The topic of Zimbabwe’s need for perception management is not new, it has been with us for at least 20 years. However, since Paul Kagame was asked the question on how to manage the image of Zimbabwe and quoted out of context it has been a huge talking point. So do Zimbabweans really have a perception problem?
Let’s define perception first. Perception is the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted. So the question as to whether or not Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans have a perception problem is a question of whether or not Zimbabweans regard, understand or interpret the things happening in the country appropriately.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame was asked by a Zimbabwean journalist how we as a country could deal with the negative image the country has. Kagame words were that what needed to be managed was the perception of Zimbabweans. This quote taken in isolation intimates there is a perception problem. This is what was quoted and people have run with. However, Kagame went on to say that you must change what people see (their experiences) not how they see it (their perception). Unless and until the Zimbabweans experience is changed how they see it is not the problem.
And what do they see?
What the Zimbabwean sees are fuel queues, constant & consistent price escalation, no electricity by day, darkness by night and a salary that is is stuck in 2016 levels when inflation almost doubled year on year coming in at 175.6%. Lack of job prospects and business closures due to the tough operating environment is also something they see a lot of. Meanwhile, the government places a tax on transactions, talks of austerity that they are not seen to be practising and a budget surplus that conveniently disappears when it is actually needed for something.
So to say that Zimbabweans have a perception problem based on Kagame or any other source could be defined as, at best, poor perception of the issues at hand. The concerns of people are real, lives have been lost due to the poor medical care available in the country, where it is available. Quite simply more needs to be done to manage the experiences of Zimbabweans and by manage I mean to improve.
In business, we say the customer is never wrong but your approach to them can be wrong. And so it is with our situation. What people on the ground really see is a whole lot of talk from upstairs and very little action on the ground.
There are times where perception has been Zimbabwe’s problem. A good example is our Finance Minister seeking an urgent application for infrastructure funding from the Africa Export-Import Bank when he had just come off announcing a surplus that is well above the required amount. A more recent example is the relaunch of treasury bills to borrow ZW$80 million for “no reason”. Thinking of perception before doing such things would not have been such a bad idea. Perception should also have come into play when our energy minister Fortune Chasi decides to tell the nation that some of the Eskom debt has been paid only for Eskom itself to come out and deny the claim. The minister resurfaced days later with a proof of payment showing the same day he was posting and not the day he said payment had been made. Perhaps the perception problem for Zimbabwe is a little higher up the tree.