guest column Takura Zhangazha
There can be a bit of a laugh, if you are on social media, concerning the political-economic goings-on in Zimbabwe.
There should not (strictly speaking) be. But on social media, there is and humour/satire is definitely a good thing. Even if just for personal or collective catharsis, especially if it’s all about events that occur in the immediate, or those that are ephemeral in their recurrence.
The recent fuel price increase (in local RTGS currency) and the announced expansion of the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) bus services for urban rural public transport are of major concern.
It was an announcement that sent Zimbabwean social media into apoplectic frenzy. Even the infamous choice of words by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga at the recent Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in a speech where he is reported to have said, and I am paraphrasing here: “it will work, it will not work” in one sentence, has been invoked to the greater extent derisive of the announcement.
And it’s all fair game. Laughter, satire and anger are necessary elements for free expression and its cornerstone role in creating a culture of democracy in society.
The same elements also serve as indicators of what could be symptoms of what is ailing a society. In our case and in light of the liberalisation of fuel prices and expansion of Zupco services, the actual ailment is the political economy, class and hedonistic individualism in the country.
I will start with the political economy that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is trying to construct. While there may be varying labels given to it, it is clearly pro-business and pro-(global) free market ideological framework of political economy, hence the clear prioritisation of “organised” private capital.
I mention “organised capital” largely because that is what this government is hoping it will satisfy with its latest monetary policy manoeuvres. And true to form, in the media reports that have followed the changes to the fuel interbank exchange rate, private and relatively big/organised capital is not complaining, nor are bus owners that are contributing to the Zupco fleet.
I am not sure about the owners of the smaller and less-organised private kombis, but it would be safe to surmise that they are probably not happy. But government is not too concerned about the latter, because they are not quite “organised capital”. In fact, they are viewed with political suspicion as to their motives during industrial actions such as stayaways and demonstrations.
Turning to the issue of class and class consciousness (if any), the evident increase in the use of the cheaper Zupco buses by the public is evidence of a pressing social and economic need, that is, affordable public transport by the urban formal and informal worker. Never mind the discomfort or the inability of Zupco to meet the overwhelming public demand, the response is reflective of that least talked about component of our society, economic class differentiation and expectation.
For the poorer working class and high-density suburb residents, it is a question of dealing with what is affordable at a given moment. They may not be in a position to question the sustainability of the Zupco project, but will most certainly put two and two together to realise its utilitarian value.
For now, never mind the opinion of those that have cars or can afford other modes of urban transportation.
Speaking of private cars as current modes of urban transportation also helps us arrive at the third aspect of our societal ailment, which is what Zizek refers to as “hedonistic individualism”. Or to put it more plainly, a narcissistic form of individualism that does not take into account any forms of a public interest collective.
Or, as some synonyms to hedonism help make it more clearer, “self-gratification; lack of self restraint, immoderation, overindulgence, overconsumption, excess, extravagance”.
This individual anger, which has a collective dimension to it only by way of quantitative measurement, makes us long for lifestyles that do not reflect our economic and political realities, both individually and collectively.
What then becomes an issue is how to avoid having to be the one that gets on a Zupco or a kombi in the first place, because that would be a sure sign of “poverty” in the eyes of many. And not just material poverty, but lifestyle poverty, which in turn leads to assumptions of being individually unsuccessful in life.
The irony of it all is that the Mnangagwa government is not too much concerned with the public service role of the expanded Zupco bus services or talking the bad effects of its neo-liberal economic policy framework.
Instead, they anticipate resistance in one form or the other, and all their actions are mitigatory measures intended to serve organised capital, while keeping the masses at bay. Even more striking is their very class-oriented approach to the political economy by tacitly seeking to bring “order” by re-instating social class to goods and services.
For example, the rise in fuel costs means that depending on your income, you will eventually opt for public transport — a development that a good number of young urban Zimbabweans may find to be a sign of individual failure.
We can still laugh our tear ducts dry about Zupco and compare a bus ride to the price of an egg. It is, indeed, very funny. But it is in the final analysis an indicator of the fact that we are fast losing out on the value of public services.
Not that the government intends to restore public services as a public good in the best public interest. Far from it. The intention is to reduce the influence of private urban transport’s influence on demonstrations or stayaways, but that we cannot bring ourselves to value public goods and services that are for the many and not the few is our primary public challenge.