EDITOR’S NOTE: In this latest article in his Disempowerment of Blacks by Blacks in Zimbabwe series, our columnist Ken Yamamoto discusses how, despite its vaunted black economic empowerment credentials, the country’s leadership has, over the years, criminalised and disempowered black businessmen by running down their operations as in the case of Mutumwa Mawere and also made sure that credible entrepreneurs not in their good graces had their visions euthanized as Zanu PF tried to do in Strive Masiyiwa’s case.
While doing their best to put down visionary black entrepreneurs for reasons never clearly explained, President Robert Mugabe and his government went on to nurture, support and enable the operations of shady white businessmen such as Billy Rautenbach and John Bredenkamp who made millions from the patronage and dodgy arrangements. Yamamoto says, had Mugabe nurtured and supported competent local business entrepreneurs, Zimbabwe would likely have become a $100 billion economy. Instead, its citizens flow in all directions, running away from home and a failing economy.
Ordinarily we would run this article in the opinion section of our publication but we felt the issues Yamamoto raises deserved greater prominence.
Snatching poverty from the jaws of prosperity
I HAD a chance to attend World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa event held in Nigeria that took place from the 7th of this month. The conference had a theme “Forging Inclusive Growth, Creating Jobs” – a very well-timed theme. I met many successful and accomplished men and women on the continent running businesses impacting on hundreds of thousands of their continental kinsmen. Their entrepreneurial ventures are making a difference in many ways, such as providing jobs, training and skills development, building infrastructure and funding government through taxes and other levies (even though their leaders are in many ways irresponsible with that money).
In some of the sessions, I saw some successful Zimbabweans in various fields of business endeavour. I have met the same Zimbabweans, and other Zimbabweans in previous WEF events. Many of them are based out of Zimbabwe, and are leading successful organisations with outstanding competence. The most remarkable thing about these Zimbabweans, especially the ones that operate largely outside Zimbabwe is that they all left Zimbabwe at one point or another running away from (i) outright persecution and harassment from their leaders who are supposed to serve them, largely through the use of state machinery, (ii) intimidation by leaders who are supposed to nurture them, (iii) denial of opportunities by leaders who are supposed to avail them and (iv) destruction of opportunities by leaders who are supposed to provide them.Advertisement
There is no more riveting story of sustained efforts at disempowerment and attempts at destroying talent than the story of businessman Strive Masiyiwa. His story epitomises how blacks can actually invest ceaselessly and with zeal, in destroying one another. His story has been variously told before. Masiyiwa recently gave an abridged version of how his countrymen invested sweat and blood to crash and burn his vision on his Facebook page.
Mobile phone services as we know them today (at least the digital GSM format) were first launched in Finland in 1991 by Elisa (then known as Radiolinja). Prior to that, mobile telephony had evolved in various ways and countries over the century, with Japan’s NTT launching the first analogue cellular network in 1979. Masiyiwa, by his own account, read about mobile networks from magazines he used to subscribe to (back then the Internet as we know it today was not available for ordinary use). This empowered him to be ahead of the curve on this issue in Africa.
His story is a mixture of vision, faith, religion, and strength of character enabling him to swim against the tide of sustained attacks and aggressive efforts to disempower him by a corrupt mafia-like government that purports to empower citizens. According to Masiyiwa, his plan was to partner with the state-owned operator, then known as PTC, which he had worked for on a 50-50 basis. Unlike NTT, which had a long vision about cellular technology way back in 1979, PTC, in the 90s, actually thought this was a telecoms fad so they were not interested in developing such a venture. And they expressed this position in writing, which Masiyiwa used to set up his company.
Much of what happened to him, including being jailed, followed and intimidated is well known. What is profound though is that (i) Strive went to court (High Court and Supreme Court) several times to fight a black government bent on leaving him penniless – winning all the time (ii) he assembled a legal team with people of various races, nationalities and strengths, (iii) upon the telecoms monopoly being struck off by the Supreme court, twice, the Ministry of information worked overtime to craft a law that criminalised Masiyiwa’s plans to set up a mobile network, (iv) Masiyiwa was alerted to the opportunity to challenge PTC’s monopoly via the constitutional route by one Edison Zvobgo, who was a cabinet minister who told him that he was there when the Zimbabwe constitution was crafted in 1979 at Lancaster
(v) Joice Mujuru, then minister of information, now vice-president, ordered Strive to surrender to government the equipment he had imported from Ericson, a Swedish company, (v) it took Joshua Nkomo, an old man moving around on a cane, to intervene for Strive’s firm to eventually be licenced (vi) Mugabe was in the background encouraging this circus to play out over several years (note that his nephew, Leo Mugabe, was a partner in a rival network that was quickly cobbled up to supplant Econet, together with James Makamba, Jane Mutasa, and Webster Shamu, who was then secretary general of the war veterans organisation in Harare), (the excuse that was used to try to silence Masiyiwa was that he was working for foreign governments – rings a bell?) and (vii) despite its success, Econet is still maligned by the state, according to recent comments by its CEO.
It would be really an amusing twist of fate if Robert Mugabe and Joice Mujuru have Econet lines or use Econet broadband, given their role in trying to cause a stillbirth of the company. I have used some Econet services in Zimbabwe, and their service is crappy and overpriced, but there is no doubt that it’s the largest company in Zimbabwe, contributing the largest to GDP, direct and indirect employment, and so on. Econet is also the largest advertiser in Zimbabwe, supporting many related advertising and outdoor media companies. Its tax contributions and FDI investments are actually oiling the same charlatans that were responsible for its near demise at inception, much like a son who takes care of a mother who nearly aborted him years before. I have argued before that it’s a sign of economic sickness when the largest company in a country is a telecoms company for the simple reason that it reflects a consumptive rather than productive economy.
The real irony of Masiyiwa’s story is that he was the secretary of the empowerment lobby group, Indigenous Business Development Centre (IBDC), which was the first organisation in Zimbabwe, set up to lobby and pressure Mugabe and his government to provide conditions for the prosperity of black-run businesses. Before that, it is common cause that Mugabe was not interested in the development of black capital and the success of black entrepreneurs.
Specialising and investing in disempowerment
Businesses seized by the government … Mutumwa Mawere