'high-stakes game'

Zimbabwe: Will Mthuli Ncube win Cowdray Park votes amid economic implosion?

By Veneranda Langa

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Posted on June 19, 2023 15:08

Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube arrives to present 2021 National Budget to the parliament in Harare © Zimbabwe’s finance minister Mthuli Ncube arrives to present 2021 national budget to parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe,REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Zimbabwe’s finance minister Mthuli Ncube arrives to present 2021 national budget to parliament in Harare, Zimbabwe,REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwe Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube is a renowned economist and finance technocrat. However, will his poor track record, with runaway inflation during his tenure, scare possible voters away as he vies for the Cowdray Park parliamentary seat in the 23 August polls?

Cowdray Park is a new constituency that was formed through the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission delimitation process this year. The entry of Ncube, a past chief economist and vice president of the African Development Bank as well as former Oxford University professor, into full-time politics has elicited a heated debate.

In 2018, Cowdray Park was just a ward under Luveve constituency, and the formation of this new constituency in Bulawayo province, an opposition stronghold, resulted in Zanu-PF fielding Ncube, whom they feel will be strong enough to win against the opposition.

Runaway inflation does not endear him to voters

During his five-year tenure, the Zimbabwe dollar has drastically lost value and inflation has soared to astronomical levels. Steve Hanke, an economics professor at John Hopkins University, places Zimbabwe’s annual inflation as the highest in the world at 1220%.

On 15 June, Tendai Biti, the former finance minister in the government of national unity (GNU), took part in a discussion at the Africa CEO Roundtable where he criticised Ncube for presiding over Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

“At the root of the fiscal implosion is a regime that can’t live within its means. Therefore, at any given time, the economic crisis has been caused by an expansionary fiscal policy that has created huge budget deficits monetised through the printing of money,” Biti said.

In 2002 to 2004, Ncube founded Barbican Bank, which faced liquidity problems after engaging in fraudulent foreign exchange activities to fund activities of foreign subsidiaries in South Africa and London.

Financial upper hand

Despite this, Ncube’s advantage could be financial clout, says Methuseli Moyo, a political analyst based in Bulawayo. He describes the minister’s campaign as a ‘grand and ambitious entry’.

“This is a high-stakes game where Ncube is playing right in the heart of the opposition stronghold in Bulawayo. Urban voters tend to be inherently pro-opposition. Obviously, Ncube has the advantage of incumbency, and he can easily marshal government resources. He could also be getting financial backing from his connections. He certainly is well resourced, “ Moyo tells The Africa Report.

His strategy is to capture votes from under-developed parts of the constituency where people are still struggling with water, sewer and electricity issues

Ncube has already begun using his financial authority to roll out several projects in Cowdray Park.

Since the opposition was formed in 2000, it has been difficult for the ruling Zanu-PF party to win a single seat in cities. All eyes will be on Ncube to see if he will successfully invade opposition territory.

Soon after winning the Zanu-PF primary elections in March to compete as the Cowdray Park candidate in the 23 August elections, Ncube has hit the ground running. He is rolling out several projects in the constituency with a population of 75,070 people (2022 population census).

Before the elections, Ncube was nowhere near Cowdray Park. The area was abandoned and often in the news for the wrong reasons – water shortages, transport problems, snake infestation, and bad roads, among others.

To endear himself with the constituents, Ncube is said to have even bought a house recently in Cowdray Park to avoid becoming a ‘cellphone politician’, a state-owned newspaper reported on 10 June. Cellphone politicians are those who do not spend time at their constituencies, but communicate with voters via phone.

Ncube’s positive record

The finance minister is also riding on the several positive gains he has made since joining the Mnanagagwa government in 2018.

His achievements include implementing the IMF Staff Monitored Programme, an important step towards normalisation of Zimbabwe’s relations with its creditors and helping mobilise valuable donor support for the authorities. He also ensured that the debt arrears clearance strategy is endorsed by the cabinet.

Ncube has also announced that white farmers who lost land during the 2000 land reform programme will be compensated.

Soon after his appointment as finance minister in 2018, Ncube introduced expansionary fiscal policy measures like introduction of the 2% Intermediated Money Transfer Tax (IMTT tax). It levied on mobile, card, and bank transfers and further impoverished Zimbabweans reducing their buying power. The 2% IMTT tax is considered as double taxation, but it has boosted government revenues.

In 2019, Ncube approached parliament seeking forgiveness for a $10bn unauthorised government spending. He had to bring a Condonation Bill before Parliament to seek forgiveness, but the bill was never passed, so it remains as expenditure that was never authorised by Parliament.

Electoral promises

To win the constituency, Ncube has promised to empower the youth with a Wi-Fi programme, a drivers’ licence programme, immediate response health training programme, an examination fee assistance programme, and he has already begun installing boreholes and repairing roads.

He was never interested in developing the constituency before these elections

“So far, the constituency has seen massive developments from my efforts. There is a huge development gap in terms of the quality of roads, sewage, water, jobs for the youths, and health services. I have decided to tackle them all,” Ncube recently told journalists.

Although Cowdray Park residents say they welcome the developmental initiatives by Ncube, some are questioning his sincerity as he has failed to develop the country during his five-year tenure as finance minister.

Brian Siwela, a Cowdray Park resident, tells The Africa Report that he hopes Ncube is not using taxpayers’ money to bankroll his campaign.

“Ncube has already begun his electoral campaign and the projects that he is implementing ahead of the polls, such as road rehabilitation are visible. However, we feel that he could be using taxpayers’ money for his campaign. He was never interested in developing the constituency before these elections. We fear that if he loses, he might abandon the development projects,” Siwela says.

“His strategy is to capture votes from under-developed parts of the constituency where people are still struggling with water, sewer and electricity issues,” Norman Dube, a Cowdray Park resident, tells The Africa Report.

“The Wi-Fi programme was introduced [in] the Mahlathini area where most parts have no electricity, so I don’t know how it will work. If it is solar powered, it can definitely assist students to do research,” he says.

No solutions, say residents

Some of Ncube’s campaign projects do not make sense, says Soneni Mpofu, a resident of Cowdray Park.

“He is the finance minister and we expected him to promote job creation in the country, but now he is telling young people in Cowdray Park that he will assist them to train as nurse aides [health immediate response training] so that they get jobs in the diaspora,” says Mpofu.

“As the finance minister, we expected him to revive industries to create employment, not to send young people to work in Europe,” Mpofu says.

Earlier this month, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC), which is led by the opposition, clashed with Ncube after he deployed graders in Cowdray Park to fix roads. Councillors say he erred as he failed to consult the BCC engineering department first.

They accuse Ncube of engaging in illegal activities by implementing projects in the city without first getting permission from the planning local authority.

One of Ncube’s graders reportedly damaged a water pipe, leaving residents without running water.

“He is only doing the projects for the sake of getting votes. His earth-moving machines have damaged water pipes near the caravan area where I stay, and we have no water now,” Sarah Fuzwayo tells The Africa Report.

Ncube’s competitors will only be known on 21 July when the nomination court sits.

Strong competitors needed

Analyst Moyo says in order for the opposition to beat Ncube in Cowdray Park, a very popular candidate is needed.

“Ncube certainly has made a mark by initiating various development projects in Cowdray Park, an urban settlement faced with many challenges, such as electricity, water, bad sewer systems and roads. Naturally, the people will like what he is doing, but whether it will translate into victory on 23 August is not certain as urban voters tend to be inherently pro-opposition.

Recently, the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) suggested that Thokozani Khupe, the former Zimbabwe deputy prime minister in the GNU, should battle it out with Ncube in the Cowdray Park race.

“They have implied, in an affirmative way, that Khupe is their candidate. She has got the stature and experience to deal with Ncube’s crusade in Cowdray Park,” Moyo says.

However, Khupe was nominated for the senatorial seat during the CCC candidates’ nomination process. Although the CCC is yet to disclose the names of its parliamentary candidates, a party source tells The Africa Report that a little-known candidate will instead take on Ncube under the CCC ticket.

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