WHAT is the most unseen, unmentioned, unspoken about tragedy of the past 20 years? Well, there are lots of them, but surely the sorry tale of Zimbabwe has to be up there.
All of this has been brought home to me recently by the Tongaat Hulett drama. My guess is that South Africans don’t want to think about Zimbabwe because its history constitutes the possible trajectory of South Africa.
The peculiar thing about Zimbabwe is that if you read the Zimbabwean Press, you will think people are living in heaven. The lead story in The Zimbabwe Mail on January 20 was about Zanu PF “hitting back at the US embassy” for “poking its nose in the country’s democratic and electoral processes”.
That’s Zanu PF for you: Belligerent, arrogant; a confused set of double standards and self-justifications all wrapped up in an Alice in Wonderland version of self-righteousness. Hello Lindiwe Sisulu.
Another story claimed Zimbabwe’s economic reforms were getting “global recognition” but a short statistical economic comparison puts paid to that pretty quickly.
Zimbabwe’s GDP is currently, according to IMF figures, about US$28 billion.
Per capita GDP is now US$1 760, which means that the average annual earnings of a Zimbabwean are roughly the same as two iPhones.
Just compare it with Botswana. Botswana is now just a little smaller economically than Zimbabwe at a US$19 billion GDP, even though its population is a quarter of that of Zimbabwe. But its GDP per capita is on average US$7 700, roughly 600% more than it was in 1980, and four times higher than the average Zimbabwean.
You could throw Namibia into the mix too, and the figures are roughly comparable. But the point is that these are all countries which have exactly the same historical and economic legacies as Zimbabwe; they are also small countries far from large markets; but their performances have been stellar, handily outperforming some “Asian Tigers”.
The reason for Zimbabwe’s failure is obvious: Economic mismanagement on a gargantuan scale.
The blame lies squarely with Zanu PF, which used the oldest trick in the book — blaming all of its self-inflicted wounds on a racial minority.
Of course, there was a difficult colonial legacy to deal with, but destroying the only internationally economically competitive portion of the economy is such an obvious stupidity, you have to question their sanity.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you agreed with the seizure of the land of white farmers in Zimbabwe as necessary to right historical injustice.
You would still have to explain why the Zimbabwean economy continues to be a stuttering jalopy long after that problem was “fixed”.
What has happened between the settlement of the land issue and now?
What has happened is that Zanu-PF has had to trim its sails to the wind a bit.
There were vague promises of returning some land to white farmers or at least compensating them for their buildings. But it remains a commandist, retrogressive administration whose arrogance in the face of its cataclysmic failure as a government is bewildering.
A key to all of this is the Zimbabwe dollar. Why was it reintroduced when dollarisation was transparently working in keeping inflation down?
The answer is control. By controlling access to foreign currency, the government retains something of its writ on businesspeople of all stripes, doling out foreign currency conditionally to party favourites.
The result has been the creation of an oligarcal State with a set of government favoured businesspeople along the lines of Russia.
Or, there is another option: set up a money-laundering operation, by sneaking Zimbabwean gold into the UAE, buying, say, cigarettes and selling the cigarettes in South Africa.
Which brings us to Tongaat Hulett. Under huge pressure from Standard Bank, which didn’t want to report huge write-offs to its shareholders, Tongaat was forced to rush out and find a big investor.
Enter the Rudland family, they of Gold Leaf Tobacco fame, who have managed to effect an audacious takeover of a century-old South African company which employs around 30 000 people at a fabulous discount this past week with the assistance of Standard Bank, PSG Asset Management, Rothschild, auditors PwC and, unsurprisingly, that steady guardian of public trust, the Public Investment Corporation.
Sometimes you think you have seen it all in South Africa, but actually you haven’t.