Groupthink diminishes reasoning

“Be careful what you wish for,” is an English expression used to tell people to think before they say they want something and to suggest that they may not actually want it. There may be unforeseen and unpleasant consequences.

Well, I was reminded of that expression after newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube posted this on social media following the fuel price rise this week: “Dear Zimbabwe, I am completely outraged by your outrage over things that you have been calling for which have just happened. Your rush to be part of popular opinion and in with the outraged crowd is so pedestrian. Yours Equally Outraged Compatriot.”

It was self-evident that government had been subsidising fuel all along to the advantage of business and the public at large. That can be extrapolated from Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s statement last year that he had decided against a big bang solution in favour of a gradualist approach to lessen the shock in the economy because he knows that there are back and forth linkages in the economy.

He is not a professor for nothing, but some people mistook him for a hopeless fool when he deliberately held the bond note at par with the United States dollar — until this week when their “wish” was fulfilled with the interbank rate extended to fuel prices and they went ballistic. It cannot get more confused than that.

To those who read the situation and connect the dots, this week’s fuel price rise did not come as a bombshell, but was being gradually worked into the system. It was coming as soon as Reserve Bank governor John Mangudya announced the monetary policy in February floating the bond note against the US dollar. It became a matter of when, not if.

This is not to make light of the suffering of the people, not at all. Egypt, among others, is also taking the same painful medicine as Zimbabwe. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in January 2019, said the most painful part of his ambitious economic reform programme was over, but cautioned there was still some way to go before its completion. The same in Zimbabwe. Less than one year into the two-year Transitional Stabilisation Programme, no one can truthfully and honestly say it has failed. Two years means two years — no more, no less.

The reforms in Egypt included floating the currency, substantial cuts in state subsidies on basic goods, and introducing a wide range of new taxes. The measures led to a significant rise in prices and services, something critics say has hurt the poor and middle class the hardest, as is happening in Zimbabwe.

But Al-Sisi thanked Egyptians for “enduring the harsh and difficult (economic) measures”. He said his government had no choice but to embark on the reform programme. “Anything else would have led to the collapse of the State,” he said.

The same is true for Zimbabwe — anything else besides the austerity measures will lead to the collapse of the State, not just the government as some people are being misled to believe by politicians who cannot distinguish the State from the government.

Anyone claiming to have an easy and quick fix is lying to the people. That is why the Finance minister is taking a gradualist approach to ensure as soft landing as possible as the economy absorbs the price increase shocks.
But some people, led by loquacious politicians, see that as economics illiteracy on the part of the minister going to the extent of tutoring the minister that there was no way the bond note had parity with the US dollar whereas this was actually working to their advantage.

And, of course, some opposition political parties did not want the people to see it that way as this would increase the ruling party’s political capital as serving and protecting the people. People who don’t think for themselves completely missed that — and now they are crying that their “advice” has been implemented because they outsourced thinking to political demagogues.

This is what happens when people submit to groupthink. Groupthink occurs when people’s desire to maintain group loyalty becomes more important than making the best choices.

Groupthink occurs when a group of people get together and start to think collectively with one mind. The group is more concerned with maintaining unity than with objectively evaluating their situation, alternatives and options. The group, as a whole, tends to take irrational actions or overestimate their positions or moral rightness. It is destructive to effective thinking.

Some people, because of groupthink dynamics, laughed at the 1:1 as proving the government’s incompetence. Now that the government has heeded their “educated advice”, they cry foul. But didn’t they bring this upon themselves? Maybe where government intended to align the fuel price much later after the strengthening of macro-economic fundamentals, they did it much earlier, while also tying in the opposition to the ramifications of the move.
Now, fresh from the egg on the face they ended up with over the fuel price rise, they are ridiculing the 50 cents fare being charged by public transport utility Zupco as economically unsustainable.

But those people who exercise individual thinking see sense in that subsidy because the government is now in a cash-positive position following the introduction of the 2% electronic transaction tax and will see the subsidy as an immediate and direct benefit to the ordinary person who is shouldering the bulk of that 2% tax burden.

The lack of logic is staggering. They say what’s the point of reducing fares to 50 cents while bread costs $3,50. Another distinction without a difference. Because of groupthink, they look at things in isolation. They just can’t get it into their heads that those savings on transport will go to bread.

Groupthink also has a blinding effect. Because of groupthink, the same people who applauded MDC leader Nelson Chamisa’s condemnation of the Zimbabwe Bird, the national emblem, as representing “institutional idolatry causing national problems” have come out in loud support of Chief Nhlanhlayamangwe Ndiweni’s claim that “Ntabazinduna Mountain is sacred”. Is that any less “idolatrous”, to use their term?

As Trevor Ncube has pointed out, you cannot have it both ways. And you cannot make demands on the government to deliver while at the same time calling for the tightening of sanctions.

As one can see, groupthink diminishes reasoning — which can leave people much worse off.

Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email:

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