Last week Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali was overthrown in a popular uprising and fled into exile to Saudi Arabia.
Change can come from least expected incidents.
The suicide through burning himself of a street vendor angered by authorities’ continual confiscation of his wares sparked the chain of events that led to Ben Ali’s downfall.
There was external validation of their long-simmering grievances among Tunisians through WikiLeaks.
Ordinary Tunisians incensed with the extent of the First Family’s wealth, as revealed in WiliLeaks, against their worsening poverty and rising unemployment, took to the streets and fought running battles with the security forces.
Close relatives of the President’s wife had grabbed lucrative tenders in tourism, one of the country’s biggest foreign currency earners.
People finally found their voice after over 23 years of repression. The collapse was swift because the crisis had been brewing for a long time.
Now Tunisians are demanding that all of the old guard must go. The change has been so huge and rapid. What a difference a week makes.
That is why the imminent strike of the civil servants should be viewed seriously.
The issue has been handled with unimaginable ineptitude. Must it descend to the Tunisia scenario for anyone to finally listen?
First, Finance minister Tendai Biti did not show political mastery when he did not respond to media reports that civil service salaries had been doubled.
Knowing the urgency and gravity of the matter, he should have promptly dispelled the notion in the media that salaries would be doubled on the basis of the doubling of the civil service allocation in his 2011 National Budget statement issued in December last year.
An astute leader moves fast to clarify matters which have the potential of becoming explosive.
Hope and, by extension, tempers would not have been raised if he had been pro-active and clarified issues timeously rather being reactive in an unassuring manner.
The onus was on Biti to immediately clarify the actual position rather than do so more than a month later after expectations had been raised.
To any reasonable person, Biti’s silence implied that the media reports about a 100% increment were correct.
Again going by media reports, Biti has been somewhat abrasive and dismissive in his dealings with civil service union leaders. At least that’s how they view his manner.
This week Biti reportedly told union leaders “point blank” that government was broke and thus not in a position to pay them competitively.
He reportedly further “asked them to show him where the money was so he could ‘simply take it and pay’ them handsomely”. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
The government’s pay offer is derisory, to say the least. Civil servants have justifiably responded by rejecting 24% of peanuts.
And to compound it all, Biti reportedly did not suggest a way forward. Where does the buck stop?
Yes, there is indeed a way forward, as the civil service union rightly pointed out about income being generated from diamonds and other precious minerals the country is endowed with.
These natural resources are national resources which belong to us all.
A stimulus package is required.
This is elementary economics. To stimulate the economy, you boost consumer spending and you do that by putting more disposable income in the hands of the biggest group of employees — and in Zimbabwe’s case it’s the civil service, period.
That’s basic economics; it’s simple and straightforward.
Revenue will also accrue to government consistently because civil servants being in formal employment will have statutory deductions made from their income, so there is minimal chance of tax evasion.
Economists will tell you that the most important part of a stimulus is getting money into the economy fast, where it can replace lost consumer and business spending and keep the employed not only employed but gainfully so.
Benefits will begin to trickle down to the rest of the economy. The centrality of the civil service cannot be over-emphasised.
Funds can be internally generated to a considerable extent.
The least expensive stimulus package would be for the government to at least double civil service salaries because this would increase disposable income which would, in turn, raise consumer spending which would, in turn, resuscitate closed businesses and lead to increased production among those still operating.
The money is there but there is misallocation and misappropriation, what with smuggled diamonds worth $160 000 being intercepted in Israel.
An inquiry should have been instituted immediately, but up to now nothing, absolutely nothing, has been done. It is common knowledge that diamonds worth millions of dollars are being smuggled out of the country. It’s an open and shut case of corruption at the highest level. Where does the buck stop?
In all fairness, Biti’s role in this affair is largely nominal – and he should admit so. People know that the blame lies largely with those who really run the show, who hold the pursestrings, both directly and indirectly.
As we are constantly reminded, the policy and executive authority lies with President Robert Mugabe, as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, while Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is merely an administrator. In such a set-up, they can only deliver with the permission of those who wield power.
The two MDCs are impotent; they have been given responsibility without power.
Biti himself admitted as much last year when he said he was still to get a single dollar from the Chiadzwa diamond fields.
There is no period, according to the Global Political Agreement which gave effect to the inclusive government, that Tsvangirai will act as President in the absence of Mugabe, as that would be done by one of the two Vice-Presidents, who belong to Zanu PF. Are they using this leverage to discredit their political opponents?
It also hasn’t passed people’s attention that Zanu PF heavyweights are very much against the idea of declaration of assets.
The decade-long recession has resulted in a permanent scarring of the economy as unethical and criminal ways of doing things are spreading.
When voters are given the chance, they will vote against incumbent politicians in such situations. It’s got nothing to do with Western interference; it’s adding things together and getting an answer.
But those politicians who could be playing games with people’s lives ought to know that this can’t last forever.
In January 2009, there was an extraordinary, almost unimaginable, sequence of events.
Soldiers staged an unprecedented strike action in Harare, looting shops and supermarkets in frustration after failing to get their money from the banks due to cash shortages.
A few days later, police records show that 10 soldiers stormed Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono’s New Donnington Farm in Norton, and forced the farm manager, Philip Musvuri, to load the central bank governor’s chickens, at gunpoint, onto an army truck they were driving.
The soldiers told the manager that they would not pay for the chickens because Gono owed them money since their money was locked at the banks because of the governor’s tight lid on cash withdrawal limits.
“They explained that they were hungry and said it was only fair that they take the governor’s chickens because it was Gono’s financial mismanagement that had led to the soldiers starving at the barracks,” Musvuri is quoted saying in a police statement after reporting.
“They said that they want all the chickens, about 175 of them that were there at the time. After loading the chickens, they left without paying, saying that they do not have money because of Gono.” Like in Tunisia last week, soldiers vented their anger on those they held responsible for their immense hardships.
There is need for a real shift in the way of doing things. We can’t have more of the same patronage and corruption.
It’s bad enough that the rich and powerful hide their money away while the majority lower middle class (into which category civil servants fall but which has almost disappeared in Zimbabwe) bear the heaviest burden of taxation on the least pay.
Civil servants, if driven to, can make life practically impossible for us.
Why drive ordinarily law-abiding citizens to the edge as happened in Tunisia? There are limits to testing people’s patience.
Government can afford a high civil service pay rise. What’s lacking is political will.
This is not the time to play games.