Austerity: Workers in the belly of the beast

guest column Paidamoyo Muzulu

THE National Assembly last Thursday passed the Appropriation Bill with scant debate on the vote allocations.

Debates from MDC’s Tendai Biti and independent MP Temba Mliswa before his dramatic exit from the chambers was generally centred on the currency (United States dollar or Zimbabwe dollar) that informed the 2019 National Budget or if it was a supplementary or revised budget factoring partial de-dollarisation announced
by government in June, forgetting the dark clouds of instability rising over the horizon as a result of the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”.

Finance minister Mthuli Ncube and leader of government business in the house, Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi were at pains to explain the budget in technical
terms, but remained resolute to “austerity” fully aware that they had the number if need be the House was divided for a vote.

The opposition, probably aware that it did not have the numbers to block anything or that it had no alternative to the “austerity” neo-liberal budget,
capitulated without any fight.

The neo-liberals won and far from austerity being dropped any time soon, Ncube said the budget was in all essence for 18 months (Hansard Thursday August 8,
2019).

This is the first time that Zimbabwe has had something akin to a rolling budget since independence in 1980. In simple terms, the 2020 budget would be similar
and a continuation of the 2019 budget.

Ncube, with a straight face and airs of a neo-liberal don, did not flinch when he said his budget had been affected by unbudgeted expenditure. He said: “Total government spending for the period January to June 2019 was $4,2 billion against a target of $3,7 billion, which is $532 million over-expenditure of (15%).” He
explained: “The negative variance is a result of inescapable and unforeseen expenditures on both current and capital heads, arising from higher than
anticipated inflation, exchange rate fluctuations … inescapable expenditures related to the following: Cushioning allowance of $63 million to civil servants
that was paid from January to March; Cost of living adjustment allowance amounting to $400 million implemented starting from April; … Subsidised mass public
transport of $30,9 million up to June.”

Ncube was worried about money that went directly to help the poor and working class in the form of transport subsidy and cost of living adjustment to civil servants whose wages have been wiped out by a factor of 10 since he partially de-dollarised in February this year. Ironically, he was less worried about the
US$3 billion that went down the drain in Command Agriculture or the US$1,2 billion in Zamco (purchase of banks non-performing loans doled out to politicians,
corporate, senior public servants and Zanu apparatchiks) and then splashed out a fresh $2,8 billion to Command Agriculture.

This is akin to what happened to banks and large manufacturing companies that were deemed “too big to fail” in United States and Western Europe during the 2008
global recession created by Wall Street bankers. This spawned new terms among leftists such as “socialism for the rich” and phrases like “for the few and not
the many”.

In true neo-liberal fashion, Ncube did not see the need to tax the rich higher, for instance 50% tax on salaries above $150 000 or introduce a bedroom tax on
those building mansions like feudal lords or even tax the large digital and data companies that are making obscene profits in a sea of poverty.
Ncube promised the National Assembly that he would continue running a tight ship on suppressing wage demands, even in the face of galloping inflation, to
maintain fiscal balance. He increased cost of government services by an average 500%, maintained the unpopular 2% electronic mobile money transfers, increased
energy costs (fuel and electricity) and gave token tax relief which in reality was a further tax burden on the working poor when scrutinised in wages
purchasing power and new poverty datum line ($2 000).

Ncube said: “Therefore, going forward, it is imperative that we pursue and further strengthen our fiscal and monetary policies and also remain responsible
enough to ensure that factors such as wage increases and money supply remain under check…The supplementary budget proposes to accommodate all the above
commitments, moving employment cost budget allocation from $4,1 billion to $5,9 billion.”

In common parlance, Ncube said civil servants cannot get more than 50% salary increments in 2019 despite the fact that their salaries and savings had been devalued by a factor of 10 at the beginning of this month.

And as an after-thought on public transport, Ncube said: “Going forward, government is pursuing the establishment of a mass rapid transit system, which is a
co-ordinated public transport network facilitated through railways and road transport for both urban and rural commuters. In that regard, appropriate
investigations and studies are under way.”

Efficient, reliable, safe, affordable and consistent public transport systems are light years away because government is still making “appropriate
investigations” and hence citizens would for now make-do with the ad hoc, erratic, opaque and expedient arrangement of Zupcolites.

Or is it that we are missing something and relying on the benevolence of capitalists who believe we are having our own industrialisation phase and, therefore, fair remuneration, medical aid, housing, pension and job security are frills that the capitalist is not willing to pay? Interestingly, these are the very

things that are being given in the bastions of capitalism like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany or Japan. Even next door, South Africa has legislated
a minimum wage and started piloting a National Health Insurance.

Thinking of my father in the late 1980s intensely listening to a budget statement on the small radio receiver every July 1 or thereabouts, hanging to every
word, especially when the new minimum wage figures were rolled out, sector by sector. One cannot help, but to notice how much Zimbabwe has veered off the
liberation struggle promises. The last four years since the infamous July 17, 2015, Zuva judgment, Zimbabwe has hurtled towards neo-liberalism and the last two
years under the “new dispensation” have hastened that process.

Nay, Zimbabwe has turned back the capitalism clock to the 1800s industrial revolution, if one considers employee welfare, remuneration and social safety nets
for the poor and vulnerable.

The poor and working class are to all intents and purposes, now in the “belly of the beast”. The time is nigh to draw the line in the sand.

The rich and political elites are unwittingly giving wind to the dark revolutionary clouds rising on the horizon as they refuse to commit “class suicide” to
rebuild a country “for the many and not the few”.

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