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Zimbabwe and the challenges of flight

08/11/2017 00:00:00
by Seewell Mashizha

I HAVE recently had occasion to consider the various shades of meaning attached to the word ‘flight’.

The result was quite fascinating especially when looking at ‘flight’ in the context of loss or deficit and the causative chain.

That this word can conjure up all sorts of images and mental reveries is undeniable. However, depending on the nuance, the word can also trigger feelings of depression and hopelessness.

This in part is what polysemy is about – the widening of meaning in relation to one word.

For the most part, however, the word has some quite pleasant associations for all people given to creativity, and anyone who claims never to have been on a flight of fancy is not being entirely truthful. The incorrigible dreamers among us never really disengage except when we pass on.

Throughout history boundless urges of the imagination have fostered hitherto unknown wish lists and speculation, the very material on which discovery and invention are anchored. Timidity and lethargy are never part of this preoccupation.  But it isn’t all roses.

When our drives are intense and persistent we have sometimes spawned demagogues, megalomaniacs, dictators, and inveterate bourgeois romanticism such as will send people all over the world supposedly on a civilizing mission.

Some of those who in the end can be said to have committed crimes against humanity preface their project with protestations of being driven by a desire to achieve the greater good of all.

Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini are prime examples of this. In Africa, Idi Amin Dada and Jean Bedel Bokassa are also typical of this propensity for extreme malevolence.

Great thought leaders across the centuries have had profound effects on humanity. In fact, it can be said that they gave our world its present shape: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Mao Zedong, Lenin, Gautama Buddha, the prophet Mohammed and Jesus of Nazareth. Some might argue that only idle people engage in flights of fancy.

And religious zealots would warn us not to think too much, lest we begin to transgress against divinity. Doing geography for the first time at school allowed to learn how to use a world atlas.

This book, more than any other, encouraged my regular flights of fancy. Soon I was off to exotic far-away places in my imagination, bare foot on the beaches of Fiji and surfing the waves on the Canary Islands. But, where am I going with all this?


Zimbabwe has gone through the whole gamut of flights. When things became decidedly too effervescent in the Rhodesian kitchen a new expression gained currency: taking the gap.

To the Rhodesians, taking the gap was unforgivable. Rhodesia was awash with slogans and stickers that said, ‘Don’t drive Rhodesia dry’. At best Rhodesians numbered about a quarter of a million people, plus or minus.

By independence many whites had taken the gap to South Africa and Australia principally. This was the country’s first major migration as well as its first serious flight of skills.

For that reason, after the attainment of majority rule and independence, the new government prioritized education and manpower planning.

Parallel to and contemporaneous with the flight of white citizens was the huge wave of black youths across the borders into Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique to join the armed struggle against colonial domination and suppression.

Many of these young people joined the liberation struggle from schools, colleges and universities. It became a common occurrence at the University of Rhodesia, for example, to discover, after the weekend, abandoned student rooms in the halls of residence. It was an open secret that the occupants had gone to join ZANLA and ZIPRA.

After independence, many black Zimbabweans across the world went back home to play their part in the newly-independent state of Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans up till then had been everywhere, getting skills, some of which were considered superfluous at the time.

Frank Khumalo, a nuclear physicist, now a medical doctor also, is a classic example of this. He came back home to find that after the pentagon he was overqualified for the job market in Zimbabwe. The apartheid regime in South Africa was only too delighted to make an exception in his case because of his rare skills.

To an extent, this is the case with our garrulous Professor Arthur Mutambara of robotics fame. Many Zimbabweans will probably stumble over the word robotics.  For now, Arthur Mutambara is probably over-qualified for Zimbabwe.

Maybe he is, and maybe he is not. He is an interesting case in that he could take the lead in investing in the country and start a whole new industry in his line of expertise if he chose to.

Regrettably, he does not appear to operating in an entrepreneurial mode, thinking, as many do, only about employment, wages and salaries. 

We cannot, of course ignore the perceptions about Zimbabwe out there, particularly when it comes to what is commonly referred to as the ease of doing business.

By all accounts, for example, it only takes 6 hours to register a company in Rwanda, and everything pertinent to the process is done in one place under one roof. Without doubt, in the eyes of many neutral people, Rwanda is the wondrous new kid on the block. Some will say that by comparison to Rwanda, Zimbabwe pales into insignificance in this regard.

I find it curious tough, that we cry for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and yet appear not to understand what this instrument entails. It is a foregone conclusion that the foreign direct investor is not in it for humanitarian or philanthropic reasons. He expects returns of his investment and expects to be able to repatriate a large portion of his profits. This is a major area of contention and disappointment in Zimbabwe at the moment.

Accordingly, the country needs a protocol to change this. If nothing is done to alleviate this problem the whole idea of an FDI is negated and we exacerbate our liquidity problems. Electronic money must at some point translate into cash, including in foreign exchange.

When such issues are not resolved we end up with a situation in which companies invest their millions and then stop production because they are unable to access hard cash for spares and so on. And to make things worse when these firms import spares they are not exempt from the payment of duty. This is not something that can encourage foreign firms to invest.

What we are seeing in Zimbabwe is a situation in which firms set up business only to stop production not too long afterwards. This strategy raises a number of major questions: When is it best to invest in a country? Is it when that country has an economic meltdown or when there is a boom?

Some will say if you do your due diligence and market research properly, you should be able to predict with considerable accuracy the trend that is likely to prevail in the years ahead. It does not appear that these questions are being attended to.

Strangely though, even as Zimbabweans join the gravy train to other countries, people from the countries they run to replace them and avail themselves of the opportunities that arise.  This, willy-nilly means that cries about capital flight notwithstanding, the situation is moving on inexorably towards paradigm shifts.

Shocks Mnisi Mzolo, writing for the SAA in-flight magazine, Sawubona, discusses what he sees as the rise of global citizenship. It is a well-researched and well-argued article. He describes how things like global citizenship as embodied in the numerous cases of dual citizenship (formalized and informal) are no longer so isolated.

Tellingly, Mzolo observes, “SA already has a crippling skills shortage and the exodus of wealthy citizens and highly qualified professionals could exacerbate the situation.” According to Mzolo, a combination of factors has created a situation in which there is, in South Africa, a high demand for what he calls ‘second citizenship’.

These factors include the coming of democracy to the land of apartheid, a weakening economy, unemployment and political uncertainty. Mzolo illustrates the effects of political uncertainty very well by pointing out that South Africa “is not the only country losing its citizenry.

A similar surge was seen in the USA when Donald Trump became President and the UK when the Brexit vote was positive”.  In my view, however, such occurrences when properly-harnessed, can become positive drivers of development in the home countries of those affected, Zimbabwe included.

Ironically, South Africa has been one of the major beneficiaries of the flight of skills from Zimbabwe and has many Zimbabwean artisans and other professionals manning many critical areas.

To an extent the flight of South Africa’s skills is compensated by the flight of skills from Zimbabwe, in particular, as well as from other African countries including Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria.

The thing to do is to woo Zimbabweans in and out of Zimbabwe to begin to invest their skills and resources now rather than later. It might even be necessary to attract skills from the developed world.


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