The Arrogance and Insensitivity of Zimbabwe’s Political Elite

Economic inequality is a problem across the world, but the extremes evident in Zimbabwe are in a select league of the extraordinary and the outrageous. No case illustrates the oddities more starkly than the latest controversy over a young ruling party politician’s purchase of a supercar at a time when his party is calling for austerity and the majority are in dire straits. In normal circumstances, the fact that an MP has bought a car should neither be news nor controversial. But importing a brand-new Lamborghini is totally incongruous with Zimbabwe’s current circumstances.

 The ruling party MP, Justice Mayor Wadyajena, imported a Lamborghini Urus, one of Italy’s finest and most exclusive brands of luxury vehicles. When a newspaper wrote that the car cost $210,000, the haughty MP promptly corrected them, saying it was actually double the price.

Long-suffering Zimbabweans, who are deep in the throes of another season of hyperinflation, are asking where the politician got the foreign currency for the luxury purchase at a time when the country is struggling to import basics such as medicine, drugs and equipment for public hospitals. MP Wadyajena curiously boasted that he became a millionaire in his early twenties and his wealth is legitimate.

Many Zimbabweans are concerned that political elites have been making indecent profits from foreign currency trading on the parallel market after acquiring scarce US dollars on the cheap through government channels. For the longest time, the ruling government insisted on a one-for-one exchange rate between the USD and its surrogate currency, the so-called “bond note.” On the black market, the rate was more than double the official exchange rate. Ordinary Zimbabweans, therefore, believe that well-connected political elites used their advantageous positions to exploit the difference, potentially earning them millions in the shady process.

To add insult to injury, it was reported that MP Wadyajena did not pay an import duty on the luxury vehicle. Instead, he used a privilege extended only to MPs, which effectively exempts them from paying taxes when they import a car during the life of parliament. In ordinary circumstances, the taxman requires import duty to be paid in foreign currency. This is what poor Zimbabweans have to pay when they import cheap Japanese second-hand vehicles. The MP effectively used his privilege to buy luxury.  

Meanwhile, prices of basic commodities in Zimbabwe have more than doubled over the last few months. At the same time, wages have remained stubbornly stagnant. As a result, the majority of the country is struggling just to get by, to make ends meet, and to simply stay alive. Doctors and nurses at public hospitals, for example, have been complaining that they do not even have surgical gloves. That is why seeing one of our country’s political elites importing a super car is a big slap in the face. Political elites are telling us that it’s time for austerity, but they are engaged in acts of conspicuous consumption. It is both brazenly arrogant and insensitive.

Others mockingly refer to the irony of a member of the political elite spending so much money on a super car while most of Zimbabwe’s roads are in historically bad shape. They ask how he will drive the super car on the country’s crater-filled roads. MP Wadyajena represents one of the poorest districts in Zimbabwe, where in some places school lessons are conducted in dilapidated buildings or out in the open.

This latest controversy therefore represents the deep chasm between political representatives and the people they represent. They are two completely different worlds. It also illustrates the continued arrogance and seemingly rising insensitivity of Zimbabwe’s class of political elites. As long as the elites are feeding, the plight of the rest of the nation is not their problem.

 Zimbabweans are indeed accustomed to their politicians complaining that targeted western sanctions are impeding the country’s recovery and economic growth. But when they see political elites indulging in conspicuous consumption, using already scarce resources, they know the biggest burden is the corruption and brutal arrogance of those who remain in power.

Alex T. Magaisa, PhD. teaches law at Kent Law School in the United Kingdom and is a former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He writes frequently on law and politics in Zimbabwe. You can follow him on Twitter here: @wamagaisa

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of Vanguard Africa or the Vanguard Africa Foundation.