In this third instalment on disempowerment in Zimbabwe Ken Yamamoto argues that there is no foreseeable turnaround in Zimbabwe, especially with a clueless and inept leadership, which is not capable of dealing with twenty first century challenges in a globalised environment.
A Leadership Bridge to Nowhere
THE trouble with a rat race is that even if you win, you remain a rat. This is exactly the situation that Zimbabwe’s government finds itself in after winning the elections last year. Reading through Zimbabwe’s online media lately, it does seem that there is enough scandal, or sad story day after day to fill the 24-hour media cycle, as if to keep the people busy and prevent them from rioting, but no doubt all the dynamics in Zimbabwe are in effect a powder keg.
The Average Joe’s Dilemma
Zimbabwe’s International airport is a small terminal the size of Hakata train station in Fukuoka, Japan. Just getting off a plane and entering Zimbabwe is in itself a swim into one scandal after another, much like you are getting into Nigeria. Built a few years ago around a tendering scandal involving Air Harbour Technologies, a company related to the President’s nephew Leo Mugabe, the poor lighting at the airport is an omen of what you get to see as you proceed into the country.
There is one way to get from the airport into the CBD. You can only do it via a short incomplete highway that has been under construction since 2007. That highway is a poster-project of how not to manage a project. Corruption around that road stinks to high heaven. It is in itself a scandal, linked to the Minister of Local Government, Ignatious Chombo, who has been linked to every corruption scandal involving local authorities; and one Ken Sharpe, a businessman linked to Augur Investments, a little-known firm from Estonia.
Ken Sharpe and the folks he fronts won themselves prime land to build a shopping mall in a wetland in an upmarket suburb, in exchange for the airport road project they did not complete. Needless to say that the ordinary citizen is now picking up the tab as the project has now been kicked over to ZINARA to complete. To add insult to injury, motorists will have to pay more after Minister Obert Mpofu, another one with dubiously acquired wealth, doubled the tollgate fees. Yet Ken Sharpe, Michael Mahachi and all the shady characters behind this clearly not so scrupulous deal, in spite of failing to deliver an airport highway to the people of Zimbabwe, are going to keep the land their acquired nefariously without fulfilling their end of the bargain.Advertisement
If you venture into Harare’s CBD from the airport, you invariably pass through an intersection just after the underpass at a railway line. At this traffic-light controlled intersection, you find all manner of young people peddling wares of all sorts, hoping that the traffic lights will hold up the cars long enough to secure a sale. Some peddle Zimbabwe flags, bottled water, lapel pins, electric boilers, newspapers, prepaid phone credit (juice card – they call it), car radio frequency modulators, car phone chargers and Chinese sex therapies to mention but a few.
The vendors’ ages are varied, but what’s very clear is that they are very young people trying to eke out an honest living. As I sit on the passenger side of the airport taxi, a young boy approaches. “How much is a Zimbabwean flag?”, I ask inquisitively, thinking to increase the African flags we keep in our Tokyo office. “Only $3, but for you muChina, I will give two for a $1”, he punts, showing experience at the sales game. I am used to the fact that many Africans think every Asian is Chinese. “Are you not supposed to be in school? How old are you?” I ask, since it’s midweek. “I will go next week, this week I have to raise money. I am 11 years old”, he says. I give him $20 for one flag and encourage him to go back to school.
As I proceed to the hotel, this situation is replicated at every intersection. I can’t help agonising how Zimbabwe’s 90 year-old President and his team have ruined an entire generation. How is it possible that such infirm elders whose soundness of mind has diminished with age are so reckless as to want to determine the future of millions of young people?
Turning the clock 17 years back
My first trip to Zimbabwe was in 1998 as a young engineer doing postgraduate studies in economics. At that time, I was visiting my uncle (ojisan), Takashima San who was a director on a project in which Fujitsu was digitalising PTC’s relay stations in Mashonaland and Matabeleland. The project was carried out after the Japanese government had advanced a loan to the Zimbabwean government to modernise its telecoms infrastructure, which the later has not finished paying to date. At that time, I travelled as a backpacker to many places in Zimbabwe: Karoi, Kariba, Mutare, Nyanga, Bulawayo, Victoria Falls and several other places.
Back then, my uncle and I stayed at the Oasis hotel, then later at the George Hotel at Avondale Shopping Centre. In 1998, Zimbabwe was intact, but its infrastructure was starting to show signs of distress. This could be seen through power black outs, increasing potholes on the roads, piped water shortages and so on.
Yet this was the period Mugabe started losing it, making decisions that have left Zimbabwe on the precipice. That’s the period he made the fateful yet single-handed but idiotic decision of venturing into the DRC war, which caused the economy to run out of foreign currency reserves by as early as 1999. Prior to that, he had issued unbudgeted gratuities to former fighters of the war of independence. Both decisions set the economy into an extreme fragile mode.
Manufacturing in Terminal Decline
Back in 1998, it was not common to see vendors at every traffic light, like is the case at present. There were street kids, yes, but there was not so much vending on the street. Yet at that time, it was clear that Zimbabwe’s economy and manufacturing sector was on a path of decline. This had started with massive retrenchments in the early 1990s. But evidence of a dying manufacturing sector could be seen by any discerning economist everywhere.
This was easy to see if you visited the multiplicity of flea markets that were sprouting all over Harare by 1998. It was evident that 99% of the goods peddled at the flea markets were not made locally. Jeans, shirts, shoes among several other items were all mainly from Asia, perhaps imported through South Africa. I recall buying a satchel branded “Kings” to replace my torn backpack which was made in China. You could see thousands of such bags all over Harare’s flea markets. To a discerning eye back then, this projected a manufacturing sector in decline.
So from the late 90s, Zimbabwe was significantly losing its competitiveness. The average folks were not seeing it as it was gradual, but the economy was, particularly the manufacturing sector, losing jobs gradually. The politicians, who seem to have an oversized view of their country didn’t see it either. The President, who holds many paper degrees is practically economically incompetent because if he was he would have foreseen the consequences of his policies.
Seventeen years later, the streets and informal trading points have been absorbing more and more redundant workers. They have also been receiving more and more graduates. The odds of getting a formal job after getting a college degree in Zimbabwe are one thousand to one. It represents significant underemployment and sheer waste of resources (motainai – in Japanese) when university graduates spent their day vending mobile phone credit and imported trinkets.
On one hand, it is idiocy for the government to announce as if celebrating the fact that the economy is now more informal, as what Minister Chinamasa did in his 2014 budget document. It is idiotic because the informal sector will neither industrialise nor grow Zimbabwe’s economy. Rather, it has a significant negative multiplier on Zimbabwe’s ability to raise tax revenues, in the process debilitating efforts to invest in infrastructure and the ability to pay of loans.
The point is, as things stand, there is no foreseeable turnaround in Zimbabwe, especially with a clueless and inept leadership, which is not capable of dealing with twenty first century challenges in a globalised environment. This means that more graduates will not find jobs, more companies will close and make hundreds of thousands of employees redundant, less revenue collection for the government, more kids unable to go to school, decline in infrastructure, more power outages, worse water reticulation capabilities, more vendors at street corners and more risk of diseases; sucking the majority into a vicious vortex of hardships and hopelessness. This is certainly a reversal from the atmosphere of hope that had grown among both citizens and foreign investors during the period of the unity government.
MeanwhileZimbabwe’s government is creating sideshows and seems to have a great propensity of chasing shadows, rats, cockroaches and squirrels; instead of dealing with the elephant in the room. All the efforts in dealing with Facebook characters, so-called weevils and other non-consequent issues are a mindless waste of time and resources.
It’s common in Japan to go out for drinks after a hard day’s work (known as nomikai). As I go for nomikai with my colleagues we review our research areas, and when I talk about Zimbabwe, they often remark that only idiots would elect a 90 year old President into office. Having a chief executive of a country with that age defies logic, as no one at that age can competently deal with complex domestic and foreign affairs, they argue. This is complicated when a country is in an advanced form of state capture, as Zimbabwe is.
The truth in my view is a little bit more complex than my work colleagues think. But nevertheless, Zimbabweans must brace themselves for much worse times and severe disempowerment over the next couple of years as no one in the present leadership is capable of solving the complex challenges at hand.
I have received a number of questions on email about what needs to be done. I shall leave that issue for another day. Suffice it to say that the greatest danger to Zimbabwe is not Robert Mugabe, or Zanu PF, but a citizenry so incompetent as to seem ignorant, and capable of entrusting their fate to an old man like him with little to zero accomplishment on matters of deftly managing the complexities of such a small economy as Zimbabwe.
Sayonara, for now!
Ken Yamamoto is a researcher on Africa at an Institute in Tokyo. He researches and travels frequently in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. You can contact Ken on firstname.lastname@example.org