Occupy Wall Street: Lessons for Samora Machel Ave

Dharna is a Hindi word literally meaning “a placing”. In India, it denotes the practice of exacting justice or compliance with a just demand by sitting and fasting at the doorstep of an offender until death or the demand is granted.

In Zimbabwe, the equivalent would be refusing to bury a dead body until outstanding lobola is paid or worse still, dumping a corpse at the doorstep of a killer’s family.

In America; they call it Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

What lessons are there for local business in general and the banking sector in particular to learn from underlying issues driving the movement?

In this article I refer to the banking sector as “Samora Machel Avenue”, since the road boasts of the greatest concentration of banks in Zimbabwe. In fact Samora Machel Avenue also provides addresses for the central bank and Ministry of Finance.

But first things first. What is this thing that has assumed a life of its own and spread virally to many financial capitals around the globe?

The OWS movement was started by one Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of Adbusters, a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist, pro-environment foundation that describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age”.

The movement’s motto has become “We are the 99%” alluding to the fact that the share of income growth gains going to the top 1% of income earners is at its highest since the 1920s.

While OWS might sound like a distant idea of concern only to Americans and their friends, it recently struck me that the status quo in the land of the free and the brave is reflective of what Zimbabwe has tragically become, courtesy of an unemployment rate of over 80%. We essentially no longer have a middle class, but only the rich (1%) and the poor (99%).

The joke is now that while we obsess about whether the Ndebele or Karangas should rule, in reality there are now two tribes in Zimbabwe: one rich and the other poor! This situation also reminded me about what Finance minister Tendai Biti recently said while contemplating his unenviable task of balancing the Budget.

“. . . for every $1 we get, we are spending 67 cents on paying civil servants salaries and leaving only 33 cents for other things like hospitals, schools, energy, social welfare etc. We are allocating 67 cents to 237 000 civil servants and 33 cents to the remaining 11 million.” If you thought only the capitalists on Wall Street were the “authors and finishers” of inequity, take a look at our very own Budget and think again.


Anyway, back to the OWS movement and its “indignant proponents”, experts argue that the way it has persisted is testimony to how inequality is a critical issue requiring the attention of big business, not the least of which is the banking sector.

And why should bankers prick their ears for the message coming out of Wall Street and other lesser known streets?

Because the buck for the global financial crisis stops with them and the public is angry about government bailouts of big banks and about corporate bonuses.

No wonder there was such a firestorm of protest when it was suggested that National Social Security Authority should consider bailing out a troubled local bank.

So what can the local banking sector learn from what business in America is being urged to do.

Firstly, businesses in America are being urged to address the issue of wide disparities between average CEO pay and average employee pay, which existing models of compensation are accused of contributing to.

New ways must be found to reward performance without increasing pay disparities.

Secondly, efforts must start now to factor sustainability considerations into business models.

According to development economist, Esther Duflo, economic growth does not guarantee equity. She therefore suggests that as we chart our growth path, we should be less concerned with what the sources of economic growth are in a society and rather be more concerned with ensuring that once growth happens, a larger number of economically disenfranchised citizens are brought into the economic fold.

The least uncertain policy interventions that can aid both growth and equity goals, she argues, is to invest in education.

To signify how pervasive the debate on inequity has become, even the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has entered the fray and spoken about the “idolatry of the market” and called for the establishment of “global public authority” and a “central world bank” to rule over financial institutions that have become outdated and often ineffective in dealing fairly with crises.

“If no solutions are found to the various forms of injustice, the negative effects that will follow on the social, political and economic level will be destined to create a climate of growing hostility and even violence, and ultimately undermine the very foundations of democratic institutions, even the ones considered most solid,” says the Vatican.

In closing, I quote Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz who says: “ The top 1% have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99% live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1% eventually do learn. Too late.”

What is your take on the OWS movement? Weigh in with your insights on omen.muza@gmail.com.

Omen N Muza is a banker and managing director of TFC Capital (Zimbabwe) (Pvt) Ltd who writes in his personal capacity.

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