Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

After deal-signing, forwards or backwards for Zimbabwe?

Posted by CM on September 20, 2008

Normality and stability in their broad sense are obvious outcomes all Zimbabweans hope for after the recently signed political deal between the country’s political parties brokered by South African president Thabo Mbeki.

But there seems to be no unanimity about the details of the nation Zimbabwe seeks to now become, beyond obvious things like goods in the shops at reasonable prices, low inflation, more employment opportunities and so forth. None of these are minor goals to aim for, and a government that is able to deliver any of these in  the next few years would have done very well.

Prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangrai began his term of office by pleading for international aid. No doubt a lot of assistance from the world will be needed for years to come. But by making this his first serious indication of what his orientation is to problem-solving, he suggests that he has no vision of Zimbabwe as anything other than a donor-dependent banana republic, on a continent already full of such weak, under-achieving states.

There are many examples in Africa of countries that are darlings of ‘the donors’ for one reason or another, but that are not substanitally ‘developing.’ That requires hard and smart work by the public and private sectors working together, as we have seen from the many examples of real ‘development’ in Asia.

Africa has become so donor-dependent structurally and psychologically that aid has become one of the most insidious ways of preventing African progress, rather than of promoting it. The continent’s best and brightest and its most powerful, people like Tsvangirai, spend more time and energy trying to figure out how to get ‘aid’ from Europe and the U.S. than they do on how to make their economies more productive.

Robert Mugabe’s many sins and errors are well known and do not need repeating here. But one of his legacies will be daring to try to effect the idea that Africans must be masters of their economic destiny, and that they need to contemplate possibly enduring hardship to overcome the interests who would rather keep them dependent and weak. That ideal was soon over-run by cronyism, cynicism and the sheer failure to achieve the noble goals that stirred the hearts of many Africans (and enraged many Westerners for all sorts of reasons.)

But if Mugabe the man is now fading into political oblivion, rejected as a despot, a failure and an anachronism, his original focus on genuine African economic empowerment still rings as true as ever. Due in large part to his own excesses, it will take a long time for the positive parts of his legacy to be separated from the negatives and the failures, but it will happen eventually.

Tsvangirai’s conventional, dull vision of aid-dependent recovery may bring relatively quick relief from the deep economic pain being suffered by Zimbabweans. If so, he will receive the accolades of grateful Zimbabweans who have been reeling from a rapidly imploding economy for a decade. And he will be a hero to Westerners uncomfortable with Mugabe’s sharp, continuous recantations of the need to address the many lingering aspects of the unfinished business of colonial exploitation and oppression, which is ‘ancient history’ to Westerners but very much a part of their present-day reality for Africans.

A West relieved at the exit or (hoped for) sidelining of Mugabe will certainly back up its gratitude to Tsvangirai with all sorts of aid. It will be partly humanitarian, partly ‘thank you Tsvangirai for getting rid of or weakening Mugabe,’ and also a way of making sure the new government is malleable.

But this route to ‘normality’ will not and cannot address the underlying structural economic and developmental issues of countries like Zimbabwe. Who really owns the wealth of the land? From what date in the past do we effect ‘the rule of law’ (such as who owns what land?). What is an ‘equitable’ sharing of riskand profit between citizens and foreign investors? And so on and so forth.

Mugabe made his answers to these sorts of questions very clear. His answers and the way he tried to effect them delighted many Zimbabweans and Africans, as much as they frightened and enraged many Britons and other Westerners. For a whole host of reasons, Mugabe’s populist answers to the deep questions of the post-colonial era have not in the short term translated to the hoped-for results.

This makes it easy for Tsvangirai to come in with ‘I hold the keys to Western aid’ as his main trump card. Even among those who recognise the dangers of this approach, disgust with Mugabe and despair at the hardships of recent years has meant many Zimbabweans look to Tsvangirai’s implied promise of aid-funded relief and ‘recovery’ with anticipation.

This is quite understandable, but it does not in any way solve or remove the underlying difficult issues that contributed to Zimbabwe finding itself where it is now. After the euphoria of achieving a kind of ‘normality’ has abated, these questions will arise again, along with the ghost of Mugabe.

We have the strange situation where in the short recent term Zimbabwe has been very rapidly sliding backwards. Yet in forcing the society to ask difficult questions that go far back into the past with a view to finding answers for the future, the society was setting a stronger foundation for that future. A strong economic foundation partly rests on more risk-taking and wealth-creation by Zimbabweans; more ‘ownership’ of the process of ‘development’ by the locals than we have generally seen in a weak, donor-dependent Africa.

Mugabe largely failed to back up his empowerment rhetoric with practical, successful examples of it. But it is to take the wrong lesson to abandon the dream, rather than to pick it apart for where it went wrong and try to fix it. Tsvangirai would be relieving the immediate problems by attracting a lot of ‘donor aid,’ but not addressing the long-term issues of how to overcome the complex legacies of colonialism (land ownership patterns being just the most obvious one), and how to spur true ‘development’ and empowerment based on production-led economic growth.

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