TO BE, or not to be: that is the question. This might be an immortal Shakespearean question - but it is exactly what Zimbabweans were left asking themselves in the last few days.
This was after Finance Minister Tendai Biti had told a press conference that the country was only “left with $217”
in its national account. To be exact, Biti told journalists: "Last week when we paid civil servants, there was $217 (left) in government coffers."
This statement was picked up by reputable media houses across the globe, from the UK Guardian to CNN. The last time I stopped counting, more than 500 media houses and blogs had picked up the story.
It did not go down well with many Zimbabweans, who took to the various social media forums like Facebook to vent their anger, mostly towards the minister.
Some labelled his statement treasonous, while others thought it was an embarrassment to the nation. An embarrassment worse than the fact that the country once had an inflation rate of more than 231 million percent. Worse than the fact that Zimbabwe is one of the few countries - if there are any others - that does not have its own currency, as it still uses the US dollar.
The biggest question to ask, though, is whether Zimbabwe really is broke. Or, to ask it the Shakespearean way, To be broke or not to be broke, that is the question.
Was Biti just using the statement as an expression to say Zimbabwe didn’t have money for the elections, just like we say "I don’t even have a cent" when our kids or friends ask us for money?
Was he supposed to just say we need money for elections, without disclosing the extent to which the country needed help? Was this statement treasonous as some would like us to believe?
To me, it is actually a surprise that people are questioning Biti or angry with what he said. Yes, Zimbabwe is endowed with so much wealth, but until that wealth has been extracted and put to good use, the country is as poor as they come.
Yes, we might be extracting gold, diamonds and platinum, but until the revenues are handled in a transparent and accountable manner, the country will remain poor.
When government fails to build a proper conference structure for the United Nations World Tourism Organisation General Assembly conference and yet a mere party like Zanu-PF can build a $6m conference venue in 40 days, then you know something is not right.
I am surprised that people are angry with Biti, when what he said is exactly what he conveyed in his first budget presentation as finance minister when he said:“We only eat what we hunted.”
He meant government was operating on a cash budget literally known as “from hand to mouth”. Why do people expect something to be left in Biti’s hands, when the minister says the nation is only capable of gathering what is not even enough to eat?
Revenue collections by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority have failed to meet targets several times, while diamond revenues never live up to expectations.
Why should Biti hide the fact that the country is broke? To his credit, he is never shy to say it.
In his mid-term fiscal policy review last year, Biti had this to say about the economy: "Let me also, from the outset, point out that the first half of 2012 is a sad balance sheet of unmet targets and policy slippages that has left the economy in an unacceptable state of underperformance."
What do people really expect from Biti when salaries for civil servants account for 70% of government revenue? What do people expect him to say, when even the principals in the Zimbabwean government have tasked him and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to extend their begging bowl for funds to run the referendum and elections?
The Zimbabwean government is broke, period, and the sooner those in authority realise that the better.
William Shakespeare might be long dead, but what he wrote in his play Hamlet so many years ago could be what Zimbabwe needs to get itself out of this quagmire.
*Malcom Sharara is Fin24's correspondent in Zimbabwe. Views expressed are his own.
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