Silence of the lambs: Zim business mum amid economic carnage

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HARARE: In September this year, leading South African businessmen openly called on President Jacob Zuma to step down.
Sipho Pityana, chairman of AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s largest gold producer, said Zuma had to go to lift the economy. Neal Froneman, CEO of South Africa’s biggest gold miner Sibanye Gold, said “Zuma has to go”, because “no solid investor” could stand Zuma’s poor governance.
A coalition of business leaders, including some ruling ANC supporters, was formed to campaign for Zuma’s departure.
Watching all that drama unfold across the border, Zimbabwean executives must have choked on their wine in shock and horror.
From Nandos SA’s frequent sharp barbs at Zuma, to open calls by leading businesspeople for accountability, there is much that South African businesses are free to do that Zimbabwean executives would never even dare to think of.
Even as Zimbabwe’s economic crisis deepens, with their profits falling and their companies closing due to poor government policies, Zimbabwean executives have learnt to keep their mouths shut.
In a year in which “citizens” raised voices against the government, the voice of business was absent, a faint whimper at best.
While the economy crumbled around them, the executives only met in endless business breakfasts and seminars, where they paid large sums of money to spend hours trading sob stories about how much trouble they were in.
But, over breakfast bangers, bacon and rooibos tea, the crisis was always debated in polite terms and hushed tones. Even the language is chosen carefully; we face “challenges”, not crisis.
Long “position papers” are produced, and slipped into the hands of whichever government official is polite enough to listen to big business. Then the papers find themselves onto some shelf in a government office, to be forever forgotten.
It is easy to trace the source of big business’ fear. Zanu PF has worked for decades to keep big business either on its side, or silent. Just as with ordinary citizens, businesspeople live with the real fear of losing everything just for speaking out.
Back in 2007, a group of some of Zimbabwe’s most prominent businesspeople came before President Robert Mugabe, and effectively apologised for his running of the economy.
Out of ideas on how to tame world-record inflation that year, the government had made a decree; the prices of all goods and services were to be cut by half.Advertisement

The order made no sense, but Obert Mpofu, then Industry Minister, set the dogs on businesses. Agents from the National Pricing and Incomes Commission fanned out across the country, shutting down businesses that refused to sell stock at a loss, arresting over 5,000 businesspeople, including the head of OK, the country’s largest supermarket chain.
Big business tried to offer resistance. The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), the biggest business group, said prices would only come down if production costs fell first. But Mugabe told them not “to play that game”, accused them of plotting to overthrow him, and ordered more arrests.
In no time, executives’ feeble resistance was broken. Tails firmly between legs, they soon begged for a meeting with Mugabe to make peace.
“We apologise for letting you down as there exists a glaring gap between your goals and our performance as an economy,” they grovelled in a letter they presented to him at State House.
Then they grovelled some more: “From the time of the struggle for Independence to today, you have, Your Excellency, consistently pursued very clear over-arching national goals.”
They made token requests for the price cuts to be lifted while they found a “solution”, but Mugabe dismissed them.
Despite the vast wealth of its own leaders, Zanu PF has always sought to cast itself as a party for the poor, defending their interests against greedy big business. Businesses were accused of siding with the opposition, and any criticism from them was seen as treason. And so business has learnt to tread carefully.
There have been attempts to bridge the gap.
In 2010, a section of Zanu PF tried to reach out to business. At a breakfast meeting at Celebration Centre in Borrowdale, far from Zanu PF’s favourite rural ground, the who’s who of Zimbabwean business traded laughter with senior Zanu PF officials over tea and croissants.
For an audience with then vice-president Joice Mujuru, listed on the programme as “guest listener”, each executive paid hundreds of dollars for an event dubbed “Business Talks to Zanu-PF.”
Mujuru and other senior Zanu PF members sat still as business executives took turns to politely moan about the economy, each of them taking care not to lay any direct blame on the party for the mess.
Sensing the tension, organiser Ray Kaukonde, a wealthy businessman who at the time was a higher-up in Zanu-PF, stood up. “Speak freely. Don’t try to please us here,” Kaukonde said.
It didn’t work, and the meeting limped along to a predictably dull end, with nothing to show.
Even a National Economic Council, agreed to by Zanu PF and the opposition under the 2009 power-sharing deal, to involve the political parties and business in policy making, never materialised and was probably the least spoken about violation of the pact. Even during the relative peace of the unity government, business could not find its voice.
The fear is real.
For over a decade, some bank executives had been forced into exile, accused of externalising money. None of the cases ever got a conviction, but many black entrepreneurs saw their empires ruined overnight. The price war had only added to the fear.
Now, when the President goes on his many foreign trips, even to economic summits, he takes a coterie of politicians along. Business is left behind. On his April tour of Iran, Zuma took with him a delegation of 200 people, many of them businesspeople, despite their criticism of his administration.
Ahead of Zanu PF’s annual conference later this month, VP Phelekezela Mphoko complained that “some blue-chip companies that are performing well are not willing to help the party in its fundraising activities, yet they are the direct beneficiaries of its policies”.
Big business must give its money, but must keep its opinions to itself. And that is how Zanu PF prefers to relate to business. It wants a robber-victim relationship; give us your money, and keep quiet. And business has done just that. While their businesses crumble, they have chosen not to speak out. It’s all about self-preservation.
After all, who didn’t see Zanu PF youths outside Nandos in 2011, threatening to beat up staff and close the business after that “Last Dictator Standing” advert?