/ 28 March 2022

Can citizens help themselves, or do they need the government to play God?

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. (Reuters)

In its own crude, liberal way, JF Kennedy’s historic statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”, might as well read “Ask not what your government can do for you — ask whether you can do it for yourself.” 

Although economist, legal theorist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek did not rule out the role of government in our lives, he insisted that central planning tends to strip us of our individual freedom. On the other hand, the government is also regarded as a necessary evil because, as writer Ayn Rand observed, we put governments in power so that they may protect our individual freedom.

For liberals the world over, we believe in limited government, but the question remains: are we Africans still too dependent on government?

There is anecdotal evidence that in fragile democracies such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Botswana, and Zambia, governments seem to exhibit a permanent state of fearful uncertainty. This governance insecurity seems to be exacerbated by the presence of strong opposition political parties. For instance, in South Africa, the governing ANC has always had to glance over its shoulders at the threat of the Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters, and a coterie of other vocal entities.

In more ways than one, South African opposition parties and vibrant civil society play a critical oversight role.

In Zimbabwe, the presence of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the new Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) brings a respectable aura of insecurity among nationalist entities like Zanu-PF, though not as pronounced as its southern neighbour. Nonetheless, it is this sort of insecurity that compels governments to play God in a bid to push back opposition support among the citizenry. The government goes well out its way and means to appease citizens with the unintended consequences of a dependency syndrome.

A brief flashback may add value to this prognosis.

In 1994, the black South African government took the reins and inherited a deformed social support system. The deficit was more pronounced in the housing sector, thus the Nelson Mandela government committed itself to providing housing through its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Already one could sense a strong leaning towards recurrent public social expenditure, perhaps justified to reverse centuries of discriminatory investment.

Infectious dependency 

Bt, just like Zimbabwe’s “land reform” programme, such acts of government benevolence — even with noble intentions — set off a domino effect of infectious dependency among the citizenry. More often than not, citizens notice that they can extort support for social programmes by threatening to vote for the opposition, compelling governments to provide even where citizens can do things for themselves.

I call it the confluence of promises, unfulfilled expectations, and entitlement. It becomes a deadly cesspool of not just crippling budget deficits but corruption. The ANC has influenced budgetary expenditure of well over R4-billion in RDP housing, yet black South Africans still mourn homelessness. Reports of corrupt practices in Tembisa and Limpopo point to the fact that such public projects, meant to benefit citizens, don’t just invoke a desire of more dependency but also attract syndicates that syphon critical resources from the public purse.

One will notice that when the average South African has an issue with service delivery, even at the private corporate level, they turn to the central government for “assistance”. One listens with awe during electoral campaigns as the government promises jobs, higher social security payouts, free education and free health facilities.

In Zimbabwe, the late Robert Mugabe wrestled titled farms from white commercial farmers and distributed them freely to thousands of villagers. As if that was not bad enough, he promised them free farm equipment, free fertiliser and free seed.

As of now, the Zimbabwean taxpayer has had to inherit $3-billion in debt for money “borrowed” from the central bank to distribute free farming inputs. Zanu-PF’s “command agriculture” programme is embroiled in a damning corruption controversy, yet up to now, every year, “indigenous commercial farmers” keep expecting the government to issue free “presidential agriculture inputs”.

The cycle of dependency, deceit and corruption is vicious and perpetual. Zimbabweans, just like South Africans, expect the central government to build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and also provide subsidised public transport.

The questions remain: are our governments promising or doing too much of the things that we can easily do for ourselves? Is anyone really watching with concern how such acts of public benevolence are killing creativity and hard work among the citizenry?

Zimbabwe is rated one of the poorest countries in the world because, despite immense and vast mineral resources, citizens merely wait for the government to attract foreign direct investment. All 4 500 white commercial farmers who had intricate farm loan schemes with banks lost their property, yet Zimbabwe remains a net food importer despite spirited efforts by the government to offer free inputs to “new farmers”.

African governments make grand populist promises to open factories and provide jobs, summarily killing entrepreneurship. This is not to say governments should not do anything for its citizens. After all, we vote presidents and ministers into power. But there are hundreds of services that can be contracted to private citizens, for instance the issuance of passports.

Too much unproductive expenditure results in costly budget deficits and weakens the country’s economy. When the government plays God, true, it is fulfilling a so-called social responsibility. But, where there is an opportunity for entrepreneurial innovation and individual advancement, the government should stay out of the way to avoid nurturing an unnecessary culture of dependence.

Rejoice Ngwenya is the founder and executive director of the Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (Comaliso) in Zimbabwe, and writes for the Free Market Foundation. Comaliso works for a Zimbabwe that respects the free market, property rights and constitutionalism. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the foundation.