ZIMBABWE commemorates three and a half decades of Independence tomorrow, but for many in the country famously described as the “jewel of Africa” in 1980 by the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere due to its high levels of development and promise then, the day has long since lost its lustre due to decades of devastating de-industrialisation.
The blast furnaces that used to churn out copious amounts of pig iron in Redcliff, Kwekwe, went cold years ago and the town is now deathly quiet. The same holds for Harare’s Graniteside, Southerton and Adbernie industrial areas where buildings that used to house manufacturing concerns like Lion Matches and Lever Brothers have become empty shells. Railway lines used by goods trains to ferry raw materials or bulky produce, now covered by grass, are now merely a relic of a more prosperous past.
It’s probably in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city and once the country’s industrial hub, where company closures, unemployment and the resultant high levels of poverty are most graphically illustrated — not that the other cities are faring much better.
Romanticised as the city of kings because of its rich heritage as the home of ancient Torwa, Rozvi and Ndebele kingdoms before being founded as a modern town in 1894 by British arch imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, the city is now a pale shadow of its former self with the majority of its 750 000 residents unemployed.
To be sure, the city still retains a resplendent look with the jacarandas that line the spacious streets currently a spectacle of purple and red thanks to the recent summer rains.
Residents occasionally stop to gaze at the graphic images of kings Mzilikazi and Lobengula now adorning the perfectly manicured lawns around the council-owned townhouse and Revenue Hall.
Rhodes’ statue, which used to look proudly at his achievement from Main Street in the heart of the city was pulled down in high noon of the post-Independence exuberance and now there is Zimbabwe’s iconic founding father and former vice-president, Joshua Nkomo, towering over the same street now re-named in his honour.
Since Independence, Jameson Street, named after Rhodes’ confidant Leander Starr Jameson, is now Herbert Chitepo Street. Wilson Street named after Allan Wilson, an army major who died while trying to capture a fleeing King Lobengula in 1894 is now George Silundika Street.
Many more streets and places in Bulawayo and other parts of the country have been renamed after liberation war heroes, but as one resident asked, will these names bring food on the table?
But as Rhodes once pointed out, political power is ultimately a “matter of bread and butter” and Independence could be rendered meaningless in the sea of increasing poverty threatening the country.
The formidable challenge is to find ways to arrest the worsening trend of de-industrialisation so that Zimbabweans can once more find joy and pride in belonging to prospering rather than the most impoverished nations.
The de-industrialisation crisis is one that has been acknowledged by President Robert Mugabe himself. He said although industries have collapsed countrywide, the state of Bulawayo’s industry was worrying. “Our cities are dying. Bulawayo was once a thriving industrial hub in the country, but now it has become a sorry industrial scrapyard,” he said during his inauguration in Harare in 2013.
Mugabe subsequently outlined an ambitious economic blueprint dubbed the Zimbabwe Agenda for Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) which promises among other things to bring water to Bulawayo from the Zambezi River by 2018 to end the city’s water woes which have been partly blamed for de-industrialisation.
But Godwin Phiri, a political commentator and member of the civil society organisations in the city said he does not envisage the project being completed on time given that 2018 is less than two years away, and there has been little if any activity towards implementation.
“People here have grown accustomed to promises which government never delivers on. There is nothing to show for this project despite pronouncements by several high-profile politicians from the early 1990s when the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Trust was formed up to now. Even a government fund of US$40 million to help distressed companies was just too little and failed to make any impact,” said Phiri.
Eddie Cross, a Bulawayo legislator and economic adviser to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai painted a bleak picture of the post-Independence scenario, narrating to the Zimbabwe Independent how “Africa’s most industrialised country apart from South Africa has gone down pathetically”.
“The most graphic illustration of the rapid decline in industry is that in 1980 about 95% of what was in the supermarkets was manufactured locally, but today over 60% of all goods are imports,” said Cross.
“The main pillars of Bulawayo’s industries of mining, railway transport and textiles have all collapsed. Companies like G&D were important players helping the country produce 20 million pairs of shoes. Where there were 60 000 people employed in the textiles industry, only 5 000 remain,” said Cross who blamed cheap imports and out-dated machinery for the decline.
And Cross’ remarks about Bulawayo are vindicated by the dearth of activity in the city’s heavy industrial area of Belmont. Most of the factories have been turned to churches, shops and warehouses for goods manufactured elsewhere, leaving Zimbabwe a warehouse of other countries goods, particularly South Africa.
The streets are generally deserted and the sight of people sleeping on railway lines is testament to the fact that there are no more trains passing through the industrial belt to offload raw materials or collect finished goods.
“It is a huge challenge to re-capitalise and it’s only those companies with external links that have been able to stay afloat.
You have companies still using old technology which makes it difficult for them to compete with cheaper imports,” said Cross.
Another economist Brains Muchemwa acknowledged the increasing de-industrialisation and said the country is reaping the results of poor corporate governance practices by “those big-headed managers of companies who failed to carefully manage borrowing after the dollarisation of the economy”.
“What they did was to plunge headlong into debt and now those companies are collapsing due to debt. They used to blame e government for inflation and price controls, but now there is no inflation and there are no price controls yet this is the only time in Zimbabwe’s history where companies are closing for good.”
Muchemwa said while difficult, the solution partly lies in the country confronting inept managers and replacing them with new ones with fresh thinking.
“With the government incapacitated from intervening with quantitative easing of the credit markets and incompetent managers still at the helm of most of these struggling big corporates, the current wave of de-industrialisation is difficult to reverse.”
Muchemwa may well be right on the effects of dollarisation, but de-industrialisation started way back in the 1990s with the closure of companies and retrenchments during the heyday of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme. Since then, government has introduced one economic policy after another including the Zimbabwe Programme for Economic and Social Transformation (1996-2000), the Millennium Economic Recovery Programme (2001-2002), the Zimbabwe Programme for Economic and Social Transformation, indigenisation (1996) and now ZimAsset (2013).
Indigenisation has been blamed for spooking potential investors due to regulations requiring that they cede 51% shareholding to black Zimbabweans, lack of clarity and consistency in its implementation.
The dire de-industrialisation may yet be mitigated if issues of competitiveness, debt reduction, good corporate governance and sound government policies are addressed.
In the meantime, memories of Bulawayo as KoNtuthu ziya–thunqa (Ndebele for “a place that continually exudes smoke”) continue recede further into the distance with each passing year.
This year Independence Day will once again be treated by hard-pressed Zimbabweans as just another day on which to continue the struggle to put food on the table.