Interrogating our follies: short-term-ism in the Zimbabwean psyche

Taruvinga Magwiroto

One of the ever-lasting pressures of political office has always been about limitations of time-scales of influence. You can only influence policy while you are in power, hence the obsession with “low-hanging” fruits and “quick wins”. Also the election cycle is short (+-5 years); hence there’s pressure to show some tangible results in the time that one is in power.   

It’s no surprise that a number of signature phrases and catch-words frequently used by ruling politicians in Zimbabwe have intrigued me for quite some time now. “Low-hanging fruits” and “quick wins” are examples of such phrases. What do they mean and what do they show about the mentality of our leaders? Is there such a thing as a “low hanging fruit?”

There was a “fast track” land reform. Then a fast track drive to “indigenise” the economy. There was a “fast track” certificate in agriculture to train entry-level extension workers. This obsession with fast tracking things deserves a closer look.

The land reform was in the pipeline for a long time. The exact timing was due to political forces of that particular time. As such, I sympathise with the fast track nature of the programme. After that, obviously there was pressure to show the world that the land reform was a success, that it was worth it.

And so the government threw money at the problem. Throughout much of early up to mid-2000, there was a scheme to support farmers operations through subsidised fuel, tilling services etc. However, the processes were not monitored well, nor were the programmes evaluated or audited well. The government acted like “money is no object”. The results were more important, the processes secondary. That is a fallacy, as events later proved. For a start, once people knew that the inputs were ipso facto free, they started openly abusing the service, procuring the inputs to sell on the black market.

It takes no quantum physics to guess that food security has continued to deteriorate  in Zimbabwe, despite (or even because of) government interventions.

 The government (again correctly) realised that for farmers to maximise their productivity, one condition that needed to be provided was extension support. Hence the “fast track” training of extension field workers between 2005-2010. However, the actual implementation of the training left a lot to be desired. Suffice to say that the training could have been better conceived and implemented. I don’t begrudge the effort: I applaud it because I felt at the time (and still feel now) it was the right thing to do. My only gripe was with the implementation, which I have described elsewhere.

In these 2 examples cited, a number of lessons can be synthesised.

  • It’s not enough to conceive policies: they have to be satisfactorily executed. And there has to be good monitoring mechanisms and on-going evaluation in order to learn from mistakes and successes. What is clear from my own experiences is that we do lack a culture of learning. If anything, the opposite is true: we obfuscate and cover up weaknesses. As a result, weak programmes continue to run even amidst glaring errors.
  • The nature of the political cycle is such that governments will always want “quick wins” as opposed to long term but sound polices. It is a contradiction of democracy: the 5-year cycle can become quite disruptive in the sense of lack of continuity of policies. Equally though: guaranteed stay in power breeds corruption and entrenchment. It’s a tension which has to be carefully navigated. Some influential church organisations in Zimbabwe are suggesting a 7-year moratorium on elections. It’s a fascinating idea that I will try to unpack in another instalment.
  • Short termism can become a habit, a way of thinking. And it can diffuse from the political arena into general life. Not many people now have the patience to wait for the seasons, each in its appointed time. Few are patient enough to learn a skill, and master it. We are all rushing after elusive low hanging fruits and quick wins.

But it is not surprising that we are leaving in our wake environmental degradation in the gold fields; contaminated and toxic residues in the environment; bad debts all over the place; and more importantly, a feeling of regression rather than progress. Instead of rushing headlong into calamity, why not take a step back and look at what worked and why?

A sort of going back into the future?


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