Big Saturday Read: Beware of bribery in the name of charity

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Alex T. Magaisa

A tour into the past

As we stand at this critical juncture in the affairs of the world, there is much to learn from the past. It would be irresponsible to repeat errors and misjudgments of the past. So the story today begins with a quick tour into the past. The lessons to be derived from this tour will become evident as the BSR progresses.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, Africa came under European colonial rule. The colonial enterprise was established through a diverse range of coercive, collaborative and duplicitous strategies.

Europeans who approached African kings and chiefs in pursuit of mining concessions often came bearing an assortment of gifts. These gifts included exotic alcoholic drinks such as gin and Scotch whiskey to which, according to some accounts, members of the African royalty had become partial. Other exotic goods of European extraction were sought after by members of local royalty.

By pampering them with these gifts, in addition to other persuasive manoeuvres, these concession-hunters wormed their way into royal courts and got an audience with the African leaders of the day. They managed to extract contractual arrangements, terms of which were heavily skewed in their favour. Language gaps were bridged by European missionaries who had mastered African languages during the course of their missionary enterprise. Missionaries had earned the trust of African royalty.

In the land that is now Zimbabwe, three emissaries of Cecil John Rhodes, namely, Charles Rudd, Rochfort Maguire and Francis Thompson were able to negotiate an important agreement with King Lobengula in 1888. This agreement, which heralded the path to colonisation, is commonly known as the Rudd Concession, named after the head of Rhodes’ negotiating party.

Later, upon realisation of the grave implications of what had happened, the King tried to resile from the concession, but his efforts were in vain. The horses had well and truly bolted. He even sent a strong diplomatic mission to London, to make representations with Queen Victoria. It probably counts as the country’s first overseas diplomatic mission.

The emissaries took King Lobengula’s message to the British Queen. However, the mission was unsuccessful. By then Rhodes was already on course to move in with his company, the British South Africa Company (BSAC). The Pioneer Column trekked into the territory and established itself at Fort Salisbury in September 1890 and the BSAC took charge of the land.

But the Rudd Concession was not the only agreement that King Lobengula made with the Europeans. Nor was Rudd’s party the only European effort. There had been quite a few before. King Lobengula later granted a concession to Eduard Lippert, a German businessman, a strategy designed to set up a rival to the Rudd Concession, having realised the deceitful nature of the latter.

There was quite a flurry of activity at the royal court at Bulawayo as several European concession-hunters jostled for the King’s attention. Naturally, they sought allies among those nearer to the King. An assortment of favours would have exchanged hands in return for access and support. Indeed, a senior Induna, Lotshe, who had actively supported the Rudd concession and friendly relations with the Europeans was later sentenced to death.

The scene at Bulawayo at the end of the 19th century would not have been very different from events in other parts of the continent. And that is how Africa quickly came under colonial rule. The process was executed with swift and brutal efficiency. In the land that became Zimbabwe, the Africans tried to fight back, first in 1893 and then in 1896-7, but their valiant efforts were to no avail. The military defeat marked the end of self-determination. The land was under colonial rule for nearly a century. It had all started with negotiations and deceitful “agreements”.

Learnt nothing

You would think after all these years, African leaders have learnt some key lessons from this history of colonisation; how powerful nations gain superiority and control over others. But alas, they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, to use a historical cliche. Back in the day, the threat of imperial control came from Europe. Nowadays, the scene is more complex and the sources of domination are varied.

The African leaders of the 19th century may be forgiven for they were too trusting and did not have prior experience of their guests’ trickery. They also relied on translators who were conflicted. They were asked to sign documents that were alien to their way of doing things. The same indulgence cannot be extended to African leaders in the 21st century.

Reading European representations of Africa back then, the predominant belief was that Africans were lazy, stupid and easily led. Nowadays, political correctness prevents the use of such language. However, judging by the conduct of some foreign powers towards Africa and its people, those beliefs are still alive. Indeed, the recent representations and treatment of Africans in some parts of China have caused a great deal of distress and resentment across the continent.

When representatives of China speak, as they have done in Zimbabwe in recent times, there is a remarkable absence of respect but instead, there is a disconcerting streak of patronisation; the tone of a supposedly smart person talking to a bunch of idiots. Perhaps the African representatives they deal with have given the impression of unthinking and uncritical beings who can be easily played.

This week the Chinese embassy in Harare announced that two Chinese companies had donated masks, protective clothing and goggles to Angel of Hope Foundation, a charity run by the president’s wife, Mrs Auxilia Mnangagwa. This donation is meant to assist in the fight against the COVID19 pandemic. They are “honoured to work with the First Lady to serve people”, the Twitter handle of the Chinese embassy said in conclusion. This manner in which the donation was conveyed was curious and warrants closer examination.

When the State is failing

First, foreign assistance in the fight against the pandemic is commendable as long as it is done in good faith. Poor leadership has left Zimbabwe’s health care system in a parlous state. It is ironic that despite the ills of colonialism, at independence, Zimbabwe inherited an excellent health-care system and although the government expanded it in the first decade, it is now in a decrepit state. Even before the current pandemic, Zimbabwe’s health care system was already on its knees. Staff at public hospitals were being paid by Higher Life Foundation, the charitable arm of the Econet Group, a telecoms company founded by billionaire Strive Masiyiwa.

The Masiyiwas intervened to stop a long-drawn strike that had brought the public health-care system to a standstill. The state was failing in one of its fundamental functions to deliver public goods, in this case, public health care. Given these inadequacies, foreign assistance, from China and other sources including the UK, the EU and the US have come in handy at a time of great need. Zimbabwe’s inability to deliver decent public health care is a result of many factors including failed IMF-inspired neo-liberal experiments in the 1990s and gross misallocation of public funds and corruption. Having to rely on foreign aid for public health is an embarrassing indictment on the government and in particular, ZANU PF, which has held power since 1980.

Embarrassing obsequiousness

The second issue is how the Chinese support was channelled, which raises concerns of veiled bribery. Across the world, governments are leading their countries’ anti-COVID19 fight and they are doing so through specially designated task forces. When foreign support is given it is channelled through the state institutions or international bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is important for purposes of transparency and legitimacy. Curiously, the Chinese companies chose to channel their support to the president’s wife, a non-state actor who falls outside the government task-force. This is problematic on several fronts, in particular the ethical issues it raises from a governance perspective.

In the first place, it is inconceivable that China would accept a similar arrangement where a foreign company deals directly with a charity run by China’s First Lady in the COVID19 response instead of the government or a formal international agency like the WHO. China, like any other country, maintains strict safeguards around its presidency and frowns upon anything that might remotely resemble interference or otherwise compromise its integrity and independence. It’s very simple: if it’s not good for China, it shouldn’t be good for the countries that it deals with, regardless of their size and circumstances.

However, the problem is also with African countries, in this case, Zimbabwe which accepts this type of treatment. Being poor does not mean countries should lower their standards. Foreign powers do as they please because African leaders allow them to reduce their standards. The Chinese know that most African leaders they deal with lower their standards because they feel beholden to them. Only a handful of African countries were prepared to vocalise their concerns over recent allegations of the racist treatment of Africans in China. Zimbabwe’s information ministry, which is usually vocal against the West, was so obsequious it behaved like a spokesperson for China.

The reason for this submissive posture is that most of these African leaders feel beholden to China which does not question them on matters of human rights on the ground of non-interference in states’ domestic affairs. China has also emerged as a big benefactor in Africa and wedged between the West and China, most African leaders would rather go along with the latter. With Zimbabwe’s new parliament being built by the Chinese, and a host of other projects being funded by China, and its Vice President receiving life-saving treatment in China, the country’s leadership has virtually no capacity to question China on anything. The servile attitude adopted by the government and public officers is sickening. The problem lies within our system, both the lack of standards and a begging mentality which makes our leaders obsequious towards foreign powers, in this case, China.

Bribery in the name of charity

Still, this does not explain why the Chinese companies channelled their support through Mrs Mnangagwa’s charity ahead of state actors or international agencies. The explanation lies in their pursuit of strategic advantages, particularly strengthening an ally with proximity to the seat of power. The department that needs these materials is the Ministry of Health and Child Care, which is in charge of the national response to the COVID19 pandemic. Giving the materials to Mrs Mnangagwa’s charity only adds a bureaucratic layer which creates inefficiency and potential inequality and abuse in the distribution of resources.

However, the Chinese companies are not concerned with what happens to the resources because their strategic interests lie in the advantages to be obtained from pleasing Zimbabwe’s First Lady. Behind the veil of charity, the gift is a snare for the heart of Mrs Mnangagwa.

The Chinese have figured out that the First Lady is a person of great influence upon the president and the best way to get a commercial advantage is to massage the ego of the African leader. She represents a useful path to the president’s heart. It is therefore good for the Chinese to have Mrs Mnangagwa as a grateful ally. There is more credit to be earned from channelling the aid through the First Lady than via the government task-force, Health Ministry or international agencies such as the WHO.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship because the First Lady becomes a donor in her own right, via the charity. Both the Chinese and the First Lady can lay claim to the title of donors for the same product, earning both parties credit. Viewed from this perspective, this type of donation mimics bribery in that it is given in expectation of future, albeit undefined favours. When the veil around the gift is peeled, it is revealed as an attempt to capture the heart of a powerful party that is related to and may influence the president. This behaviour would be illegal and prohibited if it happened in China. Again, if it’s bad for China, why would it be good for Zimbabwe?

Charity, Party and Government

The donation to Mrs Mnangagwa’s charity also presents a problem because of Zimbabwe’s governance model in which there is the conflation of the ruling party and the government. In this case, the charity is also conflated with the party so that whatever it does is treated as part of the ruling party’s activities. Therefore, when the Chinese companies donate to the charity, they are effectively donating to ZANU PF and this potentially breaches rules concerning political party funding, massively skewing the political and electoral playing ground.

While ZANU PF habitually rides on the state because of party-state conflation, at least the activities of the government are subject to public audit and scrutiny. The same does not apply to Mrs Mnangagwa’s charity, which is beyond the reach of the Auditor-General’s Office. If another country were giving similar support to a charity linked to the opposition party, the state propaganda machinery would be all over the place accusing the opposition of being funded by foreigners and of selling out. China would not permit this type of political interference in its own country. If it’s not good for China, why should it be good for Zimbabwe?

To Caesar what belongs to Caesar

The third concern is even more serious because it demonstrates a long-standing problem of the unequal relationship between rich countries and their poorer counterparts. They present themselves as generous, when in fact what they are giving is small change given what they extract from Africa. One of the Chinese companies which donated goods to Mrs Mnangagwa’s charity is the technology giant, Huawei Technologies. It is important to examine the gift against Huawei’s corporate citizenship or residency in Zimbabwe.

In 2019, Huawei was granted a tax exemption dating back to 2014 when the Government of Zimbabwe issued a decree (Statutory Instrument 227 of 2019). This tax exemption was subsequently extended to 2009 through another decree (Statutory Instrument 25 of 2020). This means Huawei did not pay tax in Zimbabwe for over a decade. Therefore, when Huawei is donating masks, gloves and goggles, it has to be measured against the millions that could have been paid in taxes. Indeed, it might be argued that with a responsible government, Zimbabwe would not need a donation from Huawei if the company paid its taxes.

The argument that the exemption was in return for the financing deal from a Chinese bank is an insufficient justification. Such a deal is part of loans that benefit the donor country more because support is tied to contracting only a company from that country. Revenues and jobs go to the donor country.

Given the circumstances, a metaphor used by one social media account calling themselves @ZimboMaid provides the most vivid image of the relationship. “Kufadzwa nemukaka nemunhu akakutorera mombe”, wrote @ZimboMaid on Twitter, the micro-blogging social network in response to the Chinese embassy’s tweet. Loosely translated, it means it’s foolish to celebrate receiving a pint of milk from someone who took away your cow. One is better off with their cow. In this case, Zimbabwe would be better off if Huawei paid its taxes. Caesar must be given the things that belong to Caesar.

This scenario is, of course, not new to Africa. For decades, African countries have given away more than they have received from their richer counterparts. More money leaves the continent than what comes via aid and donations, but it is expected to be grateful. Research has demonstrated that the money that Africa receives in foreign aid is far outstripped by what they lose through complex arrangements which include bilateral agreements with unfair terms, tax agreements and tax avoidance schemes by multinational corporations and other illicit financial flows. Its rich raw materials are shipped off but they end up buying finished products at higher prices. They then receive donations and aid and are expected to be grateful. China is simply taking a much-travelled path, and once again Africa is at the receiving end.

An African Problem

While it’s easy to load the blame on China, that would allow African governments to get away with irresponsibility and incompetence. In the case of the Huawei tax exemption, it is the Zimbabwean government which granted it. Zimbabwe is a sovereign state and the government must take responsibility for the decision. The people of Zimbabwe have the right and power to hold their government accountable. It is they who must ask why their government saw it fit to grant Huawei a tax exemption of such a duration.

Indeed, it is the people who must demand transparency over the agreements that the Zimbabwean government has concluded with China and other countries. There may well be good reasons for a tax exemption in specific cases but this should be fully disclosed and justified. There must be transparency in such loan agreements. However, the Zimbabwean government has consistently failed and/or refused to disclose terms of loan agreements with foreign parties contrary to constitutional requirements.

This lack of transparency is what causes people to question Huawei’s 11-year tax exemption. It leads to unhelpful speculation over the relationship between the two countries. China is not building Zimbabwe’s parliament for free. As the cliche goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. However, if Zimbabweans sit back and fail to hold their government accountable, the relationship of horse and horse-rider that is developing between their country and China will continue without abatement.

A repeat of history?

Over a century ago, Europeans found their way into Africa, first as traders, travellers and adventurers but later as colonial powers. They managed to trick and subdue the African leaders of the day. Where there was resistance, the establishment of colonial authority was harsh and brutal. Nowadays, conquest is frowned upon. But the tricks and deceitful methods are still there.

They come in the form of agreements and concessions which on the face of it are perfectly legal. They also come in the form of aid and donations which on the face of it are acts of kindness and benevolence. However, on a more critical examination, these agreements are sophisticated tools to emasculate the Africans and gain control of their resources. A robust assessment which peels the veil of charity shows these gifts to be no more than forms of bribery designed to corrupt and compromise African leaders.

These leaders may be easily led, but the younger generation of Africans must be more vigilant and more circumspect. If they relax into complacency, Africa will be under a new colonial reality long before the midpoint of this century. My great fear is that the current COVID19 pandemic is going to weaken the African state further, that it will lead to social unrest and make the African government more vulnerable and dependent on external help. It may accelerate the process.

The post-COVID challenge for Africa

Finally, I will continue to raise calls for a deeper intellectual examination of Africa’s fate in a post-COVID world. It is fair to say the COVID19 pandemic is a phenomenon of historic significance which is changing the way human societies are organised at both domestic and global levels. It will have fundamental ramifications on the role of the state in society.

Conditions of crisis create great opportunities for the state to take a more interventionist role in society’s socio-economic affairs. A crisis leaves society’s social and economic structures in disarray, needing the hand of the state. The Welfare State grew in the wake of World War 2, responding to the demands of resource scarcity and reconstruction after the devastation of the war. Big changes came in the 1980s as neo-liberalism became dominant. As recently as 2008, the state intervened in drastic ways after the Global Financial Crisis which led to the Great Recession.

Already, the state has been called into action in response to the COVID19 pandemic, which is not just a health crisis but is a full-blown economic and social crisis. In time, this social crisis will morph into a political crisis as social unrest rises in responses to scarcity and poverty. Fragile states which were already weak before the pandemic will be hit the hardest. Already, it is evident that rich countries are managing to respond quicker and with more resources than the poor countries which have to depend evermore on aid and donations.

Africa has the majority of the world’s weakest economies and poorest communities. They are at the mercy of not just the pandemic but also the wealthier counterparts which can use their power to emasculate them. Although rates are still low by comparison to other continents, this may be due to poor testing capacity which presents misleading indicators. But even if it’s low, complacency would be a fatal error. In any event, economically, as the developed world sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.

While rich countries have been able to respond with huge financial packages for their economies, effectively taking over private businesses to keep them afloat and protect jobs, poor countries do not have similar capacity. The decline in demand and prices of commodities on the world market makes the weak economies even more vulnerable. Already economies dependent on oil face tough times due to the dramatic fall in prices. Poor countries have struggled to enforce lockdowns because poor communities face starvation in their homes. In Zimbabwe, the government is giving the equivalent of less than $US5 as a cushion for vulnerable families. Shortages of food mean they have to queue in large numbers for the staple maize meal, making social distancing rules redundant.

Zimbabwe is one of the extreme cases, which were already in crisis before the pandemic. While they are outliers, many more will join them such is the debilitating effect of the pandemic. Shortages and the real probability of famine is likely to result in social unrest as people jostle to survive. The state’s response will use coercive instruments of the state and may be brutal. Members of the security services will use their vantage position as enforcers of the lockdown to collect illegal rents from communities. Harsh domestic responses and abuse of power by authoritarian states may go without global censure as each country focuses on its challenges.

As a consequence, authoritarian regimes will feel emboldened in a world with limited external scrutiny and censure. As pointed out in the last BSR, there is a need to re-think how civil society watchdogs and opposition parties engage the state in a post-COVID world. The pandemic has given governments so much power, and so much confidence to use it that the habit will be difficult to drop. The fear is that the excuse of fighting the pandemic will be taken advantage of by authoritarian regimes.

Removing the safety-valve

The world was already on the slippery slope towards parochial nationalisms. The multi-pronged crises are only likely to escalate it as each nation-state looks to rebuild in the post-COVID era. The closure of borders and the restriction of exports of essential commodities already signalled this narrow-focused approach. The disruption of global supply chains means companies will now relocate to their states of origin or they may try to find safe spaces elsewhere. Countries that have responded better to the pandemic will win the safe spaces race.

The inward-looking approach by countries in the post-COVID future might have other important implications. Tito Mboweni, the Finance Minister of Zimbabwe’s rich neighbour, South Africa has already stated that companies that need government support will have to show that they are prioritising South Africans. Mboweni is an affable man who understands the politics of the region, and if it sounds harsh, he is being honest about what to expect in the post-COVID future. This will affect many Zimbabweans, especially those in the hotel and catering business.

The implications will go beyond job losses for Zimbabwean workers. South Africa has long been the Zimbabwean regime’s safety valve, relieving pressure by absorbing jobless and desperate Zimbabweans into its congested labour market. The South African outlet has relieved pressure from the Zimbabwean regime for decades. If this safety valve is removed in the post-COVID future, thousands of Zimbabweans may be deported home. There, Zimbabweans will have to face their government. Millions of rands in remittances to Zimbabwe will be lost. The Zimbabwean regime will have to contend with the social pressure of the returnees. It is too early to judge but the removal of the South African safety valve could have profound implications on political dynamics in Zimbabwe.

To be poor and vulnerable

A most significant impact arising from poverty is that the impoverished population will become more vulnerable to capture by the rich and powerful. Just as states that are dependent on donations are vulnerable to the donor states’ agendas, communities that are dependent on the state are exposed to the whims of the ruling party. The implications for democracy are ominous as access to food will become an even more critical determinant of political choices, even in urban areas.

In the case of Zimbabwe, it is arguable that political choices in rural areas have largely been determined by individuals’ ability to access state support. This has always placed the ruling party at an advantage because, as the distributor of state resources, it controls the political economy of the rural environment. The COVID19 pandemic enhances the role of the state in the rural political economy and increases the ruling party’s opportunities to use state support to further its political interests. For a desperate person facing poverty, between a ruling party that is giving out food and an opposition that is promising things in the future, the choice is determined by the immediate need to survive.

This is why when the Chinese are providing support through the president’s wife’s charity, they are in effect providing political funding to the president and the ruling party, something which is illegal. To the extent that such forms of support affect and influences the political process of elections, it is, arguably, foreign interference in national elections which China itself would never approve in its internal politics.


African countries must learn from their history of colonial domination and exploitation to avoid repeating errors of the past. Our forebears were trusting almost to the point of naivety. They were duped because they believed their European guests were acting in good faith. They saw the exotic gifts and trinkets from Europe as generosity. But the guests had other designs. It was too late when the African leaders discovered they had been deceived. They had given away control of their land and communities. For their part, the colonists were sure that they were fully justified. After all, they had written agreements to prove their title.

Today, the characters may have changed, but the methods aren’t very different. The guests also hold written agreements to prove their title. They bring an assortment of gifts and trinkets for African leaders and their associates. The idea is to capture the hearts and minds of the African elites; to gain influence over them. In short, the idea is to capture the African leadership in the name of charity. The African leaders are happy because they can use the resources for political patronage. One day, African leaders will wake up and find that they no longer have control over their resources, let alone their nations’ destiny.

The COVID19 pandemic is increasing the vulnerability of poor states and poor communities. Poverty is easily exploited by wealthy benefactors. The more dependent they are, the more prone they are to manipulation. The more donations they get, the more they lose their ability to question their benefactors. Communities that are impoverished become ever more dependent on the state and those who control it. Deals such as Chinese companies channelling support to a charity connected to the presidency are designed to win leverage over the highest office in the country. They are a form of bribery which would be frowned upon in China.