Dangerous comparisons


During the UDI era of Ian Smith, life in the then Rhodesia was always compared with that in the countries “to the north of us.”

The people of this country were never spared a moment to be reminded that Rhodesia was better than all the independent black countries to the north. Stickers bearing “Rhodesia is Super” were widely circulated.

This may have been true for the Rhodesians but not for the Zimbabweans because Rhodesians enjoyed better wages than Zimbabweans, yet the two groups bought from the same shops.

The situation does not seem to have changed. We may now all be Zimbabwe but some are better off. But instead of just being compared with those to the north of us who have been independent for much longer and have ruined their economies, we are now being compared with the rest of the world. Worse still this is almost always along monetary lines.

Just about a decade ago, Harare was considered one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the pound sterling, the United States dollar, the South African rand and the Botswana pula.

Today, it is five times weaker than the US Dollar, nine times weaker than the pound sterling, twice weaker than the rand and almost two and a half times weaker than the pula. This turn of events has therefore made Harare one of the cheapest cities in the world.

Talk about the price of bread which went up by 60 percent and you are told it’s still half the price South Africans or Tswanas buy it for in their countries.

Talk about the high price of mealie meal, you are told the same story. What you are never told is the average income of the people in South Africa or Botswana. You are also never told about the great abundance of products in these countries or the fact that it is much easier to buy things on higher purchase in those countries than here.

The danger about comparing lifestyles of two different countries without taking the whole set-up into perspective is that you get a situation where each one will use half statistics to prove a point – just like this writer is doing. As a result one can always win a point of argument but this does not in any way change the suffering of the people.

Devaluation is supposedly aimed at enabling countries to export products at an advantage. But what really happens is that the country gets very little foreign currency but when converted into local currency this becomes vast amounts. This also means you end up with a situation where a Zimbabwean product is cheaper to buy outside than internally, the only disincentive being the exorbitant duty you are asked to pay should you try it.

Does this serve the Zimbabwean public? Certainly not. While the powers that be are keen to talk about prices here being cheaper than in the neighbouring or overseas countries, they are loathe to talk about equitable wages. They do not even take devaluation into account when determining these wages. All they consider is usually inflation.

In fact, some would even argue that since you still use your local currency you do not actually lose out when the currency is devalued because you will still be using the same old coins and notes. They even go on to persuade you not to ask for astronomical wage increases (and by astronomical they mean a 20 percent increase) so as to help curb inflation yet they can increase prices of basic commodities by 50 to 60 percent and do not care about the mark-ups shops put on imported products.

The word subsidy becomes taboo. The government should not waste public funds on subsidies. It can waste them on perks for chefs. Yet products that were or are subsidised are basic commodities essential for life.

Does it really make sense to lift the subsidy on maize meal and then establish a social dimension fund requiring millions to buy food for people who can no longer afford that product?

Are the powers that be really in control of what is happening in this country? If not can they not say enough is enough?

A few years ago, Zimbabwe was forced to dispose of its vast maize reserves because of the heavy subsidies and the cost of keeping the stocks. At the time the government had bought the maize for between $190 and $225 a tonne. The country has run out of maize and is importing it at $1 600 a tonne from the same people that told it to get rid of the stocks.

American farmers on the other hand are often paid not to grow certain food crops and are asked to store unwanted surpluses just to keep them on the land, yet the same thing is wrong when done by Zimbabwe.

So are we getting our comparisons right?


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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