Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Silent and for Profit, Zim's Mobile Phone Revolution

By Takura Zhangazha*

The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) recently announced in its 2015 third quarter report that there are almost 12, 4 million active mobile phone users in Zimbabwe.  This figure is derived from statistics it acquired from all mobile telephone companies it licensed to operate in Zimbabwe. 

Apart from mirthful comments from observers as to how the number of active lines in Zimbabwe are close to equaling our population figure of 13 million (a lot of people apparently own more than one sim card), the report makes for fairly interesting reading and interpretation. And there have been a number of insightful interpretations of this report, most notably from TechZim.

The most obvious issue that emerges is that the increase in mobile connectivity, even if 1,3% for the last quarter of 2015, is a good thing for freedom of expression and access to information.  Though these statistics are rarely viewed this way, there is no doubt that the ability of more Zimbabwean citizens to connect and talk to each other via mobile phones is a progressive democratic development. The only catch however remains that mobile phone content is still subject to criminal defamation and also that regionally, ours are comparatively high costs of utilization of mobile phones for voice calls and in some cases data connections. 

But all the same, the latter point is mitigated by the fact that, and this is in the quarterly report, there is increased demand for data services. This data has also had the added effect of providing alternatives to voice calls on mobile devices. These alternatives are listed as Whatsapp, Skype and Viber. This however has not stopped voice call revenue still constituting 60% of the revenue made by mobile phone companies.

Greater connectivity and a large number of base stations are to be found, as expected, in the urban as opposed to rural areas. But there is an inevitability to the expansion of mobile connectivity in the rural areas largely due to what is perhaps the most physically utilitarian value of the mobile phone in rural areas, that is, mobile money transfers.  The number of people connected to mobile money systems have increased though their ability to deposit significant amounts into mobile money accounts has not.  As of 2015 there are now over 6, 7 million subscribers to mobile money, an increase of 7,1% .  It is an increase that will likely continue much to the chagrin of formal banks.

As for fixed telephone connections, the decline in connectivity is largely due to the impact that the mobile phone continues to have.  Fewer people have fixed telephone lines, with corporate bodies taking the majority of usage statistics at 69%.  Even fewer Zimbabweans are using the traditional mainstream courier services to send and receive goods or information.

The POTRAZ report also concludes, on the basis of the statistics it presents, that ‘ as revenues from voice and sms services continue to decline, the future of telecommunications is data’.
This conclusion may initially appear to be a straightforward one but it has telling implications on the increased importance of the mobile phone in the everyday lives of Zimbabweans.  

Without a doubt it is the now very much preferred method of communication, not only for social conversations as in the past but also for multiple information processing, receiving and transacting platforms .  This with the added function of becoming a tool for money related transactions makes our mobile phones revolutionary in relation to how our everyday lives are now arranged.  In fact, the continued rise in the reliance on mobile phones will inevitably affect our economics, politics and social interaction.  Its all a question of whether we harness these new technologies and increased over reliance on data to best democratic effect. 

As it is, and as one can infer from the POTRAZ report, the highly competitive aspect of our telecommunications industry and its primary motivation by revenue collection/profit means that the public interest value of its expansion remains obscured and arrived at by default.  It also means for example, there will be continued disequilibrium between rural and urban connectivity because the current model merely follows the money, as opposed to the communications for development need.

Admittedly private mobile companies will say such an approach is fundamentally the responsibility of government especially through the levies and license fees they pay.  But the evident rider has been that the slower realization and roll out of what are even faster communications technologies such as long term evolution (LTE) connectivity are directly linked to the ability to milk the market while one still can.  Especially in a highly competitive and oft times politicized via licensing one as is Zimbabwe’s telecommunications market.  Some of us would do well to remember the days of ‘disappearing airtime’ on our respective networks.

Government, through its regulatory frameworks is also not without fault.  Its primary view of the telecommunications industry as a critical state revenue base has also fueled this unfettered profit motive. In the process what obtains is almost the equivalent of a quid pro quo with the telecommunications companies saying the equivalent of its okay for you to go ahead and tax us, just allow us to also make as much profit as we can, while we can.  Especially before the internet or access to affordable data, especially via mobile telephony, inevitably becomes a basic right.  
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

There is 'Method' to Zanu Pf Factionalism

 By Takura Zhangazha*

It has been a hectic last two months for Zanu Pf elites. At least by way of media reports, social media accounts, party conference politicking and reported break-ins into an acting presidents offices. Needless to say the accusations of factionalism and political conspiracies that keep emerging all center around the issue of succession in the ruling party. Ambitious party apparatchiks have therefore been falling over themselves to give, mainly through the media, an impression of having their finger on the control button of leadership succession. 

The end effect has been a contrived national debate about the ruling party, its president’s health, the safety of one of its vice presidents and the political prospects of its former vice president.  It all makes for exciting conspiracy reading and occupation of conversation time for the political elite in Zimbabwean society. 

It also makes for patronage driven political activity for grassroots supporters of various factions within the ruling party.  It keeps the latter conspiratorially active and able to manipulate the various interests  of their benefactors in favour of their own.  These grassroots supporters, comprised of the war veterans, new farmers, new urban stand owners, youth formations and informal traders, all cutting across various age groups have no big problem with these power games. It suits them, as would an electoral campaign, in their endeavours to make as much as they can out of it. The housing stands, reconfigured farm allocations, tender deals, veteran pensions and  more recently access to drought relief is something that will come with their active participation in whatever faction they chose to side with. Even if interchangeably so. 

So the succession battles being played out at various levels are not an indication of a fundamental shift in Zanu Pf internal politics and culture. Far from it.  They may indicate a potential change of influential personalities as was the case when Joice Mujuru was unceremoniously bundled out of the party.

So there is method to the politicking around succession.  The paramount rule is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Hence the evidently procedural annual party conference last December. The slinging matches on Twitter, in the mainstream media and even in criminal defamation court, with hindsight had limited impact on the same.

What has since emerged is an intention to control media content in light of the factional fights in relation to the military, the vice presidents and the first family.  This is less an act of desperation than it is intended to indicate a new era of controlling media content to suit the broader agenda of the ruling party as given through other examples of benevolent dictatorships. Hence the increased noise around the ambiguous terms of ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’.

The end effect of Zanu Pf’s succession battles are therefore largely threefold.  The first of which is the pre-occupation of the national political discourse with the same subject matter beyond the point of saturation. This is not only via various mainstream and social media platforms but also party meetings that are clandestine or in the open.  In the process ruling party succession becomes the main political game in town to the extent of even potentially co-opting variegated opposition political party interests. Questions that arise are more of who is with whom and for what reasons. 

As a result the elephant in the room of succession politicking remains that of what I have previously referred to as ‘crouching ethnicity and hidden tribalism’ being used as a faction mobilization method.

Because of the clouding of the national discourse through an over saturated succession discourse, national attention to structural economic challenges the country is faced will remain peripheral at best.  Where they are raised, it will be within the ambit of a politicization of food aid, distribution of political patronage through new farms, residential stands, vending stalls and state tenders to private businesses.  In the process new nodes of political control via factions emerge, even if they remain ephemeral, with the prize being the king’s crown, not necessarily the demise of the ruling party’s’ hold on political power.

The final and most ignored element of the Zanu Pf succession debacle is its papering over the cracks political character of a state that is morphing into a neo-liberal one.  Whereas the public would, in between elections, discuss key policy issues affecting their livelihoods, succession has drowned this out.  Even in the case of national emergencies such as the self-evident drought the country is faced with. The catch is that this is not by default.  There is a deliberate movement toward pushing free market economies to unprecedented levels that will make the economic policy failure that was economic structural adjustment look rosier.

And this is a commonly held perspective between the ruling party factions and all have referred with relative ease and agreement on the necessity of the ‘ease of doing business’ as the sine qua non of their economic policies.  All within a nationalist ambit that will entail creating what will in effect be a comprador bourgeoisie that will be sharing the spoils of an accelerated privatization of electricity, water, education, health and transport via what the South Africans have popularly referred to as ‘tenderpreneurship’. 

So there is ‘method’ to Zanu Pf factionalism.  And it is not by default.  There are ground rules to it. These include keeping the national discourse pre-occupied with it and crowding out official opposition voices, not upsetting the apple cart that is the hold on power of the ruling party and lastly, using it as a ruse to reconfigure the national economy to suit a free-market economic template. All of this, while we are pre-occupied with 'crocodiles' and 'G-40s'.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com


Monday, 11 January 2016

Zim Media and Government's Sticks With Patriotic Carrots Method

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The recent threats to the media issued via the Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services(MIBS) Chris Mushowe are something I am sure every journalist would prefer to wish away as mere politicking.  Not until the permanent secretary to the same ministry, George Charamba also issued an acerbic warning to a journalist via tele-conversation. 

Picking up from where his immediate boss had left off, he told journalist Elias Mambo of the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper that should the media continue to write unfavourable stories about the security services, journalists would find themselves at the country’s infamous Chikurubi maximum security prison. This, he continued,  while government would be searching for the sources of the same said stories.

It is a threat that would obviously have a chilling effect on any professional journalist.  Its implications point to an arbitrary intention to imprison journalists both as punishment and as a way of violating the journalistic principle of protection of sources. 

Some newspaper columnists, writing under pseudonyms, have also added to the intimidating media environment by issuing stark warnings to the private print media.  In these they have made odd metaphorical references to the bible and the baiting of crocodiles. In the process they give the impression that there is inevitability to criminal censure of journalists that write in a manner that government finds unpalatable.

This would also explain the continued use of criminal defamation laws to arrest editors, journalists and in the latest case, even a company secretary of the Alpha Media Holdings company for publishing stories deemed to undermine the security services or viewed as being ‘false’. 

The only surprising element is that these direct threats against the media are occurring within the context of what would have been a new phase for government- media relations in the aftermath of the state sponsored Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) report.  While the latter has its own on-going controversies, it is increasingly evident that it has not been the much anticipated indication of a thawing of frosty relations between government and the mainstream media.

The statements from MIBS offcials  therefore demonstrate a number of intentions that the media should consider with the utmost seriousness.  One being that any sort of honeymoon period for  media-government relations is over. Where the carrot was used in IMPI, from now on it appears the stick will be the engagement method of preference.

This in order to have the effect of indirect control of media content, especially on news that government considers harmful to the national interest.

Furthermore, the eventual intention is to crowd out the private print media through creation of other multimedia platforms. This s already being done in relation to broadcasting licenses (local commercial and eventually community radios), the digitization processes currently underway, government support of independent content producers and continued state subsidies for state media.

Because all of the country’s private print media is struggling to stay afloat, there is the further advantage to government that the former will shrink on its own.  A combination of a debilitating economic environment together with a highly competitive but smaller mainstream media market will leave the private media on the brink of closure. Government will however only step in to give direct assistance if the private media tows the official line in relation to content that is in the ‘national interest’. 

In this context, it is the media that must find new negotiating ground with government that seeks to protect its editorial independence in the face of these emerging and somewhat unexpected political realities.  

The options are few.  They include attempting to come to some sort of agreement on what is ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’ with a currently stubborn government. However this will be a development that would negatively affect the democratic independence of the media. The reality is that this is an issue that will obviously loom large at the announced January 2016 indaba between government and the media.

Alternatively, the media can huddle together and in a demonstration of rare unity, stand its democratic ground by insisting on its right to exist without undue and arbitrary interference from the state. This may not take on a directly confrontational approach but will be based on a principled understanding of the democratic role of the media in our society.  With it will come a number of professional and ethical obligations and implementation frameworks for the media as determined by media stakeholders with input from the state via MIBS. 

And this is the crux of the matter because it is the operational framework f the media and its related content that government appears keen on controlling. Where the media fails to do so independently, the state is very willing to define it anew. Even arbitrarily so, despite the current and looming constitutional court challenges.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Profit in a Drought Year, Government's Undemocratic Dance with Private Grain

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The  Minister of Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development, Joseph Made recently announced that in order to mitigate the drought Zimbabwe is faced with, government is set to import Us$260 million worth of maize from our neighbour, Zambia.  This is largely to be done through private players in the grain importation sector who have been granted permits from his ministry.

The Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe (GMAZ) in what is clearly a policy change lobbying act also announced that this initiative is somewhat unfair to other private players in the grain importation business. 

Appearing on local television, the chairman of the GMAZ, Tafadzwa Musarara stated that his organization was trying to lobby Made to allow further  importation of maize not only from Zambia but also from Argentina and Brazil via our borders with South Africa and Mozambique.
These statements from GMAZ also occur against the backdrop of the relevant ministry having announced that it has  issued  permits to a number of private maize importers who have only delivered 450 000 tonnes of a total of 1, 2 million tonnes from Zambia thus far.

So essentially there are two sides to this particular coin.  Government is arguing that if anything, it has already agreed to the importation of maize by private players who are still failing to meet the delivery target.

Other private players, as represented by  GMAZ are arguing that the failure to deliver is predicated on the fact that the maize is only permitted to come from Zambia largely via Chirundu because the railway system is not fully functional. They want other border posts to be utilised and not just for importation of maize from Zambia. 

The common element to this coin is the fact that there is agreement that it is the private sector that will play a key role in the delivery of much needed maize imports.  The difference is the quantitative extent to which maize will be imported from other countries via other border posts and with many more private players. 

It is an argument that is tantamount to being a squabble over pieces of the cake.  And a lucrative one too given the fact that fixed maize prices were done away with in 2015.

Not that it is a peculiarly new development to issues over and about the importation of various grains into the country. Particularly for wheat, due to our regular winter crop failure and maize, due to our recurrent experiences of poor rainfall seasons. 

It generally works like this.  Private players apply for government permits to import specific grains for a profit and under the regulatory eye of the Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA).  Specifically for maize and in order to re-stock our reserves after a poor harvest, permits have been issued to private players to import mainly from Zambia.

In the circumstances of the officially tentative but in reality now apparent drought, government and private players know for a fact that maize is going to be desperately needed by thousands of families in Zimbabwe. Not just via food aid because that is already tightly controlled.  Its also about access to state resources, the market and therefore, the profit.

And government and the private players are very much aware of this. That is why the price of a bucket of maize has gone up to US$7 at agricultural produce markets, a price that is hardly affordable for many poorer families that are affected by the drought.

In essence this means if you have no money to buy maize, you have to wait for the government approved food aid donor in order to eat the staple meal.

The structural dimension of this is that food aid is to a greater extent privatized, even if the government denies it.  State resources for payment of procurement of maize to private players shall be used and for a profit.  It also means, as is already the case, a parallel maize price regime and will emerge as most of the maize meant to assist the poor will most likely not be properly accounted for.  Or, as has always been the general case, those with access to money and resources, will eventually politicize maize distribution.

Given the emerging narratives and maize importation framework squabbles in the context of what already is a debilitating drought, it is increasingly clear that whatever plans government and the private sector have are  motivated more by profit than an intention to give people centered relief.  And its not a one-off plan.  It may unfortunately be the only long term plan that government currently has for the drought in direct collaboration with what it considers favorable sections of capital.  With this, the danger is the emergence of a rapacious 'natural' disaster capitalism or the creation of more or less permanent privatization of how to make ridiculous and undemocratic profit out of the natural disaster that is a drought. Even if caused by El Nino and poor state preparedness for what science had long predicted.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)