Austerity measures and the need to protect human rights in Zimbabwe

In 2008 the situation was so bad in Zimbabwe such that there was no economy to talk of, the economy was on its knees. I was still doing my advanced level and there was a high probability that we may not write the ZIMSEC November examinations as rumour circulating suggested a strong possibility of postponement because of the became unattainable as inflation reached 231 million percent.

The June 2008 elections had been marred by violence giving the final nail to the already dead economy. I am referring back to 2008 and ESAP years because it’s a blend of the situation Zimbabwe is currently experiencing – a mixture of economic mismanagement and austerity measures. 10 years after the horrible situation, Zimbabwe is now faced with the same horrible situation as in 2008 and this time it seems to be vicious and prolonged unless structural issues are addressed. This article focuses on economic, social justice rights civil and political rights.

During the 2018 campaign period, ZANU (PF) promised the electorate that if it wins elections the government they were going to form will reform the economy and the reform package came to be known as fiscal consolidation measures popularly known as austerity measures which the government argued was necessary for Zimbabwe’s economy to grow. The austerity measures got an endorsement from the IMF as it is monitoring the implementation of the program. Generally, fiscal consolidation measures are aimed at lowering public expenditure and tame growing sovereign debts burdens.

However ambitious the government program is, economists and several pieces of research show that austerity measures have several unintended consequences that do more harm to lower and medium income brackets than lifting people out of poverty. This is not the first time Zimbabwe has implemented fiscal consolidation measures often referred to as austerity measures. In the early 1990s in an attempt to modernise the economy Mugabe embarked on Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) and the results were so disastrous that his government had to abandon the program as it made the government unpopular and it resulted in public sector strikes of 1996.

The new government, under the leadership of Mnangagwa, once again is attempting to implement the program expecting different results from those of ESAP regardless of the fact that the IMF has said in its policy briefing is an ambitious program that faces high risks that will complicate the near term economic outlook and sore in its first year of implementation, life for the ordinary citizen has been deteriorating very quickly due weakening local currency, price hikes, energy crises and health sector in a bad shape.

With austerity measures comes the suppression of human rights through kidnapping or forced disappearance of human rights defenders. One example is that of Dr Magombeyi among other cases. During fiscal consolidation periods, the government feels threatened by free flow of information, hence the government is doing anything to curtail and strict supervision of the media houses is an essential strategy of suppressing the distribution of information that may implicate government officials in corruption cases, or exposure of human rights abuse cases at the hands of the government. The government has gone a step further repealing POSA and AIPPA and replacing the acts with MOPO an equally cunning piece of legislation as the POSA and AIPPA.

Because fiscal consolidation measures mean cutting of social spending, this normally puts the burden of recovery on low and middle-income families depriving people of basic goods, liberties, power, voice and opportunities. They make the government unpopular and the masses are voice their opinions through mass demonstration. Although economic challenges are affecting every Zimbabwean, there seems to be a perception by ruling party members that complaining about poor living conditions is tantamount to insulting the ruling party. In January 2019 after the cost of fuel was raised people poured into the streets to demonstrate. The security forces used brutal force in quelling the protestors and the military used live ammunition. An estimated 17 people were killed and many more were injured. Moreover, a joint statement issued by the People Matter Campaign is concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. They issued a strong warning about the continuous shrinking of democratic space in Zimbabwe. The situation has worsened with the banning of demonstrations in all major towns signalling a ‘state of emergency.’

In the case of our government, the implementation of the fiscal consolidation program has been that of trial and error and this has resulted in the erosion of participatory democracy by substituting the voice of Parliament. This can be shown by the use of presidential powers to enforce bills and statutory instruments. The erosion of participatory democracy was exposed when Tendai Biti challenged the Statutory instrument (SI 205/2018) that is popular for the 2% tax and won a high court case as the tax was declared illegal.

The space for free operation of the civil society has been shrinking and at times stifled, with Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare issuing a notice calling on private voluntary organisations (PVOs) to submit their 2017 returns. The notice also advised organisations described as “operating outside the law” to regularise their operations by approaching the nearest Social Welfare Offices to register as PVOs. Besides, civil society leaders were targeted in the state clampdown.

Summing up, austerity is not destiny. But there are several alternatives to harmful austerity measures even in the poorest of countries. Some of these include raising personal income taxes to fund social investment programs and human rights projects, tackling tax abuses and strengthening the ability to collect taxes as Portugal did after the 2015 elections, and Iceland after the 2008 crisis. In implementing austerity measures, the government must take all efforts to allow people to demonstrate and vent their frustrations without loss of life or human rights abuse.

Source: Gregory T Matewa

*Gregory T Matewa is a Graduate from MSU with A degree in Development studies and is passionate about good governance and democracy. For comment email them to matewa.tatenda@gmail.com