Can ‘new dispensation’ be more than cosmetic? The possibility of a rapid rebound

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SINCE the fall of Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe in November 2017, the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has been making it known to the world that his country is finally “open for business.” At the moment, per capita income is contracting, the fiscal deficit has surpassed a tenth of GDP, and the official currency trades on the informal market at a premium of about 30 percent. There are certainly signs of genuine intent coming out of Harare that the new government wants to reintegrate Zimbabwe into the global economy and make life easier for business, but the question remains: Will what it calls the country’s “new dispensation” be more than cosmetic? 

The Mugabe regime essentially destroyed the country’s economy. During the first two decades after its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was considered an African success story, with a stable regime overseeing steady if unspectacular economic growth—real incomes growing an average just over one percent a year, although some years recorded double-digit gains. Then, at the turn of the millennium, Mugabe adopted an anticolonial platform and a nationalist economic policy reminiscent of earlier experiments by other countries that had achieved autarky, and began to seize land occupied by white farmers. In the two decades since, Zimbabweans have watched their average incomes decline by a third. Even that figure is not the lowest Zimbabweans have seen, as the Government of National Unity (GNU) brought about a period of recovery between 2009 and 2013. When the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), entered government for the first time in 2009, in a coalition with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, per capita income had more than halved over the previous decade. After four years of recovery under the GNU, Mugabe swept back to office in 2013, and the rot resumed. 

Yet on the streets of Harare, it’s hard to spot the signs of an imploding economy. The roads are congested, the store shelves are brimming with fresh produce, and the restaurants are respectably busy. Tales of woe abound, with vendors in the markets complaining that nobody has money and businesspeople bemoaning the lack of foreign exchange. But press them a bit and you’ll often get a sheepish smile, followed by an admission that they have some kind of economic activity or cash reserve off the books somewhere. In fact, when you peer beneath the hood of the Zimbabwean economy, what you discover is less an economy that has collapsed and more one that has withdrawn from formal circulation. In a recent study, the International Monetary Fund reckons that among the world’s countries, only Bolivia has a larger informal economy than Zimbabwe, where it estimates more than half of economic activity now occurs beyond the government’s purview.

That’s a huge problem. The informal economy may be alive and well, but production units remain small-scale (precisely because they aim to stay off the radar). That limits investment in new technology and prevents scaling up for greater efficiency. Moreover, any firm that needs to source inputs, especially imported inputs, struggles to find foreign exchange at a reasonable price. The result is a manufacturing sector that was once an African powerhouse but is now mostly idle: accounting for a fifth of GDP at the time of independence, manufacturing now barely accounts for a tenth, an underperformer in an underperforming economy. 

There is more money in Zimbabwe than meets the official eye. Estimates in the financial sector vary, but as much as three-fourths of the country’s remittances came in last year through formal channels. The rest was sent in ways that escaped official detection. Equally, it’s not uncommon for a middle-class family to have a stash of dollars somewhere, although there are no official figures to illuminate how widespread this practice is. Unfortunately, stuffed mattresses have no multiplier. This lack of liquidity creates a vicious cycle: people with foreign exchange hesitate to place it in their bank accounts because they can’t then withdraw more than a bit at a time (assuming there’s even cash available). And because they don’t deposit it the money cannot flow and the restrictions on withdrawals remain. Zimbabweans queue for hours outside banks, and typically by mid-morning the banks have run dry.

Bringing all the concealed money, and the economic activity underlying it, back into formal circulation could thus yield a rapid rebound. Many of the conditions that would support a Zimbabwean renaissance remain present. Despite years of political maladministration, for example, the country retains good bureaucratic capacity, a wealth of natural resources and potential energy supplies, and a human capital stock that is among the best on the continent: on the education component of the UNDP’s Human Development Index, Zimbabwe outperforms its rank, and even during the crisis years when it fell on all other indicators, its performance in mean-schooling continued improving. 

Were the government to successfully persuade both its citizens and foreign investors that it really had put behind the economic policies of the Mugabe era, a rapid rebound would be possible. When the GNU dollarized the economy in 2009, the rapid restoration of confidence caused money to rush in, and the country’s foreign reserves surged. Subsequently, the imposition of controls on withdrawals depressed confidence. But were these controls lifted again, it seems reasonable to expect another rapid influx of money into the banking system. With the manufacturing sector operating at about 40 percent capacity, renewed access to inputs could very well yield a 50 percent increase in output: such rapid increases occurred in previous episodes of Zimbabwean recovery, such as under the GNU. That would drive employment, sending more consumers into the markets. Exports could resume, local production could substitute for imports (further improving the foreign currency flow), and new players—mining firms and farmers who fled the land occupations—could expand operations to help meet the rising demand. All things told, Chinese-level growth rates aren’t out of the question—if only because they’re not unusual in Africa, where economic reform can lead to a sharp reentry of activity into formal circulation: last year, three of the world’s fastest-growing economies were in Africa, and the conditions are ripe for Zimbabwe to join that list in future years.

But equally realistic, for many Zimbabweans, is that money entering into circulation gets gobbled up in debt arrears and payouts to the support base of the ruling ZANU-PF. Prospective investors are preparing for possible future scenarios but aren’t making significant changes to their operations until they get more clarity about the future, particularly with elections coming up this summer. Were the opposition to win, the likelihood of such a rebound is high. The MDC’s previous record of economic management is good—during the four years of the GNU, the country recorded double-digit growth rates and increased its GDP by more than half—and the former finance minister, Tendai Biti, is playing a key role drafting its economic strategy.

Following an initial fragmentation, the opposition MDC has largely coalesced around an articulate young lawyer, Nelson Chamisa. Hurdles in the path to its election victory remain, however. Although the removal of Mugabe, and his replacement by Mnangagwa, was done within the rubric of the constitution, it revealed the generals to be the real power behind the throne. They went on to snap up the vice presidency and key cabinet posts in the new government. There is thus already talk in Harare of an emergent Egyptian scenario—a dictator brought down by a democratic outburst only to be replaced by military rule. Opposition leaders suspect that the military is behind the government’s slow progress on their demands for electoral reforms—such as opening the state media to the opposition, confining the soldiers to barracks, and ensuring the independence of the electoral commission. If their demands are not granted, they say they will fill the streets with protesters to stop the elections from happening. As decrepit as the old regime was, the generals stand to lose a great deal from its fall—not least because the opposition wants to put them out to pasture (comfortable though that pasture would probably be).

As a result, few Zimbabweans seem ready to assume that the country has yet entered a new era, or that the generals don’t intend to play a role similar to the old Turkish military, as the final arbiters of the country’s politics. Nevertheless, President Mnangagwa has welcomed foreign observers, and opposition leaders agree that effective monitoring would make it harder for the generals or ZANU-PF to steal the election. It is not implausible that the president’s own strategy is to obtain a popular mandate so as to emancipate himself from his colleagues. Known as a pragmatist, Mnangagwa’s actions have hinted at a willingness to break with the past. As a top opposition figure told me, the generals strongly oppose his overtures to the West.

Western governments thus have a real opportunity to help Zimbabwe turn the Jacaranda Revolution into something more than just a few days of festivity last November. Free and fair elections won’t, in themselves, yield a turnaround. A new government will have to develop a new currency regime, produce a plausible strategy for the settlement of the country’s debt arrears, and slash the public-sector-wage bill, which swallows almost all the government’s revenue, leaving little for investment in the country’s decaying physical and social infrastructure. That said, Zimbabwe’s pent-up energy is considerable, and a genuine mandate for change would give a new government the legitimacy needed to forge ahead with such decisions.

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