Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘Zimbabwe economy’

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.

Posted in business, Economy, People | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Economy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Cholera crisis changes political dynamics

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008

The cholera epidemic sweeping Zimbabwe is mainly a humanitarian tragedy. But it also will have lasting effects on the country’s messy political situation.

It has given Robert Mugabe’s many detractors a more graphic reason to wind up their condemnation of him. International calls for his removal have  reached a crescendo in the last few days, with even prominent foreign religious leaders calling for his forced removal.

While Mugabe has been masterful at deflaying criticism over stolen elections and violence against his supporters by framing them all in an anti-imperialist cloak, that is not so easy to do with the cholera crisis. People dying of cholera cannot be accused of doing it because they are stooges of a Britain bent on re-colonising Zimbabwe!

Some of the muted-ness of the criticism of Mugabe, in Africa in particular, is because of the strong underlying current of suspicion of the opposition MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He is a brave man, but one who in recent times has repeatedly blundered by appearing to confirm suspicions that he and his party have become a completely compromised ‘project’ of Western interests with a dishonorable record in Zimbabwe in particular, and in Africa in general. Fairly or unfairly, many have let Mugabe off the hook for his many transgressions of the rights of Zimbabweans on the basis that his main opponent is such a lacklustre character.

But none of this kind of thinking can apply to the cholera epidemic. The horror of ordinary people dying from cholera in a recently highly functional country like Zimbabwe provides some of the most effective anti-Mugabe ammunition for his many detractors in many years. Even those whose ‘interest’ in Zimbabwe is entirely cynical and for ends having nothing to do with the welfare of Zimbabweans have found a particularly effective bandwagon on which to ride in the long fight to depose the widely hated Mugabe.

So Mugabe is faced with a problem that he can not brush away with this standard accusations against all who oppose him. Those afflicted by cholera are ordinary Zimbabweans whose political affiliation has nothing to do with their contracting what should be an easily preventable disease.

Blaming sanctions for the government’s inability to buy water-treatment chemicals sounds absurd. The amounts mentioned in public reports as being needed are not in the millions of US dollars, but in the hundreds of thousands. The Mugabe government merely confirms the accusations of it being totally un-concerned about the welfare of Zimbabweans when it makes those amounts of money available for things like the globe-trotting of Mugabe and his always large entourage, but then claims to not be able to afford basic chemicals essential for public health.

For these and many more reasons, politically things are unlikely to go back to pre-cholera ‘normal.’

Mugabe is dramatically more cornered, isolated and reviled than he was just a few weeks ago. This is saying a lot because particularly in the West, and especially in Britain, he has already long been portrayed as a horned devil, sometimes to absurd extents. But even in Africa, the discomfort level with him has risen dramatically, with increasingly loud critical statements coming from politicians in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya. Utterly predictably, the Mugabe government has dismissed a lot of these criticisms as being from leaders as Western-compromised as Tsvangirai, although the response to South African criticism is a lot more careful.

However the Mugabe government interprets the growing African criticism of the escalating crisis that Zimbabwe has become, the fact is that Mugabe’s international circle is growing ever smaller. Without the support of even his neighbours, his room to even keep his immediate band of supporters becomes more restricted, and whatever remains of his Africanist prestige severely dented.

Whether the MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing agreement was dead before the cholera outbreak or not, it virtually is now. The Mugabe side’s response may well be that they didn’t want to share power with the MDC anyway, and were only willing to consider it if it guaranteed relief from all the international pressures, particularly the cutting off of foreign money. The dramatically increased international criticism since the cholera epidemic began is not likely to make the Mugabe government more inclined to share power with the MDC. Instead they are likely to retreat further into their bunker and say “to hell with the MDC.”

It would not be surprising if the increased international pressure on the Mugabe government caused it to tip over eventually. But it is far from clear that this would necessarily mean the MDC would just walk into government. And if they did under those circumstances, they would be beginning with a terrible millstone on their necks: as indeed the government that was installed in office by Western pressure. This would obviate much of their significant support in Zimbabwe, even if perhaps the initial reaction might just be overwhelming relief at the exit of the Mugabe government.

Even if Mugabe did now agree to whatever differences are holding up an MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing deal from being effected, would it be wise for the MDC to co-govern with ZANU-PF at this point? There might well be far more negatives than positives for them as a party from going to bed with ZANU-PF, unless the MDC had a clear upper hand in the balance of power, which ZANU-PF is not likely to concede.

Posted in General | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

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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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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Who is minding Zimbabwe’s agriculture?

Posted by CM on July 13, 2008

by Chido Makunike

One of the most alarming things about the total pre-occupation on maneuvering for power of Zimbabwe’s political parties is the continuing neglect of of the country’s agriculture.

This is dangerous not only because of the worsening hunger, but of the generally agreed on idea that a dramatic improvement in agricultural production is still the most realistic means of stemming the economic slide and eventually helping to reverse it. If serious enough attention were paid to agriculture to just get the country to feed itself, that would be an important achievement with wide-ranging benefits for the rest of the economy.

The question of what to do about land reform is a long-term issue. The question of who is “running” the country’s agriculture is posed here in the immediate term, the planting season that will begin this coming October/November. It is already getting late for that season to not have plans in place for seed, fertilizer, fuel, equipment and so forth. Yet it is hard to imagine that in the current uncertainty over everything anything is being seriously done in this regard.

The large scale commercial farming model has largely been destroyed and there is no prospect of that situating turning around tomorrow even if the political parties pulled a miraculous rabbit out of the hat of their negotiations. But it must be remembered that even at the height of commercial farming as practiced by large scale white farmers, it was small scale farmers who produced most of the nation’s maize, which is the main food security crop in Zimbabwe. The small grains like sorghum and barley have also been grown mostly by small scale farmers, as have most vegetables for local consumption.

So while reviving commercial agriculture is important for supplying industry many raw materials and for export, achieving food security does not necessarily depend on settling the difficult question of what to do about the large scale commercial agriculture model that has been mostly dismantled within the last 10 years. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that diligently enabling the small scale producers with the appropriate inputs, incentives and sense of security could in one season have a dramatic effect on the country’s food security situation.

Year after year there have been the announcement of plans to ensure all inputs were in place for the country’s main cropping season. And year after year those plans turned out to have been much less than announced, or to have floundered for one of many reasons to do with the economy’s many inter-linking crises.

One of the things that is so puzzling about the Mugabe government’s failure to seriously tackle this issue is that it would be the most effective way of justifying a land redistribution exercise that has been largely judged to be a colossal failure, and to be characterised by cynical cronyism.

Yet there is no sign that there is any re-doubled commitment to addressing the problems of agriculture.

Zim agriculture now a disgrace in the Financial Gazette makes sad reading:

When the (tobacco auction) floors opened for sales in May this year, farmers almost staged an ugly riot over poor prices and there was no activity for days. Since then, after the sales resumed and stopped only to restart again, just over 26 million kilogrammes have been delivered at the country’s three auction floors. Overall, a mere 75 million kg are expected from farmers by the close of sales later this year compared to a seasonal flow of well over 200 million kg before the year 2000.

“Right now it’s dark. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Jabulani Gwaringa, the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union director, trying to forecast the country’s grim agricultural future. But he believes that in terms of food security Zimbabwe can recover in a single season if the farmers, especially those in communal and A1 resettlement areas make preparations in time, with timely access to inputs, because they have since independence in 1980, supplied more than 90 percent of the staple maize to the Grain Marketing Board.

The factors required to make this happen again are not completely independent of the country’s present crisis. For instance, hyper-inflation, fuel shortages and the overall sense of fear and uncertainty would affect the best laid production plans in many ways. But it is also true that a more serious commitment to addressing the production constraints would likely result in dramatic gains in a single good rain season.

Besides agriculture being crucial to Zimbabwe’s food security, farming should bring good returns for all the hard work farmers put into it , be they communal or commercial. Many communal, small scale resettlement and commercial farmers have already sold this year’s produce and spent the cash on items that have no bearing on the coming season while hyperinflation is fast corroding the cash still in hand.

It is unfortunate that for the nation’s many eager farmers, agriculture is fast becoming a futile enterprise. At the tobacco auction floors farmers are paid in part by cheque plus $200 billion in cash. Cashing their multi-trillion-dollar cheques is a living nightmare.

“There are some retail shops that are very keen to accept our cheques, but they double the price of any item we buy. It’s a take it or leave it game. They say by the time our cheques mature they will have devalued due to inflation,” said a farmer from Guruve who chose to remain anonymous.

“We are buying useless items that don’t help us to continue farming just to convert our cheques into cash. I would not mind the retailers doubling the price if they were selling me fertiliser because it is a critical ingredient in tobacco farming. But if you go around, there is no fertiliser and our money is losing value every minute,” he lamented.

In February this year, the government distributed, among other things, hundreds of tractors, ploughs; thousands of animal-drawn scotch carts, harrows, grinding mills, generators, planters and cultivators; as well as combine harvesters and diesel.

While these efforts to revive the ailing sector are commendable, some farmers have accused the government of somewhat misplacing its priorities. “If the government imported and supplied the local fertiliser manufacturing industry with all the critical inputs such as potash required for fertiliser manufacturing, would it not be cheaper and make more economic sense than importing the fertiliser?” asked one industry expert who declined to be named.

As commendable as the move to promote greater efficiency and productivity through mechanization was,  there are several factors that mean that even those well-intentioned efforts could not on their own cause a dramatic turn around in the country’s agricultural fortunes, and they didn’t.

Tractors and other such equipment are mainly meant for the benefit of the very few present and aspiring medium to large scale farmers. The problem is that in the present climate, there are many other things working against the success of these farmers: fuel is hard to come by, hyperinflation makes operating difficult at every level, they need credit which is hard to get, labour is a problem because wages are not worth the effort in the hyper-inflationary environment, and so forth. Tractors and other such equipment are not the most important limiting factor to production. Therefore, it is possible to have them and still not see big productivity gains, because the real, most significant current constraints to production are still in place and largely unaffected by whether a farmer has a tractor or not.

For now, the tractors would be much more useful if they were used to till for large groups of small scale farmers than they are in the hands of individual medium to large scale farmers who cannot presently use them optimally even if they are very committed. The present mess in the country simply means that for many reasons, the best hope of production gains in agriculture rests with supporting the small scale farmers, who do not have the crippling costs and many other burdens of large scale farmers.

Small scale farmers often rely on family labour, they often use their own rather than commercial seed, they have small enough holdings that for some crops they could rely on manure and compost for fertility enhancement, rather than expensive and hard to get fertilizer. They use inefficient, back-breaking hand cultivation, but in the present climate where a farmer with a tractor can’t get fuel for it, obviously the small scale farmer can get on with business in a way the other farmer cannot.

Various ways of helping the small scale farmer on whom the nearest prospect of food security rests include favorable overall policies and market-driven prices (or the total lifting of crop price controls to spur production, although this is controversial because of the effects on the consumer. But in Zimbabwe, shortages caused by depressed production have shot prices sky-high anyway. So we have shortages and high prices, hardly an ideal situation for the consumer.)

There are many other things one would have on a wish list for aiding small scale farmers, such as affordable transport to market, better storage facilities, etc. But these and many others are not realistic in the current environment. Yet even with minimum assistance, or even just minimum interference in the things that make small scale farmers want to work hard to produce, yields of many crops would boom, with positive effects on food security, inflation and an overall revival of confidence in the country’s future by its own people.

Continues the FinGaz article, “Agriculture used to generate a lot of foreign currency, but other sectors such as mining and tourism propped it up too. So, is the government properly channelling the little available foreign currency to the key areas that need a little investment to make them tick again? There might be other impediments, but internal co-ordination is lacking. Proper organisation is lacking and mired in too much bureaucracy,” the agricultural expert said.

He cited the involvement of the military, under the Operation Maguta programme, as being absolutely unnecessary since there are structures in place such as the Agricultural Extension Services and farmer organisations that can perform better if empowered.

“A farmer will think twice before entering an army barracks to collect seed or fertiliser. Why doesn’t the government give these responsibilities to those who have agriculture at heart? “Some politicians take advantage of this disorganisation. They delay the distribution of inputs to farmers until the people are desperate, just to gain political mileage.”

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, extricating agricultural issues from politics at present is impossible, as the two have become wedded in unholy matrimony that has left millions on the verge of starvation.

It is ironic and tragic that the ‘politics’ that were said to guarantee wider ’empowerment’ and greater possibilities for food security and wealth creation have done the exact opposite.

Posted in Agriculture, Economy | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Sanctions won’t budge Mugabe

Posted by CM on July 9, 2008

Everybody in the world is a Zimbabwe expert these days, and it is very difficult to keep up with all the passionate expertise pouring out of about how to end The Zimbabwe Crisis.

It is almost amusing to observe so many people say, “The solution is obvious, why doesn’t everybody else just listen to me.” Except the inexorable escalation of The Crisis suggests there is no easy solution, or if there is one, no one has been able to find how to implement it.

But the inevitable has happened, and UK prime minister Gordon Brown & Co. have been pushing hard from their capitals, from the UN and from the G8 summit in Japan for formal sanctions to be imposed on the Mugabe government. “Inevitable” not because of the shameful way Mugabe has chosen to claim another five year mandate or because of the dramatic deterioration of the overall situation in Zimbabwe. There is much worse electoral tomfoolery, violence and economic deprivation taking place elsewhere in the world today, but that Brown and friends are not “deeply concerned about.”

I figure Mugabe’s goose was cooked as far as Brown was concerned when somewhere in between the two recent elections he dismissed Brown’s rantings about events in Zimbabwe with something to the effect that he (Brown) was just “one tiny little dot in the world.” I think Brown is determined to not let Mugabe get away with the kinds of insults he hurled at his predecessor Tony Blair for years.

I suspect Mugabe’s harsh, undiplomatic, unrelenting needling of Brown and his government (and of course Mugabe’s brazen, cocky refusal to behave like a good African boy) are a bigger factor in their outrage than is the fact ofMugabe being a ruthless and unfeeling despot,  or the violence or economic conditions in Zimbabwe.

But nevertheless, there can be little doubt that we will now be moving to the era of formal, declared sanctions of some sort. Even if Security Council members China or Russia veto a sanctions call at the level of that body, that will not deter Britain and friends from individually and collectively seeking to economically strangulate Mugabe.

For all the talk about economic sanctions being increased but still limited mainly to a handful of targeted officials, this is not realistic. The ‘targeted sanctions’ against members of the ruling elite that have existed have not made one bit of difference. Restricting their travel to Western countries and other such gestures may have caused them some minor inconvenience but little else. Their children are in schools and universities all over the Western world, names are easy to change, money can be moved around, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if finding ways around those kinds of sanctions has become a sort of game for members of the ruling elite, who Mugabe has been very careful to take good care of, and who lead lives in Harare that many well to do Westerners would envy.

The other rationale for sanctions, that increased suffering will force the populace to then put pressure against their rulers, will not work in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is proud to resist popular domestic pressure as much as he resists external pressure. And Zimbabweans do not need reminding how quick and eager Mugabe’s various armed forces have been over the years to put down even mild, peacefully expressed dissent with extreme, crushing brutality. For the time being, the conditions militate even more against any kind of popular uprising than ever before, and sanctions are unlikely to change that.

So tightening up the ‘targeted sanctions’ a few notches won’t make any difference to Mugabe’s behaviour.

On more broad terms, Zimbabwe has not been an attractive place to business in or with for years. That hostile investing, lending and general business environment is perhaps a much bigger reason for it having being a virtual business and economic Siberia for several years. But even the suffering and deprivation of that sort of isolation have not brought Mugabe’s government anywhere near to being on its knees.

Would a more general trade and economic embargo do it? I don’t quite follow the logic. If it is countries and companies taking what they consider a moral stand by refusing to do business with a Mugabe-led Zimbabwe on the grounds that this gives him a lifeline to continue tormenting the populace,  it is obviously their right to be consistent with their “conscience,” if you can call it that. I put the word in inverted commas because of the inconsistency and selectivity with which such moralistic outrage is expressed in the world today by the likes of Brown and friends.

Bloomberg economic news agency had a thoughtful article about this entitled Trade Embargoes for Zimbabwe Won’t Fix Anything, by columnist Matthew Lynn.

Writes Lynn, “Now, there is pressure on companies to end commercial ties with Zimbabwe. Tesco Plc, the U.K.’s largest food retailer, has said it will stop buying food from Zimbabwe’s farms. Germany’s Giesecke & Devrient GmbH won’t print the African nation’s banknotes anymore. Expect to see more enterprises close their Zimbabwean units or end contracts with its remaining businesses.

The trouble is, none of that will do any more than ease European consciences. If ruining the economy made any difference to Mugabe, he would have been toppled from power years ago.”

Exactly. Once having cushioned themselves, Mugabe and his inner circle couldn’t give a hoot if the country continues to implode around them.

Continues Lynn, “The truth is, forcing companies to get out of Zimbabwe is more about pandering to European public opinion than making any difference to the long-suffering Zimbabwean people. It is the equivalent of wearing a “Make Poverty History” wristband: a gesture of support that involves little personal sacrifice, and won’t change anything.”

Sadly true.

Lynn’s sober analysis will enrage those who want to be seen to be “doing something,” anything. It is fine when such people make it clear that their main motivation is to vent and display righteous indignation. That is better than calling for these kinds of “radical” measures on the pretense that they will hasten Mugabe’s departure or otherwise more quickly bring an end to Zimbabweans’ suffering.

“Tesco doesn’t want to be accused of propping up Mugabe’s regime when it can easily buy supplies from somewhere else. Companies of the size of Shell or Barclays aren’t going to miss their Zimbabwean units. With the country close to bankruptcy, it is hardly the most attractive place to do business right now. It certainly isn’t worth making yourself unpopular with your main customers to stay in the country.”

“Disinvestment can’t do much more damage to an economy that has already collapsed. Poverty and unemployment never triggered Mugabe’s downfall and are unlikely to in the future.

Economic sanctions have a poor record of bringing about change. They didn’t force Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and they haven’t forced the collapse of North Korea’s communist government. All they have done is add to the misery of the people. It is protest politics, designed to salve consciences, rather than bring about real change.”

“In fairness, sanctions may have contributed to ending apartheid in South Africa. But that was a rich, trading economy. There was a lot to lose by being cut off from the developed world. Zimbabwe has almost nothing to lose. It is already a subsistence economy, where money has long since lost any meaning.”

This very sober analysis still leaves us with the question, what then can be done by those who are genuinely alarmed at the situation in Zimbabwe? It is entirely justified for such people to not be content to simply fold their hands and let Mugabe continue rampaging as he wishes.

Lynn is on shakier ground in suggesting what companies could be doing instead, but my main point of interest are in his cogent points about how as far as dislodging  Mugabe is concerned, all the tough sanctions talk from Brown & Co. is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Formal sanctions will likely significantly increase the suffering Zimbabweans are experiencing, but they will not hasten the demise of the regime of Mugabe.

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What the African experience should teach us about economic ‘transformation’

Posted by CM on January 8, 2008

This article was featured on South Africa’s Moneyweb almost a year ago now, but it is timeless:

James Myburgh
07 March 2007

In Business Day Professor Sipho Seepe began an article on Black Economic Empowerment with the claim that: Postcolonial experience indicates that political transformation is meaningless unless it is underpinned by economic transformation.” One does rather wonder which particular African country’s experience Seepe was thinking of when he made this peculiar observation:

Was it, for instance, Tanzania where Julius Nyerere transformed the economy by nationalising the whole thing in 1967?

Or was it Kenya where the economy was gradually transformed, from 1967 onwards, by slowly squeezing the Asian (Indian) population out of the economy (and the country) through the application of restrictive trade-licensing and citizenship laws?

Was it Uganda where Idi Amin suddenly transformed the economy through the simple expedient of expelling the entire Asian population? In August 1972 Amin simply announced that they all had to leave the country within ninety days. This action had been precipitated by a dream, he said, “that the Asian problem was becoming extremely explosive and that God was directing me to act immediately to save the situation.”

Was it Zambia where Kenneth Kaunda’s “Zambian Economic Revolution” saw the takeover of smaller outsider-owned firms and businesses in 1968, the nationalization of fifty-one percent of the big mining companies in 1969, and the expropriation of the other forty-nine percent in 1973?

Was it Zaire where Mobutu transformed the economy in 1973 by ‘Zaireanising’ it? According to Michela Wrong he simply declared that all “foreign-owned farms, plantations, commercial enterprises – mostly in the hands of Portuguese, Greek, Italian and Pakistani traders – should be turned over ‘to sons of the country’.” This was followed by the confiscation of largely Belgian-controlled industrial sector.

Or was it Zimbabwe where the economy was finally transformed through the dispossession of the (largely white) commercial farming class?

(One of the few countries in post-colonial Africa which did not try and ‘transform’ its economy, but grew and nurtured it instead, was Botswana.)

“Experience” is defined by the Shorter /Oxford English Dictionary/ as “the observation of facts or events, considered as the source of knowledge.” And, if the facts and events of the last fifty years indicate anything, it is that the pursuit of complete economic ‘transformation’ has brought severe decline to the African continent.

It is worth remembering that many post-colonial African countries were doing pretty well, kind of like South Africa is doing today, up until the point at which expropriation took effect. As Wrong writes of Zaire: “Until Zaireanisation, the economy had grown by an average of 7 per cent a year. Look at a graph of just about any indicator and there, in 1974, is the sharp peak, followed by a long, slow, unstoppable swoop that continues to this day… Before Zaireanisation, corruption, while a problem, had seemed to observers on a par with that witnessed in many other emerging African states. But in the generalised climate of impunity created by this botched economic experiment, sleaze…was about to become the most striking characteristic of Zairean society.”

The reasons why these acts have been so uniformly destructive to Africa were set out by the economist P.T. Bauer a couple of decades ago. Bauer’s argument, as summarised by Amartya Sen, was that the extensive politicization brought about by this kind of large-scale redistribution “diverts people’s energies and ambitions from productive economic activity to politics and public administration. It also encourages attempts to benefit from politically-organised redistribution, or to escape its consequences. An even more evident result is that these policies systematically transfer resources from people who are economically productive to others who are less so.”

This kind of crude redistribution also requires the rulers to abrogate for themselves extensive coercive powers, and to dilute constraints on their actions such as property rights and the rule of law. Thus, although the original intention is to create a more equal society, the actual effect is to exacerbate the “inequality of power between rulers and subjects.”

The article speaks so eloquently to the current Zimbabwe situation that it really needs no commentary.

Posted in Economy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

On the passing of Ian Smith and Africa’s post-independence challenges

Posted by CM on November 25, 2007

Not at all surprisingly, a central theme of the many features on Ian Smith’s death has been comparisons between his time in power and the situation today under Robert Mugabe.

A New York Times report said, “Zimbabwe’s troubles only fed Mr. Smith’s unwavering white supremacist views, his unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.”

Black Africans, Mr. Smith said, were not ready for self-government. He and his followers justified their repression by saying they were “resisting the chaos” of newly formed black nations.No African rule in my lifetime,” he said. “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”

Mr. Smith never apologized for leading the country into war and never came to terms with what he depicted as inevitable decline under black majority rule. “We gave Rhodesia 15 wonderful years extra.” he said in 1983. If he had not declared unilateral independence in 1965, he said, “then this sort of scene would have come earlier.”

Indeed, as Zimbabwe slid into corruption and decline under Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Smith sensed events had vindicated his refusal to dilute white dominance. “There are millions of black people who say things were better when I was in control,” he said in 2004. “I have challenged Mugabe to walk down the street with me and see who has most support. I have much better relations with black people than he does.”

And on Altermedia, which features “World wide news for people of European descent,” there is Zimbabwe: Racist whites wanted back in charge.


…many ordinary black Zimbabweans wish that they could get back the white racist government that oppressed them in the 1970’s. “Life was easier then, and at least you could get food and a job,” said Solomon Dube.

Makupila Muzamba said that hunger today is worse than ever before in his seven decades or so, and said: “I want the white man’s government to come back. … Even if whites were oppressing us, we could get jobs and things were cheap compared to today.”

Firstly, it is an indication of how what is considered politically correct has so radically changed in recent years that the New York Times can lead a story with a reference to Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

There was a time when this would have been placed in a different, more subtle context than to appear to almost give open credence to such revisionism. That it is no longer considered controversial to start a story with a quote that will get lots of people upset is a sign of the attitudes emanating from the public and not so public discussions taking place about the general state of Africa.

On one hand this shows a welcome new open-ness about honestly tackling the issue of why Africa continues to fail to work for the general benefit of its people. On the other hand, an unspoken/unwritten but very much lurking addition to the line used by the Times’ summation of Smith’s philosophy about African majority rule is the implication that Africa “has not worked” principally because whites are no longer in charge.

Most people have their minds already made up about this thorny question. To those who think like Smith, it is obvious: Africa “does not work” because Africans now run the show! Nor is this thinking limited to African-despising racists, as quotes attributed to some Zimbabweans in despair about the country’s present condition show.

On the other side are the many who would give a litany of all the reasons they attribute to Africa “not working”: colonialism and its lingering effects, previous and present exploitation and so on. They rail in outrage at Smith’s bold assertion, now increasingly implied in many other circles, that the central problem is a basic deficiency in African ability and character.

Whatever one’s opinion, this has become a hot discussion topic because Africa has not lived up to the high hopes of majority rule. Those hopes, the time span given to them and what was required to bring them to fruition may have been unrealistic, but they are still the parameters by which African and non-African alike judge the continent’s performance in the post-independence era.

The doubts about basic African ability expressed by the likes of Smith, and by some Africans disillusioned with the post-independence era, will not go away until Africa steps up to the plate by providing its own models of successful countries. No amount of justification about the reasons for Africa’s state will do as much, or as effectively, to counter the thinking expressed by Smith than having many such models of African success.

This success need not be defined by Smith’s idea of workability. If there was broad agreement that Zimbabwe was clearly working today for the benefit of the majority of its people, rather than a small elite, it would not matter if it resembled or met the “standards” of Rhodesia. But what is more important and tragic is that by most indices of well-being, Zimbabwe is not functioning to the benefit of the ordinary people by what should be its own standards, let alone those of bygone Rhodesia.

The likes of Smith, as well as those who bitterly oppose his views, tend to focus on the visceral racial elements that excite a lot of emotion on all sides, but contribute nothing to solving Africa’s very real problems.

In examining “what has gone wrong,” particularly in a country with the promise of Zimbabwe, the fault is usually put on factors such as corruption and mismanagement, with those of Smith’s ilk going on to claim that these qualities are endemic to African character, and that therefore post-majority rule decline is inevitable. More recently the reasons for the country’s failure to thrive have been placed on everything from occasional drought to the current official mantra, “illegal Western sanctions.”

What is not discussed often enough is whether the many examples of post – majority rule decline were not also largely because the models that most African governments have tried to follow were simply inappropriate, and needed more and better kinds of modification than any country has so far successfully done. Trying to answer this question must surely be part of Africa’s learning from mistakes to try to find new ways forward.

Rhodesian society and economy were not just a result of the technocratic application of laws, technologies, rules and procedures to be merely copied by a new set of post-independence administrators. These were in turn merely the manifestations of a Western-based, Rhodesian-modified cultural framework built up over decades. That cultural framework is a whole mix of group influences that go much deeper than can be reduced to its elements, such as “how to run Rhodesian farming or industry.” So even if the desire had been to essentially continue “Rhodesia” under the name of Zimbabwe, with just white to black personnel changes, it could not have simply been a matter of things working as before by applying those same laws, technologies, rules and procedures. Just the fact that the personnel applying them came from a different social and cultural orientation would have made the result different, even if many other things ostensibly remained the same.

In the current realm of how the world is dominantly structured, there are many basic rules of how to successfully run a country that no nation can avoid mastering. But we have also seen that successful emerging countries are those that are able to find the right mix between learning and adhering to what have become the “rules” of the dominant world economic paradigm, and modifying them to their particular situations.

In Zimbabwe, and arguably in much of Africa, our early post-majority pride was not in finding our own successful middle ground between these “universal” rules and our unique situations, but in being seen to be copying the dominant reigning system “as is.” According to this model, the success of Zimbabwe was to be judged by how well we simply copied and continued Rhodesian systems of administration, technology, farming or whatever, but particularly of consumption. To people like Smith, as well as to many Africans in the early excitement of independence, this was a large part of what “maintaining standards” was all about.

But there was no reason to expect that “standards” that served a tiny, wealthy minority steeped in a Rhodesian-modified Western cultural framework would work un-adulterated in an African, non-Western social, cultural and political framework that was also required to serve a much larger group of not so wealthy people.

So there was the basic problem of running a new country with a once successful but no longer workable model. To that was added the problems of political cynicism, repression, corruption and all the others that have brought Zimbabwe to its present pass. But even if we were somehow able to miraculously get rid of these maladies today, we would still be faced with the fundamental issue of coming up with a model of successfully running Zimbabwe’s affairs that could not simply be a copy of the one that served Rhodesia’s peculiarities so well.

While a person like Ian Smith could not be expected to spend any time thinking about this, having already dismissed Africans as incapable of self-rule anyway, it is strange that the new African nations themselves paid scant attention to such a critical issue. The tragic result was that for many of the rulers, living in the presidential palace, being ferried to and fro in expensive cars and even the power to rigorously enforce colonial-era symbolisms were sufficient signs of “independence” than whether the country’s systems were benefiting the people or not. It was to put more emphasis on the forms of nationhood, and often embarrassingly inappropriate ones, than on the substance of whether the nation was structured to serve the people’s needs.

Africa’s inability to even seriously pose this question to itself may be a greater failing of the post-independence era than the usually focused-on issues of why pre-independence “standards” have not been maintained. All the effort at initially trying to run Zimbabwe exactly on a once-successful, but no longer applicable Rhodesian model meant little effort beyond the cosmetic was put into conceiving of a fundamentally new model.

As a result, the “standards” that were focused on were the relatively easy ones of consumption patterns. “Doing well” was according to the model of how many more elite Africans had access to the “European lifestyle” in terms of the houses they lived in, the cars they drove, the work perks they enjoyed and so forth.

No attention was paid to whether this could work for Zimbabwe, and at what eventual cost, and whether this shift in the composition of the elite represented enough of a difference to justify what the whole struggle for a new society had been really about. Little attention was paid to the less glamorous, more important concomitant elements of increasing overall national production in order to, for a time, continue to fund an economic model that was simply inherently unsustainable in many ways.

Everybody now blames Zimbabwe’s present state on Mugabe’s populist, self-preserving method of land reform. But even without it, there had to be an eventual crash, perhaps many years later than Mugabe brought on, because of how Zimbabwe largely continued to try to operate on the old Rhodesian model. It might have worked “well” in its time and for its stated narrow Rhodesian purpose (Smith’s clear cut, “The white man is master of Rhodesia and he intends to keep it.”), but it could not work for long without radical modification in Zimbabwe. The new nation was an environment of vastly increased expectations from a much larger number of participants expectant of the “good life” of increased consumerism, but on a stagnant or declining production base.

But “production base” goes far beyond the dry, technical issues that the term may imply. It is not enough for a national unit to merely adhere to basic global rules of production like efficiency, yield, competitiveness, good infrastructure, effective bureaucratic organization and so on. It must do all these things while taking into account its own peculiarities, and their positive or negative influences. Without doing so, then an adopted system of organization that might work very well somewhere else, or in the same place under different conditions, can flop miserably.

By “new model” I do not mean to imply re-inventing the wheel, rejecting Rhodesia’s functionalisms or romanticising pre-colonialism African customs. I simply mean looking for a fresh template of how to run the country that took into account old and new, different and more comprehensive concerns than was necessary in a Rhodesian dispensation that was mainly intended to serve a tiny group. This would have meant a mix of elements that would have very much included the many lessons and successes of Rhodesia, but thoughtfully incorporated in a new social, cultural and political reality. Only then could they have had a chance to work in the in many ways vastly different-from-Rhodesia landscape of Zimbabwe.

This unavoidable, still necessary task is a difficult process partly because it involves moulding the new out of old elements that do not necessarily easily or comfortably fit together. It involves some trial and error. When it doesn’t work very well, it means being ridiculed for trying something new in rejection of an older tried and tested model, even if that model simply could no longer work unchanged in the new situation.

Looked at from this view, the on-going problem with economic transformation in Zimbabwe is not so much the discarding of an old system whose continued existence threatened future stability. The flaw has been to throw out the old without any real holistic vision of a new system. The picture that has emerged is one of haphazard, day to day national management by crisis.

Africa simply has no choice but overcome these difficult, uncomfortable challenges and to create systems that work for it. This is necessary primarily for the benefit and future stability of Africa, but it will also be the only really effective argument against Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

All the scholarly articles about why Smith is wrong, racist and should have been hung long ago are largely a waste of effort in countering his assertions as long as Africa has so few examples of national organizational models that serve its people well, even if they are quite different from any other models. But the picture now is of a continent that does not effect imported or colonially inherited models well, and has all sorts of reasons for why not, but then also fails to come up with its own successful models, again with a whole litany of excuses for why not.

Actually Mugabe, even if for cynical self-serving reasons, has shown unusual boldness for an African leader in daring to question and upset the old colonial system, and much of the thinking that underpins it. But he has then confused the issue by seeking to simply and ineffectively re-apply most of the elements of the old system to new beneficiaries, rather than to present something well thought out and essentially new! The result has been a throwing out of many of the lingering positives of the Rhodesian system of doing things, but without a better, or even merely minimally functioning, Zimbabwean system in its place.

The current mess could be seen as a golden opportunity to conceive and effect a new system, but too many things have gone too horribly wrong at the same time for that to happen in the short term. And it would need a completely different type of thinking by the group at the helm of the country than is likely among the stuck, unimaginative, panicked and tired old ruling team in place now. Whatever gifts they may have, it is not apparent that they would even be interested in the kind of contemplative work required to conceive a fresh model of a successful Zimbabwe. Threatening, beating, jailing and impoverishing people they may be proven masters at, but deliberately planned nation-building does not appear to be their strong point.

Large parts of Asia continue to seemingly be very effective at finding blends of indigenous /imported, old/new, pre/post-colonial systems to deal with challenges of today in a way few, if any, African countries have put effort into doing.

The effects of the failure to deliberately think about these issues may be most starkly in display in Zimbabwe because of how Mugabe has seen it fit to turn everything upside down with no cohesive alternative plan in place. But it is an Africa-wide phenomenon, particularly evident in countries under-going the most recent and rapid transformation.

For example, in both Namibia and South Africa land reform is also a hot issue, with increasingly Zimbabwe-like complaints that its pace is too slow, although both countries are eager to avoid comparisons with their mutual neighbour’s reform process. But where it has been implemented, in both Namibia and South Africa are disturbing reports of a high incidence of failure: low productivity, abandoned farms, greater poverty after receiving land than before, denuded landscapes from poor land management, etc.

Smith would have had an easy answer to why this is: to him, that is just one would expect when an African takes over, end of story. But those of us who are required to contribute to Africa’s progress must dig deeper to find what is so commonly wrong and try to fix it.

The reasons for so many new farmers’ failure are complex, of course, and many of them are common to emergent farmers under similar circumstances anywhere. But let me just pick one example from Namibia to illustrate my point. Largely desert, the country is more suited to rearing livestock than to cultivation. But the parcels of land that many new farmers are getting are too small for them to sustainably graze enough sheep or cattle to be economically viable. This means even before you factor in issues of management skills, capital, markets, efficiency and prices, many of these new farmers are almost destined to fail.

So why parcel the land into pieces that are too small for commercially viable livestock rearing? Why not encourage and assist these small farmers in other more realistic areas of agriculture, or find a different livestock model more suitable for the new reality?

The answers are as complex as the questions, but basically, it comes down to failure to appreciate that the farming model that worked for the white farmer with thousands of hectares of grazing land cannot be applied to a new farmer with a miniscule proportion of it, and with no capital, experience, infrastructure and all kinds of other supports. Also, his whole cultural orientation to keeping cattle may well be vastly different from the white farmer’s.

Simply put, he is being presented with a cultural-economic model of farming that is not suitable for him, and that in all but a few limited situations, no longer fits the new Namibian reality. Part of that new reality is that it is no longer politically tenable for a few farmers to own vast tracts of land, even if some would argue that it makes more macro-economic sense for a few such experienced, “super-productive” people to be allowed to do so.

All these issues have to be taken into account in creating a new model of agriculture for Namibia. My point is that thinking about all the angles of issues like this is key to Africa finding new models that work for it. The off-the-shelf models from the pre-independence era, or from the World Bank, have not worked very well for Africa for many reasons, including the fact that their application has not been properly modified for the new situations in which they are to be applied. The blame for this lies more with the Africans who fail to see the need for these modifications, than it does with those who present such models as they have seen them work elsewhere in very different economic, technological, political and cultural contexts.

It may be understandable, but the practice of eagerly applying various models of organization based more on anxiously wanting to be considered “just as modern as anybody else,” rather than on the basis of modification for suitability, has been disastrous for Africa.

We know all the things about Rhodesia we detested. But even in looking back in nostalgia at the ways in which it was also a highly functional society, it was naive to think Zimbabwe could be a merely modified version of it. When Smith said, “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it” he was talking at a much deeper level than the obvious one of harnessing Rhodesian-modified Western technology and cultural organization, along with African labour and resources, to create an exclusive island of prosperity primarily for a small, identified group of people.

Rhodesia under Smith was unapologetic about the society it sought to be. It was also ruthless in mobilising the available mix of resources required to bring about that vision for its primarily target audience. Zimbabwe never quite went through a similar process of deciding exactly what kind of society it sought to be, how to bring it about, what human and material resources were required to do so, and what factors promoting or impeding that vision had to be dealt with.

Instead, there was the amorphous, general wish for things like “universal health and education” and other desires which it is impossible to fault, but which without a specific model of national organization in mind cannot be achieved or sustained. They can also be mis-directed. For instance, by “more education” do we have in mind more degree holders (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have another vision of universal education more relevant to our needs and current reality?

By “health for all” do we mean the greater availability of pills (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have a definition of health that is more in keeping with not just bodily state, but that encompasses social, cultural and other indicators of well-being; of what it means to be “healthy.”

Because the idea of Rhodesia was largely steeped in Western principles of orientation, “health” would have largely entailed the use of pills and technology, although today even many Westerners are questioning the appropriateness of this orientation. And because the society was geared to primarily serving a small target audience, even if there was spillover to non-target groups, the society could have been organised to ensure any target group member had access to any pill they desired.

But if Zimbabwe had then simply taken on this philosophy of health, how would it meet “the pills/health technology for all requirement” of a vastly expanded target audience? In this example, the real failure may not be so much in not being able to supply pills to everyone who wants them, but in an approach to health that unrealistically, unsustainably emphasises pills over prevention, for example. It is another example of a prescription that might have worked in one particular situation, but can no longer do so in a vastly changed one.

If one extrapolates this practice of trying to force square pegs into round holes without the necessary modifications to all across Africa, then we can see one important reason why Africa never seems to measure up. A part of political maturity must be the ability to say “this particular thing worked very well in the unique environment of/for the requirements of Rhodesia, but in order to get similar benefits in the very different scenario of Zimbabwe, these are the changes we will need to make.” Part of this process could be even to selectively forgo some of those Rhodesia-era “benefits,” on the basis that their costs in the new dispensation out-weigh their advantages.

Perhaps Zimbabwe’s current mess is its own way of dispensing with the old that served another time and purpose well, but is no longer suitable for a new situation with new needs. But apart from all the many indications of early failure, the current mess is at the very least surely an inefficient, expensive way of trying to mould a new model of national organization. What is required of us is the hard job of applying thinking to problems, than the easy one of sloganeering and political intrigue that so much more effort has been expended on in Africa in the last 50 years.

Smith’s criticism that Zimbabwe failed to live up to the “standards” of Rhodesia is not the worst criticism that can be made of the post-independence era. If anything, there are many ways in which in hindsight we should now be embarrassed that we tried to continue the old Rhodesia, just as we should be ashamed that we have failed to maintain so many of its functionalities.

The more serious shortcoming of Zimbabwe, and of Africa, that still needs to be addressed is the failure to articulate a new vision of nationhood that does not ignore any part of our history or world realities, but that is tailored to maximising the opportunities of creating an Africa that serves our interests and works for us.

As regards the lessons of Rhodesia for Zimbabweans, therefore, it is not for us to pine for a bygone reality and national model that could not have worked for us. We can instead take a leaf from Smith’s Rhodesia, on the importance and benefits of carving out our own vision of what would be a successful Zimbabwe, just as he was quite clear and focused on what a successful Rhodesia meant for his target group.

Doing so would not mean all the current problems would disappear or that the conditions for realising that vision would suddenly materialise. But without that clear vision of what kind of society we want to work towards, taking all the many influences on us and present realities into account, we are a rudderless ship. We condemn ourselves to being forever compared unfavourably to a Rhodesia that will never return, but will always haunt us as an oppressive but “successful” past, in contradiction to an “independent” but “failed” present.

The pining of some Zimbabweans for an unsustainable, oppressive but functional Rhodesia is an expression of frustration at not just present hardships, but at the lack of any articulation of a new vision of nationhood that those hardships can be said to be leading us to, and how we hope to get there.

Zimbabweans have previously stoically endured hardship during the war of independence because it was not only clear what was being fought against, but because of a generally shared hope of what life would be like when that fight was won. Today’s Zimbabwean reality is a very far cry from that hoped for vision. And rather than suggestions that this is because we are in a difficult but transitory phase, there are instead too many signs suggesting that we are now completely lost and directionless; the rulers cynically raping the land rather than leading us to anywhere but further decline and hardship.

There is not only the absence of a new hoped for vision by which the present hardship can be explained and endured, but the current rulership simply no longer even has the credibility and moral authority to mobilise the population into working for one.

The pining for Rhodesia by some is simply because it is the country’s “last known working configuration.” It is Africa’s main challenge to find new working configurations for itself, mixes of many of the elements of success others have used to overcome oppression and exploitation, but put together in ways that fit the times and the environment. It is a shocking indictment of us all that no modern African society has yet been up to this challenge.

The reminders on Ian Smith’s death of his view of Africans, and other kinds of racist revisionism increasingly being heard, tell us that this unfinished task will not go away. It will remain until we and the world see Africa overcoming all the many obstacles and excuses to build examples of societies that need not be duplicates of anything else, but that clearly work for the benefit of the mass of people in a way we have not yet seen in modern Africa.

The naked, provocative racism that Smith so proudly and unapologetically wore all his life unfortunately enjoys currency from the poor state of the Zimbabwe that has emerged from his Rhodesia. If Africa is forced by the sting of the attitude of people of the ilk of Smith to think hard about what we have had to endure under both the Smiths and Mugabes, we will eventually develop our own models of success that need no explanation, and that speak for themselves. We would then have salvaged something positive from all the many decades of bitter and on-going lessons that Zimbabwe has to offer about the challenges and pain of transformation.

Chido Makunike

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