Religious and State Neo-liberalism’s Dangerous Combination in COVID-19 Zim

By Takura Zhangazha*

There was a bit of a fuss about fasting and prayer in Zimbabwe this week. President Mnangagwa announced Monday 15 June 2020 as a ‘national day of fasting and prayer’ in search of divine assistance over the Covid19 pandemic.

As expected there was an immediate reaction from influential social media users about the supposed hypocrisy of the president in asking what they consider a ‘starving’ country to fast. Or in pointing out allegations of elite corruption/eating while the poor sleep on empty stomachs. Some went so far as to demonstrate their defiance of the national fasting and prayer day by posting images of themselves or others gouging copious amounts of food for good measure. And its all fair enough if not somewhat humorous or at the very least satirical.

Nonetheless the national fasting and prayer day main ceremony went ahead at state house as scheduled. With the leaders of the largest religious denominations of the country in attendance.

A few days before it occurred, Mnangagwa had also given a national address as to the next steps with regards to COVID- 19 lockdowns. In it he made little noticed key statements such as referring to a ‘new normal’.

One in which, apart from the usual health advice, he intends in his own words, “As your president I commit that we will work twice as hard to improve your lives…it is time to accelerate our development…the liberalization of our economy must continue in earnest. This includes the privatisation of bloated state industries which must now be expedited… Reforms stuck in the wheels of bureaucracy must be unleashed, catalysed and implemented.”

On the face of it one would be forgiven in assuming that this is a progressive statement. In reality it is not. It is one that is couched in the language of a strident neoliberalism in a time of natural or a man made disaster that affects everyone. This now commonly known and coined as ‘disaster capitalism’.

For many of us in the global south the latter term may appear dogmatic and unfamiliar because we will not see it talked about in our mainstream or even social media. And this would be the way the Zimbabwean government would prefer it.

Mnangagwa’s proposition on continuing his free market approach in the time of COVID- 19 is to repeat the historical mistake of a false faith in global private capital being a panacea to what are essentially contextual economic problems that require a democratic social welfare state. Internally and in projected outlook.  His assumption that economic neoliberalism via selling off or outsourcing state capital in the form for example of hospitals, roads, water, mineral wealth and transport infrastructure is straight from the rulebook of discredited approaches to economic reform.

What made the national day of prayer and fasting in tandem with Mnangagwa’s declaration of neoliberalism as the bedrock of his government’s approach to creating a ‘new normal’ awkward was the evident proximity between the clergy and the state.

While the religious leaders present at the meet up did not declare their neoliberal credentials or their agreement with broader government policy direction, the symbiosis in relation to interests cannot be missed.

The state and the church appear to have embraced neoliberalism as the basis of their relationship. Even if the clergy is variegated, it however will not bite the hand that either feeds it or allows it to continue the political economy of ministry. That is, access to local government land concessions and central government pro-religion policies where for example, churches in most cases do not pay taxes while making millions of dollars in either contributions but also more significantly in relation to their material ‘investments’.

So there will be no significant arguments about going back to a people centered economic drawing board by either the state or the church. Instead the argument is to try and persevere with disaster capitalism wrapped around in a shrewd philanthropy driven by private capital, the clergy and ambitious politicians.

Where it would be expected that there are counter narratives to this touted ‘new normal’ COVID-19 economic policy direction, there is either limited objective debate on the subject matter or a raw ‘replacement populism’ that functions only in the immediate. One in which the question is not what is being implemented but who is implementing it.

Zimbabwe needs to discuss what a people-centered new normal should look like. Not a neo-liberal one that worships at the altar of private capital. Even more-so via churches and clergy that are increasingly using corporatist language in their ministry while cosying up to the state. It would be preferable if we sought a social democratic state that responds to the material and social needs of the people. Not the profit wants of local and global private capital and what would be ultimately privately run religions.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)