By Mike Mavura
There is consensus that safety, security, justice and the rule of law are core functions of the state as well as basic service delivery, financial and macro-economic management, inclusive growth and job creation, the protection of human-rights protections and so on and so forth. These are state responsibilities stipulated in the constitution of Zimbabwe and they shape societies expectations of the state.
The provision of basic services to the populace shapes the relationship between the state and its subjects and is essential for the state to retain its legitimacy and relevance as well as to maintain stability. The state and the services it offers are thus public goods. In situations of economic and social strife, like what the country has experienced over the past decade or so, the role of the state as provider of first resort of basic services, security, employment, justice among other citizens’ needs becomes even more pronounced and urgent. However, the state is nowhere to be seen.
It seems that this thesis of the relationship between the Zimbabwean state and its subjects rests on the false assumption that the state has domestic sovereignty and political authority based on popular legitimacy; entrenched legitimacy premised beyond elections with predetermined outcomes. If this assumption was true, how can we make sense of state manoeuvres such as Operation Murambatsvina (Clean-Out filth), national policies that have led to a severe economic collapse and grave failure of the health system, the education sector, service provision (especially water and electricity), infrastructure, outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, hyperinflation and an unemployment rate of more than 80%?
To understand this seemingly an open-and-shut case of political hara-kiri, we have to understand the nexus between political power and the levers of the state. The arrival of a credible challenger to political power in the theatre of domestic politics precipitated a “road to Damascus” moment for the incumbents. Assured landslides at the polls since 1980 began to ebb for the ruling party at the turn of the millennium. The ruling party lost the constitutional referendum in 2000, lost 57 seats to the opposition in the 2000 House of Assembly polls, lost 42.10% of the electorate in the 2002 presidential election and lost the election altogether in 2008 leading to a power-sharing agreement. Something had to give.
Whereas before the Zimbabwean state was fairly strong with political authority based on domestic revenue, popular acceptance, and commerce, the arrival of credible political opponents changed that. Functioning state bureaucracies are believed to foster strong candidates (usually men) who can capitalise and build rival power centres. The change in tactics embraces hibernating the state, intentionally crippling the arms of the state and governing through patronage networks. The logic is bizarre but tried and tested. This contraction of the state actually depicts the flexibility and capacity of political and economic elites to adapt to changing international and national circumstances. Popular legitimacy of the state slowly gave way to relationships of kinship, lineage and patron-client networks which began to shape, to a considerable extent, the decisions taken by public officials and political leaders.
This patronage system revolves around an exercise of power based on patron-client links, a conception of leadership linked to the distribution of benefits, an expectation by citizens (with the right credentials) to be rewarded by their patrons, an organisation of citizens around patrons. Patrons and clients dependent on patronage are a more reliable power base. As such, the state has ceased to be concerned with developmental aims and morphed into a platform for accumulation and distribution of wealth among patrons and clients. Who gets land, government jobs, tenders, shares in extractive industries (diamonds) and now indigenised companies and asserts is underpinned by this patron/client relationship. As the state withdraws from its core functions, essential services seize to become public goods but private ones regulated by supply-and-demand principles of the black market.
To get a passport in reasonable time, one needs a “facilitator”, police officers are for hire to enforce “the law”, prosecutors are available on auction, healthcare needs cash payment upfront, decent education has to be private! Adequate water and electricity supplies require private boreholes and generators. The NGO sector fills in the rest of the void left by a fast receding state. With an unemployment rate of about 80%, the majority of citizens eke a living out of the vast informal sector where the state is invisible, where the state collects no tax or regulates. State withdrawal leaves chaos and disorder in the health, education, services, economic and other sectors but the point to drive home is that this is not chaotic chaos but organised chaos albeit with a distinct logic.
Our rulers are trapped in a politics of survival and thus the nurturing and provision for essential allies replaces the cumbersome exercise of cultivating popular legitimacy, which is fickle as it is political, economic and social weather dependant. Patrons and clients are an all-weather support base. As such, large numbers of state officials who consume resources but are not essential for regime survival are ejected and essentially left to their own devices: teachers, healthcare workers, and other civil servants. Our political elite have thus engaged in simple mathematics and converted political resources into economic resources.
They must behave with largesse towards allies of propinquity in dogma in order to survive. This system has been replicated in the public sphere too by public officials in their tiny spheres of power. As a result power has become de-institutionalised and highly personalised. One gets nothing done without a “connection” of some sort, either a kin and keen one or a hired one. Personalised relationships and patronage networks thus decide who gets what, when, why and how — far removed from any vain pronouncements about empowerment and development or “at-your-service” mantras. To be sure, the illusion of due diligence must always appear, a jik-job of sorts; so a community somewhere, a clinic here, an individual there will always be paraded via the state publicity machinery as proof of state-sponsored development. In reality, however, the benefits that accrue from the state are selective, private and channelled along established distribution networks vital for regime sustenance. Thus for the majority of citizens, there is a genuine and deadly serious question they ask, whither the state?
Mike Mavura is a visiting politics lecturer at Rhodes University.