HomeOpinion & AnalysisCorruption watch: The scary side of the census

Corruption watch: The scary side of the census

BY TAWANDA MAJONI

My encounter with the census enumerator last week was a pleasant experience — crisp, to the point and relaxed.

Never mind that enumerator who was found squirming in the dust and howling like nobody’s business in Vhengere after taking one illicit drink too many while on duty. The one who came to our place was just professional, logical but very sociable. He even offered me his mobile number, saved mine and promised to buy drinks, even though he was quick to point out that he was a teetotaler.

He told me he is a lawyer. You know lawyers now. For them, literally, time is money. The only thing they allow to waste their time on is beer, and some of those dudes love the stuff to bits. In most of the other respects, they are looking at you and seeing dollar signs all over, so there is no need to waste time. If you didn’t know, that’s the main reason why lawyers are so fussy about being logical and trite. They know that beating about the bush will cost them lots of money in terms of time.

But we are talking about the census here, not the sociology, psychology or philosophy of legal practice. When my new-found buddie was gone, me being me, I naturally started thinking critically about census dynamics. The intention wasn’t to bring out all the negative things — given how I enjoyed the encounter with the enumerator—but that’s where I ended.

This is how it began. I remembered the story of people from somewhere in Harare who chased away enumerators. I wondered why these ungodly characters did it. But I then decided to give them the benefit of doubt, as the cliché goes. Maybe that’s because Zimbabweans have become so suspicious of strangers sent by government. Afraid, even.

Then I remembered the questions that the enumerator asked me. These were on a template—some kind of a questionnaire — so they were the same questions he and other enumerators were asking throughout, naturally.

Let’s get it straight right from here. There is no way you were ever going to fault Zimstat and the enumerators for asking those questions. Everything is perfectly within the law and justifiable. You can’t be too nice to ask respondents to answer some of the questions and give them the option to avoid the others. That way, you end up with a shoddy census or demographic survey. In other words, all the questions that were being asked were as useful as they were inevitable. So, let’s agree Zimstat and the enumerators were doing their work as they should do it.

But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get the winter bumps when you look at how much information you would have given away about yourself, your family, your relatives and your house. This is Zimbabwe. Crazy things are always happening, and that’s how, perhaps those guys who molested enumerators in Harare felt. Just that they must know that you keep your feelings to yourself and don’t take the law into your own rough palms.

One thing I quickly discovered when the lawyer-enumerator had gone was that Zimstat is not that fussy with the issue of personal security, despite all those misgivings among paranoid subalterns like myself. Just go to the Zimstat website if you don’t believe me. Hardly anything on security related to sharing personal information.

Contrast that, for instance, with the US Census Bureau. This one devotes a whole reassuring page to the issue of personal security. It explains what it does to ensure that the data it receives during surveys is protected from abuse by malcontents, tsotsis and so on. That it treats the data with utmost confidentiality. If you read this, you are likely to participate in the census or any other exercise where you have to share your information with a good level of confidence.

Typically, the enumerators recorded your names, telephone numbers, details of the people who had recently visited you, your family members, the type of work you do, disability, your house address and the otherwise harmless stuff like whether your house is tiled or not, or if you have sinks inside. But I must admit that the one thing that got me on the edge was when the enumerator took the GPS location of the house. Pretty like putting me and the house on the world map.

It’s reasonable to be unsettled by sharing such information. This is Zimbabwe where just about everything goes, for any or no reason. It takes just one crazy goon to start thinking of abusing your data. Fine, Zimstat has already publicly promised to protect the data, but the point is that it’s not enough by way of reassurance, coming as it did after the unfortunate incident when those unlucky enumerators were kicked out of some homesteads.

There is an ominous precedence. Remember the 2018 pre-election period when Zanu PF candidates got the mobile numbers and addresses of people when they, strictly, didn’t have any business doing so. There is a suspicion that Zanu PF got the data base from Zec. Not a very bad guess, considering the history of the electoral commission. You know Zec. It doesn’t play games.

If it is true that Zec shared people’s details with Zanu PF, then there is a rational probability that another institution would do the same. Zimstat may, to date, be a reputable institution, despite throwing about funny figures here and there. But that doesn’t mean that Zimstat is incapable of disappointing. It’s a government department. It’s not entirely impossible that, ahead of the 2023 elections, some Nikuv would convince the powers-that-be to force the institution to release certain information for the benefit of the ruling party.

Who doesn’t know what the registrar general’s office did with Nikuv in 2013? They went about hustling with all sorts of information that Nikuv could get from that office as a way of playing the elections in one party’s favour.

And it is already scary that we are going to have general elections next year, as the Zimstat census data may come in handy for the naughty culprits. Election time is heavy time in Zimbabwe. Besides the rigging component of it, the data could be used for other purposes.

Zanu PF knows that it must do all it can to ensure that it wins next year’s elections. With Chamisa’s steamer already roaring like that, we are headed for turbulent times. Election season is the time of violence, abductions, persecution. All those people that the ruling party-cum-government is targeting for not agreeing with it must be on guard.

These include journalists, civil society, opposition members and other critics. If you are in Zimbabwe and you have been “counted” by the enumerators, you need to sleep with one eye open. You have shared your geo-location, mobile number, contact details of your family and friends, what work you do or don’t do, et cetera.

After all, they are already targeting you with the PVO Bill and the Patriots Bill and all manner of lawfare. It could be that they already had your details prior to the enumeration, but the census could present a richer gift for them.

Not that access to your data would be done only with Zimstat involvement. There are hackers out there. Private hackers and hackers from within the “system”, and malcontents at Zimstat. They can hack the Zimstat data base on a whole gamut of ill intentions. Outside political victimisation, the information can be used to target vulnerable individuals like people with disabilities and grannies who would be robbed or molested. Seems farfetched now, but wait till it happens.

  • Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at  Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on majonitt@gmail.com

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