Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

How Zimbabwe will influence events in a post-Mbeki South Africa

Posted by CM on September 20, 2008

One doesn’t hear South Africa referred to as ‘the rainbow nation’ very much anymore. That post-apartheid fantasy could not and did not hold for long. The realities of the leftovers of one of the world’s most brutally efficient systems of state-sponsored oppression meant that it was not realistic to hope that South Africa  could turn into a ‘non-racial’ state overnight. Still, the country’s transition from apartheid to majority rule has been remarkably smooth and peaceful considering its history.

A growing but still small clique of blacks now drive the fanciest BMWs, live in formerly white-designated areas and generally enjoy the consumerist ‘good life.’ An even smaller clique have been able to position themselves to become instant millionaires from the country’s ‘black economic empowerment (BEE) program,’ a kind of lottery where you can peddle your influence to get shares in white enterprises.

No white person will now publicly  own up to having supported apartheid, and whites are generally happy and relieved that there were no reprisals. There is of course the grumbling about the fall of ‘standards’ as the national cake that previously mainly was shared amongst a small white population now must serve the whole country, but overall, South Africa continues to be ‘successful’ in the IMF/World Bank terms by which countries are typically judged.

Both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki have received high praise for not rocking the economic boat. Investors heap praise on Mbeki for being so business-friendly, unlike  that nasty fellow to the north, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

But there are apparently a lot of people in South Africa, including in Mbeki’s own ANC, who are not particularly impressed with the economic course the country has chartered since 1994. They would like to see a more radical, more interventionist role for the government in bringing about post-apartheid socio-economic transformation, including on issues such as land.

It is these influential power centers within the ANC who have forced Thabo Mbeki to agree to resign from the presidency a year before his second term was due to expire. They are the same power centers who are likely to make Jacob Zuma a shoo-in for president next year.

These latest political moves signal the end of the softly-softly period of post-apartheid transition. We are now going to see a dispensation in which business and investor-friendliness are not going to be necessarily regarded as positives. Of course Zuma has made the expected noises of assurance to the nervous. But as has been shown by the unprecedented, un-Africa like humiliation Mbeki has suffered in the last year at the hands of his party, Zuma is not likely to be all-powerful in the mould of Mugabe, or of African leaders in general. The ‘radicalization’ of policy under Zuma as president will be largely independent of what he says. Even if he were inclined to (and it is not clear that this would be his inclination) resist it, there is clearly strong pressure within the ANC for what are considered more ‘people-friendly’ policies.

Perhaps South Africa will find its own unique blend of satisfying the heightened pressure for faster post-apartheid change while remaining ‘business and investor’ friendly, but the two are generally considered to be opposite each other. This is likely to have profound effects on the economy as foreign investors and the still overwhelmingly white business sector hedge their bets until it is clear that South Africa is not ‘going the way of Zimbabwe.’

This phase of transition had to come, it was almost inevitable. For now, it looks like a good thing that it is coming after 16 years of the kind of classical economic ‘stability’ and ‘growth’ that outfits like the World Bank and the IMF find praiseworthy. Perhaps this drift to a more radical agenda now will be much less frightening to those who control the economy than would have been the case if it had instead been a  sudden, radical shift right from Mandela’s time at the helm in 1994.

But then again, there are those who look at Zimbabwe and say meaningful land reform and general ‘economic empowerment’ would have been more successful and less disruptive if they had been embarked on right from independence in 1980, rather than being postponed for almost 20 years. The argument is that the racists who couldn’t handle this would have left early on, and those who chose to stay would have had the long-term security of knowing that a thorny political issue had been dealt with once and for all. Whatever shock to the economy that would have been felt would have been expected at a time of overall change in both political and economic spheres, and after a spell the country would begin to work itself up and forward.

Of course we will never know if this is indeed how things would have played out. In any case, in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, it was clearly felt by the incoming majority-rule leaders that assuring local business, foreign investors and money lenders like the World Bank and the IMF that change would be slow and gradual was the best course of action to take. And indeed, the leaders were praised profusely for being ‘responsible,’ model Africans. Praise was heaped on them in Western capitals for not paying heed to any  amongst their ranks who wanted a radical new order in regards to land and the economy in general from the start.

Despite the classical economic parameters for which today’s South Africa is praised (low inflation, good FDI levels and reputation amongst investors, rising GDP, low budget deficits, etc, etc) many of its black citizens feel cheated out of ‘the good times.’ As anywhere else, many of the poorest hoped for overnight change in their fortunes. Told to be patient, they became less so as they witnessed the emergence of a small, well-connected, not-necessarily-productive black BMW/BEE brigade, flaunting their new-found wealth provocatively while they continued to be jobless, living in shacks with no running water.

It is still too early to know what kind of model of economic recovery Zimbabwe will undergo in the coming months and years after its recent political settlement. It is not hard to guess that there will be pressure on the coalition government to reverse some of the ’empowerment laws’ of recent years in order for aid and investment to flow. But it will be difficult or impossible to reverse Mugabe’s land reform programme, for many reasons. Former white farmers and many in the British power structures would be unhappy with this, but they would learn to live with this reality of Southern Africa’s continuing winds of post-colonial change. They don’t have much choice.

It would be an interesting Zimbabwe that began a slow recovery with foreign assistance, but with much of the economy in black hands as a result of Mugabe’s aggressive changes over the years. Some of them might be softened, but it would be a fundamentally changed Zimbabwe in which foreign investors were returning if much of the empowerment changes of recent years were largely left in place, such as the requirement for foreigners to give a certain minimum stake to locals.

Almost inevitably, agricultural recovery will largely consist of capacitating the black farmers who are allowed to keep their land, rather than handing it back to the previous white owners. It may take many years, but this could be the start of a new black-dominated commercial farming model.

What all this could mean is that Zimbabwe would be rising from its ashes at a time when South Africa is under-going its first experiments with really widespread and deep economic transformation. Such fundamental changes are hard to manage smoothly, so it may very well be that the country would begin to experience Zimbabwe-like difficulties, even if they never get anywhere near as bad as at its northern neighbour’s lowest point.

Zimbabwe might well be beginning to rise up from its long, inefficient, costly and painful process of post-colonial economic transformation at a time when South Africa is just beginning its own in earnest. That would create many interesting contrasts and ironies. One hopes that South Africa’s will not be as costly and painful as Zimbabwe’s, but the nature of this kind of change almost rules out a flawlessly smooth process.

Many aspects of it will be experimental with a lot of ‘honest’ mistakes made. But it could also be driven by  hotheads to whom a smooth process is far less important than scoring ideological points, settling political scores and just appearing romantically ‘radical.’ All these  have been among the elements of Zimbabwe’s experience, and their historical/political/racial/ideological drivers exist as much in South Africa as they did in Zimbabwe; perhaps even more so.

The tired, weak and dilapidated Zimbabwe of today looks like a ‘failed state,’ especially compared to its robust neighbour South Africa. But could it perhaps now be in a position to rise up from a difficult, not entirely well-managed period of wrenching economic transformation at the same time that South Africa under Zuma will just be entering its own era of an attempt at more meaningful change than has been experienced up to now?

If so, the Zimbabwe that is such a mess today could in a few years of well-managed recovery (obviously a very big ‘if’) look like an attractive model of radical transformation to be adopted and modified by impatient South African radicals un-impressed by the dry indices by which their country is today praised as being ‘successful.’ Those indices ignore the anger and cynicism in the townships, rural areas and the sectors of the country that have not yet benefited from the ‘rainbow nation’ benefits of the privileged few.

There are uncertain but interesting, hot times ahead in southern Africa.

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Why foreign firms tough it out in Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on July 13, 2008

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, said: “With Gordon Brown making such tough noises on Zimbabwe, it would be grossly hypocritical if a Labour peer had not ensured that the company on whose board he serves is not upholding both the spirit and the letter of government policy.

“Companies like Weir need to look closely at whether their investments assist Mugabe’s regime in any way, whether through providing much-needed foreign exchange or direct revenue to the government.

“…assists Mugabe in any way” is a very tough call. Obviously these companies pay taxes, for example. Does that fit the definition of “assisting Mugabe” or not? If it does, then the UK can only be consistent if it not only encourages its companies to pull out of Zimbabwe, but orders or squeezes them to do so. Yet it is not clear that this is the policy.

The limiting of action to ‘targeted sanctions’ on the rulers and the arms embargo that were at the heart of the UN sanctions resolution were partly justified on the desire not to hurt ordinary Zimbabweans. In evaluating the effects of a company’s withdrawal, how dos one gauge between the harm in throwing people out of work versus “assisting Mugabe?”

Robertson defended the company’s deal, saying: “Weir inherited Warman’s small office in Bulawayo which has insignificant business of £500,000 a year and the group has not invested in Zimbabwe since the acquisition. In no way could this give comfort to Robert Mugabe.”

And perhaps giving a hint into the real reasons UK policy on Zimbabwe will likely continue to clash with private business does, Weir’s chief executive Mark Selway has said he believes opportunities in Zimbabwe would be “quite significant” in the medium term.

South African firms are having as tough a time operating in Zimbabwe as all other companies, although there is obviously no pressure from their government over their investing there. Despite the tough environment, an AFP report headlined South African firms tough it out in Zimbabwe reiterates the point that they are holding on for perceived lucrative future gains.

They are resisting the urge to pull out of Zimbabwe despite an increasingly hostile business climate in the hope they will be in prime position to benefit from a future upturn.

Zimbabwe has become a nightmare for foreign businesses in recent years with the annual inflation rate now well into eight figures and the government trying to impose prices for goods and services.

But analysts say the dozens of companies — ranging from mining giants and banks to tourist operators — which are still clinging on are confident that things are bound to get better at some stage.

South Africa’s largest supermarket operator, ‘Pick n Pay,’ is also keeping its foot in the door through its 25 percent stake in Zimbabwe’s TM chain even though it has not received any dividends in the last four years.

While few are making much money in the current climate, Rossouw of Vector Securities and Derivatives says many businesses are prepared to absorb short-term losses and avoid leaving the door open for their rivals.

“By pulling out now, companies are likely to find it hard to establish themselves all over again once the situation stabilises,” he said. “They also fear opening up opportunities for the competition.”

This is not the kind of news that sits easy with people who like to see things in blackand white terms. But The Zimbabwe Crisis is much more complicated, difficult shades of grey than clear cut black and white, a factor that in the over-heated media onslaught now only occasionally sneaks through reports such as the two I have cited here.

It is hard to imagine that the picture of the country that is daily painted by papers like The Times is the same one that UK companies controlled by prominent members of the British establishment are reluctant to let go of. That speaks volumes about why Zimbabwe is so significant economically, politically, symbolically and otherwise, particularly to Britain.

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John Pilger speculates on reasons for Mbeki’s approach to Mugabe

Posted by CM on July 7, 2008

It is not easy these days to find calm voices on either or any side of “the Zimbabwe crisis.” Everyone seems to be competing to be louder and more emotional than the other.

Most people remain perplexed, and many outraged, by the perception of South African president Thabo Mbeki as soft on or sympathetic to Robert Mugabe. Whatever the reasons for it, it seems pretty clear to me that the reality of whatever Mbeki’s true feelings towards Mugabe is not going to change any time soon. So while I understand the fascination with the question, I’m not sure posing it repeatedly with anguish is very important to solving Zimbabwe‘s problems right now. But it is admittedly an interesting issue, if only as a debating point.

One of the most calm and lucid people to ponder the issue is writer John Pilger in his article ‘The silent war on Africa.’

Says Pilger, “That Mugabe is an appalling tyrant is beyond all doubt; yet there is a subtext to the overly enthusiastic condemnation of him by the “international community”, notably in Europe. “Unacceptable!” says British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having personally distinguished the campaign to morally rehabilitate the concept of empire.”

He points out the hypocrisy of Brown’s “highly selective condemnation of uppity despots like Mugabe while fawning before equally awful despots such as the Saudi Royal family?”

“If nothing else, Mugabe has provided retrospective justification for the glory days. And perhaps his greatest crime is having slipped the leash. After all, both despots and democrats in Africa provide an essential service, or as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, “the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged. [They are] quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Those who refuse the role of business agent have often paid with their lives: from Patrice Lumumba to Amilcar Cabral, Ken Saro-Wiwa to Chris Hani.”

Pilger then goes on to chronicle a litany of ways in which the Western world is fully implicit in Africa‘s many messes. Most readers will be familiar with the arguments, from the aforementioned hypocrisy in deciding who is a “good guy” in the world and who is not, to cynical trade terms and cynical development policies.

“None of this excuses the outrages of Mugabe. But look beyond the West’s whipping boy and mark the enduring outrage of an imperial past that remains (enaaged in) a war against Africa that Africans must win,” he writes.

Then he gets to the crux of his article.

“Why is Thabo Mbeki so soft on Mugabe? Is it simply loyalty to a past of “joint struggle”, as has been suggested?.”

Pilger describes how the hopes of the South African poor for a meaningful improvement in their post-apartheid, post-1994 situation have been betrayed under first Mandela and now under Mbeki.

He concludes, “When Robert Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second term as President of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe‘s dictator a standing ovation. The embarrassment and message for Mbeki was like a presence. “This was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe’s despotism,” noted the writer Bryan Rostron, “than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance.”

It was also a warning.”

Well, while I think Pilger’s conclusion is correct, there is also nothing earth-shakingly original about it. The vision of a happy-ever-after “rainbow nation” was too much of a hopeful fantasy given the water that has gone under the bridge in South Africa over the last few centuries. Perhaps even more so than Zimbabwe, the deep wounds of a very violent recent history could not just be swept under the carpet by having a smiling, well-liked president like Mandela for a few years.

There are already many signs of the bubbling to the surface of many long-simmering resentments, compounded by the disappointment of failed (and unrealistic) expectations of what could be quickly achieved in the post-apartheid era, that may eventually make South Africa not quite the miracle nation many hope it can continue to be.

Pilger builds and concludes his argument well, but for me has not delivered any dramatic new insights into exactly why Mbeki has seemed to remain so partial to Mugabe.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Power failures come to South Africa

Posted by CM on January 22, 2008

Unexpected power cuts have come to South African consumers of electricity, causing shock and great alarm in that country. The infrastructure has not been expanded fast enough to cope with the much greater demands on it of the last several years, so there is nothing really “sudden” about the current obvious manifestation of that mismatch.

People in most parts of Africa are familiar with these power cuts, with the severity of the problem ranging from country to country. Zimbabwe is fast-earning the dubious distinction of being one of Africa’s worst-affected countries despite infrastructure that has long been among the best on the continent.

A South African newspaper, The Sunday Independent, got a lot of attention for a tongue-in-cheek article by one Peta Thornycroft giving her advice, based on her Zimbabwean experience, on how South Africans could learn to cope with electricity failures. Here are excerpts from Ask a Zimbabwean for tips on power cuts:

Peta Thornycroft, our Zimbabwe correspondent, reports from Johannesburg on how to deal with power cuts…

What an incredible fuss you South Africans make about a few power cuts.

I couldn’t believe my ears. As far as I can remember, in this past week there were only about six cuts, and none longer than five hours.I do know about electricity cuts and what to do about them. I know about boilers, paraffin fridges, wicks and lighting the lamps by pumping them hard at 5.30pm.

Please, South African householders, unless you live on more than an acre, don’t get a generator. There will be murder … if home owners on tiny bits of land all have generators farting rhythmically through long days and dark nights.

Even small generators use 1 litre of diesel per hour. And they get stolen easily unless cemented in and you need monster ones to do fridges and stoves.

You must conserve power. You have a chance to do this because you still do have commerce and industry. We lost our industry over the past few years, so that sector can’t really help much.We have more or less given up mining. Except, except, and think about this: your mining houses can buy power with foreign currency directly from Cahora Bassa and pay in US dollars, as they are doing in Zimbabwe now. It is a bit more expensive than Eskom, but it keeps the platinum pouring out.

We also don’t have any robots left in our streets, and little traffic, so we don’t have the kind of traffic jams I saw in Jo’burg during a power cut.

We don’t kill each other in fuel queues, and we don’t have road rage as our roads are mostly gone. Nor do we kill each other in banks, even when there is no money there, or in supermarkets. Well, only very, very occasionally, and only once, over sugar and that was in Bulawayo, which is very far from town.

So bear up, improvise and go get the solar, inverter, battery alternatives, and gas. And you will all survive until you have enough new power sources within eight years, so I hear, and you are not going to be nearly as short of foreign currency as Zim, so can import some power.

But Zimbabwe will recover sooner than South Africa, because our population is in Hillbrow.

An interesting mix of the humorous, the factually humorous and the sad lamenting of decline. On that level it is an engaging read that worried South Africans will have found interesting and weary Zimbabweans will identify with.

There is also a mocking level to the article which leaves a vaguely bad taste in the mouth.

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