Last Sunday, I had an excursion-and-a-half at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa).
By CONWAY TUTANI
The joie de vivre (as they say in French) or joy of living (in English) was almost palpable. You could see that the people had left behind the drudgery of everyday life and were far from the madding political crowds where every which way you turn you hear “Mnangagwa this, Mnangagwa that” and “Chamisa this, Chamisa that” as election fever grips the nation.
You could tell that Zimbabweans do not suffer from any cultural insecurity as they strummed and strutted their quintessential stuff to wild applause from both locals and foreigners there. People were being themselves and did not give up their individuality to a mob, as we are seeing at political rallies. Yes, at most of these frenzied rallies, what’s on display is not democracy, but mobocracy. And what is being dished out is propaganda, not policy.
The Hifa theme We Count, encapsulated the mood. Said Hifa executive director Maria Wilson: “It (Hifa) is multiracial, multi-age, multi-gender, and multi-everything. Hifa can attract a receptive audience that wants to see that art . . . It has happened consistently in a country where people consistently say it can’t possibly happen and it does, bringing 25 000 artistes from 33 countries. People come in and say this is a phenomenal country. We have artists who literally say they want to come back.”
Not that everything is hunky dory in Zimbabwe − what with the raging cash shortages and other crises buffeting the nation. But it’s very easy to miss some bright spots if one is an eternal pessimist or one has one’s mind attuned to negativity, as the crisis mode can easily become a way of life.
Politicians and the media stay in a crisis mode and, by default, keep their supporters and readers in the same mode with them. Politicians exaggerate the gravity of the situation to project their opponents in as bad light as possible in order to gain traction with the electorate.
The media has also its share of blame as it often presents an overdramatic worldview. The media tends to report on exceptional situations, not everyday occurrences, because “it’s not news if a dog bites a person, but it becomes news when a person bites a dog”. That is why the media does not report on the general state of affairs, but concentrates on exceptional events, including aberrations, quirks and oddities, incidents and accidents. This is what professor of international health, Hans Gosling describes as the “dramatic instincts” of the media.
Gosling teaches us to think clearly about the world because the media often over-reports, and from that people confuse more reporting of issues as worsening of the situation. So, both politicians and the media are in the crisis industry or sector, so to speak, and rope in their supporters and readers to view things as them.
For instance, it was big, big news which was splashed in the newspapers when teachers threatened to strike and gave an ultimatum that they would not accept anything less than a 100% pay rise. But when they mutually settled for a realistic 10% rise with their employer − the government − this was pushed to inside pages of newspapers because the crisis had passed. But politicians and media will look for another crisis to focus on because without crisis they are out of a job, literally speaking. In addition to that, they will condemn any agreement reached − such as the 10% rise the teachers got − as woefully inadequate without taking into consideration the macroeconomic environment. The media should report knowledgeably, appropriately and accurately.
Most of the teachers’ union leaders should be commended for bending over backwards to lower their demands. It takes courage to compromise and concede.
Those other teachers’ union leaders still digging in should not fall into the trap of Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers in Britain in the 1980s, whose uncompromising militancy left union members worse off.
Historian Robert Taylor depicts Scargill − a worst-case example for Zimbabwean teachers and other workers to learn from − as an “industrial Napoleon” who called a strike “at the wrong time” on the “wrong issue”, and adopted strategies and tactics that were “impossibilist” with “an inflexible list of extravagant non-negotiable demands” that amounted to “reckless adventurism” that was “a dangerous, self-defeating delusion”.
We should be grateful that Zimbabwe, as a nation, is coming of age. I say so because a homegrown body in the form of the Zimbabwe National Elders’ Forum not only mediated between the teachers and government to reach a compromise, but also gave honest and frank advice, saying: “It should be made clear that while their (teachers’) demands are being looked into, definitely they will be addressed, but what we cannot afford is a strike, especially at a time like this. (Towards elections) a strike is detrimental to national peace, which is not what the nation needs.” We need such quiet effectiveness, not polarising over-dramatisation. Yes, we don’t need brinkmanship at this point in time. Pushing things to the limit will burn us all.
But, it is pleasing that some Zimbabweans refuse to be roped into this permanent crisis mode.
Wrote Norman Mhere on Facebook this week: “Percentage-wise, this is a big leap forward. Salaries are rarely increased by anything more than 10% in most countries. A strike (in South Africa) by bus drivers for almost a month is about to come to an end after a settlement of 8,75%, which is around R500 − well below the $53 given to our teachers before they strike (which they haven’t done). If you multiply $53 by the number of teachers by 12 months, you will see how far the government has stretched the fiscus to effect the increment.”
Thanks, Mhere, that despite being an opposition supporter, you have laid it bare for those statistically and economically challenged and politically-blinded rabid critics of any and all moves by the government of the day. We need to be clear, frank and firm with each other within political parties for Zimbabwe to rise and advance. Mhere is not neutral because, as the English expression goes, he has a dog in this fight that he is rooting for to win, that is, the opposition, but not at any cost. We should value sobriety over blind loyalty as shown by Mhere.
Politicians − across the board −should tell their supporters that a 100% salary rise will give rise to a hyper-inflationary spiral, giving rise to another Black Friday, which will then give rise to another financial meltdown, resulting in bond notes − unpopular as they are − being reduced into bearer cheques. The next government, whoever wins the elections, will inherit that economic catastrophe in which every single one of us will be a casualty.
We cannot afford to trade economic disaster for economic disaster. Isn’t that a no-brainer?