Iden Wetherell, then assistant editor and now group projects editor, contributed the paper’s first opinion piece, on the subject of indigenisation, in its inaugural edition of May 10 1996, reproduced below:
WHILE South African trade un
ions join black entrepreneurs to wrest control of key chips on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange as part of an energetic economic empowerment process, Zimbabwe’s approach appears to favour the instruments of racist rhetoric and back-door favours which effectively obstruct meaningful transformation.
Working through the National Empowerment Consortium, a number of South African trade unions are proposing to link their pension funds to the bid by New Africa Investments Ltd’s Dr Nthatho Motlana for Anglo-American’s stake in the Johnnic industrial conglomerate. Now with Cyril Ramaphosa at the helm, this R4 billion inititative could see workers becoming shareholders in glittering performers such as South African Breweries, OK Bazaars and the Times Media Ltd newspaper group.
Commentators in Johannesburg point to this and similar initiatives as reflecting the adaptability of the country’s political players to changing circumstances. Transparency both in regard to objectives and conduct is fundamental to the success of these projects.
With dynamic developments underway south of the Limpopo, we should be asking how far Zimbabwe has progressed to black economic empowerment and wondering whether the country’s leadership is capable of responding adequately to market requirements?
President Mugabe has said he is opposed to divestment of state holdings via the stock exchange. His fear is that black Zimbabweans will be excluded from bidding by a lack of resources. Surprisingly, no effort has been made to bring financial resources closer to black business people. If anything, state profligacy has made it difficult for black entrepreneurs to break into major-league business.
In the absence of a genuine black empowerment strategy, what has emerged is a network of entrepreneurial operators who depend for their success, not upon the normal workings of a market economy, but upon their intimate ties to the ruling party.
With all the characteristics of a clientelist elite, a new class of business predators is jockeying for privileged access to other people’s capital. When the state eventually gets around to divesting itself of key assets, these well-connected individuals will be there with their palms outstretched.
The government has invented an ideology to camouflage this economic scam. All the resources of the party and the state which were once organised to enforce socialist transformation and the one-party state have now been mobilised to transmit the new creed of “indigenisation”. Bereft of the certainties which flowed from the gospel according to Marx, Zanu PF has now seized upon the gospel according to Philip Chiyangwa. This states that “too large a proportion of the economy continues to be controlled by a minority which is actively marginalising the majority of the indigenous population”. And what is the Affirmative Action Group’s solution to this disparity? “The thing to do is to take what they have no right to possess and to restore it all to the rightful owners”.
This statement neatly summarises the simplistic theorising and confiscatory impulses of this politically-driven elite. The AAG and IBDC, we need to remind ourselves, are agencies of Zanu PF actively involved in fund-raising and campaigning for the ruling party.
This of course explains why neither organisation is capable of supplying a useful critique of the country’s real economic problems. Enoch Kamushinda is on record as saying the challenge facing the government was not reducing its deficit but that of indigenisation.
The deficit is currently fuelling inflation which in turn inspires draconian interest rates preventing established businesses from expanding or new ones from starting up. It also of course diverts funds from the entrepreneurial side of the economy to the non-productive side. But none of this worries Kamushinda or the IBDC. Having joined the government’s gravy train they are determined to stay aboard, remaining, like their cabinet associates, blind to the functional failings of an economy which marginalises black businessmen.
And what of those entrepreneurs like Strive Masiyiwa who have resourcefully applied themselves to building businesses and expanding the frontiers of economic activity? They have been blocked at every turn by ministers determined to get their snouts in the trough without a word of complaint from the self-appointed spokesmen of indigenous business groups.
Isn’t this what much of the indigenisation thrust is really aimed at: the redistribution of business opportunities into the hands of a well-connected minority? What names are behind the diversion of telecom contracts, airport contracts or the acquisition of multiple farm properties? The same names that have been part of this country’s political elite for the past 16 years, the new “rightful owners” of whole swathes of the country’s economy.
The Reserve Bank recently issued licences for private purchases of alluvial gold. The beneficiciaries? Roger Boka and Johua Nkomo’s Development Trust of Zimbabwe.
Nkomo has been telling rural audiences that they should not blame the government for the lack of development in the country when the economy is owned by whites. But at no stage has he explained why the DTZ has been sitting on tracts of land leased from town councils where there has been no development whatsoever. As proprietor of the Nuanetsi Ranch, Nkomo is in every sense the countrty’s largest landowner. What exactly has he done to solve distortions in the pattern of economic ownership?
So long as indigenisation remains a smokescreen behind which the political establishment diverts resources into the eager hands of its own rich and powerful followers there will be a continuing prejudice to the ordinary people of this country who can’t hope to benefit from policies that actually disable them economically. Vulgar racist rhetoric is no substitute for effective programmes of enablement.
Meanwhile, it is the function of the Press to adopt resolutely sceptical attitudes towards ideologies of any sort, including attempts to set up bogus media organisations beholden to rich and powerful businessmen. Minister of Information David Karimanzira recently said that while the government supported a free Press this should not encourage “irresponsible journalism”. The media did not operate in a vacuum and should therefore respect Zimbabwe’s “cultural values, attitudes and practices”.
But what if those attitudes have been incorrigibly reactionary and damaging over 16 years? What if ministers have been hopelessly irresponsible? We cannot have discredited politicians who have blocked democracy and economic empowerment prescribing to the media what they can and cannot write about. The media should question any attempt by the political class to sell us their latest panacea when every other brand has failed. Beware of failed leaders calling for a “second revolution” or party organs misleadingly referring to “the real struggle”.
The real struggle is against endemic corruption and nepotism that hike the cost of business; against clientelism and cronyism that distort black empowerment; against facile revolutionary rhetoric and racial scapegoating that provide targets for dishonest leaders seeking to divert the public’s gaze from the real problems underlying the economy’s dismal performance — and their own responsibility for those problems.