . . . Mr Ngwerume,” he quizzed them, daring Old Mutual CEO Luke Ngwerume to join him.
The business leader was for a moment tongue-tied, perhaps not sure about the thug reference.
I’m sure he wished his board was close by to give him direction on this one.
These theatrics aside, Biti however drove the point home that Zimbabwe, like many post-Independence African states, was suffering from what he termed “exhausted nationalism” because a new crop of leaders had not come forward to take up the responsibility of transformation.
“Most of you are young and we are in the same generation,” said Biti. “I think that this country has a challenge. The generation of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo delivered this country, delivered national liberation, I think that was their obligation and they delivered.”
He added: “From 1980 to now, I think we have had a hiatus because we are asking one generation which had prosecuted an important task to carry over a new task of reconstructing and rebuilding a new Zimbabwe.
It is not possible. It is not possible because you get exhausted.”
Then he threw a strange cricket analogy: “(On a cricket pitch) nationalism is batting well; it is bowling well; when it is dealing with the issue of one-man one-vote (and) when it is dealing with the issue of racial democratisation. That is its forte.”
The comparison then quickly moved to the soccer field: “But when it comes to statecraft and the economy, it is a totally different ball game.
The tragedy of Africa is that the inheritors of state power at independence were a generation of teachers, peasants, petty-farmers and so on. They inherited a very complicated state; the generation of Nyerere, Kaunda . . . They were playing at home when it was a struggle for decolonisation, and they were playing away when it was the struggle of rebuilding a post-independence state.”
He said post-independence states, Zimbabwe included, had witnessed a wasted 30 years because “those who have been presiding over the economy have little knowledge of statecraft and the complexity of nation building”.
He then invited business leaders to run the gauntlet with him. “We have to grab this baton stick from the generation that thinks it has a divine right to hold on to it (and) then we have to execute the generational task of rebuilding this economy . . . Our nations have become what we call failed states or altered states.”
He said an altered state was one that was fundamentally diverted from its key obligations and made to concentrate on power, coups with “tribal reproduction of states, patronage and corruption.
This has been the concentration, the centre; the soul and the DNA of post-independent African states”.
Biti wants to make politics “uncyclical”. He wants business to help him “dilute, mitigate and remove politics from the centre stage because politics is debilitating, it is stifling, it is emasculating it is suffocating”. That is the generational duty.
But he is aware of the challenge before business. He said due to “statecraft illiteracy”, the government had embarked on anti-capital policies.
“This government has not encouraged the creation of a black capitalist. They have arrested them. Every one of our shining superstars has been in prison. Strive Masiyiwa, Nigel Chanakira, Mutumwa Mawere. . . Everyone, without exception . . .”
He said this anti-capital stance had resulted in government refusing to complete the land reform process by giving title to the people, whether it’s a securitised 99-year lease or a proper title deed.
“It’s part of that anti-capital mentality, which is explained by the state-craft illiteracy,” Biti said.
To rid the country of this so-called illiteracy is no walk in the park. It is “a real fight with your colleagues”. It’s a fight all the way.
“You have to be a thug to survive in the government, if you are going to be effective. If you are not prepared to be a thug, then you are not going to deliver.”
Suddenly the word thug has a new meaning.