BSR: Things they never taught us at school

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The idea of this article was put into the ground at the end of last year. I wanted it to be the first article of this year. I wanted to reflect on things that I have observed over the years which could have been useful had I been better prepared for them when I was growing up. 

I asked myself: What things did I not know growing up but would have been better off knowing? What things did they not teach us at school about governance that would have been handy? Or to put it another way, if I had a chance to speak to a younger version of me, what would I advise him to learn? 

I write with the advantage of hindsight and experience. These are things that I wish every young person should learn. Although I write specifically regarding my Zimbabwean experience, I imagine people in other countries might find some resonance with their own experiences. The list of issues is long but for this article, I have restricted it to a few.  

Whatever the government owns or owes is ultimately your responsibility 

I would have liked to have a deeper understanding of the workings of government and my relationship with the government assets and liabilities. This might seem obvious now but growing up the government was very distant. It was something that came down to us occasionally, giving orders regarding what the people were required to do. 

Even now, it is not unusual to hear people saying “Ndezvehurumende” (It belongs to the government) or “Hazvisi zvemunhu” (It does not belong to an individual). These statements are indicative of a disconnection between the government and the people. This is in part a legacy of the colonial era where the relationship between the people and the government was adversarial and often hostile. The government took from the people; it forced people to do things and generally employed repressive methods to impose its will. It was therefore a “them and us” relationship. 

Unfortunately, this hostility did not end at independence partly because the government persisted with the institutions, rules, and methods of its colonial predecessor. The new rulers were as eager as their colonial predecessors to exert their power. This disconnection is unhelpful because it obfuscates the dynamic relationship between citizens and the government. Authority to govern derives from the people and therefore the government is merely a custodian of national assets. It is supposed to account to the citizens. If an owner sees a person abusing his assets, he will take action to protect them. This is how people ought to relate to assets that are controlled by the government.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the relationship is through debt. Whenever the government contracts a debt, it becomes the responsibility of the citizens because they are the taxpayers. Government debt comes in various ways. It can arise from loans that the government takes from lenders. It can also come from guarantees that the government gives when parastatals or private companies borrow money from lenders. Sometimes the government takes over debts that have been incurred by others. Many will remember the infamous Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Debt Assumption Act when the government took over substantial debts that had been incurred by the RBZ. It also took over the technically insolvent Air Zimbabwe’s debts.

Six years ago, it took over debts that were owed to private banks when it created the Zimbabwe Asset Management Company (ZAMCO). It has so far refused to declare the names of parties that owed those debts. The bulk of them is likely to be political elites. But the long and short of it is that once the government takes over those debts, it is the ordinary citizens, being the taxpayers who assume those debts. The implication is that it is the poor people who finance the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy. Imagine that the headman of the village borrows money from the bank. He developed his home, buys himself a new car, and sends his children to the best schools. But when he fails to pay it back, he says the debt is now owed by all the villagers who must contribute towards its repayment. 

Every season the government distributes agricultural inputs to farmers around the country. They are distributed as “free”, but to those that are literate in public finance, they are not free at all. The taxpayer is paying for the so-called “freebies”. As it happens, elites take advantage of these programs for self-enrichment. They get expensive agricultural equipment labelled as loans. But they never pay them back. Instead, they are either written off as bad debts or are just repackaged and presented as gifts. If you look at every government program the same names appear on the lists of beneficiaries repeatedly. But ordinary people just shrug and say “ndezvehurumende” (It’s the government’s things). 

If I had my way, there would be a module that includes principles of public finance at least from the secondary school level. A proper understanding of public debt is important because with knowledge perhaps people will have some incentives to exercise vigilance over the use of public funds and debt contraction. 

Public Procurement: Government is the biggest contractor

As I have already said, when you are growing up in any part of the country, unless you are close to the politicians, the government is very remote and opaque. It is something that you occasionally see when rotund men roll out of their big British, Japanese, or German-made vehicles to address you at a gathering. The people dance and cheer for them. The people might even give them gifts – a cockerel, a goat, or even a cow. Then they leave, thick swirls of dust in the wake of their large automobiles. That is the quintessential image of government: big men in big cars who come to tell people what to do.

When you are young, you do not realize that the government is a large and complex creature. In this regard, I define the government very broadly to include local authorities and state-owned entities. Despite the presence of the private sector, the government is still the biggest economic actor. The private sector is a big beneficiary of contractual assignments from the government. The public services that the government provides present enormous business opportunities. Think of roads, medicines, educational materials, transport, energy, producing passports and stationery, uniforms for police officers and soldiers, fuel, constructing dams and buildings, and much more. The government does not have the capacity or expertise to produce all these goods and services. It outsources these jobs to private actors. Those who are close enough to know these opportunities and how they can be exploited have a great advantage over those who are ignorant. 

This process of outsourcing is supposed to be transparent and accountable. The term used for when the government or its associated entities are seeking goods and services is public procurement. The usual way to ensure transparency and accountability in public procurement is the tendering process. When the government wants to build a road, it invites contractors. Contractors submit their bids offering their terms to the government. The government then assesses the bids and chooses the best bid which is usually the most efficient and cost-effective of the lot. This process is supposed to be fair and impartial, but unfortunately, this is fertile ground for corruption.

In the past, the job of public procurement was centralized through the State Procurement Board. Before that, it was simply called the Tender Board. This model was abandoned. There was a lot of cronyism and corruption. The current model is decentralized, with the Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (PRAZ) sitting atop as the regulatory body. To get a measure of the strategic importance of PRAZ just look at the composition of its Board of Directors. 4 out of the 9 directors have a military background. Public procurement is an area where money is made and the self-declared “stockholders” were never going to stay far away from this gatekeeping institution. 

A new law, the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets (No. 5 of 2017) Act [Chapter 22: 23] was adopted in 2017. It is designed to fulfill section 315 of the Constitution which requires that public procurement is “transparent, fair, honest, cost-effective and competitive”. But few people are familiar with this law or even the process of submitting participating in tenders. This leaves the massive opportunities open to a small pool of bidders. The PRAZ website has some limited information on how to participate in the tendering process but its section on workshops and training has no item at all. It should be playing a more visible role in educating citizens about public procurement. 

When I was in secondary school, we learned nothing about public procurement. When I went to law school in the 1990s there was no module dedicated to public procurement. We learned the traditional law of contract which is handy but not enough for a specialized area like public procurement. The system was designed to exclude, and the education system did not do much to open our eyes to this important area. I doubt that much has changed. 

It would have been great to learn about public procurement. It would have opened our eyes to the vast opportunities available through public procurement. It would also have taught us to be more vigilant over public procurement. The problem is that those who have the power to change the curriculum and open eyes have more incentives to keep this knowledge to themselves and their families and associates. The fewer they are in this zone of lucrative public procurement, the better it is for them. As it is, there is a very small group of elites who know about and participate in public procurement. They have no desire to increase competition. Some have mastered the system that they can even get advance payments from the government. They do not even have the money to supply the goods and services. They are just middlemen collecting rents from the government. They do not even pay the performance bonds that are required to support large public contracts. 

Worse still is that the public procurement procedures are not always followed. In some cases, huge contracts are simply awarded privately, without any competitive bidding. That is the problem with Command Agriculture, a multi-billion-dollar contract that was awarded to Kuda Tagwirei’s Sakunda. In some cases, tenders are awarded and taken away. This is how Kuda Tagwirei’s Sakunda got the Dema Diesel Power Plant contract which was worth more than US$600 million. It is now a white elephant just 5 years later. 

Becoming financially literate – understanding the stock market

Growing up the message is drummed into you that gambling is not good. Gambling is addictive and it can lead to serious problems. However, there are different forms of gambling and some of them are deemed acceptable. One of the big gambling games takes place on the stock market, where people buy and sell shares expecting to make a profit. Sometimes the gamble pays off when you choose the right stock, but sometimes it does not. 

There are even more specific forms of betting on the stock market, called short selling, but as this is meant to be elementary reading, I will leave it for another time. Suffice to say a short seller sells shares betting that they will fall in value at a future date at which point he will buy them back at the lower price thereby making a profit. If the gamble works out, they make huge amounts of money. But it can also go south, and they lose badly. 

Interestingly, while many people bet on sports events, fewer people participate in the stock market. There could be all sorts of reasons why there is less participation on the stock markets but if I can hazard a guess, it is that most people do not know much about it or they think it’s a playground for the wealthy and sophisticated. But if people knew better, they might make use of the stock market than leaving their money in bank accounts. When the Zimbabwean currency has faced trouble, those who know have shifted their money to the stock market seeking safe refuge. They buy shares in listed companies instead of leaving their money to the vicissitudes of the currency market. But the rest of the people have no idea, and they suffer the consequences of ignorance. 

Now, to be sure, I am not giving investment advice here. I am simply saying that I would have been better placed if I had been taught about the stock market when I was still at school. Knowing is better than ignorance. It would have given me more options to think about. I was fortunate to learn about it through my law studies. If you think this is pointless let us consider this example:

a man spends his working life making pension contributions to a company that is listed on the stock market. He does this because he wants to build a nest for his retirement. However, 2008 arrives and there is massive hyperinflation. He loses everything because the value of the currency has collapsed. The company says it is merely complying with the law. 

Now imagine another person who bought shares in the same company that is running the pension scheme. True, the share prices are also impacted by hyperinflation, but he retains his shareholding. That person is still a shareholder in the listed company and if he bides his time and things stabilize, he will receive dividends and if he wants, he might sell the shares for a profit. Look at the insurance giants in Zimbabwe – Old Mutual, First Mutual, etc. Their clients who spent years paying into pension and insurance pots were left with very little, but their shareholders were generally in a good shape. Arguably, the pensioners might have been better off had they bought shares in the insurance and pension companies.   

I was fortunate to learn about the stock market through law school, but I would have preferred it if this knowledge had been introduced to me earlier. The only markets we knew were markets for tomatoes, green vegetables, and buses. Musika is the name in Shona. The television segment where they discussed the stock market was considered boring. If we had known better, we might have paid more attention. I do not know if this has changed. It is important to promote financial literacy from an early age. We live in a capitalist world in which we have very limited knowledge of capitalist processes and institutions. 

Beneficiation is not just a big industry term

The term beneficiation is now widely used and known to many people, and it is used in big industries such as mining. It is the process of enhancing the economic value of products. Policy-makers say there should be more beneficiation in the mining and minerals industry, instead of simply selling raw materials. One of the great weaknesses of resource-rich countries in Africa is that they export raw materials to the rest of the world but they end up buying back the finished products at higher prices. Think of diamonds for example. Some of the world’s biggest beneficiaries of trade in diamonds have no diamonds of their own. They process the raw diamonds that are exported from poor countries. This inequitable situation could be minimized if these countries could have more beneficiation of their raw products.

However, beneficiation has broader appeal and application. I often think of my grandfather who had a huge citrus orchard. His neighbours also had equally big orchards. When the harvesting season arrived, they simply took them to the local markets – Kwenda Mission, Warikandwa School, or kwaSadza during sports events where they sold their oranges, mangoes, and peaches. No one thought to produce orange or mango juice which might have sold at a higher price to markets beyond their local areas. Some might say there was no market. They might have a point. But my point is that beneficiation is something that applies to the local as well as to the national and international markets.

Think of the vendor who sells bananas. They are easily perishable. The moment they start browning, they become less attractive to consumers. The vendors might reduce prices to shift their stock and cut losses. But the vendor could take them back and bake a banana cake. The banana cake might fetch more than the normal banana. It qualifies as a value addition. The same could apply to tomatoes and similar products. With better packaging and marketing, they might even find markets beyond Zimbabwe. 

Now, we did encounter beneficiation when we studied human and economic geography. But we were studying to pass examinations, not necessarily to apply them to our daily lives. This is also a curriculum issue: it wires us to absorb knowledge for purposes of passing exams and acquiring good certificates, not necessarily to be entrepreneurs. I would start with a module on beneficiation at the primary school level. The message ought to be inculcated into the young people that beneficiation is not just about platinum, gold, or iron ores. It is about the products that we make and consume in our everyday lives.    

It is important to discover ignorance and think critically 

One of the best lessons I have learned came later in life: the importance of the discovery of ignorance. I read it in Yuval Noah Harari’s great book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions”, says Harari before adding, “The willingness to admit ignorance has made modern science more dynamic, supple, and inquisitive than any previous tradition of knowledge”. This is different from a tradition of knowledge which suggests that everything that needs to be known already exists. 

The admission of ignorance is an important step in critical thinking because it lays the foundation for seeking knowledge. If you think you already know, there is no incentive to look for knowledge and there is no discovery. It is also important because it means you must challenge received knowledge while also accepting that your knowledge is subject to challenge. 

Everything is now always what it seems. During my time, teachers who encouraged us to challenge received knowledge in books, or what they told us were a rare breed. In our small world, teachers were supposed to know everything, and this belief was encouraged by those who took great exception to be questioned. The result is that there was not much critical engagement with the books that we read or the teachers who instructed us.

The only subject I remember that allowed some room for critical thinking was history. I liked the exercise where we were asked to critically comment on historical drawings and pictures and to question the credibility of sources. It helped me greatly to work on my critical thinking skills, but it was not nearly enough. It was much later, at the postgraduate level when I could say my critical thinking skills were better. A critical thinker examines the credibility of what he or she is reading – how reliable is the data? Where did it come from? How was it collected? Is it verified? What is the agenda? Have the author’s ideological or religious inclinations influenced his or her views? These are some of the questions that people should be asked before they press the forward or share button.

I would have liked an introduction to logical fallacies at an early age. These are errors in reasoning which are commonly deployed in arguments. Take for example the logical fallacy called ad hominem, where you are arguing with someone and instead of responding to the argument, they attack your person. An ad hominem argument is designed to throw you off balance. You start defending yourself and lose track of the argument. A common favourite of social media debates is the logical fallacy of false equivalence or Whataboutism. You make a statement that is critical of a political actor, and another responds with a statement that tries to equate unrelated issues. They say, “What about this and that?” They are not denying the argument, but they are simply trying to sidestep it by making a false equivalence.

Another is the logical fallacy of sunk costs. The best definition of the Sunk Cost Fallacy is that it is “our tendency to follow through on an endeavour if we have already invested time, effort or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits”. A person will say, “I have already invested so much in this, so I will continue to the end” even when it is no longer rational to do so. You see it sometimes when someone has made an error. The best option would be to withdraw and apologize. But they say, I have already invested in this argument, and they keep going on despite the absurdity. If you appreciate the sunk cost fallacy, you might choose a different option.

Many logical fallacies would help people to identify weaknesses in arguments that are presented to them. But I have no intention of giving a full lecture on logical fallacies. This is just an introduction that might encourage you to read more about them. But I must mention one that is so common on social media. It is the straw-man logical fallacy. This is when you make an argument and the other person responds by misrepresenting what you have said because it is easy for them to attack it. In other words, the person creates his argument and makes it appear like it is your argument. For example, Mary might say the pass rate at School A is better this year than at School B and John will respond by saying, “So you are saying students at School B are dull?”. It is a strawman because Mary has not said the students at School B are dull. There may be various reasons why the pass rate is lower than School A’s pass rate this year. John has created an argument that Mary has not made and is trying to attribute it to her.

If people used more critical thinking, they would be more questioning of what those in authority tell them. It’s not unusual for some people to say “It’s in the newspaper” or “It has been said on the news” as if that alone is sufficient authority for the issue. They would ask difficult questions and the politicians would not take them for granted. Again, if I had my way, I would have a module on critical thinking skills right from the primary school level. They should be able to pick the different logical fallacies. We need a more questioning society.

Knowing the constitution is a critical part of strong citizenship

The first time I got a proper feel of the Constitution and its meaning was when I joined law school at the University of Zimbabwe. Before that, I had engaged the constitution incidentally in history texts and newspapers. I cannot say I properly understood its role and implications in my life as a citizen until that stage of my life and in my view, it was already late. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been introduced to the constitution early in life. I think it would have prepared me better as a citizen, appreciating the full scope of my rights and responsibilities, but more importantly, understanding how the government works.

I do not know if those reading this were in any better position than me. I have no idea if young people have had any better experiences than me. There is a slight advantage in that there has been much talk about the constitution in the last two decades, which means people are more conscious about constitutionalism than the generation growing up between 1980 and 2000. I certainly hope that there is greater constitutional consciousness. However, I am also aware from public engagements that constitutional literacy remains limited but I am encouraged by the fact that there is a lot of appetites to learn.

An introduction to the constitution at the primary school level builds a solid foundation for strong citizenship. You cannot talk about the need for voter registration and exercising the right to vote when people are not fully equipped with knowledge about their role and rights in society. It is not simply about the rights and responsibilities of citizens, but it is also about knowledge of how the government works. Therefore, we have committed ourselves at the Constitutional Law Centre and associated organizations to build constitutional literacy from an early age.

Conclusion

I have covered a wide range of issues that my education did not prepare me for. I do not know if this applies to those who are reading this article. I do not know if these gaps still apply to the current curriculum. Certainly, there are four competencies that I would like to promote: critical thinking; constitutional literacy; financial literacy, and entrepreneurship. It was not until my late teens as a university student that I began to acquire these skills. There are so many fun things to do as a teenager, but if you are reading this and you can relate, perhaps you can pick at least one of them and push hard. If you are a parent, perhaps there are one or two things that your little one might find useful in this article. I know I would have benefited greatly had I had the advantage of this information.

WaMagaisa