Zimbabwe’s oil find, is big news. It is big news for a number of reasons not least of which is the timing of its announcement. Notwithstanding the dispute of the size of the find and the stage of the discovery, the possibility portends the greatest economic development in the early post-Mugabe era. The currency woes that have plagued the people of that country and its government a decade ago, have reared their menacing head once more. And not for the first time. They come as seasons and arrive with the wrath of hurricanes. And with each season, is wrought the kind of socio-political turbulence whose tremor can be felt throughout the Southern African region and possibly beyond.
President Mnangagwa felt proud as he announced the positive exploratory results in Muzarabani, indicating the presence of hydrocarbons, as he should. And so should be most Zimbabweans. Not all of them would be gloating in kindred pride however, nor do they all agree on what the causes of their dire financial situation are. In that spirit, they have diametrically opposing prescriptions for their ailing economy and so are poised to continue to differ on the best course for the bettering of the condition of their lot. In their understanding, the happier half that is , is their seeing of the arrival of the last crucial piece of the economic puzzle to solve once and for all, the crisis that has driven so many of their compatriots to far, far horizons, known and unknown, in search of a better life.
The oil find was cautiously announced by the prospecting company from down under, listed in the ASX, even though their shares remain suspended pending the filing of the Maiden Prospecting Report Estimate. Going by the style Invictus, they could not be more appropriately named, invoking the sagacious lyrics of an eponymous poem which Mandela loved so much. William Ernest Henley the poet, may not have had Zimbabwe or oil in his mind when he said.
‘…black as the pit from pole to pole
No matter. Right now, Zimbabweans have got oil in their minds. Deep hydrocarbon wells and lots of black, flowing liquid oil. And money too. With billions of United States dollars destined to be generated from God’s own gushing gift to the land of Monamotapa and the Ndebele, every Zimbabwean can finish with flourish the immortal words of the poem and proudly pronounce…
‘…I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul..’
What’s in it for them
There is good reason for anticipation and watching our neighbours begin to leverage the fruits of their own toil as well as their hard earned experience. For, it is when they benefit from their own experience do we hope to emulate them and so spread equitably the dividends of that country’s hard working women and men’s bitter and protracted economic experience . Into their second Head of State since their independence from Smith’s unilaterally declared independence, the heat of the debate has intensified on the future and trajectory of Zimbabwe, its politics, its economy and the relationship of its people among themselves. To the extent that they have Mugabe’s long tenure as their reference whose net outcomes have brought them to where they are hitherto, they may have to search deeply among themselves first, before extending their tentacles in pursuit of the evergreen solutions that always seem to obtain beyond own’s national borders.
Yet the story of oil and oil politics in Zimbabwe is not just a Zimbabwe story only. It is our story too. A story of a prosperous Zimbabwe is indubitably, a story of our common symbiosis of prosperity. And with this discovery, they walk into this task fully conscious that other countries in the continent have had mixed outcomes in dealing with oil and its accompanying wealth. No doubt, the questions linger uncomfortably about how Zimbabwe will be different from their continental brethren both in political poise and emotional content. There are four case studies which the Zimbabweans must pay particularly heed to. Without any order of merit, these are Lybia, the country with the largest oil reserves in the continent, Nigeria the largest producer, Angola the second largest and Equitorial Guinea the fourth largest producer. Each of their stories speak for themselves, allowing for a liberal picking and choosing at will from their eclectic mix of experiences. Notwithstanding their differences in experience and economic progression, there is a singular thread common to all four including all other modest producers. This is that oil is a very volatile commodity. And it cannot be overemphasized that it must be handled with care.
Besides, Zimbabwe has always had and continues to have prodigious amounts of natural resources, the high value ones. They range from gold, to platinum, copper, diamonds and many other esoteric rare earth minerals pertinent to defense and outer space industries. The political leadership of that country bring into the oil debate an old and fully manifested instinct, a minerals DNA. And on this genealogy they are not dissimilar to their mining neighbor. Yet for its sophistication, in very quiet and innocuous ways, South Africa’s mineral culture has grown into something too complex to fathom. This is its relationship to land. It has masterfully separated the rights over the land from the ownership of minerals beneath it. One may own the land by whatever instrument, but not the minerals attaching thereunder. And so when the bells of expropriation begin to chime, Government, the people’s exclusive agent for expropriation, will return the land without the minerals. And that puts to question the entire philosophy behind expropriation. It is the theory of gatekeeping gone awry. Your title deed entitles you to be gatekeeper of minerals without a gate and nothing to keep.
What’s in it for us
Whilst South Africa and Zimbabwe have common stakes in each other’s prosperity, they seldom learn from each other’s experiences. Fortunately, in the area of oil ownership, Zimbabwe may not need to learn from its esteemed economic neighbor with which it shares a long and fascinating history and a porous border. From the Gold Empire of Mapungubwe circa the twelve and thirteen centuries to the Kingdom of Monamotapa two hundred years later, and the Difaqane wars of conquest that introduced the Zulu contingent known as the Ndebele today, the relations between the two countries continue to write themselves in the casual cassive accustomed to chroniclers of ancient history. Rather, South Africa may have to learn from Zimbabwe that when you discover crude oil, the best model is a production sharing agreement. What they may learn from South Africa’s experience with land on the other hand, is that it has developed an attitude that says, whilst land is important for economic redistribution, the wealth underneath it is not. There is ample reason for Zimbabwe to be wary of such attitude. South Africa is in the middle of an expropriation conversation, requiring a steady emotion and a temperament in moderation. It would be worrisome to give to its agency the task of expropriating land on anybody’s behalf, if for no rational reason, they would give away the wealth beneath it to someone else.
If South Africa needs to share a valuable experience with its neighbor, it must first go out to its Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone and claim on behalf of its citizens, the exclusive right of ownership of all the wealth in our seas, especially the mineral and hydrocarbon wealth found in its deep crevices. And that should not be given away to no one else, at least not with some equitable participation by the sovereign through the National Oil Company or other relevant agencies of State. It is worth repeating in these pages that practically all developing oil producing countries of the world own such resource through their national oil companies. South Africa doesn’t, fed as we are on a deliberate falsehood that by owning our oil wealth, no one will invest, ‘no one’ in emphasis! And so in fear, we are prepared to give all our wealth away to parties who may not even want to sell it to us, nor permit that the low cost of production should be passed on to the citizens, as the true owners of the exploited resource. Copying such disastrous model would be calamitous for Zimbabwe, and should be rightfully avoided.
With so much projected oil, so many patriotic lending hands will be required from Zimbabweans . And so the many skills acquired in the travails of the diaspora, must be harvested for the overall public good and the empowerment of those who remained behind. No doubt they remained to ensure that when the seekers of opportunity return, they would find a country with people in it, which they can proudly call home. And so, as the many Zimbabweans prepare to return to their motherland to heed the clarion call, reciting the Invictus poem with conviction, we join them in this new chapter and in their moment of resolve as they master the path of their destiny and become the captains of their own soul. And inevitably, ours.
Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister-at-Law.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.
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