By Jameson Dapi
IF Zimbabwe’s business member organisations (BMOs) are to be taken seriously, they need to start by taking themselves seriously.
If they don’t, they will cease to be effective as is demanded by their founding manifestos — that is if they are still potent at all.
For the longest time, consumers have been watching in horror as some of the local companies that are affiliated to these BMOs stampeded to carelessly hike prices for no justifiable reason other than greed and speculation.
In spite of the ear-piercing cries from consumers and the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe for business to exercise restraint, none of the BMOs issued warnings to their members.
Repeatedly, the authorities have also been highlighting the despicable malpractices of some of the companies that are accessing foreign currency from the auction system only for them to unashamedly sell their products at extortionate prices based on parallel market rates.
To everyone’s disbelief, the BMOs have been pretending as if there was nothing unusual happening through their deafening silence.
This is hardly surprising given that most of these BMOs are funded by some of the culprits that could be calling the tune since they are the ones paying the piper.
When warnings were issued for the business community to play the game by the rules or risk being called to order, the BMOs were not bothered, they looked the other side while their undisciplined members took the law into their own hands.
Conspicuous by their silence had been the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) and the Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers (CZR).
It was only after the authorities started cracking the whip by arresting the culprits that these BMOs which include CZI, ZNCC and CZR, suddenly found their voices. They are now shouting on top of their voices claiming that the remedial measures being taken by the government would unsettle markets and that there should be continuous dialogue while the proverbial Rome is burning.
CZI, which elected a new leader in August this year, has gone to the extent of issuing a long, winding statement in which it lectured the authorities about how they could bring stability to the markets oblivious of the fact that their megaphone diplomacy completely ignored the folly of some of their members who invited trouble to themselves.
While the intention is not to defend the authorities who must look at themselves in the mirror and correct where they could be going wrong, business should not expect to have cake and eat it too. Granted, BMOs bring together the private sector — or parts of it — to advance an agenda that goes beyond the interests of the single firm. Generally, these are organisations where individuals and enterprises that compete with each other on the marketplace come together within a symbiotic structure of collective self-help and co-operation that provides mutual benefit.
In the case of CZI, ZNCC and CZR, their mission statements cut across representation, advocacy, lobby and giving broad-based advice to their members while also maintaining dialogue with their stakeholders, among them the government.
If these BMOs are to be taken seriously, they must take their advisory function seriously by speaking up against evils being committed by their members in private or in public.
The record thus far indicates that they only speak out when the run of play is going against them and zip their mouths when consumers are being trampled down upon as long as it is benefiting their members.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, who lived between 1906 and 1954, once said: “silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.
If the BMOs are serious about dialogue, they must avoid playing to the gallery.
It is unwise to engage in megaphone diplomacy because it hardly produces positive outcomes. If anything, it leads to entrenched positions.
There is currently a glaring lack of responsible business behaviour in Zimbabwe, which is demonstrated by business’ lack of commitment to the sense of community.
The moral outrage torched by the irreprehensible lack of moral baseline on the part of business cannot be ignored by the BMOs without eroding consumer loyalty, and imposing a heavy economic cost that benefits neither business nor government itself.
The view out there is that business in Zimbabwe has become too self-interested in pursuit of rent that does not enhance the broader public good, and yet it can play a very positive role.
To deal with the lack of trust between government, which is sometimes seen as predatory, and business, there is, therefore, a lot of work that the BMOs should be doing.
Instead of the atomicity entrepreneurs being reluctant to collaborate, BMOs can play a central role in strengthening the private sector and building economic resilience in fragile contexts such as Zimbabwe by working toward building a strong investment climate — including the economic conditions, policies, infrastructure, security and workforce — which allow the private sector to perform its function as the engine of economic growth.
BMOs in Mauritius, Kenya and Somalia have done extremely well in this regard with the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, deserving special mention.
Edmund Burke, who is remembered for his support for the Catholic emancipation and his opposition to the French revolution did not mince his words when he said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
The world over, governments exist to, among other things, maintain social order in which rules are enforced without exception, and not to allow a free-for-all situation.
Business should understand this better.
For business to thrive there has to be a stable operating environment that allows those with capital to plan and sweat their assets. The wanton and gluttonous spike in foreign currency rates and prices, including of basic goods, give the impression that business has gotten its priorities mixed up.
Even with the best intentions, no government can fold its hands while business has clearly ignored warnings and is hell bent on fuelling chaos on the markets.
- Jameson Dapi is an economist and development finance expert. He writes here in his personal capacity. For views and comments, e-mail to email@example.com