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Power to the people!

In Zimbabwe today, the people have no trust in the government and all its institutions. They think that their town councils are, for want of a better word, generally useless.

PEOPLE will always support the underdog.

In Zimbabwe today, the people have no trust in the government and all its institutions. They think that their town councils are, for want of a better word, generally useless.

Opinion: Winston Siwela

They have no faith in the banking and financial system. They loathe their police force. They now hate the army too, ever since some of its members shot at and killed seven people in cold blood on the streets of Harare last month, but are too scared to stand up to them.

They believe that their leaders in both the private and public sectors are greedy, selfish and corrupt to the core. Broadly speaking, therefore, the people of Zimbabwe are a despondent lot and would tilt the gross national happiness index far down the negative side.

Only the exceedingly patriotic speak well of their country. The rest exhibit little to total lack of pride and a depressing pessimistic view of life in their place of birth. This is not hard for a visitor to see, as they can pick it up immediately in observing the way most Zimbabweans, particularly in urban areas walk, talk and generally handle their affairs.

There is a palpable lack of interest and, sometimes, rash ill-considered decision making. On one extreme, they drive and walk very slowly, as if going nowhere in particular; on the other, the younger ones drive too fast and recklessly, making up the largest human error road accident statistic.

When they speak, they take a long time to get to the point, as if they are enjoying using as many words as possible even when they have only one or two points to make. They will most likely be late by as much as one hour or even more to a meeting, regardless of how important it may be.

This lateness gets worse for informal functions such as private parties, for which they feel no obligation to be punctual. And they laugh at everything, with very little sense of humour to accompany the laughter.

They laugh when they break road rules; they laugh when they make serious and costly business mistakes; they laugh when they are in a near-fatal mishap; they laugh when they are late and they laugh at fellow citizens’ misfortunes.

Zimbabweans are extremely sensitive and cannot appreciate sarcastic wit and humour. They know this about themselves, which leads them to warn their audiences that they are going to tell a joke before they tell it. They know that if they don’t, someone who has not picked the punchline will start analysing the joke and what it’s supposed to mean.

Being a highly literate people, Zimbabweans are very astute analysts. They will dissect every argument and presentation from all angles, including mathematical, scientific and social.

They might even go so far as to offer solutions, although they will hardly act on the solutions themselves. They have earned themselves the global reputation of making highly awesome and articulate presentations. Sadly, they fall short on action.

They have also earned themselves the global reputation of a hardworking and warm, friendly people. These are tried and tested traits that cannot be faulted — but only where visitors are concerned.

With each other, Zimbabweans can be extremely cruel and jealous, and often struggle to work as a team in most task settings.

They literally persecute each other for expressing different opinions, likes and dislikes, conveniently forgetting that there are two or more sides to a story.

The most successful and hardworking Zimbabweans are those that left to work elsewhere — in other countries — for economic reasons, because their own nation failed to sustain a robust economy.

With only a handful of exceptions, they failed to make things work in their own country and continue to fail to maintain basic infrastructure and services.

This problem persists to this day and ordinary Zimbabweans have, typically, switched to default mode: laughed their way through it, slogged it out as vendors or other informal undertakings, hassled and generally done enough to survive.

For this, they have earned another reputation — that of dogged, gritty survivors. Throw anything at them and they will deflect it and come out of it with single-minded determination. They laugh their way through it all.

Zimbabweans are serious copycats. If someone picks an informal trading corner to sell tomatoes or second-hand vehicles or furniture, it’s a safe guaranteed bet that more will join in before long — selling exactly the same thing.

There have been recent crazes: early childhood development schools, secondary education colleges, chicken rearing, entertainment promotions, funeral assurance services, perimeter wall moulding, construction-material vending (bricks, sand, three-quarter stones, among others), unregistered inner-city taxi services … the list is endless.

There is also a long running status symbol fad which has created a chokehold on the country’s unsophisticated road network — the importation of cheap, second hand vehicles mainly from the East.

They even copy business brands, making only minor variations to the name and logo but usually keeping the colours of the original brand whose image they are shamelessly stealing.

Speaking of chokeholds, an emergence of previously politically-protected land barons saw the development in recent years of unsanctioned residential areas in geologically unsafe zones such as wetlands.

Taking the cue from this lawlessness, desperate nationals seeking to eke out a living, have set up shop where they feel like, as long as there is space including, incredibly, shopfronts of legitimate businesses.

In some places, and this is most evident in Harare, whole lanes of busy streets have been shut off by Zimbabweans selling their wares along the routes. They follow the traffic and there is a logic to the madness.

Hundreds of commuters who have not yet saved up enough to buy the second hand vehicles disembark from their public transportation somewhere along or near those routes. These are the market segments targeted.

The sellers — who dislike being called vendors because they think it’s insulting — have resisted moves by the authorities to drive them off. Sometimes the battles turn violent. They run away, but quickly regroup and return.

The same has happened, but with a lesser degree of success, perhaps because of the expense involved, with illegal dwellings razed to the ground for the fault of being built illegally in undesignated places.

This has added to the crux of the fight between the people and the authorities. In the eyes of the people, the authorities are unjust, unfair and care nothing for their welfare.

The argument is this: being responsible for the mess the country is in, in the first place, the authorities ought to shoulder the obligation of ensuring that the people should never have to resort to such desperate measures to survive.

There is a reason why the towns and cities are congested; there is a reason why there are so many vendors; there is a reason why the people spend valuable and scarce foreign currency importing cheap and condemned vehicles.

The collective reason is found squarely on the shoulders of Mr Government, whose institutions have failed dismally to push the gross national happiness index up.

As a result, a collective grumpiness, manifested through constant and consistent grumbling about even the smallest things, has afflicted the nation.

When Mr Government in all his guises fights the people, ostensibly to restore order, the people will fight on the side of the underdog. That’s just the way it is.

 Winston Siwela writes in his personal capacity