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The creation of absolute poverty and suffering in post-colonial Zimbabwe




THERE is little doubt that the advent of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 has paradoxically generated a new debate on the notion of freedom and justice, particularly from philosophical perspectives.

For instance, during the oppressive Rhodesian era, “black rule” was a term coined as the ultimate rejoinder to the concept of freedom and justice.

Nonetheless, increasing economic inequalities under the black administration that followed independence raise daunting questions on the initial “paradigmatic struggles” of redistribution and recognition which certainly inspired the struggle for black self-rule.

Needlessly to say, democratic Zimbabwe was born from the Rhodesian racial injustices, amidst high hopes for prosperity, justice and peace, yet the last three decades have seen a very significant increase of poverty in the former British colony.

Surely, the country has celebrated three decades of independence after the demise of the minority white government led by Ian Douglas Smith. Suffice to say, the black democratic government has been rolling out socio-economic policies in Zimbabwe, for sometime now.

What is at stake in this paper, is the notion of the creation of absolute poverty under the black political dispensation, consequently, distorting social democratic views of distributive justice. It obscures Nancy Fraser’s views on culture, redistribution and recognition, in particular when she argues that cultural misrecognition drives maldistribution (Fraser, 1995). When Fraser published her essay From Redistribution to Recognition in 1995 it was greeted by a number of social theorists as a major intellectual contribution on philosophy surrounding injustices.

Fraser claimed that struggles for justice could not succeed unless they are intertwined with a politics of redistribution and a politics of recognition. Yet, an interrogation of the post-colonial Zimbabwean epoch shows a significant departure from Fraser’s theoretical views.

The advent of black self-rule in 1980 meant that the politics of cultural recognition was achieved. This is despite views that it is often a mammoth task to eradicate cultural misrecognition in any society.

The current rulers of Zimbabwe are the same “firebrand” black nationalists who decades ago launched a struggle for freedom, whose motivational principle was to liberate black people from injustices of “misrecognition and maldistribution”. However, the existence and increase of mass poverty is triggering a searing intellectual debate on whether ultimate freedom has been achieved in Zimbabwe.

The analysis locates some tension in Fraser’s theory of misrecognition and maldistribution.

Consequently, evaluating post-colonial Zimbabwe injustice should explore the rift between maldistribution and cultural misrecognition, which contextually does not constitute the full meaning of injustice. The Zimbabwe narrative indicates that a focus on culture as a significant form of injustice is inadequate. For instance, it requires an examination of structural and political factors interacting with what I would refer to as the Robert Mugabe School of Economics, thus Zimbabwe’s approach to the economic system.

Furthermore, it should also explore barriers that prevent human development and prosperity among millions of Zimbabweans, despite the fact that the Rhodesian cultural misrecognition has long been eradicated. Furthermore, it beckons an analysis of the conditions under which a perfectly working economic system, inherited from yesteryear Rhodesia, suddenly grinds to a halt.

To achieve this, it is critical to examine values and morals of those charged with the socio-economic order of Zimbabwe, be it in times of economic decline or economic growth which has nothing to do with cultural misrecognition, but maldistribution. This approach may serve to illuminate the Zimbabwean poverty narrative, which may reveal a dramatic and remarkable story.

Defining poverty

During the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 organised by the United Nations, up to 117 countries around the world adopted a declaration and a programme of action that included commitments to eradicate absolute poverty and reduce overall poverty (UN, 1995). These countries also came up with a national poverty-alleviation strategy which they set as a priority, hence the question is whether Zimbabwe is honouring its international obligations in line with the agreements of the World Summit for Social Development.

Absolute poverty was defined as: a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services (UN, 1995).

Overall poverty takes various forms, including: lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion.

It is also characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets (UN, 1995).

These definitions were consequently adopted by Unicef and have been used as standard measures of poverty in different countries across the world (Notten & de Neubourg, 2011). The pragmatic implication is that absolute poverty is lack of one or more basic needs over a period long enough that it endangers someone’s life. Contrary to relative poverty, absolute poverty covers vital and biological needs such as food, water, clothing, basic housing or anything like a decent roof over your head, and sanitation (World Bank, 2007).

Poverty levels in Zim

This section makes use of different genres of poverty literature, including descriptive statistics in trying to explore the extent of the problem in post-colonial Zimbabwe. The principal aim is to reflect on the current levels of poverty at a time when injustices of cultural misrecognition were long uprooted from Zimbabwe’s political economy.

A large base of poverty literature and statistics reflect a sharp increase of poverty in Zimbabwe, particularly in the 1990s. For instance, Chimhowu, (2013) notes that the proportion of households living below the food poverty (absolute poverty) rose to 35% by 1995 from a low of around 26% in 1991, then dramatically rose to 63% by 2003, and to 88% by 2008.

These shocking statistics reflect an unprecedented decline of living standards in Zimbabwe within a short period of time. They show that the living standards of Zimbabweans has fallen sharply and more steeply in the 1990s than at any time before independence.

Furthermore, the UNDP, (2008) states that the Zimbabwe Human Poverty Index, pegged at 17% in 1990, more than doubled in 2006 to 40.9%. Furthermore, the UN’s Human Development Index ranking which was steadily at 52 in 1990, rose to 108 in 1992, 129 in 1997 and by 2005 it was ranked at 155 of the 177 countries (UNDP, 2008). These are also shocking statistics representing collapse and deprivation revealed through the Human Development Index.

A study by Alwang et al (2002) supports the claim that poverty in Zimbabwe increased significantly during the 1990s in all sectors of the country’s economy. They observe that in the mid-1990s, at least 60% of Zimbabwean households fell below the national poverty line.

According to Alwang et al (2002), at least 1.7 million people countrywide are facing acute hunger. This claim is also underscored by the state-controlled Press reports, for example — that villagers in Manama, South of Zimbabwe, were surviving on wild fruits because of lack of food (Chronicle, 2000).

Furthermore, the American National Public Radio (NPR) reports that: People … in other parts of the country are simply going hungry. Many are foraging in the bush for wild berries and guavas.

It is now the matamba season, but the round, hard-skinned fruit has to be ripe to be safe to eat. Experts tell you that in desperation, villagers are picking matamba and smothering it with donkey or cow dung so that the fruit will ripen rapidly out in the sun (NPR, 2008 p2).

These are shocking developments, particularly considering that Zimbabwe has been able to adequately feed its population, and has for many years also been exporting food (Alwang et al 2002).

Furthermore, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat, 2013) shows that absolute poverty has increased with the rural average consumption per person per month, standing at US$4.70, compared to US$87 for urbanites. ZimStat (2013) also revealed that poverty directly affected 62% of the country’s population of 13 million people then.

While different poverty studies in Zimbabwe may produce different stats, there is a consensus that the poverty problem in Zimbabwe has long reached absolute levels.

Perhaps the severity of poverty in Zimbabwe can at least be understood from the views of Zimbabwean politicians themselves, who have presided over the decline.

The acting principal director in the ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Sydney Mhishi, set out the tone: Poverty levels have remained high with population below food poverty line as high as 63%. What it means is that generally around 63% of our households in urban and rural areas have an income which cannot enable them to purchase sufficient food or are not producing enough food to take them through the season.

As a result, poverty and hunger levels continue to be high (Mhishi, 04/12/2013, Herald).

Mhish’s statement collaborates findings of the ZimStat (2013) study and raises two important issues that need to be examined.

First, it reveals that more than half of Zimbabwe’s population live below the poverty line. Secondly, that poverty is pervasive in both urban and rural areas, a point which may clarify the intensity and severity of the poverty problem in Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, a critical analysis of the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Report (2013), backs Mhishi’s (2013) claims on poverty levels.

The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Report estimate that about 2.2 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid. This claim collaborates Mhishi (2013), that 63% of Zimbabweans cannot purchase sufficient food for their needs, due to deprivation.

A 2008 United Nations World Food Programme survey also found a shocking deterioration of standards of living in the past year alone. They found that the proportion of people who had eaten nothing the previous day had risen to 12% from zero (UNWFP, 2008).

They also found that those who had consumed only one meal had soared to 60% from only 13% in 2007.

In the context of the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, these statistics reveal the existence of absolute poverty in Zimbabwe. And, in the context of Mhishi (2013), it is clear that almost 15 years after the UN commitment to eradicating absolute poverty, Zimbabwe has not been able to meet the UN obligations.

While this section has highlighted different statistics in the depth of poverty in Zimbabwe, there is consensus that poverty levels are unacceptably high in Zimbabwe. The premise of this consensus is that something needs to be done which may suggest the application of alternative policies. To be continued…

About the writer: Dr Admore Tshuma is a former Zimbabwean journalist, now an academic at the University of Bristol. He did his PhD in Social Policy at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies. He previously worked at the University Centre of Southend as a programme director for the BSc (Hons) Psychology and Sociology course, in partnership with the University of Essex.

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