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Selling Zimbabwe’s economy, at a loss

By Innocent Madawo

Innocent Madawo

When President Robert Mugabe presides over the commemoration of Zimbabwe’s 30th anniversary of independence on April 18, one point he’ll certainly emphasize – for the 30th time – is that the country will never be a colony of another.

Of course, Mr. Mugabe doesn’t mean a 19th century-type occupation. He means political and economic domination he perceives as the aim of the West, particularly Britain.

Nevertheless, it’s in that context that Mr. Mugabe has been lying to himself and those who believe him. Zimbabwe is already dominated by erstwhile neighbour South Africa.

For a man who’s fond of accusing others of selling the country to foreigners in their quest for power, he has turned out to be the biggest sellout – precisely to remain in power.

For more than two years, then South African president Thabo Mbeki used “quiet diplomacy” to resist pressure to force Mr. Mugabe to accept the will of Zimbabweans, who clearly preferred Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change in the 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Observers wondered why Mr. Mbeki denied Zimbabweans what his own people took for granted – electoral democracy. Now, as the shrewd economist enjoys his own retirement, his intentions for Zimbabwe are manifesting themselves. Mr. Mbeki gave South African businesses a resource-rich and market-ready Zimbabwe.

Before the national unity government that Mr. Mbeki forced on Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai was inaugurated a year ago, Zimbabwe’s markets – known for their empty shelves – were suddenly awash with a variety of South African-made products.

The currency of choice became the rand, paid out by South African investors who now provide the main source of employment in Zimbabwe. The rest of the money is repatriated by the two million to three million Zimbabweans working in South Africa, where the government was quick to guarantee a renewable work visa and eased immigration regulations.

South Africa needs Zimbabwe’s ready-made professionals to augment its own inadequate reserves. Better working conditions and remuneration have resulted in a sustained brain drain that has been epitomized by school closures as teachers and students flock south.

Mr. Mugabe’s government has defended this situation as a necessary relief from a historical ally. But fundamentals indicate an economy set to rely on South Africa for the big part of Zimbabwe’s fourth decade of independence.

Apart from the Western-targeted sanctions imposed on Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe is under a general investment, trade and aid boycott by most other countries except those from Asia – particularly China – and those from Africa whose economic capacities are not adequate enough to do meaningful business with Zimbabwe. The country owes $6-billion in foreign debt, and doesn’t qualify for an International Monetary Fund balance of payments loan.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe’s economy is overwhelmingly resource-based, with agriculture and mining taking the lead. But a decade-long persecution of farmers and current efforts to restrict foreign ownership of mining properties have kept out potential investors. Worse still, the country faces a shortage of about a million tonnes of grain – the national staple.

The country once known as the bread basket of Africa now requires more than a political settlement to regain its economic independence. Even as its political leaders bicker over the proper wording of the constitution and whether to continue with the national unity government or call an election, Jacob Zuma – Mr. Mbeki’s successor and a man who, it was hoped, would push Mr. Mugabe over the cliff – is actually consolidating South Africa’s economic dominance of Zimbabwe.

In a typical case of “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” Mr. Zuma recently “ordered” Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai to avoid any political drama until after the soccer World Cup, a money-spinning extravaganza from which Zimbabwe could benefit. Obviously, Mr. Zuma will dictate what course Zimbabwean politics should take afterward, but his decision will be guided by South Africa’s economic needs in Zimbabwe, not what Zimbabweans want. If that’s not being colonized, what is?

Innocent Madawo is a freelance Zimbabwean journalist based in Toronto. This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.