Zimbabweans are a funny lot. Despite the wealth displayed everyday on the country’s roads in the form of luxury cars and four-by-fours and mansions sprouting everywhere in the cities and even in rural areas, the majority of Zimbabweans feel they are the poorest people on the continent.
Only 29 percent say they are better off than other Zimbabweans. And a staggering 68 percent believe that the government should extricate them from their present predicament.
According to a survey released by Afro Barometer entitled The Power of Propaganda: Public Opinion in Zimbabwe, only Malawians believe that they are poorer than Zimbabweans.
The survey was conducted by the Mass Public Opinion Institute in Harare between April 26 and May 17, on behalf of Afro Barometer, a collaborative effort of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, the Centre for Democracy and Development in Ghana, and Michigan State University.
Inflation stood at 583.7 percent when the survey started but was down to 505 percent when it ended, but it was still probably the highest in the world. Inflation, described by the World Bank as the biggest tax on the poor, has since declined to 363 percent.
Only three percent of those interviewed said their standard of living was very good, while 54 percent said it was bad and 27 percent said it was good.
The survey, which involved 1 104 people selected from across the country, and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, revealed that more than half of the adults thought that the prevailing conditions in Zimbabwe were worse than those in neighbouring countries. Only 29 percent thought that the conditions were better.
The survey says, however, it is likely that some respondents lack first hand knowledge of living conditions in the sub-continent.
“We cannot be sure whether they (Zimbabweans) are comparing Zimbabwe to poorer countries like Malawi or Mozambique, or wealthier ones like South Africa and Botswana. But either way, the cross-country comparisons are not flattering for Zimbabwe,” the survey says.
“This is not to say that Zimbabweans are always objectively more deprived than other Africans, but they have surely experienced a greater deterioration in the quality of life as the national economy has shrunk in recent years. We therefore suspect that they consider themselves poor mainly in relation to higher standards of living that they enjoyed in the past.”
Zimbabwe’s economy has shrunk by more than 30 percent over the last five years, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The survey also says most adults thought they were worse off than their parents 10 years ago but they believed that their children would be richer than themselves and will even move above the poverty scale.
It says most Zimbabweans were pessimistic because of the difficult they faced in obtaining basic needs. Only 18 percent said they had never gone hungry while 41 percent said they were without food many times.
Zimbabweans were not only short of food but cash as well. More than nine out of ten said they went short of cash at some point during the previous year. Only nine percent said they had enough money.
Asked who was responsible for the well-being of ordinary people, should people look after themselves or should the government bear the main burden, 68 percent said the government was responsible for the welfare of the people.
They said the most important problem was the management of the economy followed by the creation of jobs. Food security came third third.
Though food security was ranked third, only four percent said land reform was a priority. But what is confusing is that two-thirds favoured an economic strategy in which people went back to the land and provide their own needs as a community.
Surprisingly, the popularity of President Robert Mugabe which people believed was hinged on land reform soared from 20 percent in 1999 to 46 percent. His job performance score rose even higher from 21 percent to 58 percent. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s popularity stood at only 18 percent.
The survey, however, attributed Mugabe’s popularity to political fear and the power of propaganda, which if true, is a major coup for Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, a man who is loathed by most of the ZANU-PF old guard.
“Perhaps Zimbabweans feel so intimidated by ZANU-PF surveillance and control that they are unwilling to express political opinions honestly, instead saying what they think the government wants to hear……( and) perhaps Zimbabweans have imbibed the nationalists’ message pumped out by the ruling party over the airwaves and in mass meetings and, accordingly, blame external and opposition forces rather than the government for their plight,” the survey says.
“Ever since the popular ‘no’ vote in the constitutional referendum of February 2000, the state has cracked down on society. In so doing, the ZANU-PF government has used two strategies: violence and propaganda.
“On one hand, it has deployed both formal security agencies and informal militias to intimidate anyone with opposition sympathies. On the other hand, it has prevented open political debate by shutting down all independent news outlets and transforming the state media into virtual organs of the party.”
The survey continues: “Our research shows that, of these two strategies of political control, persuasion works better than force. In explaining why the incumbent president retains the backing of half the electorate, we find that the key factor is popular trust in the government media.
“However crude, the government’s nationalist appeals have apparently induced numerous Zimbabweans- especially older, less educated elements in rural areas- to accept the political status quo. Apparently, ZANU-PF is succeeding in shoring up its base with propaganda about the liberation war and land seizures, while painting the opposition as a foreign-backed force.”