The multiple initiatives that President Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa’s administration has launched may be confusing to a citizenry already buffeted by years of debility and decline.
By George Charamba
It is thus important to explain and place in context this flurry of initiatives, a good many of which may involve costs and foreign travel, but all of which are aimed at putting Zimbabwe on an even economic keel.
Key to understanding this broad strategy of many initiatives is appreciating that President Mnangagwa is re-framing the National Question beyond the rhetoric of liberation struggle and land reforms.
Not that both don’t matter to the whole recovery calculus.
No National Question excludes or turns its back on core considerations of national liberation, national sovereignty and the national land issue.
The three form a baseline triumvirate for the modern nation-state.
Yet the key is to restate and reframe these three core issues within a proper, scientific grasp of socio-economic conditions obtaining in Zimbabwe, and at this stage in her evolution.
As I write, such an exercise has become both necessary and urgent, all against challenges which our country Zimbabwe faces.
And as the man at the helm, President, Mnangagwa bears the responsibility of this redefinition.
President Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe-is-open-for-business mantra and punchline summarises the reframing of the National Question under current national social conditions.
His emphasis on anchoring the National Question on business and investment may have inspired his recent remark in Abidjan, Ivory Coast that Zimbabwe has shifted from “hard nationalism” to “economic nationalism”.
There is thus a new vocabulary in the air designed to refocus and redirect national effort towards a pro-business, pro-marketplace culture, but all within strictures of national interest and proper, lawful and ethical business practices.
This, in my view, summarises the re-framing exercise.
But this summary has embedded interconnections which are very easy to miss, and a lot easier to throw pot-shots at for cheap electoral politicking.
National interest, which the President has been emphasising, provides a key link with the liberation ethos. We have been free and independent for nearly 38 years.
Our sense of nationalism and liberation cannot remain as it was in 1980 when we became free.
Those distinct and clear-cut demands and magnitudes of the 1980s today coalesce into this overarching notion we call national interest.
Simply put, it means taking decisions and doing things that positively redound to our common, collective good, all the time assuming that we remain a free and sovereign nation.
Time was when the National Question amounted to a call to arms. Then it morphed to consolidating our nation through national unity which we attained in 1987.
Setting aside the massive national social investments of the 1980s and 1990s, the National Question took us back to the struggle for our land.
That, too, got settled, albeit with great acrimony and at huge national cost.
Beyond or because of land, we found ourselves back in the national trenches, thanks to the second challenge to our sovereignty by the West.
Still we deepened the National Question by raising the broader issue of resource nationalism. But there were serious setbacks and contradictions which precipitated the November 2017 16-day wonder revolution.
Today, and in the context of the new dispensation, we face a new National Question: namely the promotion of business and investment in order to re-jig that same liberation ethos.
With a past in the national liberation struggle, and given his legal grounding, President Mnangagwa is a perfect human/leadership fit for this badly needed transition whose time has come.
The measure of the transition is in how it at once unleashes the entrepreneurial energy of the nation, while defending and upholding both its interests and its sense of law and morality.
Hence the concurrent, two-track rhetoric of business opportunities on the one hand, and zero tolerance on corruption on the other.
I emphasise this duality to lay to rest a misperception that cracking down on externalisation and some such corporate malfeasances, perforce contradicts the thrust to rally businesses – both local and global – for investments in the country to recover and grow the national economy.
Simply, the new ethos calls for fair, deserved reward to clean, lawful business initiatives by whomsoever.
Simply, too, the new ethos draws a cut-off point with a past where business behaviour was predatory and akin to liquidation, both of which left us anaemic.
We have to break with the bad past, and naming and shaming unorthodox business practices, apart from bidding for restitution, sends a clear signal that the past is another country.
But the call for greater investments in the economy is not an open cheque. Current adversity must never breed desperation.
We are a well-endowed country, a proud people. We have interests; we ought to have plans and priorities.
The call for investments is thus predicated on key strategic national calculations meant to secure our national interest.
President Mnangagwa’s recent visit to Rwanda put all this to the fore. We need to have a national plan and strategy which is both policy-focused and spatially drawn.
The policy dimension sets out our national priorities based on our competitive edge and where we want to be in the next decade. It motivates players through a raft of incentives we offer to nudge itinerant capital towards desired areas.
Spatially speaking, we need a geographical national masterplan which locates given enterprises in certain parts of our country, consistent with our resource endowments and needs of those enterprises we hope to attract.
Above all, consistent with our wish for growth with justice, indeed for growth which lifts all our communities thereby consolidating our national cohesion.
More critically, the spatial masterplan must be backed up by efficient infrastructures which lower entry/establishment costs for business, thereby improving the ease-of-doing business.
Rwanda ensures that areas zoned for specific enterprise clusters are well enabled by way of infrastructure like roads, rail, electricity, water, information and communication technologies etc.
Equally, land is availed competitively for secure operations.
Both Rwanda and China have offered to assist in this broad planning exercise so sorely needed ahead of luring investments in the country.
This awareness and offer is a key take-away from the President’s recent itinerary. It needs to be actualised on the ground.
Open to leave?
Zimbabwe is disabled by a negative risk profile. This stems from past policy volte-faces or shifts, and from our poor debt-servicing record.
Recently, President Mnangagwa faced a difficult question: if Zimbabwe is now open for business, are its doors also open to capital when it wants to leave?
Where does the foreign currency to disinvest come from, given the current paucity of United States dollars? Can an investor repatriate his earnings in US dollars?
We have many investors whose dividends are trapped inside our country, for want of foreign currency.
From these and much more, it is not hard to see why Zimbabwe still has more to do in order to shake off the “trap-door” image that dogs it, dissuading investors and lenders alike.
Until one appreciates the cost which all this levies on efforts to recover our economy, one may never quite appreciate what President Mnangagwa is doing. Or even be able to measure how well he has done so far, or is doing presently.
All is made worse by the gathering electioneering environment in which easy judgments and facile comparisons are made by empty, juvenile opposition politicians at recycled rallies.
The Abidjan meeting of CEOs was critical in so far as it secured a commitment from Afreximbank to de-risk Zimbabwe by unveiling a US$1,5 billion support facility to investors intent on setting up shop in Zimbabwe.
To have a bank availing so much at such a well-targeted meeting is no small story, let alone one deserving to be greeted by a litany of cynical comments which are both uninformed and politically self-serving.
As Zimbabweans, we cannot talk down ourselves and our country, at a time when such a serious and judicious institution is vouching for us.
And Afreximbank has kept Zimbabwe afloat even when the country was at its nadir.
Its bullish rating of Zimbabwe has a lot to do with the changes it reads in the horizon, thanks to the new dispensation, and of course the identity of its key shareholders who understand us better and more, thanks to diplomatic efforts that are underway.
As such offers are made, it is important that the country’s leadership spells out clearly to investors areas deserving priority attention.
Needless to say this situates President Mnangagwa’s travels.
The just-ended State Visit to China – itself the world’s second largest economy – at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jiping resulted in a raft of key gains.
But for me, three gains stand out and above all else that was achieved during that short six-day visit.
China, which is owed millions of dollars by Zimbabwe, charitably de-linked Zimbabwe’s debt obligations and settlement plans to Zimbabwe’s eligibility for fresh loans and grants.
To this end, both its banks and its insurers are now ready to provide capital and cover to Chinese venture capital.
This is a fundamental shift in Chinese policy, but one requiring reciprocation by a new, serious Zimbabwe which honours its debt obligations and makes itself attractive to foreign direct investments.
This breakthrough came on the back of a Joint Commission which thrashed out sticky issues between the two nations, and of course from the amazingly warm chemistry that developed between President Xi and President Mnangagwa.
The ball is now in Zimbabwe’s court.
Dollarising such a major policy shift by a mega-economy makes costs of travel to China paltry.
The second key gain came by way of the Chinese initiative to upgrade Zimbabwe-China bilateral status to that of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
This is quite a departure from the nebulous “all-weather friend” status which, though sweet to repeat in the political mouth, materially and concretely amounted to little in the marketplace.
Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Status in effect bilaterally confers on Zimbabwe preferred status as a destination for Chinese investment capital, aid, skills and other initiatives.
We are now well positioned to tap from both the $100 billion facility announced by China in South Africa a few years ago, and of course from China’s more recent Belt-and-Road Initiative to network the world into one commercial village.
The Forum ob China-Africa Co-operation slated for Shaghai in September 2018, and to which President Mnangagwa is already invited, should allow us to take hard-headed stock.
Beyond the flow of people, skills and capital, Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Status is a major step towards breaking the jinx of isolation from which Zimbabwe has suffered for nearly a decade since its Land Reform Programme.
Sinosure’s decision to provide cover to Zimbabwe-bound Chinese investment capital, complemented by a decision by a Chinese bank to open shop in Zimbabwe, are key outcomes from the State Visit.
More telling is the preparedness of China to accept trade settlements in Chinese currency, a decision which has far-reaching positive implications for economic interaction between Zimbabwe and China.
Additionally, the decision by CCCC, China’s largest global infrastructure company, to open shop in Zimbabwe is a major milestone and statement of confidence whose tractive value to otherwise dissonant China can hardly be overemphasised.
This is a ringing third-party endorsement for Zimbabwe.
Alongside other infrastructure construction companies, not least those focusing on the long-delayed Kunzvi Dam, on Hwange 7&8 sure to start shortly, on Robert Mugabe International Airport, on road dualisation, on rail expansion and transnational linkages, on construction of Parliament and new Government Complex, “Quad C” will underpin President Mnangagwa’s vision to turn Zimbabwe into a modern-infrastructured, middle-income economy by 2030, a mere 12 years hence.
The third key gain to come out of President Mnangagwa’s State Visit relates to the Chinese offer of an unlimited market to our agricultural produce.
With a population of 1,3 billion, China’s appetite and belly are hard to encompass, much harder to fill.
They need citrus and other fruits from Zimbabwe. They need cotton from Zimbabwe. They need soya from Zimbabwe. They need our meats. They are already buying our tobacco and motivating our tobacco farmers.
What is staggering is that the offer of this vast market comes with substantial commitment to support our agriculture for greater productivity.
China has already availed more money for dam construction. China is offering support for us to turn the more than 10 000 water bodies across the country into irrigation propositions.
Above all, China is ready with inputs and skills, the former coming to us not as exports in finished goods, but as major investments in fertiliser, gas and agricultural equipment manufacturing.
In respect of cotton, the President was able to motivate several Chinese companies that want to sponsor vast cotton fields for feedstock for textile companies which will be set up here to manufacture for global markets.
The Chinese have done as much in Egypt and in Ethiopia.
Deliberately, I have shied away from highlighting deals clinched with private companies. Those concerned are better placed to speak to them.
But there is one requiring special mention.
A day before his departure, President Mnangagwa met the owner of Afrochine, the chrome processor already operating just after Selous as one goes to Chegutu.
The investor now wants to develop three other furnaces including one in Mutorashanga and another in Shurugwi.
But these are “smalls” in his investment plans.
The big one for this economy is a steel plant, fashioned after one already operating in Indonesia which employs 20 000 people.
In his own words, Zimbabwe has all the ingredients for such a plant: abundant chrome, abundant iron ore, nickel and abundant and untapped coal for an independent power plant so necessary for such a big, power gulping investment.
But he has been knocking on Government offices for the past three years, to no avail. Still, he didn’t give up on us.
In that 30-minute meeting, the investor was able to walk away with concrete commitments on all his requirements, opening the way for an early start to the project.
Food for stomach
I referred to the above encounter to raise a key component in President Mnangagwa’s challenge in reframing the National Question.
He has to deal with a bureaucracy notorious for its slothfulness, disarticulation and arthritic pace and manner of doing business. Besides, a bureaucracy which has picked the dubious fame of predatoriness.
What the hard nationalistic rhetoric did to us was to mould a bureaucracy full of centurions whose self-view was to guard idle subsoil assets from intending investors, all against begriming poverty.
The out-turn has been paradoxical: a highly mineralised country which is frigid to investors, amidst deepening poverty and social malaise.
Until now our resources were hermetically sealed – a subject for idle, rumbustious boast – ever guarded by a highly efficient “army” of “ragged trousered” nationalists who had no compunction in letting Zimbabweans starve while “feeding” them with the twin alibi and sweet lie of “indigenisation” and “empowerment”.
For that reason, the old dispensation gave Zimbabweans lots of food for thought but hardly any for the stomach, to use the late Achebe’s acerbic phrase.
It is this bureaucratic temperament which has not only put off investors, but has bred a corrupt, anti-business outlook for which we have paid dearly.
And which, too, accounts for the extant overflow of cynicism around any national initiative, threatening to blight all that the current President seeks to do; so that there is no Emerson Mnangagwa – only a Mugabe look-alike.
There is no gainful venture to drum up investments; only another wasteful jaunt recalling years and behaviors gone by!
Swings and roundabouts
There is a dire need for institutional reforms, for new mindsets if this nation has to regain belief in itself again.
Today this frigid beast – the bureaucracy – has to stir, and then be made to function nimbly and honestly.
If not, all will be lost, including the mega-deals just concluded with China.
There are key institutional reforms which beg. There are new mores sorely needed; indeed a new work ethic which must be invented and infused within the bureaucracy.
The President’s emphasis on the rapid results initiative, with its 100-day execution and accountability cycles, is a good start which must gain irrevocable traction.
His zero-tolerance on corruption is a necessary complement.
Above all, there is dire need for institutional reforms – stated thrice – around institutions that handle and interface with foreign investors and foreign investment projects.
I am very clear about one thing: current ministries – both by structure and temperament – cannot be the panacea to this age-old challenge.
We need a new institutional framework, arguably akin to what we saw and met in Rwanda.
There, one supremely executive and overriding institution deals with investors, deals with them from start to finish, all in 24 hours!
This corporatised executive authority led by a CEO who is at par with Cabinet ministers, and who reports directly to Cabinet, passes for a one-stop shop which decides on everything an investor requires to speedily set up shop: from land, policies, laws, by-laws, registration, incentives right down to environmental impact assessments.
It commandeers utilities for various inputs needed by an investor, including factory shells.
Above all, it takes decisions on tax breaks and holidays, including flexibly extending them to allow for enterprise growth.
The guiding philosophy is straightforward: what we miss on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts; what we can’t get now, we get later, or eventually.
There is no Zimra; there is no Finance, Harare City Council or some such hackneyed bureaucratic contraption which shames Whitehall.
Only all these functions melded into one efficient unit that is on the go go.
This is the new African environment within which Zimbabwe competes for FDI; indeed the new, competitive environment within which she reframes the National Question.
She must believe in herself, making much out of her resource endowments the Almighty has been so generous to give.
She must believe in herself, restoring faith in her leadership, even though broken and betrayed in the past.
Nations go through lows, hit troughs. But the key is to pick themselves up in order to recover.
We cannot do so on gratuitous cynicism deriving from past failures. We can’t do so by concentrating on “smalls” of big national visions and initiatives.
Or by disguising yesterday’s rhetoric of nationalist paranoia into today’s fastidious demand that our leadership remains with us at home, so in suicidal solidarity, we all sink deeper into the slough of despondency as a nation. We have to look at the bigger picture, articulate bigger visions, court bigger players. In China and other nations and concerns of goodwill, we have an opportunity for a fresh start.
Let’s give ourselves another chance.
Mr George Charamba is the Presidential Press Secretary, and Secretary for Information, Media and Broadcasting Services in the Republic of Zimbabwe. He wrote this article for The Sunday Mail