Confronting the national question

“Our civilisation … is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it.

“The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal.

“In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.”

So wrote George Orwell in “The Road to Wigan Pier”. One must bear in mind that this is 1930s Britain, where coal was important than oil, and that combustible sedimentary rock was indeed the foundation on which Europe had been built. The book itself was first published in 1937, and in it Orwell — or Eric Arthur Blair — documents his investigations into working class social conditions in northern England before World War II. In “The Road to Wigan Pier”, Orwell also delves into his middle class roots and his gravitation towards socialism.

This is, of course, before his co-option by the “establishment” and his sponsored — albeit brilliant — dissections a decade later of socialism and communism in “1984” and “Animal Farm”.

Orwell is better known for “Animal Farm” and “1984”, but earlier works like “The Road to Wigan Pier” and the 1938 “Homage to Catalonia”, which are essays on his experience of the Spanish Civil War, are well worth reading.

In “The Road to Wigan Pier”, Orwell raises a key aspect of nation-building: his summation is that the person who digs up coal is second only to the one who tills the land. That is a question that Zimbabweans have to ask themselves at this point in time: on what foundation is our future built?Indeed, what pillars hold up the new dispensation? Prior to 1980, that national question had its answer in the quest and subsequent attainment for and of Independence. Come 1989, we found ourselves in a quandary. We had answered the question satisfactorily to get to 1980, and then found ourselves staring at an unmapped future. That is how we ended up with the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme as we allowed Bretton-Woods to ask the national question and answer it for us. That disaster ended around 1996 when the political superstructure —which by then had morphed from a progressive revolution into an unwieldy bureaucracy prone to corruption and arrogance — found that Esap neither asked the real national question nor answered it. And that is one of the reasons why land came to the fore. It was a legitimate aspect of the national question, but it was unfortunately squandered on the altar of political expediency as it remained confined to being a tool with which to win elections in 2002 and 2005. Which took us to 2008, where land as a political — rather than a developmental — tool no longer resonated and the country stood on the brink of grave civil unrest. The political establishment dug once again into its bag of tricks and came up with the nomenclature of “empower, indigenise and create employment”. Again, this had legitimate underpinnings but the architecture to translate this into a national narrative was squandered.

Add to that the mess created by cabal bent on grabbing power at whatever cost, while at the same time looting with a level of arrogance only seen when the minority colonial regime raped Zimbabwe, and our country was again on the brink of disaster. The regime of the day did not ask itself what the national question was. As such, it could not be expected to have an answer. And that is, in a nutshell, what took us to November 2017 and the entry of a new dispensation. The new dispensation must know what the national question is and must provide an answer to it. For every sovereign nation, the question is: “How do we develop.”

For Orwell and his England, the answer was food and coal. For a Zimbabwe so blessed with good soils, favourable climatic conditions, abundant mineral resources, and an educated populace, the answer is just about the same as the one Orwell wrote on. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has indicated that his administration has moved away from the hard-nosed political nationalism of years gone by, favouring what we could call economic nationalism.

He has also indicated that his vision is of a middle-income Zimbabwe by 2030, which is just 12 years away. The two must go hand-in-hand. There is need to ensure land is more than just a political factor. It must become an economic one; one defined more in terms of productivity than merely keeping a restive populace sufficiently calm from one election to the next. Government must invest in not just productivity for purposes of national food security, but also processing of produce for job creation and export receipts.

Needless to say, investment in productivity and agro-processing will also speak to manufacturing. Where Orwell speaks of coal, Zimbabwe can speak of more than two dozen minerals and metals.

Our natural resources are finite and hence the need to make the most of them now, which is what makes value addition key, rather than just shipping out raw minerals. The answer to the development question is found in agriculture and mining.

And domestic investment in these sectors is an existential imperative because we must always remember that foreign capital/FDI is a fickle mistress. We have not holistically addressed the national question, and deployed a sustainable answer, for post-1980 Zimbabwe.

The new dispensation offers an opportunity to do just that.

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