Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

New Address!

Posted by CM on October 15, 2010

This blog has now moved to http://www.thezimreview.com/

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Impressions of Zimbabwe in August 2009

Posted by CM on October 25, 2009

Visitors to Zimbabwe who have been fed a BBC/CNN-type diet of news about ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis’ and how everything in the country has ‘collapsed’ will be surprised at how ‘normal’ Harare looks at first glance. Driving from the airport into town, there are certainly signs of decay since a few years ago, but no immediate or obvious signs of the ‘collapse’ that certain media have in recent years hysterically, lovingly and perhaps even hopefully talked about.

Looking out of the airplane’s windows as it circled to land and on the drive into town in early August, the most obvious change for me was how areas that had once been at least semi-savannah on the outskirts of Harare had been stripped of trees. One manifestation of ‘The Crisis’ in recent years has been the difficulty in accessing forms of modern energy that had once been taken for granted: petrol, diesel, paraffin, butane, coal, electricity, etc. Their availability had been erratic for many years and their cost prohibitive, forcing many people to resort to firewood for energy. Hence the massive deforestation, which I later found was widespread.

The still newish airport is clean and well maintained, though the number of vacant boutiques compared to, for instance, Nairobi airport’s full complement of seemingly thriving over-charging boutiques was one indicator that things were not quite ‘normal.’ On the drive home from the airport there was no dramatic evidence of ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis,’ though the buildings did look shabbier than before and there were definitely more potholes to dodge on the roads. But the over-riding impression for me was the powerful natural beauty and colour of Zimbabwe, not the indices of the difficult times the country has undergone in recent years.

Having had a few days to unwind at home, I began to gradually drive around and explore my home city Harare. There definitely seemed less traffic on the roads than I remembered from a few years ago. Finding a parking spot in the city center was surprisingly easy at any time of day and the roads there were generally in very good shape, as appeared to be most of the visible infrastructure.

In town and in many of the suburban shopping centers there were many more vacant shops than before, but I was also impressed by the number of businesses that had hung on during the difficult years. But almost all had ‘diversified’ in various ways, with all selling a much wider variety of goods and/or services to survive. I thought the general level of service in shops had declined noticeably. I didn’t encounter any outright rudeness but it seemed noticeably common to be met by disinterested, bored and sometimes almost sullen store personnel. Almost all stores I remembered from a few years ago had a much narrower range of goods than during ‘the good old days,’ but many people mentioned to me that what I thought was a limited range of goods was a vast improvement from the situation a few months ago, and that the availability of goods was improving dramatically by the day, one of the early benefits of the US-“dollarization” of the economy.

While the widespread shortages of all kinds of goods was rapidly receding into the past as price controls and currency restrictions fell away, most things seemed very expensive, sometimes absurdly so. In the weeks before my visit home I had visited Europe and the U.S., as well as having passed through Senegal’s capital city Dakar,  a city not known to be cheap, and so I particularly keenly felt the comparatively high cost of goods and services in Harare. It was easy to understand why many Zimbabweans are only grudging in their praise of the ‘normalization’ that has begun to take place. “We are happy the shops are full again but we can’t afford the goods” was a frequent complaint I heard. But even as people grumble about “we can’t afford anything” the shops are certainly not empty of customers, although many merchants and traders said the level of spending was still low and still limited mainly to necessities. Yet all I spoke to agreed that the situation was significantly better than before, and dramatically better than in 2008, the period everyone agreed was Zimbabwe’s low point, with hyperinflation, shortages, violence and political tension and so on at their worst.

As ridiculously expensive as almost everything seemed to be, even in just the one month I was there prices were creeping down to more realistic levels. And if one took the trouble to shop around, which many more people were doing than I remember from before, it was possible to find widely varying prices for the same thing. A big culture change was that even in ‘formal’ shops it was possible to negotiate for price reductions, common in many countries all over the world but previously almost unheard of in Zimbabwe’s stiff formal economy. So merchants are feeling the effects of consumer resistance and growing competition from the opening up of the economy and the greater availability of goods, and they are being forced to respond by lowering their prices. In the shortage economy that had prevailed for several years, the relatively few people who could raise the hard currency to import goods became accustomed to charging huge, arbitrary mark-ups. The merchant was king, not the customer.

One of the most disheartening remaining signs of how Zimbabwe has slid was in the complete absence of a daily media alternative to the state media. There are no daily independent newspapers and at US$2 an issue, the weekly private newspapers are way out of reach of most people. Of course there is no private TV or radio so there is a huge information deficit. But this is not to say the state media dominates the shaping of opinion. Despite its near monopoly, state newspapers, TV and radio are so dull and so blatantly pro-establishment that their credibility is extremely low. The public has largely learned to sense when they are being fed propaganda instead of news, which is rather often, and to dismiss and ridicule it even if they don’t know for sure what the other sides of the story are. Even more than before, the propaganda is so crudely done that I found myself often marveling that the government didn’t find it embarrassing and a negation of its attempt to win heart and minds. The stiffness, awkwardness and the over-the-top nature of much of the state media in the support of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and against Tsvangirai and the MDC had an almost surreal, self-defeating quality in its crudeness.

President Mugabe is still ass-licked by the state media as much as ever before, and in a way that I do not think does him any credit. One big change was that Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono was no longer the swashbuckling public hero the media had tried to make him out to be when he was first appointed five or so years ago, promising to swiftly bring down hyper-inflation and perform all kinds of other miracles. Even in the slavish state media Gono’s gloss had long turned dull, with him now struggling to defend his controversial legacy to a tired-of-him, sceptical public. One would have to have been there in his early days in office and to experience what a dominant public presence he came to be to understand how far the man has fallen in public esteem.

Electricity and water cuts were frequent, although even in these regards many people said I had visited when the situation was getting much better than it once was. People are inconvenienced but out of necessity have had to adjust, and the down times are handled very matter of factly. Up until a few years ago I had never even seen a fuel-powered electricity generator but now many in the cities who can afford them have them and they are widely advertised in the Press. Those who have boreholes or wells can avoid the worst inconveniences of the periods without running water, but I was shocked by the number of people who calmly mentioned having gone for months without seeing a drop of municipal water in their taps, a major cause of last year’s cholera outbreak.

Visits to some of Harare’s once-bustling industrial areas were depressing. A few years ago a quick drive through any of them would have been enough to show anybody why Zimbabwe’s economy was the sub-region’s most dynamic after South Africa’s. Now they are quiet, many companies still open but quite clearly operating at a low level. The areas do not have the bustle of before; buildings, roads and company premises are no longer maintained like they once proudly were. But from job-seekers to company owners, many people said whereas most companies were just treading water for several years, there are now signs of activity picking up as a result of the policy changes in the economy and the relative political calm.

With low productivity in agriculture and industry for several years, and given all the crises the country has undergone, it is startling to see the number and proportion of smart late-model luxury cars on the streets of Harare. There seemed a very bizarre disconnect between the economy under-performing as it has done for years and the number and types of expensive cars which would have turned one’s head even in a wealthy, ‘normal’ economy. While the signs of the lack of investment in many critical areas of the economy were everywhere, this certainly did not seem to extend to the cars many higher-ups in government and the private sector drive. I’m still trying to figure out what this says, and whether this is positive or not.

My impressions are of a tiny slice of life in Zimbabwe. For instance, I only made two one-day forays into rural areas to visit relatives, and only made one other one-day trip out of Harare during my one-month stay. There are obviously many parts of the traumatic economic and political period Zimbabwe is just coming out of that will only be fully understood by those who were there during it. But the instinctive adaptation that one “who was there” undergoes to the rapidly changing situation is also precisely why it can be hard for them to pin down and catalogue the changes, even though they will have an insider’s deeper understanding of events they were a part of. On the other hand an inside-outsider like me, visiting for the first time in about three years, can much more quickly see what is different even if he has no first-hand knowledge and experience of the factors and events that drove the change.

When I ended my previously visit to Zimbabwe, in early 2007, it was with a very heavy heart. The economy was very steadily declining and the tensions between the rival political parties escalating. That state of affairs had been on-going for close to 10 years. There was a widespread sense that the country was still going down, with no one able to guess when we would hit bottom or how bad things would be then. I left home then worried and depressed.

My feelings were quite different this time. There remain many political and economic problems but there is now a widespread feeling that the worst is behind the country. There is not the same feeling of widespread political dread and economic desperation, even though things are far from easy or back to any definition of ‘normal.’  Everybody grumbles about how high the cost of living still is, but unlike before, prices are stable and in many cases even declining, and goods are widely available, which is a very different scenario from early 2007!

I found widespread relief at the existence of the inclusive government of the major political parties, and I thought that most people were generally much less passionately partisan than I remembered. I also think cynicism about all politicians was higher and more widespread than before, which may be a good sign!

The last ten years or so have been a lost decade for Zimbabwe in many ways. And there is no guarantee that the beginnings of stabilization that are being experienced will take hold or that the country will organize itself to get close to meeting its great potential. The possibility of the political parties going back to the bitter fighting that has contributed so greatly to Zimbabwe’s misery remains very real. But when I left Harare in early September after a month at home, for the first time in many years I felt the stirrings of hope about the country’s prospects.

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Once-colonizing Britain gets a taste of ‘colonization’ and surprise, doesn’t like it

Posted by CM on October 24, 2009

It’s fascinating to watch the uproar in the UK over the wisdom of giving a platform on a BBC TV program to Nick Griffin, leader of the controversial British National Party.

Griffin and the BNP are not afraid to flaunt their anti-immigrant, pro-‘indigenous white British’ basic platform. The furore has been on whether allowing Griffin on to a popular BBC interview program was simply in line with accommodating all viewpoints and with free speech, or whether doing so encouraged hate speech.

There seems little doubt that while the BNP may still be a fringe party with no representation in the British parliament, it has definitely struck a sympathetic nerve in a section of British society that feels inundated by immigrants from Asia and Africa. Many white Britons who would never admit it publicly may well agree with Griffin quips such as that London ‘is no longer part of Britain. There is not much support for me there because the place is dominated by ethnic minorities. There is an ethnic minority that supports me: the English. But there’s not many of them left. London is no longer a city my grandparents would recognise. It is changed beyond all recognition. Many of the ancestral Londoners have left over the last 20 years because they can no longer call it home.’

Griffin’s opponents react with outrage to such comments and point out that London’s increasingly multi-cultural nature is one of it’s strengths, and that the immigrants whose numbers there have been growing for decades have given as much or more to the society as they are perceived to take from it. All this may be true, but I also have no trouble at all understanding the misgivings of ‘indigenous white Britons’ to the speed and scale of the changes that have been caused by the influx in recent decades of immigrants, legal and otherwise, from ‘strange’ cultures.

Compounding the tensions is the fact that the nature of British political-correctness, perhaps influenced by sensitivity to charges of discrimination and racism from Britian’s colonial era, is such that even new and illegal immigrants to that country can claim societal ‘rights’ which would not be expected or granted in most other societies. One result of this is that some groups of immigrants there seem to feel less of an obligation to fit into the mores of the society than would be the case in other countries. So instead of feeling a need to fit into the ‘British way of life,’ many of the immigrants instead demand that their host society go out of its way to accommodate their cultural, religious and other practices. I can well understand how many Britons feel that this politically-correct, bend-over-backwards accommodativeness has gone too far, and that in sections of their society they feel increasingly like the strangers rather than the hosts/natives.

Yet a lot of this is colonial chickens coming home to roost. Many years ago during what used to be called a ‘race riot’ by immigrants protesting some ill-treatment or other, to the question of why the immigrants were coming into a Briton where their reception was then at best mixed and sometimes hostile, replied, “We are here because you were there.”

What she meant was that the links that were now drawing many of the new immigrants to the UK were formed during the heydays of Britain’s colonizing mission, when it dominated and ‘owned’ a good chunk of the world. What the protester was in effect saying was that in a way the tables were being turned and the once-colonizing British had to put up with the waves of immigration as one consequence of their once having ‘ruled the world.’ To different extents, other former colonial powers like France, Portugal and Italy are facing the same issue of large numbers of people from their former colonies regarding their capitals as magnets for achieving life goals which it is thought are difficult to impossible to achieve at home.

There is obviously indisputable truth to “we are here because you were there,” although the fact of that truth is hardly comfort to a Briton who feels that ‘the natives’ (of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, etc) are ‘taking over’ places like London.

I don’t know whether Griffin and his BNP have an official position on ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis.’ But it is a pretty safe bet to guess that they are nostalgic for Rhodesia and are sympathetic to ex-Rhodesians like the white farmers who have borne the brunt of Robert Mugabe’s fury. Yet one irony is that Griffins’s message of representing what he says are the ignored interests of white Britons is very similar to that of Mugabe’s ‘Zimbabwe for the black Zimbabweans’ message. Yet the British right wing loathes Mugabe for his treatment of Zimbabwe’s white farmers in the name of black empowerment and of correcting the ills of the colonial era.

Another irony of the resentment of that section of white Britain at the ‘colonization’ of places like London by African/Asians/Middle Easterners/etc is that there are many ways in which the British colonization of the ancestral homes of today’s immigrants was similar. Griffin speaks for the white Britain that is worried not just about the numbers of immigrants, but about how they often stick to and propagate aspects of their culture more than they learn and take on the ‘British culture.’ Yet there was rarely ever any question of British colonialists feeling the need to learn the languages of ‘native’ peoples or bend to their cultures, let alone adopt them. As a matter of course the natives simply had to learn the language, culture, religion, etc of the mighty colonizer Britain, case closed. In this regard then, the new African/Asian/Middle Eastern/etc ‘colonizers’ of the British are much more benign: at least they speak English, many of them have taken on European religions and so forth. So the new colonizers are being much more accommodating of their British ‘subjects’ than the once-colonizing British were of theirs!

It will be interesting to see how the British debate on immgration progresses, and to observe how the BNP influences it. But it seems clear from a historical point of view that what the uneasy-at-immigration Britons are experiencing is a version of “what goes around, comes around.”

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The MDC drives itself further into a corner over Roy Bennett

Posted by CM on October 18, 2009

Clearly the MDC had to react strongly to Roy Bennett’s shabby treatment by the Zimbabwe government’s legal prosecuting authorities. The senior party official has been indicted yet again on ‘terrorism’ charges that few people believe have any credibility, and that the government has previouslly failed to prosecute. Not only that, but the government of which the MDC is now a part was clearly itching to send him back to prison, although he won bail within a day or so. The harassment of Bennett continues, and in this case in a way designed by the authorities to show how powerless the MDC really is, and how much in effective control Mugabe and ZANU-PF remain, which may be the whole point of the exercise. It must be remembered that all this is on top of the fact that Bennett, the MDC’s choice for deputy agriculture minister in the inclusive government, has not been sworn in since his nomination many months ago, on the grounds of the charges that have been hanging over him.

So I have no trouble understanding that the MDC felt compelled to protest the latest indictment and jailing of Bennett in very strong terms, both because of what seems like very clear persecution of Bennett (the state has so far dismally failed to make a strong case for its terrorism charges against him in previous court appearances) as well as for the MDC to “save face.”

Since joining the inclusive government ZANU-PF has gone out of its way to show in many ways that it does not have the slightest intention to share any meaningful, effective power with the MDC, to the increasing embarrassment of Morgan Tsvangirai and his party. Long before this latest ‘provocation,’ there have been many arguably more serious ones the MDC has protested but withstood in the name of giving their best effort to making the difficult inclusive government work. But as those provocations have continued and escalated, the MDC has been driven further into a corner and pressure has been growing on the party to take some sort of strong stand to try to show that it has not simply rolled over and played dead to the ZANU-PF steamroller.

But was the dramatically announced ‘disengagement’ by the MDC from government and from ‘cooperation with ZANU-PF’ the best way to protest its being sidelined? What does ‘disengagement’ from a government you remain a part of really mean anyway?

Pulling out of the inclusive government would not have been wise for the MDC to do, for many reasons, although that is the strongest statement they are in a position to make. The fact of the existence inclusive government (not so much anything any of the participating parties have done or not done) has been an overwhelmingly positive symbol to battle-scarred Zimbabweans. In its short existence that mere existence of the inclusive government and what it has done to dramatically reduce political tension in the country has quickly been translated to many other areas of life, including and perhaps mainly in the beginnings of economic normalization.

It would therefore not only be irresponsible for any of the parties to the inclusive government to pull out of it now, it would also be politically very risky, with the withdrawing party accused by Zimbabweans of all political persuasions of dragging the country back to the political and economic depths of recent years. Sure there will be diehards in all the parties who were opposed to the very idea of the inclusive government, but particularly now, I believe the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans believe its existence has brought about huge changes for the better, with prospects for a lot more. The irony is that it is not obvious to me that any of the individual political parties are the direct beneficiary so far of the public approval of the joint government.

Secondly, the new-to-government MDC office holders will be in no hurry to give up the many material inducements of holding office. The salaries may not be much at the moment, but there are the new cars, the foreign trips at public expense and many other perks suddenly available. Issues of principle aside, MDC office holders are not going to give up these personal advantages to go back to the uncertainties of what is still a very difficult economic environment.

For all these reasons and more, withdrawal from the unity government is at this point is neither a realistic nor attractive option for the MDC. What to do then to protest the many humiliations to which the ZANU-PF partner seems intent on goading the MDC with?  A very difficult question, for sure.

I am not going to pretend to have a ready answer to this question. But at first glance there appear to me to be many reasons that the ‘dis-engagement’ is unlikely to achieve any meaningful concessions for the MDC from ZANU-PF, and may create additional problems.

While appreciating why pulling out of the government now is not a good option for the MDC, the notion of “we are still in but we are dis-engaging from ZANU-PF” sounds confusing at best, absurd at worst. How do you stay in the government but ‘dis-engage?’ The MDC runs the risk of being ridiculed with, “they want to go AWOL to sulk at being outmanoeuvred by ZANU-PF at every turn, but they want to also hold on to their perks while doing so.” How on earth does a prime minister boycott meetings of ‘his’ own cabinet?!

ZANU-PF may attempt to thwart the MDC from exercising any real power at every turn, but I don’t believe they want to push the MDC out of the unity government. As much as ZANU-PF may despise the MDC, the general and very quick improvement in overall conditions in the country as a result of the parties coming together in government is clear to all. Being seen to be pushing out the MDC would also be politically/electorally risky to ZANU-PF because of the many Zimbabweans who are just relieved at the breathing space the economy and life in general have received as a result of the two parties having called a truce. Therefore neither party has anything to gain from taking the blame for the collapse of the current arrangement, no matter how imperfect it is.

The ideal situation for ZANU-PF is for the MDC to remain part of the government but to then keep on whittling away as much of its power/authority as possible. That way ZANU-PF can claim a facade of democratic inclusiveness, of continuing to respect regional body SADC’s compromise solution to the country’s political impasse, but doing so while continuing to unilaterally hold on to all the reins of real power. But although this may be ZANU-PF’s preferred scenario, this preference is not likely to be strong enough for it to want to plead with the MDC to ‘re-engage’ with it.

Already ZANU-PF has coolly reacted to the MDC’s theatrics with a dismissive shrug. It has been announced that cabinet and other government business will continue even without the MDC. This was predictable. What will the MDC do now? To sheepishly ‘re-engage’ without having one any concessions from ZANU-PF will just make the MDC look ridiculous and weak. Yet the ‘dis-engagement’ is not much of a leverage to get ZANU-PF to do anything. If the MDC’s ill-defined disengagement continues too long they would have effectively fired themselves from government without any real plan B.

“Constitutional crisis,” some would say, “an election would then have to be held.” Even if so, there is 30 years of evidence to show how ZANU-PF would simply refuse to have the terms of how and when that election is held to be dictated to it, whether by SADC or ‘the international community,’ two centers of influence that the MDC has previously put far too much faith and hope in. While ZANU-PF would not want to be accused of having directly or deliberately pushed out   the MDC from the inclusive government, they are certainly not going to lose any sleep if the MDC  ‘disengages’ itself from participating permanently.

It may be that Bennett may finally and clearly win his case in the courts. But the MDC leader went out of his way to state that Bennett’s treatment was not the only reason for the MDC’s disengagement, that it was just one additional consideration to many other slights the party has suffered at the hands of its ZANU-PF unity government partner. This means that even if the persecution-prosecution of Bennett should now stop, the MDC has implied that it would expect to see many other conditions met before it ‘re-engaged’ with ZANU-PF in doing government business. Yet the MDC has no apparent or easy leverage to wring any significant concession out of ZANU-PF at this point.

The timing of the announcement by the MDC to ‘dis-engage’ means that it will always be perceived by the public that Bennett’s latest troubles were the direct trigger, no matter what Tsvangirai and his officials may say about that merely being the straw that broke the camel’s back. While the party clearly had to take a strong stand in regards to Bennett’s treatment, having the treatment of one man, and this particular one,  linked in the public’s perception with the disengagement is unfortunate for the MDC. It is to appear to give his ill-treatment greater importance than that of the many other MDC officials and members who have or continue to suffer even worse treatment at the hands of various arms of government than Bennett has done. Likewise, if the MDC is seen to be ‘re-engaging’ primarily because the pressure on Bennett has been lifted (legally, politically or both) but without any other significant concessions, similar unfortunate signals would be sent to the national, African and wider international public about the MDC!

So clearly the MDC has been in a very difficult position from day one of its involvement in the unity government, and from many angles. It may well have won the last election outright but had no way to effect that win in the face of a cynical ZANU-PF that was quite prepared to do anything to hold on in power. Even if the MDC really won the vote, the doubt and antipathy of regional and other African leaders towards Tsvangirai and his party is stronger than their respect for the electoral will of Zimbabweans! So neither SADC nor the African Union is inclined to side with the MDC unless Mugabe and ZANU-PF do something so outrageous that they are forced to. The hope that the MDC’s Western backers would turn on the aid taps has not been realised and will not be as long as the party clearly remains the junior partner of the inclusive government. That in turn further weakens the MDC and removes another of what was one of its main points of leverage in the early days of the arrangement (‘respect us and treat us well because it is through us that our rich friends in Europe and America will make milk and honey flow in the streets of Harare’) and has probably emboldened ZANU-PF to think that it would not be any great loss if the MDC pulled out. And on and on.

Yes, the MDC’s frustrations are quite understood.But given all of the foregoing, what is it that the MDC really hopes to achieve with it’s ill-defined ‘disengagement?’ Faced with a clearly insincere partner in government, certainly its choices were limited and difficult. But out of those, the party seems to have exercised the most awkward and ineffectual one. Until I become aware of some brilliant hidden strategy behind the ‘disengement’ which is not apparent to me now, it is difficult to see how the MDC will come off stronger in any sense from its announced stance.

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What the experience of the less successful of Zimbabwean white farmers in Nigeria tells us about developing commercial agriculture

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

Much has been written about the small group of white Zimbabwean farmers who have relocated to Nigeria to seek a new start after being dislocated from their home country. Among the elements that regularly feature in the stories done about them are their pioneering spirit, ready to carve out new farm land where there is mostly bush and where the support infrastructure is rudimentary.

Particularly in Shonga, Kwara state, where the governor actively sought out the Zimbabwean farmers to give a kick-start to commercial agriculture in the state, the farmers have enjoyed top-level political support. This has helped them considerably in their efforts to obtain bank finance, electricity set up and so forth.

Despite the difficulties of adjustment to a new environment, the articles that have been written about these farmers suggest they are making good progress in beginning new lives and in introducing a model of large-scale farming that has not previously taken strong hold in Nigeria, nor indeed in too many other countries in Africa. It is an interesting experiment…read full article

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Gono: If one man cannot “kill” an economy, neither can one man “save” it

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

Reserve Bank Of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono’s power and influence have waned in the wake of the inclusive government that has brought in MDC officials into important economic portfolios. Gono may still hold on to his title and position, but there is little doubt that his power has diminished considerably.

The once unchallengeable Gono has now found himself in the new and unfamiliar role of having all his decisions and opinions second-guessed and often derided. The man who the Zimbabwean media once portrayed as a miracle worker who could walk on water now struggles to defend the legacy of his bygone hey days.

Gono’s defence of his many controversial actions of recent years as central banker during the country’s worst period of hyper-inflation is essentially that no matter how bad things were, if it were not for his efforts they would have been far worse. He feels hurt and disappointed that Zimbabweans are not grateful to him for saving them from a much worse fate then they experienced during the tough times whose worst months were in 2008.

Here is an interesting example of his thinking about this, from a recent interview:

…Gono, who presided over the collapse of the local currency, insisted he was not to blame for “killing” the nation’s economy…He again rejected calls for his resignation after President Robert Mugabe’s unilateral decision to appoint him to a new five-year term last year — one of the major disputes facing the eight-month-old unity government.

“The immorality and irrationality of the whole argument is that ‘Gono must go because he printed money and he killed this economy. That’s a white lie because no single individual can harm or kill an economy,” he said.

Gono also stands accused of siphoning off state money into secret accounts in Asia and Europe, a charge he denies.

“Whatever I did had authorisation from the government of the day,” said Gono, a former commercial banker. He described his job as “a plumber mending burst pipes. I prevented this country from descending into chaos like Somalia.

No doubt Gono has been misunderstood in many ways, although it is far from clear in which ones. But  it is also probably true that by haughtily and flauntingly wielding as much power over the economy as he was clearly allowed to do for a while, as well as through the media over-exposure he seemed to so love, he may well have brought on to himself the genesis of his present public relations troubles.

Poor embattled Gono is no doubt quite correct to argue that he could not have single-handedly “killed” the Zimbabwean economy. Whether he indeed prevented it from desceding into the chaos of Somalia is subject to debate and will likely never be resolved.

But I found an interesting insight into Gono’s mindset. It is that he denies an individual can kill an economy, but then seems to go on to claim that an individual can save it, and that this heroic one-man deed is his real legacy to Zimbabwe. There seems a contradiction in Gono’s words in what it is possible for one man to do to/for an economy then!

I wonder if this mix of immodesty and refusal to take responsibility for anything that went wrong under one’s watch while ascribing to oneself superhuman positive achievements are not part of the attitude that have contributed both to Gono’s meteoric rise as well as his dramatic fall. I think there are lots of lessons in there about the deadly cocktail of overarching ego mixed with almost unfettered power. They can quickly take you up, but they can just as quickly bring you down.

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Is Zimbabwe a ‘free’ society, or is it not?

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

For those readers whose diet only consists of Western media such as CNN, BBC and the many others of that ilk, the answer to the question probably seems so obvious even posing it must seem strange to them. The likely clear-cut answer for them is ‘of course Zimbabwe is not a free country. That’s where the president has ruled for decades and steals elections to continue to do so, where opposition political officials are beaten up and presecuted, where white farmers with title deeds are chased of their farms with no legal recourse, etc, etc…’

Indeed, all these are very much part of the reality of present-day Zimbabwe. But it would be a mistake to believe that these sad examples give a clear answer to the free/unfree question. And of course who is to define what ‘free’ means anyway? It depends on the definer.

So, for example, fto the white Zimbabwean who has had his farm taken away and can do nothing about it, of course Zimbabwe is not free. But a black Zimbabwean who risks being unfairly targeted for his political affiliation today but who has property and prospects he didn’t before and who believes he suffered more and in different ways under the racially-based ‘unfreedom’ of Rhodesia, the answer may be different or more complicated.

This is a recurring theme of this blog: there are very few things about The Zimbabwe Crisis that are as clear-cut, simple and straightforward as is suggested by the dominant media.

Property rights are considered a key cornerstone of ‘the rule of law,’ a key definer of ‘freedom’ according to the dominant definitions of whether a country is considered free or not.  If you are a white farm-owner in Zimbabwe, you have plenty of reason to be worried about how much you can count on your ability to exert property rights. And for the foreseeable future, no one of any colour can be too sure that their tenure on any farmland in Zimbabwe is secure. So with regards to security of farmland, no one can feel too ‘free in Zimbabwe at the moment, even the recently resettled who must worry about the possibility of being displaced on some politician’s whim.

Yet in the urban areas and in regards to residential or non-farm commercial land, the title deed is as established and respected as proof of ownership as anywhere else in the world.

The state media is not only astonishingly dull, narrow and boring for a country of Zimbabwe’s ‘sophistication,’ it is so insecure that you will simply never read or hear any (mainly political) views that differ from the thinking of the dominant clique of ZANU-PF, the effective ruling party. In this regard Zimbabwe may not be very different from many other countries that nevertheless do not share its bad boy image. Ah, so clear proof that Zimbabwe is not free then?

Not so simple. Many private newspapers have been shut down over the years over silly pretexts, and the ruling authorities are so insecure about their popularity that private radio or TV stations that have become the routine norm in many other much poorer countries are not allowed. And as I found out during my recent month at home, the internet is scandalously hard to access because of the very poor connectivity, slow speeds and high costs that have resulted from the country’s isolation and lack of competition/capitalization of the sector.

Yet there is a small ultra-critical private media that exists. Critical newspapers from South Africa and beyond are freely on sale on the streets of Harare. Some argue that this is allowed because the authorities know that on the basis of cost and circulation, the penetration of these alternative media is very low and therefore of little threat to them, while allowing them to say, ‘See, we allow opposing views, we are not a dictatorship.’

And of course, in terms of the make up of its parliament, Zimbabwe can claim to be a democracy like relatively few others in Africa or beyond. Opposition parties have always been allowed, albeit thwarted in every way possible by means mostly foul, and now the previously all-dominant ZANU-PF must share fully half the elected parliamentary seats with the two MDC factions. Debate in parliament is robust, and heckling of the state president is not unknown, something for which swift death would ensue in many countries in the world.

So the free/unfree question cannot be answered in any simple and straightforward, obvious way.

Interestingly, some of the ways in which I most felt an oppressive atmosphere were often not in the typical or expected ones of fearing to express a critical political opinion or for one’s personal safety. It was instead in how every quasi-state authority seemed to disproportionately communicate in terms of threats, ‘directives’  and warnings to the public they ostensibly exist to serve.

The cash-strapped water, electricity, municipal, revenue and other authorities seemed to be in a competition to see which one could take out the most intimidating media advertisements to warn of the consequences of not paying up. There was not just an air of desperation about the ads, they seemed unusually menacing, disrespectful and contemptuous of the public in a way I could not remember having experienced so strongly in Zimbabwe before, nor anywhere else.

Police roadblocks seem excessively common in Zimbabwe, with some officers very showily armed. But they are not ‘political’ roadblocks so there is no fear of them on that basis. As in many countries, the police manning them seem more concerned about finding excuses to fine motorists for one thing or another, naturally preferably ‘off the record,’ than they are about anything else. And these common and frequent roadblocks may very well act as a deterrent to some crimes, or help to remove a certain percentage of unroadworthy vehicles from the country’s increasingly dangerous roads.

So it is not in a personal or political freedom sense that I found the many roadblocks disconcerting. But disconcerting I certainly did find them. I found it hard to dismiss that sense of a softly menacing presence that could easily turn on a citizen on the flimsiest excuse. My sense was far from, “Phew, I’m so glad I’m a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear from the police/army and I’m so happy and relieved they are out in full force on the roads to protect me.”

It was not obvious that the very heavy police and military presence was to protect citizens rather than to intimidate and control them.

So is Zimbabwe a free or an unfree society? The most accurate answer I can give is that it is both, and not at all necessarily in the ways that one might expect.

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Ambassador-designate Trudy Stevenson reveals the political incongruities of Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

While in Harare in August I was startled to read that Zimbabwe was to open an embassy in Senegal. I understand the two countries had embassies in each others’ capitals some years ago, but both had been closed.

African countries tend to put more stock in their relations with their former colonizers than they do with each other, so of course it is a welcome development when they resolve to change this. My surprise was on several grounds:

*The Zimbabwean government makes no secret of it being broke, and the signs of that are abundantly evident all over the country. There have been reports of diplomats in its embassies going unpaid for months at a time. Given all the pressing problems at home for which there is no money, it therefore seems odd that new embassies are being opened up at this time.

*There are few or no economic ties between Senegal and Zimbabwe and that is unlikely to change any time soon. The physical distance between southern and west Africa is vast, and in the case of these two countries there is an even more daunting gulf: language. While many educated Senegalese can communicate in good English, the number of Zimbabweans who have any knowledge of French at all is negligible. So while the politicians and diplomats may be able to address each other at their cocktail parties, these barriers do not bode well for the prospects of any wider and deeper links between the two countries in the short term.

*In recent years Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade has made some abortive good-faith efforts to intervene in “the Zimbabwe crisis,” going as far as going to Harare to meet with president Robert Mugabe before those efforts quietly fizzled out. And new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai has made a visit or two to the Senegalese capital, presumably to explain his case to the leaders of a country with a good African and international reputation politically, and widely acclaimed for its democratic credentials.

So perhaps the new embassy is being justified on the basis of political links. But is this enough basis for establishing an embassy, particularly at an especially difficult time for Zimbabwe economically? Could whatever diplomatic or political function it is thought the new embassy will serve not have been just as well served from nearby Ghana or Nigeria, where Zimbabwe already has embassies? It will be interesting to see how the new embassy justifies its reason for existence.

According to the Sunday Mail of August 30:

The MDC-M has moved to take up its allotment of diplomatic posts under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed by the three principals to the inclusive Government by nominating former legislator Mrs Trudy Stevenson for the position of Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Senegal. Mrs Stevenson, the party’s secretary for research and policy and former Member of Parliament for Harare North, is already undergoing training with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as she prepares to assume her new role in the West-African country. The decision to second Mrs Stevenson to the position came after the party’s
first nominee and House of Assembly Member for Insiza South constituency Mr Siyabonga Ncube, declined the ambassadorial post last week.

One interpretation I heard was that the original nominee felt slighted that he had been nominated as diplomat to a ‘lowly’ country like Senegal instead of to a Western country! Unfortunately, if true there would be nothing at all surprising about such colonial thinking amongst the MDC elite!

Ambassador-designate Stevenson has just given an interesting inkling of her thinking. She attended some talk shop in Prague, Czechoslovakia and was interviewed by a newspaper there.

Excerpts:

Q: Recently there has been much talk about the EU sanctions. Should they be cancelled or should the EU wait a bit longer?

A: The (EU) sanctions have not achieved a lot. The regime has continued, the violence has continued. In my personal view I would say get rid of the sanctions because then Mugabe does not have anything to beat the EU with. He uses the sanctions as an excuse for everything.

True enough, but it seems very odd for the ambassador of the government run by Robert Mugabe, whose government she will be representing in Senegal, to be continuing to talk as a party official than as a diplomat of the government! If the ambassadors who have agreed to take up these positions (in this case one report claimed Stevenson actually volunteered for the Senegal ambassador-ship after Ncube declined it) are going to continue to talk as representatives of their parties or factions than as envoys of the government, how on earth can this work?!

I have no trouble at all understanding Stevenson’s feelings about Mugabe. But would it not have been more consistent, honorable and tenable to decline to be representative of his government in a foreign land than to accept/volunteer for the appointment and then continue to bad-mouth the appointing authority you have willingly agreed to be answerable to?!

This will be a very interesting appointment and relationship to watch.

Q: What is your experience as a white woman and an opposition politician working in Zimbabwe?

A: It has been a bit lonely, I must say. As you know, I was beaten up (in 2006 until now by unknown perpetrators) but I would have been beaten up whatever my color was. To some extent being white protects me. Because I am more visible. I am certainly more protected than a black woman. Male politicians respect me perhaps a bit more. Because they don’t know how to deal with me. They deal very roughly with a black woman politician in their traditional way where the black women are down. I love politics and it is a like a drug – once you have been bitten by the drug politics, you cannot let go.

Oh boy, I don’t know where to start with this.

If being white protects her because she is ‘more visible,’ and if  indeed she iscertainly more protected than a black womanand if Zimbabwean ‘male politicians respect me perhaps a bit more,’ that is a terrible indictment; proof of the colonial mentality and inferiority complex that must still exist amongst those male politicians.

And how would this special treatment that she says she gets because of her whiteness have affected her? Could this perhaps explain the confusion of accepting a position in the government headed by a man you then expect to keep on attacking in a very partisan way, but expect not to be accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency? Does the special treatment Stevenson intimates she gets from her colleagues because she is white perhaps blind her to the awful inconsistency of her current position?

My goodness, how this funny yet sad little story reveals so much about the messy unfinished business of Zimbabwe’s torturous political and racial history, and of how complicated fashioning a new thinking and reality from it is proving to be.

Q: The Czech embassy may close soon because of savings. have you heard about it? If yes, what was your reaction?

A: I was horrified when I heard about this. Any embassy, particularly Western democratic embassy to pull out now when we are just starting to move forward gives us a very bad impression. It removes a bit of our courage. It makes us a bit nervous: Have we done something wrong?

The presence of the country like the Czech Republic when you yourselves have overthrown an authoritarian regime and succeeded is what gives us courage. It seems illogical and to me immoral for the Czech Republic to abandon us particularly as Myanmar is going to set up an embassy and the Czechs are pulling out. This is bizarre.

I found Stevenson’s answer as bizarre as she says she found the Czech decision to close their embassy in Zimbabwe. As the interviewer made clear, the given reason for the closure is a pragmatic one: affordability, to effect savings in government expenditure. In other words, they make decisions on where to have embassies on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis, not any kind of mushy sentimentality as suggested by Stevenson’s ‘The presence of a country like the Czech Republic when you yourselves have overthrown an authoritarian regime and succeeded is what gives us courage.’

Surely it is an example of the worst kind of dependency mentality to expect the Czech Republic or any other nation to keep an embassy in Harare to give the Zimbabweans courage!!! How many Zimbabweans are even aware that there is a Czech embassy in Harare?!

If the Zimbabwean government made its embassy-locating decisions on the same pragmatic basis of affordability and cost-benefit, would it have made sense to open an embassy in Dakar, or would it have perhaps made more sense to open a Senegal section at one of its other West African embassies?

And Madame Ambassador makes an interesting allusion to part of the courage-imparting presence of a Czech embassy in Harare being from the fact that ‘you yourselves have overthrown an authoritarian regime…

Fair enough, but if Stevenson is suggesting there is an authoritarian regime in Harare to be overthrown Czech-style, I fail to understand why she has just signed up to be it’s representative in Dakar, Senegal!!!

Please don’t call me cynical. Zimbabwean politicians are far more so than I could ever be.

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Dear editor of the Herald

Posted by CM on February 27, 2009

There was this gem of a letter to the editor in the Herald of February 24:

We need Nathaniel Manheru column

EDITOR — I was saddened to read in your paper last Saturday that we will no longer be seeing the Nathaniel Manheru column entitled “The Other Side.”

Many of us had come to look forward to the Saturday paper because of the column.

Is there any possibility that you could reconsider the decision and carry on with the column? It has provided us with a good analysis of events that are going on in the country and beyond for many years and at a crucial time as this, we need such columns for our weekly reading.

I have not always agreed with what Manheru says but, as he pointed out in his last instalment, the column was about exploring ideas.

It appears to us that Manheru is putting down his pen to avoid offending the inclusive Government, but I believe the new set-up requires robust criticism for it to succeed at all. To this end, it is my hope that Manheru and The Herald bring the column back.

Takunda Matoro.

Harare.

Editor’s note

We take note of your concerns, and hope to find a suitable replacement for Manheru.

I had to laugh at both the letter, whether genuine or planted, and the editor’s claim to “take note” of the letter-writer’s expressed concern about the deprivation he says he will suffer as a result of the withdrawal of the column.

The infamous, boastful and mean-spirited column, widely thought to have been penned by bombastic chief Mugabe propagandist George Charamba, no doubt did titillate a lot of readers with its outrageousness. At that sort of level it certainly created a stir which definitely delighted the cowardly anonymous writer, whether it was indeed Charamba or someone else.

Cowardly because of how he could make all sorts of scurrilous charges against anyone who did not agree with every aspect of the absurd Mugabe -is-right-and-infallible project that it seems to be Charamba’s chief task to try to propagate and defend. And despite the letter writer’s claim that ‘the column was about exploring ideas,’ it more frequently  seemed to be one angry man exorcising the demons that possessed him by having uncontrolled license to engage in character assassination and hurl abuse at any he considered to not  agree with and admire his boss.

A key part of ‘exploring ideas’ is to then welcome and allow rebuttal and engage in debate. I do not remember a single time that the Herald ever featured a contrary response to the Charamba/Manheru column. Which also makes a joke out of the editor’s pretense to ‘take note’ of a reader’s concern, something the paper never seemed worried to do with holders of opinion different from Manheru’s. It was as if the writer and the paper were quite happy to throw scurrilous charges against all manner of ‘enemies’ from a very thin cover of anonymity, but were then simply too unconfident and cowardly to entertain rebuttals and different views.

Even taking into account the politically-prostituted, low standards of the publication of recent years, the featuring of the Manheru column was astonishingly cowardly and unprofessional of the Herald.


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The price and the promise of Zimbabwean recovery

Posted by CM on February 27, 2009

A lot of loose figures are beginning to fly around about what it will cost to revive various sectors of Zimbabwe’s economy. I recognise one must have working figures and estimates, but a lot of the throwing around of figures strikes me as being pretentious. One reason is that they are efforts to quantify the unquantifiable.

What does a statement like, “It will cost US$300m million to revive education, the health sector, agriculture, etc” really mean? You can cost the repair of physical infrastructure, the paying of salaries and so forth, but it is impossible to put a cost on work culture, business confidence,  motivation and so on, which are all integral part of functioning systems.  These attitude-linked traits take a long time to build up where they don’t exist or where they have been severely damaged, as in Zimbabwe.

A danger of quantifying recovery in purely monetary terms is what we have seen with the racket of so-called ”development aid” all over Africa over the last 50 years or so: billions of dollars expended, but no abiding change in the fortunes of the continent.  A few thousand “development experts” from the aid-giving countries do rather well for themselves but the overall condition of the claimed target groups is continuation of wallowing in poverty.

It could be the same with the feeding frenzy that Zimbabwean recovery efforts are likely to be. Millions of dollars will be donated and borrowed, NGOs will spring up at every corner, those with the right connections will suddenly get a new line of access to easy money for conspicuous consumption while the systems the money is supposed to fix continue to flounder. We have seen it all many times before, in Zimbabwe and countless other places in Africa.

This is not an argument against making budgets or against raising money for Zimbabwe’s recovery efforts. It is instead to say that our problems go deeper than can be fixed by merely spending money on them. They also require fundamental attitude change and unusual  leadership commitment to rebuilding the whole national ethos. I am not optimistic that there is any sign of this kind of spirit amongst either the old or the new politicians who have come together in the new unity government.

As a related aside, it has become deeply ingrained in the African mind that “we cannot do without aid from the West.” So you have contradictions such as a country claiming to need aid for inexpensive cholera medication because it is broke, but that same country has no problem at all somehow finding the money for expenses such as luxury vehicles for its top few hundred governing elite! When the things we think we ‘need’ in order to run our affairs include lifestyles that some even in rich Western countries that became so in a different age are questioning, of course we will find our low productivity cannot fund them and we have to resort to debt and being beggars. The idea of lean and mean cabinets or business management units who have to work their way up to whatever perks they enjoy by performance is unfortunately foreign in an Africa where we desperately need ruthlessly-evaluated, results-based politicians and businesspeople. But no, some members of the bloated new cabinet are already receiving their new Mercedes Benz sedan (the most prized perk in all of Africa) before they even have offices to operate from! If this is the sort of way that recovery costs are being calculated, any recovery will not match the extent of the money spent on it.

It is interesting that new prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s first ports  of call to seek financial assistance were South and SADC, rather than the Western capitals to which he has long been considered beholden. This surprising development is no doubt partly out of the criticism Tsvangirai and his MDC faction have received, of being “stooges” of the West.

There is an interesting dichotomy in Western attitudes about aid. One the one hand there is discussion about how ineffective and wasteful it often is, and as well as about donor dependency and corruption on the recipient end. And yet a unpopular as the idea of aid sometimes is amongst ordinary Westerners for these reasons, their governments have reasons to continue it, and those reasons are not always humanitarian or development considerations.

Aid is quite clearly also a powerful means to exercise influence on the recipient country. Given how Robert Mugabe has framed The Zimbabwe Crisis is being essentially a result of the West preferring a dispensation in Zimbabwe which favored the white minority, especially the farmers, Tsvangirai’s perceived closeness to the West remains a hot potato for him, even as it also provides him with at least the potential to get various kinds of support.

But what if Zimbabwe sought and got most or all of its recovery costs from the southern Africa region; from SADC? Early intimations are that Zimbabwe might well get significant such support, in what would be an unprecedented case of African countries pulling their own resources to help one of their own. In this case if Zimbabwe was indeed economically and politically stabilised this would be money very well spent for the region. The significant regional “contagion cost ” of Zimbabwe’s  troubles would be eliminated, and a once-again strong Zimbabwe would have many other benefits to the region as well.

But how would the Western “donors” take such unusual fledgling efforts at African self-sufficiency? Surely they would be relieved and happy to not be expected to exclusively or even mainly fund Zimbabwe’s recovery? Not necessarily! I suspect some would like to be asked, to then loudly grumble about those troublesome, always-begging Africans but then be seen to be oh-so-reluctantly but generously giving in to the requests (purely out of humanitarian concerns for the oppressed, impoverished Zimbabweans, you understand.)

“Ah, but in return for this generous aid we are giving you, what are you going to do about that little matter of the white farms that were taken? What about your too-aggressive indigenization laws that we are worried will affect the operations of our nationals’ companies? What are you going to do about all those mining and other concessions that have recently been going to the Chinese in a country that we have always considered to be under our sphere of influence?” And so on and so forth.

You get my drift. So don’t expect that our Western friends will necessarily be happy if SADC or others prove to be the main source of ‘recovery funds!’

Such a development also has the potential to radically alter African thinking about what it can or cannot do for itself. When the current economic and political dust has settled, the lessons of Zimbabwe, not just the obvious negatives but the positives that will become more apparent with time, will reverberate far and wide on the continent and beyond. Ironically, that may be precisely why the very possibility of an eventually powerful, successful and independently-acting and speaking Zimbabwe causes such hysteria in some circles!

It is to present the image of an African country that breaks the mould of the continent’s mostly pathetically weak, donor-dependent and donor-compliant banana republics. It is to begin to no less than re-shape the African psyche against economic and psychological domination and control by The Other, and to positively and fruitfully, profitably take control over one’s resources and destiny. Unfortunately we simply have not seen this yet in Africa, and for some such a prospect is frightening.

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