Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Archive for August, 2007

The lessons of Zimbabwe for Venezuela

Posted by CM on August 30, 2007

From time to time I have featured articles from here and there that I think have some bearing on the situation in Zimbabwe, or some parallels with it.

I have followed the progression of Hugo Chavez since he became president of Venezuela with great interest. He rode into power on a wave of widespread support from the country’s marginalised indigenous majority, making a significant psychological break with the past, and causing high expectations of quick change in the material conditions of the poor.

Chavez was lucky to have come into power at a time of record high oil prices. So he has been able to back up a lot of his populist rhetoric with voter-pleasing subsidies of various kinds from the country’s oil revenues. That populism includes taking regular pot-shots at US president George Bush, almost always guaranteed to win plaudits in a South America with very mixed feelings towards its dominant, not always benign northern neighbour. Both out of conviction and to further thumb his nose at the US, Chavez goes out of his way to show his coziness with ailing long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Naturally he and Robert Mugabe consider each other kindred spirits, both fighting for the rights to self-assertion of their respective long-discriminated against, robbed and impoverished people. The two leaders who revel in their notoriety in the West and bask in the admiration of many poor country admirers have been shown clasping hands and hugging with obvious mutual admiration. Both are stinging in their rebuttals of opponents and critics, and both are eloquent and fearless in their attacks against their respective “neo-colonialists.”

Mugabe of course still retains the populist rhetoric, but the shine on him faded long ago as he failed to turn his rhetoric and his people’s early high hopes for his reign into improved standards of life. While Venezuela may still be enjoying a relative golden age as a result of the oil revenues, Zimbabwe has been on a steep, painful slide of many years.

But even if oil prices stay high for a while, we all know how difficult subsidies are to sustain in the long term, no matter how popular and well-intentioned they are. Zimbabwe, like many other countries, has gone through this. Lack of attention to the long term and to the issue of sustainability have shown how easy it is to wipe out hard-won socio-economic gains in a very short time.

Recent and previous price controls have caused further economic and business contraction, in addition to the problems that caused them to be put in place initially in Zimbabwe. In Venezuela they have not had anywhere near the same effect because the overall situation there is so vastly different from that in Zimbabwe, but shortages as a result of those popular price controls have been reported.

Chavez has been tinkering with the constitution to give himself more power, weaken his opponents and to make it very difficult to depose him democratically. Like the Venezuelans today, we cheered the then popular Mugabe as he similarly consolidated his power at the expense of the people’s. Chavez sees more “enemies of the people” hiding under every bed everyday, and a coup attempt he survived gives him useful ammunition to claim to be limiting freedoms and democratic space in the name of “protecting the people’s revolution.” Mugabe over many years went from seeking the accolades and adoration of the whole world to seeing real and imagined conspiracies and enemies everywhere he looks now. “Enemies” out to “confuse the people” has been the pretext for closing down a critical broadcasting operation in Venezuela, as it has been for all kinds of repressive measures in Zimbabwe over the years.

Chavéz has clearly done well in many areas, which has only given him the latitude to do as he likes in more controversial ways. The State is building new clinics and hospitals, many poor communities are getting access to amenities like clean water for the first time. University education is being made more widely available and formerly corrupt local councils are being made more democratic, even as democratic space at the national top narrows.

Chàvez’s dramatically-enacted, forcible takeovers of the stakes of multi-national oil interests have naturally been wildly popular at home, assuring more state revenues and greater powers of patronage. Whether the required investments for maintenance and growth will be done, or the oil wealth frittered away on populist projects until infrastructure begins to break down and make translating buried oil into real money difficult remains to be seen. But if Chàvez’s Venezuela is indeed following the model of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, then we all know how this seemingly presently happy story eventually ends!

In all these actions he has largely continued to enjoy the support of the people of Venezuela. Left-leaning foreign sympathizers of various kinds are also gushing in their praise of the revolution, pointing out the many signs of progress and of breaking with a not so rosy past. As they once did with Mugabe in Harare, they flock to Venezuela to lend their support and be pictured with the “revolutionary populist” of the moment, seemingly oblivious to how a still living, still ruling older model of the same ilk and the same trajectory has turned out. There is not just healthy respect for Chavez, but the kind of childish, uncritical adoration that is bound to turn even a good man bad and megalomaniac.

As as long as the economy remains flush with petro dollars which Chavez puts to popular causes, no one is too worried about his increasingly Mugabe-like progression and tendencies. As in the “good old days” of early post-independence Zimbabwe, worrying signs of a monster-in-creation can easily be overlooked and explained away.

But when things are no longer so economically rosy and the one-time populist increasingly turns vicious dictator, Venezuelans and Chavez’s foreign fan club of American entertainers and various armchair revolutionaries from all over the world may rue over-looking the gradual erosion of freedoms and the creeping introduction of a command economy. They may find that when they get over their rock-star like adoration of the one-time charismatic populist, he may have changed into a hard-hearted despot willing to do everything to stay on. And there may no longer be the economic benefits to salve and excuse the loss of freedoms.

This is the lesson of Zimbabwe for Venezuela. But if human history is any guide, they are not paying attention and will several years down the line be crying, “but why didn’t you warn us?!”

Knowing the progression of Mugabe and Zimbabwe since 1980, I fear for Venezuela as it appears to walk in Zimbabwe’s exact footsteps. How I would love to be proven wrong, for the sake of preventing another promising country whose people have high hopes of recovering from a painful, oppressive past to a more wrenching, modern-day oppression and penury.

All those worried about oppression and economic devastation in Zimbabwe today, look to the Venezuela of tomorrow with worry!

Chido Makunike

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Overcoming Zimbabwe’s ‘Messiah Complex’

Posted by CM on August 30, 2007

by Chido Makunike*

Many Zimbabweans are desperate for change from the ruinous path that the country has been on under the long ruler ship of Robert Mugabe. Much of the frustration that the change did not come about at the recent general election is focused on the leader of the main opposition MDC party, Morgan Tsvangirai.

It is natural that passionate, disappointed party members as well as sympathizers call for the scalp of the head of the losing party’s leader. It is not uncommon for many such leaders under pressure to be forced to resign. In Zimbabwe the anger at Tsvangirai may simply be part of this universal reaction to disappointment, but I believe there is an additional interesting dimension that is a reflection of where we are in our development as a society. That element is Zimbabweans’ desire for a “messiah.”

To succinctly illustrate the sentiment, I will quote Bob Marley in his classic protest song, “Get up, stand up.” “Some people think, great god will come from the sky, and take away everything; leave everybody feel high.”

Many Zimbabweans are similarly waiting for some great leader to emerge among them to sort out the terrible mess. Hence the anger directed at Tsvangirai, every bit a mere mortal as the rest of us and one who has done more for his country than most of us will ever do. The anger is partly because more of us than ever before are disappointed to realize that he cannot be our single knight in shining armour. Many had hoped he would swiftly depose Mugabe the Destroyer, but do it with little danger or cost to the rest of us, miraculously making everything all right after he has sent Mugabe packing. Many are not sure exactly what they think Tsvangirai should be doing differently, but nevertheless want the ease and convenience of thrusting the responsibility of meeting our political challenges on one man.

It is beginning to sink into an increasing number of Zimbabweans that the struggle that faces us may be a long one, and that it certainly will not be easy. Those who had hoped that it will be waged and won while we watch from the relative safety and comfort of nice homes, cars and offices in Zimbabwe or from exile without getting hurt, only emerging to cheer, now
realize that we may be forced to play a more active part when we would rather not, whether out of lethargy or fear. We would like someone else to do the dirtiest aspects of cleaning up the mess Mugabe is leaving us.This “messiah complex” of hoping for easy, one-man solutions to complex challenges applies in many other aspects of life as well, not just politics.

When the national soccer team loses consistently, coaches are blamed and changed one after the other. Few people are interested to also ask if issues like psychological and material motivation of the players could be more of reasons for the poor performance than who occupies the position of the coach, as important as that may be too.

Various fundamentalist religious sects have taken hold in Zimbabwe in recent years. One man, whom the followers relate to as a virtual god in his own right, effectively runs many of them. In many of these sects it is difficult to tell whether the entity that is being worshipped is God, or whether it is the all-powerful, “anointed” pastor/preacher/bishop/”prophet.”

Otherwise intelligent people who would normally expect and demand accountability at work, the golf club or elsewhere are often very timid and over-trusting of the often larger-than-life head of the sect. It can be run as a private fiefdom for years as all sorts of things go wrong while the flock cow-tow to the unquestionable “shepherd.” Often what forces some members to say “enough is enough” is sexual or financial scandal involving the “anointed” leader, by which time there is so much dissension and disharmony the “messiah” can never quite regain his credibility and the organization is in shambles.

On the economic front, the media in general in Zimbabwe very much treated Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono as a miracle worker who could walk on water when he was first appointed a year and a half ago. We read his lavishly, reverentially written profile many times, sometimes accompanied by a colourful portrait-type picture taking up more than half a newspaper page!

Glowing editorials were written about his every guess or prediction; interviews were often slavish and completely un-edifying. He was billed not just as a dedicated professional (which he was and is) who might help the country deal with just a few of the symptoms of its many self-inflicted problems, but also as pretty much an economic messiah. No one was much interested when it was pointed out that however competent and dedicated the man was, it was inevitable that he would be constrained by the un-enlightened political environment obtaining under the ruler ship of Mugabe.

Many who should have known better, including Gono himself, chose to believe that where many others before him had come up against that ultimate political brick wall, he would somehow be able to transcend it and achieve a miraculous economic turn-around. Like any believer in a fundamentalist cause, they did not want to be confused with facts!

Any one pointing out the issues of the country’s declining productivity in agriculture and all areas of industry and commerce, its terrible international reputation and so forth as political impediments to any abiding economic turnaround that had to be dealt with first, was dismissed as a “heathen” detractor of the “one true faith,” obviously sent by the devil to lead us astray from the “messiah’s” efforts!

Alas, less than a year later, the poor hard-working Gono is crashing against the reality of all the political causes of Zimbabwe’s economic mess. My only hope for poor Gono is that if and when his efforts come to naught because of the clue-less ruler ship we have, he will not be used as a convenient scapegoat by that vicious and cruel regime. Some of the media
hired guns who followed orders to feature him in the most favourable, unquestioning light in TV and radio interviews, newspaper editorials and even cartoons might just as easily “turn around” and slaughter him when given the word to do so, should it be found politically expedient when the “economic turnaround” fails to materialize!

For both Zimbabwe as a society, as well as for the individuals who have the crown of “messiah” thrust upon them, there are many pitfalls. The society will have to learn that the kind of problems we face are not amenable to simply having a charismatic leader to lead us to their solution, as might be more the case in a guerilla war or a labour protest, for instance. They are complicated issues to do with national and international political and economic structure that require thinking and strategizing on a broad scale, rather than by a “messiah” waving his magic wand.

For the individual “anointed” with the unenviable but flattering title of “messiah;” whether in the religious, political, economic or sports sphere, there can only be a messy decline from that lofty position. As ego-boosting as it may be for a short while, for an ordinary person to accept the unrealistic mantle of “messiah” thrust on him by a desperate public unwilling to play its proper role in its own salvation; the end is often quick, his good work forgotten in the recrimination of him having predictably failed to do the impossible.

Zimbabweans, there is no individual messiah who is going to emerge from the sky to lead us to the Promised Land. Charismatic, enlightened leadership certainly has its role to play in rallying people around a cause. But a cause as important and daunting as snatching a beautiful, ruined but potentially great country out of the hands of a ruthless, dim-witted clique
who have dragged it through the mud will involve the deeper and greater involvement of more of us than many of us have been willing to face up to.

Perhaps that realization among more Zimbabweans will have been one of the positive long-term developments to come out of all the reports and evidence of the many structural ways that the political process has been deeply flawed in recent years. If that is one of the outcomes of the last three elections and the atmosphere that accompanied them, then it can be counted as Zimbabwe’s welcome evolution out of the messiah complex that has not only
been so unrealistic, but has failed us so miserably.

The worse things get, the more fervently many of us pray for a messiah to relieve us of the scary burden and responsibility of being the agents of change. Yet more of us, collectively and individually, will have to “get up, stand up for our rights” rather than waiting for some lone saviour out there to bring change, freedom and prosperity to Zimbabwe. We should spend more time looking at ourselves in the mirror than at blaming Tsvangirai and other supposed “messiahs” for what has not yet come about, but that we would like”someone” to bring about. Whom, if not you/me/us?

*This article was originally published on an online publication on April 27, 2005.

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Still too early to write off “collapsed” Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on August 30, 2007

The situation in Zimbabwe is not good. It cannot and should not be sugar-coated. But much of what counts as news or analysis of the country’s difficulties are the wishes of collapse, rather than necessarily the inevitability of it. We have been reading about how the country is “on the brink of collapse” for close to eight years now, but it still functions, no matter how poorly.

“Collapse” is one of those ill-defined, calamitous-sounding words that can mean anything its user wants it to, making it even more difficult to understand what is meant by the loose, frequent use of it in regards to Zimbabwe.

Many things need overhaul in Zimbabwe and it is quite clear that while the regime of Mugabe has so far been amazingly tenacious and successful at holding on to power as the country deteriorates, managing the situation effectively has proved beyond them. Hatred of that regime runs deep amongst Zimbabweans at home and abroad, despite whatever pockets of genuine support it still enjoys.

But pointing out Mugabe’s many failures is not necessarily one and same as defining “collapse.” But don’t tell that to the Times of London or The Daily Telegraph: they know what they want to happen in Zimbabwe and their pick of stories and how they present them are to merely try to help the process along. Hence their frequent, almost affectionate, hopeful use of the “collapse” metaphor! Only time will tell if they will get their wish eventually.

Here’s an interesting thought provoker from South Africa’s Business Day of August 29:

Business Still Ticking Over in a Limping Country

by Viwe Tlaleane*

Our northern neighbour Zimbabwe is often caricatured in news columns and bulletins as a country tottering on the brink of collapse, but more than seven years into recession the country limps on.

Most businesses there, the bulk of which are still in foreign hands, have to date survived inflation levels of more than 5000%, the highest in the world. And as if the situation there is not grave enough, the Zimbabwean government last week tabled before parliament a draft law that would give blacks majority control of foreign-owned companies operating in that country. Could this be the final nail in the coffin of this supposedly moribund economy?

Probably not, as most big businesses operating in the country do not seem perturbed by the developments. They have seen and survived worse.

Old Mutual, the largest financial services group in Zimbabwe, said yesterday that it would comply with the law. And as a first step it agreed to dispose of 20% of its stake in Old Mutual Zimbabwe to staff. In complying with the law, it said it would structure an empowerment deal that would create value for shareholders and stability for clients.

Lonrho, another big player in Zimbabwe , is raising £100m to prop up its Zimbabwean operations. It says the problems in the country are temporary and not insurmountable.

Standard Bank last week said while trading in Zimbabwe was challenging, it was determined to keep its operations running.

There is a sizable number of British and American companies operating in Zimbabwe, and none of them appear to be packing their bags. What do they know that we don’t?

*edits The Bottom Line.

The bottom line? Millions of people across the world are saddened and horrified by Zimbabwe’s decline and the great hardships being experienced by its people. None feel this anguish more than Zimbabweans themselves, whether at home or scattered across the four corners of the world.

But in examining and lamenting the situation, let us keep our wits about us and keep a sense of proportion, lest we year after year make predictions that make us look ridiculous!

Chido Makunike

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Scholarly periodical does Zimbabwe feature with no Zimbabwean contributors

Posted by CM on August 23, 2007

Safundi describes itself as “much more than an academic journal. It is an on-line community of scholars, professionals, and students interested in viewing and analyzing the United States and South Africa from an international, transnational, and/or comparative perspective. The centerpiece of this on-line community is the Journal of South African and American Studies, a peer-reviewed quarterly academic journal. The editors of Safundi seek to better understand South Africa and the United States in light of each other.”

Its editorial board is composed mostly of US academics and it is published in that country.

Its April 2007 issue (Volume 8, Number 2) is entirely devoted to “Zimbabwe in Crisis.” It is composed of seven essays. “The struggle for Zimbabwe, then and now” and “The histiography of land in Zimbabwe” are among the titles.

So far so good. I was grateful to the friend who referred the magazine to me and looked forward to being enlightened with some deep, refreshing, scholarly treatises of the troubles in Zimbabwe. But I was so turned off and offended to see that all the articles were written by Western contributors that I could not read it.

The common practice of Westerners “studying” Africans and paying more attention to each others’ “findings” than they listen to the natives has long been a beef with me. You not only see this in scholarly journals, but virtually everyday in the mass media as well. Often, a Western writer based in Johannesburg will phone somebody in Harare, quite frequently a white Zimbabwean, to get his opinion on some event, and then file a widely disseminated story on the “Zimbabwean situation/crisis.” If any natives are involved, it is often simply as props, to support the point that would have been made by the authoritative “expert.”

For me, what Safundi has done is little different and I wrote them to say so. Somewhat to my surprise, I got a courteous response from one of the contributors, who was also responsible for putting the issue together. As courteous and prompt as it was, the explanation for the absence of not just Zimbabwean scholars, but African ones, seemed pathetically weak.

Essentially it was that there were two Zimbabwean contributors lined up, one of whom did not come through with an article and the other of whom had to pull out at the last minute over a copyright issue. I have no reason to doubt the explanation, but to me not having any Zimbabwean contributors for the issue at all is such a weakening shortcoming of the publication that I would say the explanation is simply not good enough. For their won credibility, if not for any other reason, the editors should have worked doubly hard to ensure the participation of Zimbabwean scholars.

Of course they have every right not to, I am not questioning that at all. Nor am I saying that analysis of “the Zimbabwe crisis” should be the exclusive domain of Zimbabwean or African scholars. Far from it. But having a group of western scholars talking to each other and to their western audience about Zimbabwe is hardly the best way to achieve the publication’s stated aim of seeking “to better understand South(ern) Africa and the United States in light of each other.”

Like the Johannesburg-based western journalist who “covers Africa” by phone or email from there, seeking out people like him to “explain” Africa, what this rude, crude and out-dated practice does is not so much to explain Africa to their audiences, but to explain/confirm/entrench their feelings towards the continent. The Africans are selectively the central characters in the perennially favoured drama of dysfunction that is then presented to the world, but they are also considered not quite deep, analytical, objective enough to do the telling and the explaining, even if it is merely of their own feelings, let alone “journalistic/scholarly analysis.” As a result, the only Africans who are quoted authoritatively are generally those who agree with the Western perspective of the narrative being presented, whether in a periodical, movie, documentary or news story.

As much “right” as these organizations have to present things to themselves and their audiences this way, it is incorrect to pretend that this practice helps those audiences understand Africa and the natives any better. But then again, perhaps that is not the principal reason for all the “oh, those natives are such a curious, fascinating object of study” features that we are daily bombarded with.

Apart from un-necessarily raising some doubt about themselves (the publishers) amongst people like myself, the omission also does a dis-service to any of their readers who genuinely want a more complete understanding of why Zimbabwe is at its present pass than they can easily get from the BBC, CNN or the countless other news outlets that are having so much fun with “the Zimbabwe crisis.”

One reason this practice thrives is because the natives don’t do enough to provide their own explanatory or critical narratives, to each other or to the world. With all the inexpensive technical tools that are now available for the previously “exotic-ised” peoples of the world to be heard on their own terms, it is no longer enough for natives to whine about being left out of forums like Safundi.

It is important to not stop at simply feeling “hurt” by exclusion and by being ogled as if we were specimens on display. We need to take the next step and write and say things from our own perspectives, to balance out the unequal equation of how we are seen and often misunderstood.

Progress will have been made when we go beyond enraged whining, to having countless versions of our own Safundis. It will then not matter if a group of American or Western scholars decide to write to themselves and their own audiences about us.

The content? I was so put off I had no desire to delve into it. But I am keeping an open mind and not writing off the contributions on the basis of my offense at what I feel is a major shortcoming for a publication with Safundi’s stated aim. And it is good to read and hear how some scholars who are somewhat removed from the situation see and interpret “the Zimbabwe crisis.”

I have just about put aside my revulsion at an all-too-common slight of Africans; to want to now begin reading the articles to see if they do, after all, contribute anything new or interesting to the discussion of the juicy, delicious “Zimbabwe crisis.”

Chido Makunike

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The wild guessing game over Zimbabwe’s inflation rate

Posted by CM on August 18, 2007

At the end of July there was a widely publicised report in which Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, director of the IMF’s Africa department said, “If recent monthly trends continue, IMF staff project are that year-on-year inflation could well exceed 100,000 percent by year-end.”

News reports said the official (but un- announced) Zimbabwean year-on-year figure for May “topped 4,500 percent.”

An IRIN news report dated August 16 about the difficulties many Zimbabweans face in South Africa says, “Zimbabwe is suffering its worst recession since independence… inflation has topped 13,000 percent…”

An article dated August 18 in the South African Mail and Guardian said inflation is “well past the 5,000% mark,” which is quite different from saying it “is more than 13,000 percent!”

An Associated Press story in the International Herald Tribune of August 18 says, “Independent estimates put real inflation closer to 20,000 percent on goods still available.”

What I am leading to is that it is quite clear that no one has the slightest clue what Zimbabwe’s rate of inflation is! It should be enough to just say”prices are rising astronomically,” rather than for all these news agencies to make fools of themselves by engaging in the charade of trying to put a number to it. The situation is simply too fluid to be able to do that accurately, as the widely varying figures of these “reputable” news outfits show.

And yes, the situation is serious and causing great hardships. But it is also somewhat predictable that AP and the International Herald Tribune would pick (or make up?) the highest inflation “estimate” (I’m being polite) of anyone. Judging by the particular stories the AP’s Angus Shaw consistently chooses to write about Zimbabwe and his particular spin on many of them, “lets make a difficult situation look even worse” seems to be the mission that Shaw and AP are on in regards to Zimbabwe, and they seem to be enjoying it immensely.

Zimbabwe is such a bad brand at the moment that even going over the top in trying to show how supposedly nothing works there is considered quite fair game. Citing an inflation figure of the magnitude of 20,000% almost requires that the originator of the story cite his source for the number and its basis. By not taking this elementary measure, suspicious cynics like myself may end up thinking that whatever the inflation rate may actually be, those who cite this figure without attribution or explanation would actually wish it to be 20,000%, or some other huge number, to give them more juicy stories of suffering and more “ammunition” against the hated Mugabe.

For all I know it may very well be 20,000% or more. My point is not that this should be hidden or sanitised, but that in the current environment where everybody seems to cite his or her own favourite guess, this is no longer just reporting, but a mixture of speculation, outright falsehood and perhaps crusading. News agencies should make clear distinctions between reporting on the one hand, and opinion and guesswork on the other.

And the IHT certainly isn’t complaining about the opportunity to feature lots of bad news about Zimbabwe, both the sad facts as well as those whose figures may be simply plucked out of the air! Mugabe is not a particularly cuddly fellow, but Angus Shaw, AP and much of the Western media are getting rather hysterical in their reporting of anything to do with him.

So your conclusion if you had done an Internet search with the terms “Zimbabwe, inflation, August 2007?” Of course you would limit your search to the well-known, “prestigious and reputable” news outlets. Well, you would certainly be more confused after the search than you were before it. The best you would be able to say is “the wild guesses range from 4,500 to 20,000 percent!”

What a farce! Mugabe and his clique have been bad news for Zimbabwe, I want a new dispensation. But I am beginning to think that it is also true that there are more factors at play in some of the irrational, unprofessional coverage of the country’s situation than just wanting to tell the world what is going on.

For both the pro and anti-Mugabe forces for whom Zimbabwe’s symbolisms can be used for buttressing or countering their respective ideologies and world views, facts are not as important as the slightest excuse to make their propaganda points. For the pro-side, the racial, historical, ideological and other symbolisms Mugabe represents for them mean he must be supported at all costs, regardless of his words or actions and their effects on Zimbabweans. Likewise for the anti-side, Mugabe’s racial, historical, ideological and other symbolisms for them mean every single negative thing in Zimbabwe must be attributed to Mugabe, and the guessing or embellishment of figures is an acceptable part of the great propaganda battle.

In between the two evilly cynical sides are the ordinary Zimbabweans, caught up in the midst of centuries of thinly-disguised, pent up group hates from all sorts of quarters, pro and con Mugabe, who want “the Zimbabwe crisis” to “prove” the veracity of their particular world view.

Whether it is the cynically Mugabe-applauding SADC leaders or the consistently, suspiciously hysterical and sometimes embellished reports of outfits like AP, the UK Daily Telegraph or the IHT, Zimbabwe’s travails are a fascinating drama for them to feed on while pretending concern for the ordinary Zimbabweans whose ridiculing they so delight in regularly doing. The “Zimbabwe crisis” has become a hot commodity for point scoring by groups of all sorts of viewpoints and agendas.

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Mugabe’s reception at SADC meeting reflects poorly on all concerned

Posted by CM on August 17, 2007

I did not expect any ground-breaking initiatives on Zimbabwe from SADC leaders at their summit in Lusaka, despite the country’s implosion being on the meeting’s agenda. They have all tip-toed around the issue of Zimbabwe for years, and even now it is only the clear effects on their countries of its accelerated unraveling that has begun to force them to pay attention in a way they would sooner have avoided.

The economic, humanitarian and “image-contagion” effect on SADC of Zimbabwe’s descent has not moved SADC to dare say anything that might be construed as even mildly chiding Mugabe for visiting ruin on his country. I have often thought there might be an element of pleasure at a country that is only second to South Africa in the region in terms of general development being brought down several pegs, a sort of celebration of the equalisation of mediocrity. But now they must be seen to be at least paying lip service to the increasing grumbling of their citizens to the influx of Zimbabweans running away from the situation at home.

But even with my low expectations of the summit, I was stunned at the news of Mugabe’s reception in Lusaka:

Political leaders from southern African countries… publicly lauded as a hero the man who has brought his country to the brink of collapse.

Mr. Mugabe was greeted with cheers, applause, dancing and laughter from fellow dignitaries when he arrived in Lusaka for the two-day summit of leaders of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community. He flew in aboard one of Air Zimbabwe’s remaining serviceable Boeing aircraft, which was taken off its passenger flight schedule by presidential decree.

Mr. Mugabe, 83, smiled broadly as he acknowledged the rapturous welcome, louder and more enthusiastic than for any of the other heads of state or government. The reception dented any lingering hopes that African leaders, in particular President Mbeki of South Africa, would put pressure on Mr. Mugabe to step aside.

Mike Mulongoti, the host country’s Minister of Information, said: “Zambia cannot impose its will on Zimbabwe, just as Zimbabwe cannot impose its will on Zambia.” But he admitted that, as Zimbabwe’s plight worsened by the day, all that the community’s leaders could do was to “quietly whisper to each other our concerns”.

Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe’s combative Justice Minister, rejected the need for political reform. “There are no political reforms necessary in my country,” Mr. Chinamasa said. “We are a democracy like any other democracy in the world.”

What kind of herd instinct can account for this behaviour by the SADC leaders, when in not so public fora, and free of peer pressure, they admit to the inexcusable decline of their neighbour? It is one thing to not have the courage to say something even as mild as “it is abundantly obvious that things are not right in Zimbabwe, we are very concerned;” but it is unconsciable for them to actually want to be seen to be egging it on and delighting in it!

Mugabe and his propaganda machine will obviously milk his reception for all it is worth, and be emboldened in his present path of steep decline. But this is not a sign of strength, but of embarrassing weakness and foolishness. No amount of basking in the applause of cynical, compromised and hypocritical regional leaders can lessen the objective reality that Zimbabwe is ailing very badly, and that its rulers do not offer any way out of the problems. What does it say about Zimbabwe’s rulers that they derive more satisfaction from the approval of neighbours, than they feel shame at the terrible mess and suffering at home?

His cheering neighbours, including those whose countries have almost identical historical issues to those in Zimbabwe that Mugabe says he is trying to address, are following policies diametrically different from his, no matter how much they cheer him in public. That they reject them for their own situations is the real proof of what they think of his policies. So you have the deeply embarrassing situation where a man revels in the applause of his “friends,” seemingly so devoid of a balanced internal compass to see that the cheering may be in the spirit of mockery.

The SADC Heads of State also do not come out of this looking defiant of the West as may be their principle reason for applauding a man they can see has laid his country to waste; but as weak, two-faced leaders. The pathetic and deteriorating state of Zimbabwe is not a matter of opinion, it is obvious for the whole world to see, even if there are various explanations for the root causes of that decline. And it is the responsibility of any government to try hard to find realistic solutions to problems, whatever their cause.

As illustrated by Chinamasa’s “no reforms are necessary in my country” comment, its rulers do not see any need to take charge of a more inclusive process in which the many Zimbabweans who are aggrieved about how their country is being ruled can feel a part of things. The country’s problems have begun to spill over into its neighbours, with resentment amongst their citizens and xenophobia against Zimbabweans growing.

In this scenario, for the SADC leaders to act as if all is well in Zimbabwe and to encourage Mugabe in his downward spiral hardly makes them look heroic, Western-defiant or even rational: it makes them look foolish, cruel and cynical. It may very well be a type of “friendship and solidarity,” but it is certainly not the constructive, positive type one would hope for from genuine friends who point out your errors because they want to see you doing well. Zimbabwe in particular, but Mugabe himself as a person too, are very poorly served by “friends” who secretly revel in one’s self-destruction behind one’s back, even as they cheer on your destructive antics to your face.

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The biodiesel plant that may never be completed

Posted by CM on August 12, 2007

As Zimbabwe creeps towards 10 years in crisis mode, there are countless ways in which it is losing out on many innovations that lesser equipped countries are enthusiastically taking advantage of.

One of those is the global frenzy over the potential of the hardy, well-adapted-to-Africa shrub jatropha to produce biodiesel. One would have thought that a country that has grappled with a severe fuel problem since about 2000 would work extra hard to explore ways of producing industrial quantities of jatropha biofuel.

As a recent story in The Herald illustrates, the intention may be there, but the country is in too much of an economic and leadership mess to be able to do so. In the style of The Herald, the heading, “Construction of biodiesel plant gathers momentum,” promises a lot but is not backed up by the facts of the story.

Construction…is progressing well, officials have said, with the biodiesel plant “expected to produce at least 300,000 litres of fuel per day using jatropha seeds.”

That would be a good start.

Finealt Engineering, a Government-owned company, is carrying out the project, which started in May 2006. Production manager Mr. Clement Shoriwa said a variety of civil works, including water reticulation, and electricity installation, were being carried out. “Our intention was to complete the project in July but have not been able to do so due to financial constraints,” he said. So far, he said, roads at the plant were now ready for compacting and tarring. Construction of buildings would start once the civil works had been completed.

Oh, oh, trouble! We all know the performance record of “government-owned companies” in Zimbabwe : largely disastrous. A project that should have been completed last month, a year after it started, has so far only managed to get the roads ready for compacting! By what definition could this qualify as “progressing well?”

And “Finealt” Engineering? Who thought of this name? The Zimbabwean capacity to conjur up silly “English-sounding” names is depressing.

Mr. Shoriwa said the budget at the inception of the project in 2005 was $3 trillion, but had since ballooned, though he could not give the figure required now.

He could not “give the figure now” because with the country’s levels of inflation it is impossible to do a project costing, particularly in local currency! It is hard enough to do a civil or building project successfully in an environment in which prices change by more than double digit percentages every day or week. But once there has been the inevitable first delay for any number of reasons-problems with fuel, cement, whatever-then for the contractor it is hard to almost impossible to get back on line and finish the project at all, let alone on time or profitably.

It is not at all difficult to understand why this is turning out to be another project that is unlikely to be completed any time soon : the economics of doing any such project in Zimbabwe work against you every single second. Perhaps the only way to complete ambitious projects like this is if the funding for all materials were made available in hard currency and all those materials were warehoused on site before any work begun as a hedge against constantly rising prices. But even then, pilferage would be a major issue in the current desperate economic and social environment and there would still be delays because workers would struggle to get to and from work, absenteeism would be high, productivity would be low because the workers have so many things to worry about including hunger and high rates of stress and illness, etc.

The factory, to occupy 72 hectares, would accommodate an oil processing plant, seed storage plant, cake processing plant, oil storage tanks, diesel and methanol storage tanks. The company is currently producing between 200 and 250 litres of biodiesel per day for own consumption and for research purposes. “We will go commercial once the factory has been completed,” said Mr. Shoriwa. Apart from producing diesel, the company also produces by-products from jatropha such as soap, glycerine and fertilizer.

Without having managed to even tar the roads of the complex, it is obviously going to be a long time before the planned fancy processing equipment can be bought! If there really is any biodiesel production going on, it is likely to be with hand-operated presses, which may account for the fact that the company “employs about 300 workers, excluding casual workers.” But even then, what on earth is this company doing with a workforce that large already? On that basis of inefficiency alone it is doomed to fail, even if it is “socialistically providing employment.” We have been this way before countless times, with parastatals all over the economy which do very little yet have large work forces they struggle to pay.

It would not be hard for some industrious small scale businessperson to press 250 litres of jatropha oil from seed per day and make various by-products with a fraction of this government company’s workforce.

“It is a viable project and Zimbabwe is lagging behind whereas other countries are now at advanced stages of producing biodiesel,” Mr. Shoriwa said. He cited countries such as Brazil, China, Kenya, Germany and Malawi as leading in the production of biodiesel.

Shoriwa ends with the point I began with : Zimbabwe is missing out on so many opportunities it should rightfully be at the forefront of benefiting from because of its many infrastructural and many other advantages.

Multiply this one example of a project supposedly “progressing well” several-fold all over the country, and one gets a depressing idea of some of the ways Zimbabwe is working so hard to sabotage its own future.

Chido Makunike

Posted in Economy | Leave a Comment »

Why does UN have to plead for food aid on behalf of Mugabe govt?

Posted by CM on August 6, 2007

Whatever the Mugabe government may say about “owning the economy,” nothing negates those claims of acting to facilitate this in its controversial policies than the now perennial food deficits.

Year after year since 2000 we have had excuse after excuse for declining agricultural productivity, and more maize imports from countries like South Africa, and recently even Malawi and Zambia. Now there has just been a report that this season’s wheat harvest will be worse than the low figure that was expected. This is due to several reasons, including frequent power cuts that made regular, planned irrigation impossible.

Every year some official has said some variation of “no one will starve, we are on top of the situation and will feed the needy” but this has rather predictably always turned out to be cruel bravado. Every year food aid has had to be sheepishly accepted, even from countries that are officially considered enemies.

This year is no exception. The UN World Food Programme has just issued an international appeal for US$118 million to urgently assist more than 3 million Zimbabweans facing severe food shortages. An IRIN article says $70 million has already been received by the WFP for Zimbabwean food relief, most from the US and the EU, but much more was needed. A joint FAO/WFP assessment in June resulted in the prediction that “people at risk will peak at 4.1 million in the first three months of 2008 – more than a third of Zimbabwe’s estimated population of 11.8 million.”

The situation is dire, there is no question about it. As this reality is unfolding, Mr. Mugabe has no shame at all in accepting an invitation to attend an international talk shop  in Malaysia (reports say he was “warmly received” by delegates from the other 20 countries attending ) on how to tackle poverty! He would certainly have a lot to say on how to create poverty, but I wonder what contributions he would make to discussions on how to reduce it.

A distant observer has a painful but very legitimate question about the WFP’s plea for donations to ease hunger in Zimbabwe. In a post entitled “Why is the UN pleading for food for Zimbabwe?”, the anonymous blogger writes :

Why is the Government of Zimbabwe not doing the begging for food aid? Why aren’t they paying for the food? Why do they appear completely uninvolved?

His own answer : The simple answer is that they really don’t give a crap about this problem or their people.

As part of a longer commentary, he says “This problem will never be solved as long as their own Government does not consider it a problem. For the moment, they don’t.”

It is impossible to refute his conclusions, based on the evidence. The implications are shameful and staggering.

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Putting Zimbabwe’s hardships in some perspective

Posted by CM on August 2, 2007

Here’s an interesting story on the Voice of America that gives the perspectives of some foreigners in Zimbabwe who are determined to stick things out because they find life there still so much better than in their own countries :

Many Foreigners Decide to Stay in Zimbabwe

While thousands of Zimbabweans are fleeing the country in desperate attempts to better their lives, many foreign citizens say they’re staying. They say they’re confident they’ll survive the economic decline and political upheavals. Several people say despite ongoing economic problems, Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is still intact, making life here better than in their own homelands.

...Nigerians and Congolese top the list of so-called “easy to spot foreigners” in Bulawayo.

Josea Katende is a permanent Zimbabwean resident from the Democratic Republic of Congo…says he’s been in Zimbabwe for nearly a decade…says although Zimbabwe’s economy is collapsing, life is still better here than in the DRC.

“The economy is bad right now in Zimbabwe but the difference maybe is the infrastructure and that things haven’t collapsed in Zimbabwe like in the Congo. …you can still post a letter and it gets to wherever it must go, which in our country doesn’t exist anymore. So at least, there is some kind of order in Zimbabwe.”

… he has watched the number of Nigerians and Congolese nationals in Bulawayo expand. He argues that’s because there are numerous opportunities in Zimbabwe to make money. Katende adds with the money he makes, he can buy a lot more goods here than he’d be able to purchase in the DRC.

“…now, you know, there are a lot of Nigerians because they find it easier here. It’s hard to make money but its easier living. In Nigeria and in DRC you can easily make a lot of money but the life is just not easy; the comforts that go with it. If you are living in a place with power cuts, potholes everywhere, you can’t really live properly.”


Well, having had the privilege of travelling a fair swathe of Africa in the last couple of years, including Nigeria but not DRC, I can fully relate to what Katende is talking about. Here he reminds us why Zimbabwe’s many unique qualities in Africa and its turmoil continue to arouse such impassioned feelings all over the world.

It must be said, though, that as a foreigner one will tend to think in hard currency terms to gauge whatever one is doing; whether it is holding a salaried job, being a trader or a drug dealer for that matter. If you have some hard-currency earning capacity you can still live quite well in Zimbabwe, even though you can no longer be sheltered from the difficulties all around you.

Zimbabweans solely dependent on the worthless Zim-dollar and with no frame of reference of life for the average person in countries like those mentioned by Katende will obviously find it hard to comprehend where he is coming from. But those of us who have the difficulties as well as the privilege of experiencing life in other parts of the world have a responsibility to put our country’ problems in some kind of perspective in a way the Western news outlets we rely on for information will not do for us. This VOA story was written by Netsai Mlilo, who I am guessing is a Zimbabwean. The VOA must be commended for giving us temporary relief from the unrelenting stream of “Zimbabwe is going to disappear any minute” stories by injecting one of a different flavour, to give one a more rounded perspective of the country’s mixed reality.

You sure as hell would not expect to read a story like this from a British or American journalist! They have a different outlook and for some, like the UK’s Daily Telegraph, a different agenda from that of the ordinary Zimbabwean just concerned about his or her homeland.

Katende’s sentiments should not make us counter the destruction-intending deluge of “Zimbabwe in crisis” reports from the Telegraph and others of its ilk by attempting to sugar-coat the country’s deep problems. The issue is to present the reality of what is happening honestly, but to be able to put it in a context that gives a reader a more complete view of that very complex reality.

A final point about Katende’s observations is that we should not feel particularly satisfied that Zimbabwe in its present troubled state is still better off than many other African countries that are not considered to be “in crisis.” The measure of our progress should not be how much better off we are than one or another dysfunctional country, but how we are doing today compared to yesterday, and in relation to our own potential.

By those standards we are not doing well at all, no matter how much somebody from a worse off country may appreciate life in Bulawayo or Harare.

Chido Makunike

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Improved seed supply as a sign of capacity building

Posted by CM on August 1, 2007

There is a fascinating little story in The Herald of August 1st whose significance might easily escape notice :

Seed Co Seeks Govt Nod to Export Surplus

Zimbabwe’s biggest seed producer, Seed Co, said it might soon start exporting maize seed as it had a surplus.

MD Dennis Zaranyika said that the company had been getting maize seed import enquiries from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin and some countries in North Africa. But he said Seed Co would only export seed if it got the green light from the government, which would first want to be assured of adequate supplies for the local market. “It’s starting to happen,” Zaranyika said. “We have started to have excess maize seed in some varieties and we want to export for foreign currency generation.”

Maize seed production in the country took a nose dive when government embarked on the land reform programme in 2000, which resulted in many white seed farmers ceasing operations. For the past five years, Zimbabwe has been facing maize seed shortages which, however, have now been eradicated as many new farmers have mastered the skills to produce quality seed.

Of course one must keep in mind that this is coming from former newspaper and now official rag sheet The Herald. But assuming this is a “straight” story, it is one of momentous importance!

Why do I feel quite sure that it will not feature on the BBC, the Daily Telegraph or even on any of our numerous and growing number of Zimbabwe-dedicated websites? Partly because many of us have lost sight of why we complain about how bad things are in Zimbabwe, which is (presumably for most of us) for them to get better.

Of course not everybody wants things to get better in Zimbabwe! Some want and can afford to demand that things only get better under certain conditions. For them it is not about complaining to improve things, but to make them worse for a variety of reasons.

But coming back specifically to the story about SeedCo’s maize seed surplus, it shows that while so many things have gone wrong in agriculture, it is far from correct to say things have been standing still or going backwards in every single respect. Moving maize seed production from the former white farming sector to black Zimbabweans is a major agricultural and strategic accomplishment that needs to be lauded. It is actually a pity that it took a crisis for this change to happen-this is how things should have been for the country’s major staple crop, and that of much of Africa.

It is also interesting that the seed companies only saw the value of nurturing the capacity to grow quality hybrid maize seed amongst small holder farmers after the white farming community had been pretty much decimated by Mugabe, rather than having seen this as a desirable shift to have made decades ago.

It is alternative thinking and strategies like this that we will increasingly need to engage in and adopt to build a fundamentally new Zimbabwe on the ruins of the crumbling old one that was in many ways dysfunctional and unsustainable under the surface gloss.

So strait-jacketed is our thinking by “the immediate crisis” that not even The Herald saw the significance of this story enough to put it on its front page! A development like this has positive long term implications for the country’s agricultural, economic and food security future. And it shows what all of us Zimbabweans know, but which you are never going to read about in the distant international media that colours all our perspectives of our own immediate reality : that life is hard in Zimbabwe but people are not just standing still waiting for a saviour from the UK or the US, as the Daily Telegraph or the New York Times would have us believe.

In addition to coping with the hardships, there are many who are quietly figuring out new ways of doing things. If we focused on that and learned from those lessons, then we have the real potential of eventually building a unique, strong and independent Zimbabwe that will be genuinely ours, rather than a weak, tame, dependent and compliant client state.

Chido Makunike

Posted in Agriculture | Leave a Comment »