Zimbabwe’s chance to follow the China model

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THERE has, quite rightly, been much focus on the similarities between Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s new president of Zimbabwe, and Robert Mugabe, the man who dominated the country for 37 years. The two fought together against white minority rule —Mnangagwa with a gun, Mugabe with a pen — and both stood shoulder to shoulder during Zanu PF’s domination of power following liberation in 1980.
Mnangagwa has supplanted Mugabe through what was essentially a factional fight within Zanu PF after one wing of the party (fortunately for Mnangagwa, the one with tanks and AK-47s) decided that Mugabe was no longer fit to rule.
We might, then, expect Mnangagwa to represent little change from Mugabe. He will do all he can to stay in power and to protect the patronage networks that have enriched the ruling Zanu PF elite. Yet there is an equally plausible case that Mnanagwa will represent a decisive break with the past. That not only has to do with his character which, according to those who know him, is more pragmatic and less ideological than that of his predecessor.
More important is the economic situation in which Zimbabwe finds itself — with no currency, no jobs, precious few reserves and no access to international lending. Behind the scenes, even while Mugabe was running the country into the ground, Mnangagwa was more open to the idea of tackling these problems, according to diplomats. He backed aborted attempts, eventually scuppered by his boss, to clear up Zimbabwe’s debt arrears and get international lending flowing again.
Now that he has a freer hand, the question is: can Mnangagwa play the Deng Xiaoping to Mugabe’s Chairman Mao? The answer is that, if he chooses, yes he can. There were clues to Mnangagwa’s thinking in his inauguration speech. Short on rhetorical flourish but leaden with practical details, he set out some plausible steps towards Zimbabwe’s revival. He committed himself to “elements of market economy in which enterprise is encouraged, protected and allowed just and merited rewards”, a concession that Mugabe would never have made.
He spoke about creating “a stable environment for international investors whose presence in our midst must be valued and secured” — again, not a phrase likely to trip from his predecessor’s lips. In a country where 90 per cent of tax revenue goes to government employees — an unsustainable situation — he fired a warning shot. Civil servants must roll up their sleeves or face the sack.Advertisement

Of course, these are just words. Yet there are reasons to believe they could be more than that. First, Mnangagwa has committed to elections by next August. He can only be sure of winning in one of two ways. One is the usual method: fraud and intimidation. But that would antagonise an international community on which he is depending. The other is by creating a sense of hope, by getting the economy going again.
The good news is there is plenty of low-hanging fruit. Foreign investors have been waiting to put money in Zimbabwe for years. They are attracted by excellent land, decent (if rundown) infrastructure and, above all, by a phenomenally well-educated population. Zimbabweans take education as seriously as anyone: many were more angry that Grace Mugabe had stolen a PhD than that she robbed them of millions of dollars.
Lots of the best-educated Zimbabweans have gone abroad, running businesses in South Africa or further afield. Given assurances that their capital, and physical wellbeing, are safe, many may return. Miles Morland, an investor, says Zimbabwean companies — including brewer Delta Corporation, light manufacturer Innscor and telecoms group Econet — are some of the best-run in Africa. Mnangagwa can get investment flowing by ending a nationalisation programme and by stabilising the currency, he says. The latter would initially mean relying on the dollar and scrapping the pseudo currencies introduced in the dying days of the Mugabe era. In the longer term, it would require help from donors and multilateral institutions.
One sign of Mnangagwa’s good intent would be to bring in some of the talented opposition politicians, such as Tendai Biti, a former finance minister. Another would be to clean up the electoral rolls and register the diaspora to vote.
None of this would be easy, not least since the president owes his position to a military that may be resistant to change. His administration could yet oversee business as normal. But if Mnangagwa wants, he could alter Zimbabwe’s prospects virtually overnight.
This article is taken from the Financial Times.