Grassroots Economic Empowerment

“Power to the People” has been a promise of politicians all over the world; Zanu PF has not been an exception and has used this slogan through all its campaigns to gain the support of the electorate in Zimbabwe. However, when it comes to actually doing anything significant to fulfill this political promise, our political leaders, especially those in Zanu PF, have adopted policies that are exactly contrary to their favorite slogan.

In fact dictators of all kinds know full well that if they did give power to the people, the process would endanger their hold on power and with it their access to privilege and protection.

In Zimbabwe the most recent example of this charade is the detailed regulations purporting to give small scale farmers security on their pieces of land allocated to them as a part of the chaotic “fast track land reform” programme. These regulations do nothing of the sort and simply restate, in almost laughable legalese, the present position where the 220 000 farmers have no security and whose rights are controlled by some remote “Minister” who can, with a signature on a piece of paper, or an instruction to local thugs, remove them from their land.

The Banks have, without exception, condemned the new regulations as being totally unbankable; of not in any way providing the sort of security against which they can lend. African States, seeking a return to the “old days” have, almost without exception destroyed the systems of secure tenure left behind by either settler regimes or colonial powers. In doing so they discovered, like the Feudal Lords of Europe in earlier centuries, that the peasants so settled were totally vulnerable to political pressure and even extortion.

If we want to give poor people in urban or rural areas real power and control over their lives and destiny, we need to ensure that they own the land on which they live or make a living. This is not a complex issue, it does not even cost money; it simply requires political will and some law and administration.

In the rural areas what we should be doing is to recognise that all who make their living from the land need security and protection if they are going to be able to invest in their land and do more than make a simple subsistence living. With today’s technology this involves securing recognition of common boundaries and then mapping these using GPS technology and then registering the title rights with a nominated agency of Government who must thereafter protect their occupation rights when required.

This would transfer millions of hectares that are currently without value, into the hands of small farmers and their families. The day the first of those rights changed hands for money, all 220 000 families would immediately be actually quite wealthy in African terms. If each family had just 25 hectares of land, they would immediately have available to them some $50 000 of negotiable equity. This is $11 billion in equity and does not include the value of any developments on the farms. This is exactly what the Enclosure Acts in Britain and the Homesteading Act in the USA did for their rural peasant population.

Then Banks would lend to the farmers in question, they in turn could start to produce crops and livestock and to invest in their farms. They could combine their activities and use commonly owned plant and machinery as well as marketing and transport capacity to help them interact with markets and secure their inputs at the lowest cost possible. The impact would be dramatic – but would also create rural communities that were fiercely independent and politically aggressive. Demanding performance from their leaders and both local and central government.

The same situation applies in urban areas. Zimbabwe has an economy where perhaps 70 per cent of all economic activity is conducted in the informal sector. Here the urban poor are totally vulnerable to an exploitive and avarice political elite. We have been debating the need for security for informal traders in the House of Assembly and MP after MP has stood up and argued for more security. But those same Zanu PF MP’s stood back and did nothing when the State launched the Murambatsvina campaign against the urban poor in 2005 – the very interpretation of that word says it all, “getting rid of the rubbish”.

In that campaign 300 000 homes were demolished – if we conservatively value those homes at $10 000 each, that is $3,3 billion dollars of value. If instead of demolishing their homes, we went in and pegged each plot and then registered the holdings and granted secure, legal title, we would immediately pump many billions of dollars into the economy of the absolute urban poor.

I know what would then happen. I was raised in a poor home, my mother raising four children on the salary of a secretary. We lived in a house made of rammed mud in what can only be described as an urban slum. Then one day, the State said we would no longer have to pay rent, the houses were ours, we would still pay a small sum each month to the City of Bulawayo, but this was now a bond payment and the land and the house were ours. The transformation was immediate – people cleaned up the environment, put up walls and fences and planted lawns and flowers, buildings were painted and roofs repaired. I do not know who was responsible – but that single measure transformed our lives.

When the Members of Parliament in Harare spoke of the exploitation of the informal traders in urban markets, they knew what they were talking about. Zanu PF has gangs of young thugs like Chipangano in Mbare who have become rich by extorting money from the traders in the Pedzenamho and Msika Markets and from the local Taxi system. This is reinforced by corrupt Municipal staff and police and a State police system that turns its back on the poor.

One MP said, “why do we not sell the market stalls to the people?” That suggestion was greeted with silence but it makes complete sense. There are 5000 traders in Pedzenamho market. Each pays $10 a day for the privilege – that is a higher rental than we pay for the most expensive office space in the City. If we sold those small stalls to each operator over a period of time, we would give them security and pride and also an asset they could sell if they wanted to retire or move on.

The thing about such measures is that they are totally in our capacity to do; we do not need international finance or FDI. We do not need a “donor”. This is ours to do and to give and it is our people who would benefit. But the consequences for the extractive and criminal elite that have taken over the reins of power since July 2013 will not allow such empowerment and liberation. They want to keep the poor just where they are, dependent and totally vulnerable.

Eddie Cross
Harare, July 18th 2014