Challenges of transition in Africa

7 October 2012


The Brenthurst Foundation
From Liberation Movement to Government:
Past Legacies and the Challenges of Transition in Africa

Case Study: Zimbabwe
Presentation by John Robertson, Robertson Economic Services

Not many generalisations can be made about progressions of events after African countries achieve liberation from colonial rulers, but the transition styles chosen by liberation movements, once they become governments can be sorted into a fairly small number of groups.

We have formally negotiated transitions, such as Botswana and The Gambia, we have chaotic transitions such as the Congo DRC, we have failures of colonial office master-plans, such as Malawi and Zambia and we have open insurrections such as Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. If we had to sort all the experiences of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland, Nigeria and the rest, we would find that most would fit comfortably into one of those three sorting boxes.

We might have a problem placing South Africa, whose avoidance of civil war was as wonderful as it was surprising, and some, such as Niger and Burkina Faso, made smooth transitions from colonial rule, but were very soon under the rule of dictators.

Independence struggles that were harsh and costly tended to lead to more radical policies being adopted by the first governments to take office after colonial powers were displaced, but in many of these cases, the inherent instability was caused by the colonial imposition of borders that encompassed people of different tribal and language groups that distrusted one another.

However, the many variations do not alter the basic indictment: most African countries have attracted attention because of the dismal quality of their governance. Failures abound and successes are extremely rare.

So the subject invites the identification of commonalities that that might throw light on the causes of the problem. Today, almost every African country is once again owned and run by its original inhabitants, so learning of the causes now will be too late to alter the trend. But perhaps a discussion around these causes will shorten the interminable post-independence agonies that are still being experienced by almost every one of these countries.

One of the features that the countries have in common is that, until fairly recently, they were all basically feudal societies. Before they were colonised, virtually all the rights and powers were held and wielded by autocratic rulers, together with their appointed deputies. Many exercised absolute authority in political, judicial and spiritual spheres and no ordinary subject had the right to challenge that authority.

Another interesting feature that liberation movements have in common is that the expulsion of the colonisers is usually followed by liberation party moves to dilute or revise colonial laws. But more pointedly, sooner or later, the leading liberators decide that they, in particular, are absolutely entitled to elevate themselves above any laws that might diminish their powers.

The publicised moves against colonial laws in general are usually packaged as proof of how sovereignty has been recovered. However, the subsequent conduct of the leaders usually reveals deeper intentions: to entrench themselves as all-powerful masters, mainly to ensure that the weaknesses that permitted the overthrow of the colonial regimes are no longer present to threaten them.

All this is to ensure that their subjects will not dare to again express their liberation ambitions. In Zimbabwe, a powerful example of this is the extremely harsh suppression of the supporters of Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe’s main competitor for power.

To the leaders who had to fight hard for independence, this additional step to put themselves above the law was necessary for another reason: to help them keep their promises to reward supporters for their loyalty during the liberation struggle. To keep these promises, they needed to be able to claim their right to confiscate and redistribute whatever assets they thought would make suitable rewards.

Very conveniently, a key feature of the feudal societies that were almost within the living memories of these leaders was that individually owned private property existed only in highly constrained form. The powers of each ruler were so great that he was entitled to claim ownership of everything. With the arrivals of independence for African colonies, the ability to reclaim and exercise such authority was at first very helpful. But as more and more people arrived to claim promised rewards, it became absolutely essential.

However, as these transfers of assets or privileges could be sustained only by confiscating them from the people who already had them, and as the new leaders had to appear to be working within the post independence legal structures that regulated everyone else, the leaders’ entitlements to take whatever they needed had to be formally constituted. When formalised acquisition powers were put into place, the leaders’ popularity soared.

To help with the process, the people owning the targeted assets were sometimes declared unworthy, or denied access to the courts, or simply beaten down by the authorities. The core issue here is that the leadership released itself from any obligation to show respect for the property rights of those who had the property they wanted.

All this ties in with the old feudal belief that whatever the ruling class wanted was theirs for the taking. And restored African feudal structures came with claims that the new feudal overlords had no need of protection from legal challenges, specially if the challenges were backed only by laws introduced by colonisers.

But as the new owners of the assets acquired in this way were far more concerned with consumption than with production, the generation of what they described as wealth slowed down.

Before long, the standards of living for the whole population started falling. When that happened, the privileged beneficiaries of presidential patronage, brandishing their entitlement claims, usually followed the president’s example by demanding ever more generous shares of the shrinking pie.

However, a problem with forced asset transfers is that the preferred asset varieties soon begin to run out. Inevitably, the transfers are mostly at the expense of producers, who are considered to be legitimate targets. Later, when the process goes beyond damage to production levels and starts hurting jobs and tax revenues, the party will deflect blame onto the producers.

In Zimbabwe, new claimants for rewards kept arriving and ways to satisfy them inevitably declined. The authorities had to keep looking for other options and almost twenty years after independence, new hand-outs of land seemed to be the best way to defuse yet another crisis of expectations.

Even before Land Reform, Zimbabwe made a particularly good choice as a case study because it elevated patronage entitlements to a level that energised and sustained the whole process. Specially helpful, the list of attractive assets that appeared to be on offer was much longer than in most other newly independent countries.

However, they went much too far. Confiscations of productive assets to ensure that privileged people could get something for nothing led to business failures, shortages, higher prices and so many job losses that Gross Domestic Product was cut by more than half.

Many resented the behaviour of the ruling party, but if they became too critical, they became targets of violent suppression. This reached a peak during the exercises launched to evict commercial farmers, when hundreds of thousands of people watched their jobs being destroyed.

As the already long list of human rights abuses lengthened, the ruling clique became all the more determined to avoid being held to account, so remaining in power was essential. They had to have the means to prevent any possibility that they might be prosecuted for what their critics were describing as criminal and malicious behaviour, or crimes against humanity.

Zimbabwe’s case also brings in other very important international connections. When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, it was after a struggle that was as much an ideological contest as it was a fight against colonialism.

Unfortunately, the real ideological contest was between the East and the West. Zimbabwe was one of a number of countries that were pawns in the Cold War game.

We should not forget the fact that when competing Zimbabwean liberation movements combined forces to displace the colonial government, they were sponsored, trained and equipped mainly by China and the Soviet Union, usually in training camps that were set up by Chinese or Soviet personnel in neighbouring countries.

These liberation movements also received material support from North Korea, Cuba and Yugoslavia, so when they took office, they were already beholden to their mentors. They obligingly claimed to have firm beliefs that the Zimbabwe of the future should be run on communist lines.

When Robert Mugabe announced in 1980 that the country was now a Marxist-Leninist state, among his firmest friends were the leaders of the People’s Republic of China as well as Marshal Tito, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung, Nicolae Ceausescu, Erich Honecker, Colonel Qaddafi and Colonel Mengistu. 

Mugabe’s expressed intention was to eventually do what they had done – bring all business sectors under State control. And he looked to them for inspiration and support because they did not share the Western countries’ annoying habit of being critical of him for alleged human rights abuses.

So, with frequent mentions of his concern for the “toiling masses”, Mugabe launched his mission to reward his supporters. I have to return to that dominant theme because it explains so much. He started by working on so-called wealth redistribution plans, which he initiated with generous subsidies to keep staple food prices low, strict price controls to keep all other goods affordable, accelerated pay increases to all employees below management levels and a salary freeze for all management and senior business people.

Then he imposed higher tax rates and a few new taxes, he imposed limits on local bank finance for all foreign-controlled businesses and restrictions on the proportion of after-tax profits that could be declared as dividends. Existing controls were tightened on rents, exchange rates, imports, interest rates, dividend remittances and project approval procedures that had been imposed by the previous Rhodesian government.

Then, to reduce the new government’s need to depend on the now alienated business sector for its funding, aid was sought from every possible donor country.

Next, the party leadership directed its energies into the challenge of fully indigenising the whole public sector. All non-indigenous state employees were invited to take early retirement. Those who chose to stay were told that their prospects of promotion had come to an end.

More rapid promotions thus became a component of the wealth redistribution process and many loyal party supporters with no experience in public administration suddenly found themselves in senior civil service positions.

These wealth redistribution and reward schemes were so well publicised that large numbers of people, who all considered themselves to be deserving of special recognition for their loyalty and support during the liberation struggle, kept presenting themselves to the authorities to lodge entitlement claims and to collect on the promises being made.

Mugabe had already rewarded the most important of these by making them Cabinet Ministers or MPs, Politburo and Central Committee members, diplomats, senior civil servants or senior officers in the uniformed services, and some were made chief executives or directors of parastatals.

However, thousands of others still awaited their rewards. By then, the best of the possibilities were seen to come from the business sector, over which the government was wielding considerable power, having inherited a wide range of controls from Rhodesia’s siege economy days.

Businesses were forced to seek project approvals for any significant changes and permission was also needed for company mergers or sales, and permission was often denied unless concessions were made that looked attractive to the politicians. For sales of farms, government required that all properties be offered to them first.

These measures provided government with the means to reward a few more supporters. Some were given directorships of companies and others were given farms, allowing government to boast of progress on the promised redistribution of land. But thousands still remained unsatisfied.

Government then realised that many more transfers of considerable value could be made in the form of allocations of foreign currency. Rhodesia had managed its scarce foreign exchange resources during fifteen years of international sanctions by rationing its limited foreign earnings to ensure that only the most efficient and productive importers would receive the funds.

Mugabe inherited the whole system and kept it going, but he saw the transfer of these allocations of foreign currency, plus their accompanying import licences, to be an easy way to achieve several important objectives.

Firstly, the allocations and import licences would handsomely reward his supporters, and secondly, by redirecting access to the funds into the hands of loyal supporters, wealth-generating capacity would be transferred away from mainly white industrialists to selected indigenous people.

As these chosen beneficiaries would remain dependent on his patronage for regular instalments, Mugabe felt he was not only securing their continuing loyalty, but that the transfers would start towards the promised indigenisation of the economy. His comment at the time was that the new recipients of scarce foreign currency would become the industrialists of the future.

Unfortunately for governments everywhere, people who successfully claim that they are entitled to support tend not to be very productive. With very few exceptions, the Zimbabweans who received allocations of scarce foreign currency found that the easiest way to profit from the allocations was to simply sell them at an attractive premium.

This premium soon settled at 100 percent of the face value of the back-to-back allocation and import licence, so the allocations became a very good income that required no business knowledge and no hard work. Having successfully claimed the pay-outs as an entitlements, they relaxed and enjoyed a steady flow of funds.

As a result, most of these beneficiaries of government’s wealth transfer process did not become industrialists. A few became importers and sellers of finished goods, such as motor spares or electronic equipment. The rest sold their foreign exchange and import licences back to the companies from which they had been taken, so the industrialists who were running the factories before paid twice as much for their imports, but remained in business because import licences were never granted for the goods that Zimbabwean factories could make.  

Not all Zanu PF policies in the 1980s failed. A more worthy wealth redistribution initiative launched a much-needed improvement in education. Although former Rhodesian governments had achieved a better standard of education than had any other African country, the system’s major shortcoming was that too small a percentage of junior school pupils could find places in the limited number of senior schools.

Mugabe promised that senior school places would be created for all children and that the State would bear all the costs of tuition for all children.

With considerable help from donor countries and aid agencies, the education promises were kept. By the mid-1980s, tens of thousands of well-educated young people with high hopes were offering themselves to the employment market. Unfortunately, with the handicaps imposed on the business sector still very much in place, jobs to absorb more than a fraction of the school-leavers were simply not being created.

These continuing constraints on the business sector, specially price controls, shortages of foreign currency and threats of eventual take-overs by the Marxist-Leninist State, showed every sign of continuing to discourage the investment needed for employment growth. Very few companies could maintain apprenticeship or other training programmes, and that problem was made worse by new regulations that allowed government to choose which young people would selected for apprenticeship training.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the numbers of high school graduates was topping out above 100 000 a year and the lack of employment opportunities had become politically embarrassing. After advice was sought from various institutions, the World Bank presented a very reasoned argument that was to place the country onto a new development path. 

World Bank economists were able to persuade government that investment was needed for employment creation, but that domestic investment depended on savings that, with high taxes and price controls, were too difficult to accumulate. Obtaining foreign investment instead depended on competing successfully for foreign investors, but they preferred to avoid countries that imposed controls on almost every form of economic activity.

Investment flows, said the World Bank, also depended upon confidence that ownership would not be threatened, so it recommended that government should abandon its business nationalisation plans.

With offers of financial assistance, the World Bank proposed a programme of trade liberalisation measures that was conditional upon government keeping its promises to reduce controls, and also to reduce its own budget deficits as these were “crowding-out” business activity. The plans were accepted, and when the terms became known, Zimbabwe enjoyed an upsurge of investor interest.

To keep the budget deficit from rising above three percent of Gross Domestic Product, the World Bank advised the government to shed the employees who were not needed. This, they argued, should not be difficult because many of them had been employed to enforce controls that were to be abandoned, and the expected surge in economic activity was expected to create many job opportunities that would soon have them back at work.

Government agreed, World Bank money arrived, the first of the measures were introduced and business began to warm to its new freedoms. With price controls being lifted and access to more imports, the business sector in 1990 enjoyed the first flush of real optimism it had seen since independence.

Government then announced its proposed 1991 budget. Contrary to the agreed plan, this showed that it intended to raise a substantial sum to fund another large budget deficit. The World Bank was most displeased, and their reasoning soon became clear: when government loan stock was offered to the market to fund the deficit, the private sector ignored it.

With trade liberalisation and the removal of controls, every business and all the institutions were looking forward to investing their funds in ways that were much more exciting than waiting for Government Stock to mature.

Further attempts were made to sell government paper, but they also failed. Government officials delivered a plea for help to the World Bank. But as the terms of their agreement with Zimbabwe had been breached, the World Bank decided that Zimbabwe had disqualified itself and the country’s request for more help should be denied. Try the IMF, they said.

The IMF said they could certainly help, but warned that the conditionalities would be a good deal tougher that the terms set by the World Bank. They amounted to very much more than the already difficult instructions to get rid of subsidies and controls, to cut the size of the public sector, to cut taxes and to reign in the budget deficit.

To this list, the IMF added, among other things, a substantial devaluation, the abolition of the import licensing and allocation system and the privatisation of Zimbabwe’s loss-making parastatals. After much debate, the IMF’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme was adopted.

As import licences were abolished, as price and rent controls were removed, as taxes were reduced and as investment regulations were greatly simplified, business conditions improved enormously. New housing schemes were started and new shopping malls were designed around the rising numbers of retailers who at last had access to imported goods.

But not everybody was happy. A severely dissatisfied group was soon to emerge and its members were those who had lost their income from the sale of foreign exchange allocations and import licences. These former recipients of substantial handouts were left out in the cold.  But they claimed that their entitlements were not being respected so they formed themselves into a militant war veteran’s pressure group. The initial responses they received angered them and by August 1997 their patience had run out.

They confronted Mugabe himself and, to make up for their lost incomes, they demanded pensions for the rest of their lives. Also, they demanded substantial gratuities to make up for the lack of support they claimed had been shown in previous years. On top of all that, they demanded free farmland.

For reasons that became the subject of some speculation, Mugabe felt obliged to concede to all their demands. But finding the money for pensions and gratuities proved to be a serious problem, specially as nearly twice the number of people expected presented themselves for registration as war veteran pensioners. Additional taxes were proposed to help raise the amounts, but these led to street riots, so the government was forced to seek other options. It ended up raiding the proposed capital expenditure budget for some of it, and it simply printed the rest.

Mugabe’s land acquisition plan proved more difficult. His initial demands were that large-scale farmers should relinquish five million hectares of the eleven million hectares they were farming. Specific farmers were identified, Land Acquisition Orders were served and an initial batch of a few hundred farmers was ordered to vacate their land.

However, the farmers challenged these orders in court, claiming that their property rights were protected by Zimbabwe’s constitution. The courts agreed and declared the Land Acquisition Orders to be ultra vires the constitution.

These court decisions so angered Mugabe that he started making arrangements to replace the constitution. The new one, which had to win the approval of the electorate in a referendum, was duly prepared and it contained clauses that would formally and legally empower him to dispossess landowners. However, the referendum rejected the new constitution.

This made Mugabe even angrier. His responses to it were, first, to use his parliamentary majority to pass constitutional amendments that legalised his right to confiscate land and, second, to declare that commercial farmers would be forced to relinquish, not five million hectares, but all eleven million hectares. Thirdly, he set about replacing all the judges who had defied him.

The events that followed devastated Zimbabwe’s economy. But because Mugabe believes the electorate has since shown him deep disrespect by voting against him is several elections, he feels nothing for their hardships. He now holds the population in contempt and is eager to see it punished and disciplined. Other tactics are being used to render powerless the opposition parties, the very existence of which he treats as an insult.

What is particularly insulting about the Movement for Democratic Change, the principal political challenger, is that it originated from the trades union movement. Morgan Tsvangirai is the former leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Mugabe’s reactions against his challengers suggest that he firmly believed that they were his most loyal supporters.

So great was their loyalty, they had not ever thought of joining the ranks of reward-seekers, but that is where the clue to their behaviour can be found. As has happened in the transitions from liberation-movement-to-government-to-rejected has-beens in a number of other countries, it is the workers, whose prospects, then job security and finally self respect, are trampled by the transfers of so-called wealth needed to keep the patronage machine running.

To politicians who pretend to have left-wing convictions, employers always seem to offer a never-ending source of lucrative targets, but the same politicians always seem surprised when the inevitable casualties from the employees’ ranks reach critical mass and the workers find their voice.

Any genuine left-wing government would celebrate expressions of anger from the working classes, but the governments formed from liberation movements share another common habit: they come down harshly on any who dare to show dissatisfaction and even more aggressively on any who show any disrespect or disobedience.

Descriptions of the ways feudal powers are exercised offer little space for left-wing views. Feudal overlords cannot tolerate independent thinkers and they insist on loyalty, obedience and unquestioning deference to the leadership class.

These words could be used equally effectively to describe fascists. And the same words help to explain why Zimbabwe is now working on the challenge of liberating itself from its liberators.

Additional Notes:

Land Reform devastated Zimbabwe’s economy for a number of reasons, the main one being that the commercial farming sector was not simply a few thousand farmers; it consisted of thousands of companies that made up Zimbabwe’s largest business sector. It was also the largest employer, largest foreign exchange earner, largest supplier of inputs to local commercial and industrial companies and largest customer for banking, insurance, transport and construction services.

But government chose to close it down. And when the commercial farmers were evicted, often violently, the land was declared to be the property of the state. This eliminated its market value and collateral value, and when it was allocated free to war veterans and to any other indigenous Zimbabweans who had the right political credentials, they did not get security of tenure or any form of title that might have encouraged them to invest time or money in production.

Successful farming in Zimbabwe’s uncertain tropical climate was always difficult, but challenges had been overcome by the development of complex management techniques and capital-intensive cultivation procedures. These amounted to very demanding and expensive methods, so the replacement of the skilled farmers with inexperienced, undercapitalised and poorly motivated beneficiaries of political patronage had little prospect of success.

The country’s largest business sector had been forced through a change of ownership, but the new owners were denied the property rights that might have helped them to keep it working. The people given the farms did have a few skills, but because they were not permitted to acquire ownership rights, they could not use the land as collateral for the loans needed to run the farms properly.

A sharp downturn in food production and export revenues was quickly followed by shortages of fuel and other essential imports. Before long, Zimbabwe’s credit rating collapsed and loans from abroad disappeared. Downturns soon followed in every other sector. Tax revenues fell, investment stopped, exchange and other controls were restored and all the moves to liberalise economic policies were reversed. Zimbabwe became dependent on food aid and was soon experiencing a level of hyperinflation that placed Zimbabwe in the record books.

Today, the Zimbabwe government remains under the control of President Mugabe, even though his party did not win the most seats in the last election. He adamantly rejects any obligation to stand down and all the evidence shows that he deeply resents the disaffection shown by the voters.

However, new evidence suggests that he hopes to win the next election by forcing yet another massive change of ownership. This time the target is the companies that are still in the hands of non-indigenous people. And this time, he says, the transfer will really enrich and empower his supporters.

To bring this about, laws have been enacted that empower the government to demand that all non-indigenous business owners must transfer 51 percent of the shares in their companies to indigenous shareholders.

By acquiring controlling interests, the indigenous shareholders will then be empowered to replace boards of directors. Most probably, they will be required to work from lists of people that the party wants to see rewarded.

Other descriptions of Zimbabwe’s recent history can easily be constructed, but the more difficult challenge is to explain why policies that are so damaging would be chosen, defended and even repeated. This explanation is specially difficult when nobody doubts that the economy has declined steeply, that thousands of Zimbabweans have suffered terrible trauma and that millions have had to leave the country to earn a living.

The feudal Mugabe’s hostility towards property rights, his eagerness to impose controls on successful businesses and his repeated demonstrations that loyalty to him will yield recognition and enrichment, strongly supports the already expressed contention: Mugabe has re-established a feudal State and is determined to remain entrenched as feudal Head of State.

For appearances sake, he has pretended to aspire to democratic ideals. But while he is required to say that voters are free to elect somebody else, he has gone to great lengths to ensure that most would not dare do so. Typical pre-election tactics over the years have included widespread intimidation that has cost many lives, and after elections whole communities have been punished for appearing to have been in sympathy with opposition candidates.

Measures taken to ensure the failure of competitors have also included attacks on journalists, the physical destruction of opposition newspaper premises, and attacks on independent radio stations as well as opposition party headquarters. Mugabe’s vote-catching strategy mainly takes the form of reminders to everybody that those showing disloyalty to the party face the real prospect of being victimised by party militia whose members have been authorised to act with impunity.

Zimbabwe’s politicians have attacked and looted entire productive sectors for short-term political or financial gain. As of now, for lack of any effective reaction, they appear to remain free to do so again, anywhere.

Zanu PF has surely done more than enough to attract the opprobrium of every world body that holds to high standards. But a more powerful reaction is called for, and not only because the authorities clinging to power in Zimbabwe have shown themselves to be callously indifferent to the effect their policies have had on the welfare of the country’s ordinary citizens.

Another fact that ought to be of concern to all outside Zimbabwe’s borders is that the country’s slide into deeper poverty has turned the country into a burden on international humanitarian aid resources and will have it draining finite aid supplies for years to come. This will continue for as long as it takes to restore the country’s ability to provide adequately for its own population.

This same long-suffering population also has already had difficulty surviving the economic devastation caused by the confiscation of the assets of thousands of farming businesses, which in turn affected the viability of thousands of other businesses.

The automatic consequences are easily listed: loss of production, loss of jobs and accommodation, loss of export revenues, irrecoverable debts for the lending institutions, loss of skills through forced emigration and suspension of investment flows.

The country’s politicians were warned of these repercussions, but Zanu PF’s deeper purpose was served: the power and influence of the business sector was cut back sharply. Efforts are now being made to persuade the Government of National Unity that it should not be trying to reverse the process.

In every country in the world, a very small percentage of the population might be classifiable as dishonest, totally selfish, sadistic or psychotic. Many countries can point to dark periods in their history when such people were in control. Nearly all countries adopted political systems and procedures to prevent such people from forming a government ever, or ever again. Most have enjoyed some success.

In Zimbabwe, civil bodies have tried, but the authorities have denied them success. The country’s history might be said to have contributed, but many countries trying to live down much more disgraceful foundations were able to make quicker and more successful transitions into respectable statehood.

In the best cases, forward-thinking leadership permitted the past to be left where it was. The populations were motivated by reformed governance to make the most of what they had and to direct their efforts into the creation of better futures.

At independence, Zimbabwe’s new leaders saw an opportunity for an alternative path; “liberation theology” and the politics of claiming entitlements in compensation for the wrongs of the past seemed a much more certain path to prosperity.

The country’s many accomplishments were belittled, its investors and wealth-creators were ridiculed or accused of achieving success by climbing onto the backs of the “exploited masses”, their investment in education, health, housing and other social services was condemned as self-serving and inadequate and Zanu PF claimed that the entire physical infrastructure was created to serve nobody but the colonial regime.

They tried to ensure that each real or imagined facet of the country’s colonial history should be portrayed in terms that would destroy any prospect that things would fall comfortably into place when, as has now happened, the chances came to make big changes for the better.

But, concentrated as these efforts have been, most of them have not worked. Indications suggest that most of the population knows better than to believe the alternative history presented and most have accurately identified the reasons for the dramatic decline in their standards of living. So even if they have to continue working quietly and politely, it seems they will continue working for change.

Zimbabwe’s frequent appearances on the world’s news bulletins are usually describing the unacceptable conduct of its pre- and post-independence politicians, rather than their achievements. Have things changed enough to suggest that its leaders are deserving of a break?

Considering the advantages that these people squandered, it would be easy to argue that they deserve nothing, but it is also easy to argue that the millions who make up the rest of the population are casualties who do not deserve what they are experiencing either. But if the country is thought to be deserving of more positive treatment because of them, then very carefully planned efforts will be needed to make certain that compassion will not go to waste.

Even though all the politicians were elected on their promises to serve the people, very nearly all of them were soon claiming that the people were there to serve them. These politicians have vigorously exploited deeply entrenched traditions that permit leaders to demand respect. Unfortunately, when political disregard turns into contempt, as it has in Zimbabwe, and when nothing is done in response, it becomes compelling evidence that traditional respect for leadership trumps everything else.

If one of the best examples of successful development anywhere in the third world can be torn down and trashed by the greed, corruption and power-lust of a handful of politicians without generating an effective reaction from anywhere, what hopes can there be for the rest?

If international bodies dismiss Zimbabwe’s plight as “outside their jurisdiction”, the world’s political leaders will confirm the impression already shared by the world’s business leaders that nobody will come to the defence of investors if the political heavyweights in any African country choose to dispossess them of their assets.

Again and again, the topic comes back to respect for property rights. Every situation in which all the players respect each other’s property rights, the patterns of behaviour become supportive of investment and development. When initiative-takers are routinely targeted for asset expropriations, the best of them will take their talents and ambitions to countries in which their property rights are respected.

Zimbabwe’s progress in earlier years outpaced that of its neighbours because its formalised property rights and laws of contract were respected. Zimbabwe was once among the world’s most outstanding examples of what could be achieved by a developing country. With a little carefully directed help, it could reclaim that status fairly quickly, but if the Government of National Unity is prevented from delivering the civil rights and property rights reforms it has promised, or it too is corrupted, the country’s descent into poverty will soon start gathering momentum again.

Speaking of recent developments in Ireland, Fintan O’Toole, a columnist with The Irish Times, recently pointed out that  “small, independent nations are perfectly capable of misgoverning themselves without outside help. They can replace arrogant colonial elites with greedy national ones.

“They can misunderstand their own long-term interests just as fatuously as any London authority figure can ignore them. Their national pride can turn very easily into swaggering self-delusion.”

He goes on to say that “The one big difference independence makes is that you’ve no one else to blame”. This, he says, can be tough. “Anglophobia, for both the Scots and the Irish, has been a great comfort in times of trial.

“We Irish are rather missing it right now — we would feel much better if perfidious Albion had forced us to borrow all that money.”

But in Zimbabwe, a large segment of the political policy plank remains the politicians’ determination to carry on blaming the former colonial powers forever. So whether or not they misunderstand their long-term interests, and whether or not they agree that their national pride has turned into swaggering self-delusion, they remain determined to keep alive the claim that all the faults of any consequence absolutely and permanently lie with the former colonial power.

Even if the politicians in former colonising countries can be persuaded to never stop feeling guilty and to carry on pouring aid into their former colonies, the people will remain poor. To the people who actually matter, the investors, these countries will remain unattractive and the continuing weaknesses will make the current argument more compelling: the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa should be considered suitable only for short-term speculative high-risk, high return ventures and every project should include a rapid exit plan.

Unfortunately, this is driven by just about every Africa’s leader’s belief that he should always retain the right to sweep aside the property rights of anyone within his territory if it suits his purposes to do so. And because this leads to conduct that causes dissatisfaction, he should bolster his security arrangements and avoid ever being held to account by never relinquishing office.

This has become the platform on which Zimbabwe’s political heavyweights, and those of many other African countries, have built their claims to having earned the right to rule in perpetuity. To them, as THE liberation heroes, achieving independence was not an event, it was a stage in a process that is continuing, and it will never be over while the liberation heroes are still alive. As long as they are alive, they claim the right to remain in power as well as the right to receive a never-ending flow of reparation and compensation monies from their former colonisers.

In the whole tapestry of history, the conquests and colonisations of the territories of vanquished societies make up almost the entire story until the arrival of the technical age. From a few hundred years ago, history became the record of who invented what and how they used their new technologies to colonise other countries more efficiently and to protect themselves from potential colonisers.

But in these more recent centuries, trade was able to take over from the personal ambitions of royal families. Respect for market mechanisms and laws of contract became the driving forces that championed change and began to make the need for colonial powers obsolete.

Generally, developing countries could best compete in the international market place if they maintained and further developed their productive capacity, which in most cases had colonial origins. This meant that the links built up in colonial days often became even more important after the former colonies became independent.

However, Zimbabwe’s leadership has chosen to define the economic success of all but its own supporters as a potential threat, so the successful business owners had to be brought to heel somehow.

The means chosen was very straightforward: property rights can be made forfeit by government edict. The nationalisation of all farmland was supposed to place Zimbabwe’s biggest business sector under government control.

So far, all that this achieved was to turn the sector into a much smaller producer over which government still does not have control, but it is now too weak to be a threat. Government then turned its attention to foreign owned companies and is trying to force all of them to relinquish 51% of their shares.

Clearly, the people who gain control will be selected and directed by the authorities, and even if government again finds it does not have the talents to keep the businesses productive, it will claim success: the businesses will no longer be run by people who the party feels might not deserve their trust, but by people they select, all of whom will be far more easily controlled.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, described the dangers of creating such a society. In his very perceptive discussion of the rapidly evolving regulatory arms of the US government in 1835, he warned of the development of powerful state institutions that would become the source of everything needed by all citizens.

That power, he said, would be absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it actually would be seeking to keep them in perpetual childhood.

Such a power, said de Tocqueville, does not destroy, but it would prevent normal existence; it would not tyrannise, but it would compress, weaken and stupefy a people, reducing it to “nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd”.

This seems to be the plan that Mugabe has for Zimbabwe.

Very nearly all the arguments launched by Zanu PF against political opponents have rested on its claims that it is the only legitimate ruling party, it having been responsible for liberating the country from colonialism, and it alone has been unwavering in its determination to restore pre-colonial values and social structures.

This approach has prevented the party from acknowledging many of the vitally important changes that took place over the period of nearly a century throughout the world, or that in participating in the changes better than most developing countries, Zimbabwe became a totally different country.

Scientific, engineering and even financial changes brought about physical and social developments that transformed the fortunes of almost every country, but Zimbabwe’s additions to a wide cross-section of the rapidly evolving technologies helped it become the most developed country in Africa outside South Africa and the country with the most advanced educational and health services in Africa bar none.

What made all this development possible was respect for property rights. Within the areas chosen for settlement by the colonisers, those who acquired property were able to approach the banks for funding and invest to the limits of their imaginations, and those who made good choices certainly did prosper.

And far from amounting to an era of exploitation and profiteering, which is the only way the period is ever described by Zanu PF, the developments prove that the investors were happy to reinvest their savings in the country.

The reinvested money helped to create an infrastructure as well to build manufacturing, mining and agricultural businesses that ranked among the most efficient in the Third World. In the process, Zimbabwe’s rapidly growing population attained standards of living that outpaced the achievements of every other African country.

However, a prosperous, articulate and demanding population was considered by Zanu PF to be too hard to manage. Zanu PF’s policies were chosen and imposed to reverse the trend. 

After independence, property ownership rights could have been extended across the whole country, but the traditional chiefs said again what they had said before: their rights, privileges and powers were tied to traditional, communal or collective ownership rights.

Under no circumstances were they prepared to relinquish these powers to permit the freehold ownership of land by individuals in their communal areas, simply because individuals who owned land freehold would have the power to defy the wishes of their chiefs.

Since those traditions evolved, the world has changed and Zimbabwe has changed, but the same traditions came with privileges for the fortunate few. These have made many important traditional leaders reluctant to adapt.

And history appears to them to be on their side. Before colonisation, carefully defined, stable relationships are claimed to have remained constant in Africa for centuries at a time, and people can be all too easily persuaded that the now endangered traditions supported much more stable and appropriate social structures as well as happier, more contented people.

However, romanticised versions of idyllic past lifestyles can easily be exaggerated and are often dishonest. Studies and historical accounts show that infant mortality rates were often as high as 80 percent, life expectancy for those who made it through childhood was short, crops were often wiped out by droughts, fires, locusts or crop diseases, large areas were uninhabitable because of tsetse fly and starvation or epidemics caused frequent population slumps. The people are unlikely to have been content, but most of these problems were overcome by 20th Century sciences and technologies.

The changes that have taken place over the past century are far too penetrating and profound to be reversed and Zimbabwe’s much larger population depends upon very much larger production volumes being sustained. Most importantly, the governments of every country that experienced this population growth have forfeited the option to return to less efficient agricultural practices.

In Zimbabwe, where the people multiplied at about three times the average for the rest of Africa, the growth was sustained by improvements in agricultural practices as well as development in other industries. Investments in water storage dams and irrigation schemes helped reduce the impacts of frequent low rainfall seasons and a long list of crop pests and tropical diseases were brought under control.

Also, tsetse fly infestations were eradicated from millions of hectares of land and new crop and livestock varieties were introduced to make previously unproductive areas profitable. This was accelerated by the building of roads, bridges, railways, dams, power lines and telecommunications that increased productivity and access to markets, internal and external.

The colonial process that affected almost every country in Africa was also driven by the accelerating technological changes, specially to the transport systems that so greatly affected world trade. World politics in the 19th Century and early 20th Century stepped up competition for resources and the world’s more powerful countries became totally absorbed by political and technological upheavals that made Europe’s national rivalries, which already had long histories, become much more acute.

Before long these contests were being played out on the territories of other countries, specially as the possibilities mounted that if rival countries gained ground that would make them more powerful, the existing instability between European countries would be aggravated. It was then that the scramble for influence over African people, territory and resources gathered momentum.

Whether they liked it or not, every country was drawn into the process and Zimbabwe did not escape. The territory was identified as important when Germany colonised Namibia in 1884 and Tanganyika in 1885. Fears that efforts to link these territories by occupying the lands between them prompted moves by the British to be there first. The British were also anxious to prevent the Portuguese from linking Angola and Mozambique by occupying the same lands.

With good reason, the people already living in these areas had cause to resent the power politics being played out on their territories. They had no interest at all in the fact that those same nations had been engaged in similar contests for influence in Europe for thousands of years and their armies had swept across broad swathes of European territory as they tried to claim for their kings or emperors ownership of everything they conquered.

When medical breakthroughs and improving transport systems made Africa’s interior more accessible, the same European countries became concerned that their rivals would gain strength from secure bases in Africa. Two world wars, plus the formation of the Soviet Union in the 20th Century showed that the process was still unfolding, long after Zimbabwe had been colonised and occupied.

Of course, that did not make Zimbabwe’s colonisation right. But it did make it inevitable. If the British had not arrived first, one of the other countries would have jumped at the chance. Studies of the styles of colonisation practices by other nations do not suggest the possibility of a more agreeable colonial experience if one of the other colonising nations had been the first to arrive.  

Zimbabweans were clearly given no choices about being colonised, but since then, they have had frequent choices about how to react to the process. An appreciable number accepted it as inevitable and chose to make the most of any opportunities that came their way. Many have done extremely well, but many others have struggled. Some of these have chosen to remain resentful and even to actively cultivate resentment.

The resentful ones might have scored political points and might even have been specially favoured when the colonial scenes changed, specially when the political rewards started flowing. However, their resentment has probably been most responsible for the limitations imposed on the pace of Zimbabwe’s development. This could easily have been considerably faster, especially since the achievement of independence thirty two years ago.

It is the resentful people who have yet to accept that times have changed. Today’s Zimbabwean population is too big to be provided for by the traditional political and social structures they wish to see restored. Far too many Zimbabweans have moved with the times and shown themselves to be as capable and resourceful as their counterparts in developed countries.

Zanu PF politicians are wrong to think that most people will be happy to be forced back into the much more confining range of options that was the lot of their forefathers. Many have already chosen to leave Zimbabwe for other carefully chosen countries where they can take full advantage of respect for civil rights in general and property rights in particular.

These rights did not feature in traditional Zimbabwean society, but many were introduced in more recent colonial years. Zimbabwe’s problem today is that these rights are under attack and are currently being dismantled.  Today, the principal missing elements in Zimbabwe’s hoped-for recovery are the security and encouragement that investors need, whether they are Zimbabweans or foreigners.

The stepping-stones to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery and progress are simply the basic civil rights and property rights essentials that have to be in place to support each investor and every investment process. The path Zimbabwe took to get into its current severely weakened state has been chosen to deliberately interfere with the objectives of all investors who do not show a willingness to be totally subjugate themselves to the wishes of the ruling party.

Putting the subsequent developments across in money terms might help reveal the reasons behind Zimbabwe’s inability to maintain the infrastructure it had, or even to retain food self-sufficiency. Government has admitted that the maize shortfall in 2012 will be one million tonnes, but it has been reluctant to admit that imports of an average of a million tonnes have been needed every year since Land Reform. 

At, say, $160 a tonne, the import requirements since 1998 for maize alone will have reached more than $2 billion. Almost another billion dollars will have been spent importing wheat and soybeans that could have been grown in the country. 

At the same time, revenue was being lost from the reduced sales of tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea, beef, dairy and a wide range of horticultural products. The forfeited values of all of these could easily have topped $5 billion. Mineral production went down too as government was interfering with the exchange rate and wiping out mining profits.

The damage to the country’s Balance of Payments is clear enough, with import needs rising and the ability to pay for them being dramatically reduced.

Less obvious, but more devastating to the population, was the cut to the agricultural, industrial and service sector wages that were no longer being earned in producing, processing and marketing the crops and the products made from them.

Instead, more billions have been spent importing consumer goods that used to be produced in Zimbabwean factories, which were then paying profits taxes. Very few are doing so now.

Current indications suggest that the 2013 harvests will see no significant improvement. A month away from what should be the start of the 2013 planting season, very few of the needed inputs are affordable, or available where they could be put to use. Only seed stocks are at the needed levels, but most suppliers have yet to be fully paid for the seed they supplied last year. 

Meanwhile, world maize prices have doubled and land has remained vacant. Capable farmers are prohibited from working, but Zimbabwe has to find hundreds of millions of dollars to import its staple foods.

As a result of all these, perhaps between twelve and fifteen billion dollars has been lost one way or the other. If the country had instead earned that much, it could have settled its debts and credit would have remained within reach. Funding for a new power station would have been easily raised and the country could also have maintained the railways and airways, further developed municipal water supplies and properly maintained its road network.

By avoiding the outflows of money, Zimbabwe could have retained its manufacturing output and its industrial and commercial skills and could have easily attracted the interest of new manufacturing and mining companies as well as the steady tourist inflows it used to enjoy.

Zimbabwe has therefore paid a staggeringly high price for its political leaders’ beliefs that its resources should be up for grabs by the heroes of the liberation struggle. Unfortunately, this belief is the common factor in the behaviour of most post-independence governments and many have taken years to get past the first, most damaging stage on the path to sustained development.

Some have stated a belief that the ways of the colonialists are so foreign and unwelcome that the struggle should continue until all vestiges of the colonial experience have been obliterated. But, of course, they can never reverse the population growth. Neither can they cope with the vastly different scale of demands from more resourceful and far bigger populations.

The people are now better educated, better informed and far too ambitious to be held in check by morally as well as financially bankrupt politicians. With the exception of a few opportunistic politicians, Africans everywhere are strongly motivated to resist the return of the feudal structures from which the colonial experience helped them escape.

7 October 2012