It is saddening to see for someone like me whose country had to go through all the ideological nonsense of the 20th century that a nation of Zimbabwe’s quality, with its outstandingly high level of education and its penchant for serious hard work, should be guided by ideological obsession rather than commonsense.
As a German, I have learned that when you have made mistakes, when you have suffered, and inflicted suffering on others, you don’t want this to happen to your friends.
This is my motivation – and no other – when I take the liberty to question the wisdom of certain ideas about empowerment which have been floating around this country for the past year.
No sensible family father would think of destroying existing wealth.
Economic planning, both for individuals and for countries, is about creation of new wealth, about adding something to what already exists.
The accelerated land reform policy as executed in this country over the past decade, has led to the loss of wealth, at a very large scale and well beyond the agricultural sector.
People from other walks of life, with no farming experience, were offered large commercial farms which they were unprepared to manage. Could one have done better? Probably yes.
Several hundreds of highly qualified young black Zimbabweans had already graduated from the country’s agricultural colleges before the land reform policy was enacted.
They were ready to gain professional experience in managing large commercial farms.
They were ready to take over a fair proportion of commercial farming in an orderly way.
But they received no offer letters, and are today mostly contributing to agricultural productivity in neighbouring countries.
They could have been empowered, based on their education and skills. An opportunity was lost to create new wealth.
We are somewhat relieved to see the end of the rapid economic contraction which brought with it, up to 2009, empty shelves and the need of international – mainly Western – humanitarian intervention in a previously rich country.
Zimbabwe, for many reasons, is now recovering. However, the recent rattling of sabres against the ghost of „white supremacy“ does carry the risk of isolating the country once again from Africa’s dynamic mainstream.
The rhetoric used by certain ministers in this respect are not only ill founded, irritating and unconstitutional, but totally out of tune with the rest of the continent where race issues have long been set aside, with no more impact on policy decisions.
So why repeat the disastrous land redistribution exercise now with regard to the rest of the economy, still largely cash strapped, and at an early stage of recovery only?
Why not learn from China – as this seems to be fashionable – and open up rather than close down?
Why not seek venture capital from all over the world instead of giving concessions away cheaply to some, rather than offering them at a market price to all?
Why are Chinese companies being granted waivers of the 51% rule while nobody has heard of a European company receiving such favours?
This newspaper is in possession of such a letter signed by the minister in charge of this policy.
Why erect red tape hurdles in the first place if one is then prepared to apply the rules selectively?
Why move away from Africa’s mainstream at a moment where a hundred flowers are blooming on the continent? Does it make any economic sense? Or is it perhaps ideology?
The rest of the world is waiting for good news from Zimbabwe.
Intelligent and sensible empowerment could easily become a piece of such good news if it was handled in the long term interest of the people. As a guest of Zimbabwe, I feel the responsibility for being constructive. Let me therefore propose a few ideas to my readers.
l Empowerment requires education. Zimbabweans need not be told about the values of education; they cherish them more than any other African nation. With the absurd consequence that South Africa’s gross national product is constantly being boosted by the skills of millions of Zimbabweans who saw no other choice but to go „down south“. Would they return if they were empowered to create new wealth back home? At least half of them would, is the answer I have often heard.
l Empowerment requires capital. New credit lines are needed in order to create new jobs for the highly qualified middle classes both in the country and abroad. But credit lines don’t come without confidence. I keep encouraging German investors to take a close look at opportunities in Zimbabwe.
They are thrilled by the country’s huge potential and impressed by the qualities and skills of its people. But the current indigenisation drive, and the threatening tone used by some of its high profile advocates, then deters them from investing. They mostly come to the conclusion that the political risk is too high, and don’t even ask their bankers for a calculation.
l Empowerment can be stengthened with the assistance of Zimbabwe’s traditional friends. Germany has played its part in the 1990s with a well calibrated programme run by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Young aspiring entrepreneurs received training to enable them to start a business. Nigel Chanakira was among them, and founded Kingdom Bank after having completed the course. Such basic courses could be run again, with their curriculum brought up to date. They do not replace an MBA programme, but can be conceived as a preliminary step to more ambitious forms of education.
l Empowerment can be financed through a sovereign fund constituted by revenue from Zimbabwe’s diamond production. Conceived as a revolving fund, it could provide low interest loans for start-up entrepreneurs, giving them the necessary breath for two to four years to transform their plans into profitable businesses.
l Empowerment could be supported by the international donor community through enabling local banks to grant low interest mid term loans to young entrepreneurs. Due to lack of capital, Zimbabwean banks are currently unable to provide such loans by their own means. An Empowerment Fund could be put together under the auspices of either the World Bank or the African Development Bank, partnering Zimbabwean banks who would be accountable for the proper use of the funds.
l Empowerment policies should be conceived by analyzing what has been done next door. Successes should be emulated, and errors avoided. South Africa’s BEE policy is a complex experience, hotly debated down south. It has produced new wealth without destroying existing assets. However, the policy has remained controversial. The latest criticism came from Moeletsi Mbeki who accuses BEE of creating a new culture of entitlement rather than of entrepreneurship. While I will not join a debate about South Africa, I find it important for Zimbabwe to put, with regard to empowerment, all the emphasis on enhancing entrepreneurial space and courage. There is no other way for economic growth than a strong spirit of free enterprise, with minimum state interference.
In putting forward these ideas, I have tried to be constructive. I believe that all Zimbabweans share the view that new opportunities must be created, and a just and fair society be built. I would hope that all those who are still driven by ideology or other motives running contrary to today’s global consensus on equal opportunities, justice and real progress will reconsider, and stop thinking that a happy few should be entitled to get something for nothing – an attitude that has brought Zimbabwe down to its knees once, and should not do so a second time.
Dr Albrecht Conze is German Ambassador to Zimbabwe. The views expressed in this article are personal.