The oligarchy conundrum

Zimbabwe is full of drama that lacks focus. Have we been zombified by politics?

Develop me: Tapiwa Gomo

Over the past two decades, former President Robert Mugabe was the problem. In November last year, the country bade him farewell. Between then and July, it was elections.

Elections have come and gone, but the nation is yet to start rebuilding the broken economy.

The government is still figuring a way forward. Of course, change is a process and not an event. Ours has started on a painful note especially on the economic front.

On a positive side, revelations of alleged malpractices at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is a sign that the layers of autocracy are still peeling off.
What we now understand is that the economy is under some form of capture by an alleged “queen bee” who has control over energy supply and the foreign currency situation in the country.

And this explains the current shortages of basic commodities and government’s inability to pursue and implement sound economic policies.

The word oligarchy was used to describe the level of influence these people have on our national affairs. An oligarchy is a small group of people who have control over the affairs of a country.

There is divided opinion over whether oligarchies are good or bad for the country. They have a long history, mainly in countries that have established solid economies.

As long as rebuilding a tattered economy like ours requires businesses to be initiated, synergies to be formed and an economic ecosystem to be established, oligarchies are unavoidable. In fact, there are needed. What matters is how they are managed, by who and in what space.

Certainly, not in the central bank. That’s a sacred space. Having them there is a clear sign of greedy and political weakness.


When proxy oligarchies are established to advance external business interests – such as in our case – they tend to be more extractive and vicious to the domestic economy.

They weaken the political leadership through kick-backs and expensive gifts to sabotage the national agenda in their quest to control the levers of power. That way, they gain unimpeded and easy access to national resources and control of the economy with most, if not all, of the proceeds leaving the country.

On the other hand, there are numerous circumstances where local oligarchies have driven growth and stability. This is mainly common in countries where local oligarchies or families control the economy.

These are the people with national development interests at heart, but whose reaction to national policies tend to be described under the hyponym markets. They offer stability.

In his 2011 book, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, William D Cohan provides an account of the history and influence of Goldman Sachs in the United States of America (USA). The company was established in New York in 1869 by Marcus Goldman who was later joined by his son-in-law Samuel Sachs in 1882. The Goldman Sachs family has maintained control of the Wall Street, the world’s biggest financial market, including the Wall Street journal through which they control global economic narrative and agenda.

The company is alleged to wield significant political influence over all levels of USA government and its policies, including determining who should rule the country.

While this level of economic and political influence raises key questions with regards to equitable distribution of national wealth and competitive access to economic opportunities, there is no doubt that the Goldman Sachs’s influence is one of the main reasons the USA is the biggest economy in the world.

In South Africa, they have the Oppenheimer family who are reported to be part of a group of oligarchies with major control over the mineral, engineering and chemical industries. According to Moeletsi Mbeki in his book, Architects of Poverty, these oligarchies are at the centre of the Minerals Energy Complex web which forms the core of the economy and represent the overwhelmingly dominant set of interests in determining key aspects of economic and political policy.

They too, wield significant influence as they control politics and the agencies of democracy such as the media, labour movements and civil society organisations.

They also fund both the ruling and the opposition parties. For these reasons, Mbeki further notes that the African National Congress (ANC) nationalist leadership dominate the country’s politics, but they play next to no role in the ownership and control of the productive economy of South Africa, other than overseeing the redistribution of wealth towards consumption.

And again, the South African oligarchies are one of the reasons the economy remains stable and strong. The story is the same for the Middle Eastern and Asian countries where nationalist oligarchies and family dynasties dominate economies.

The downside of oligarchies occurs when it is driven by narrow self-interests, instead of national interests as is the case in Zimbabwe.

Other groups such as the workers, peasants and farmers, what remains of local industry, the ordinary citizens suffer in the allocation of spoils between the oligarchies and the political elite corrupted by the former. In such situations, oligarchies are known for being tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist. In addition, the centre of power shifts from the elected executive to the non-elected oligarchies, the result of which is the death of democracy and the perpetuation of poverty.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa.

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1 Comment

  1. What is the import of your opinion?

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