Perhaps the only surprise about Friday’s planned protests, which the police are now determined to stop, is that the Zimbabwe government appears surprised by them. They shouldn’t be.
When, in October 2018, a freshly minted Finance Minister, Mthuli Ncube, announced the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP), he themed it “austerity for prosperity”. Underneath all the fancy economic talk, what he set out to do was to knock the legs off the subsidies that had kept prices artificially stable.
He took the classic playbook of any “Austerity Finance Minister”. He has been running that play diligently; raising taxes and cutting spending, slashing subsidies, raising interest rates and floating – hesitantly in his case – the currency.
There would no longer be too much borrowing – he curbed the RBZ overdraft facility – and Zimbabwe would start making an effort to pay off its debts. The country has even gone on an IMF staff monitored programme.
The impact? It was hardly a shocker. It is something we have seen before.
In 2012, across Europe, finance ministers went on an austerity drive, cutting spending and raising taxes. The result? Protests all across the EU.
What unions there said then, is what Zimbabwean unions would be saying in Zimbabwe today.
Judith Kirton-Darling of the European Trade Union Confederation said austerity was just not working: “It’s increasing inequalities, it’s increasing the social instability in society and it’s not resolving the economic crisis.”
In Spain, Portugal, and Italy, there were violent clashes. Trade unions organised marches in more than 100 cities across France. In Belgium, protesters rallied in Brussels outside the embassies of Germany, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland, while a 24-hour rail stoppage severely disrupted services. Austerity had driven 25 million unemployed European out of work.
There were banners declaring “Austerity kills,” a banner that wouldn’t be out of place in Zimbabwe today.
“Civil servants feel they have been very unfairly singled out,” one unionist told the BBC then, something a Zimbabwean civil servant will nod to.
In 2018 France, French president Emmanuel Macron decided to end government support for diesel, causing the price to rise. This sparked the “Yellow Vests” protests, still simmering months later. In Zimbabwe, fuel prices have risen ten-fold since December, after the government ended the 1:1 exchange rate, a virtual subsidy.
The worst drought in decades, combined with years of ZANU-PF ineptitude, has caused massive blackouts. Whereas the previous government simply borrowed money from central bank to buy forex to pay for imports, Mthuli’s stubborn insistence on austerity has meant he is not going to do that. The result are the blackouts that have driven many to depression and bursting with anger.
The austerity playbook
On the surface, it seems Mthuli has done many things by the book. What the government did not do is anticipate the inevitable outcome enough, and prepare for it.
What Mthuli, and the entire government, have been trying to do is to run an austerity programme with zero external support, and nowhere near enough measures to protect the most vulnerable. This is a point raised with the government by a visiting panel of UN experts in April.
Workers, whose earnings have been decimated over the past 10 months, are on their own.
Unlike prosperity measures in Greece and elsewhere, there is no prospect of a bailout. The MDC, as any opposition party would, has gleefully welcomed ZANU-PF’s ham-fisted response to the impact of its own austerity measures.
The opposition does not have to work too hard to mobilise anger against the government. ZANU-PF has done that for them.
Mthuli, who no doubt watched the austerity period of Europe closely, would be aware that protests are the inevitable outcome of austerity measures. It is, therefore, surprising to see government getting panicked over the prospect of facing protests.
Austerity measures – dropping subsidies, devaluing the currency and raising taxes – will cause unrest everywhere. But a government that’s confident in its policies prepares better for the obvious fallout.
Protests are normal. They happen everywhere. They need not be the existential crisis that we tend to make them out to be in Zimbabwe, where a whole nation must hold its collective breath before a demo.
Threats by the likes of Victor Matemadanda and the ZANU-PF youth league betray a party unconvinced that its plan will actually ultimately work. State media has dedicated acres of reportage, cringe-worthy op-eds and eyeroll-inducing cartoons to lecture workers on why they should not be unhappy. ZBC has reeled out its usual coterie of talking heads.
Yet, austerity measures anywhere – even those better implemented than ours – inevitably lead to anger, and anger leads to protests. Is it not that obvious?
What did they expect?