In the Bible, Jesus is said to have declared, “the poor you will always have with you.” This was a response to those who wanted to use the poor as an excuse to maintain the status quo and to avoid the weightier matters of what it means to be a steward in the household of God.
This is not the first time this matter of the poor is addressed in the sacred texts of Judeo-Christianity. From Cain’s plea, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the frequent rebukes of prophets like Amos, the welfare of the poor and marginalized seems to be of some concern. And the conversation continues.
Takura Zhangazha notes in a recent article titled “‘Vending’, Zimbabwe’s Economic ‘Shock Doctrine’ and ‘Socialism of the Rich’ highlights forms of state capitalism that oppress the majority poor and reinforce the position of the state as well as the monopolistic private sector.
Zhangazha notes that, “from obscure concessions to land barons, through to corruption at publicly owned medical aid societies and state parastatals as well as private banks being let off the hook, our government has been distributing national resources to the already rich few and not the majority poor.”
The article highlights the pushback against the poor who are called “vendors” instead of “workers.” The term “vendors” makes the poor competitors and interlopers in the economic marketplace who are merely seeking to build wealth at the expense of more legitimate enterprises.
However, these so-called vendors in Zimbabwe are like many of the “self-employed” across the African continent who are merely trying meet the needs of their “oikos” (Greek for household). Economics in all times and in all places is fundamentally about household management. Economies develop out of a need to manage resources so that human needs – individual and corporate – can be met. This is part and parcel of the basic human survival instinct.
Of course, anyone who has spent a bit of time speaking with Africans will quickly conclude that this is not a problem unique to Zimbabwe. In fact, it’s not a uniquely African problem. This assault on the poor is an international problem and human rights issue for which there is no easy solution. Marx was wrong in asserting that religion was the opiate of the masses. Indeed, survival is the true opiate of the masses and the rich know this all too well.
Unchecked commodification of resources and individuals effectively silences protest, undermines resistance, and causes human agency and potential to atrophy. The government, which arguably should advocate for its citizens, tends to advocate for economic and spiritual systems that reinforces the power and illusions of power held by those who run the government.
Instead of elders who work for the well being of the whole household, a class of masters or overseers or capitalistic lapdogs exists with no vision for the poor except as raw resources to be consumed.
When I first visited Uganda, I was struck by the varieties of economies I encountered. Most Ugandans were entrepreneurs. Some were entrepreneurs by choice, while most seemed entrepreneurs by sheer necessity. This is not merely a matter of living paycheque to paycheque.
Each day begins, not at point zero, but at some greater point of deficit. The cost of living seems to always outstrip cash and other economic resources of the typical family. The social welfare networks of the West do not appear to exist in Uganda or across much of the African continent. Wages are low. To be sick even for a day can spell economic disaster.
There is no social security disability. Education is essentially a private matter financed by fees paid by the family. The inability to pay school fees means no education or delays in educational progress. Lack of access to quality education guarantees a cycle of dehumanizing, life-denying economies. In this end, this “vendor” economy is unsustainable and with the poor absorbing the crushing weight of its collapse.
Zhangazha concludes, “the vendors and informal traders are not a problem, let alone the problem. They are citizens of Zimbabwe exercising their right to not only associate but also to earn a living even though they still barely manage to make ends meet. And in this case they are ‘workers’ because they are doing what the state will no longer do.”
In the West, this problem is obscured by certain myths of economic prosperity. As often happens, even the poor tend to articulate this mythos as a way of making sense of their own economic reality. After all, the West is the promised land where anyone and everyone can and does prosper.
Even the poor are different in the West and those who do not achieve a certain measure of economic success just haven’t tried hard enough. Poverty is always the fault of the poor in Western economic mythology. Those of us in diaspora in the West are well aware of the fallacies of the West too.
In the United States, we have seen how efforts to disrupt certain economic narratives and to develop economic agency have been met with resistance by the government as well as corporate interests.
So, the grassroots work of activist groups such as the Black Panthers was demonised and destabilised. The poor were problematised. The masses were opiated by policy crumbs and silenced by rhetorics of “civilisation,” “respectability,” and law and order.” Proper economies and economic activities were defined and reinforced by the state for the benefit of the minority rich.
In reading Zhangazha, one shakes one’s head that injustice is called salvation and economic oppression is cast as beneficial to the masses. Thus, Zhangazha joins for the ancient voice of the prophet Amos declaring ““They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” and we should all be very troubled.