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Candid Comment

Let’s find the economic saboteurs
Candid Comment with Joram Nyathi

NATHANIEL Manheru in the Saturday Herald last week raised two very interesting issues about the Zimbabwe Independent. One was the paper’s so-called Rhodesian parentage which

he wishes would haunt us forever. The second was the paper’s prophesied impending end because of its umbilical link to the said Rhodesian economy which he says the land reform has killed.

I will ignore personal attacks on Trevor Ncube, Raphael Khumalo, and Dumisani Muleya whom Manheru tells us “is hated” but doesn’t say by whom. Suffice that we will take this as a matter of record.

The attack on the Independent’s origins is the easiest to dispose of.

The paper was launched on May 10 1996. If Manheru wants to trace its genealogy to the Financial Gazette which was founded in 1969, he is free to do so. The least we can say is that the launch of the paper represented a spirit of entrepreneurship that you will find in any society whatever your political persuasion.
Another example is Strive Masiyiwa whom the government tried for four painful years to stop from launching his Econet Wireless that has created employment for thousands of people in the region and beyond but has never posed a threat to any establishment.

On the other hand the Rhodesia Herald that Manheru so loves represented raw settler politics and was launched way back in 1891. What has Manheru got to say about its immutable pedigree? And what about the Nigerian “filthy lucre” it was bought with in 1980?

Manheru’s second point, the imminent demise of the Independent, should make any self-respecting Zimbabwean ashamed. Here is another successful business venture that the regime wants to kill.

Manheru wants me to explain “why the decline of the Rhodesian economy in the wake of the land reforms coincides with the uncertainty and decline of Zimind”.

Anybody would find this opportunistic connection risible if the reasons were not so tragic and pervasive. I will therefore oblige.

An analysis of the so-called Rhodesian economy reveals that it was intricately linked to commercial agriculture, tourism, horticulture, commerce and industry, all sustained by organised labour and investment capital. That economy, which everyone thrived upon from pre-Independence up to 2000, rested on the plinth of a viable tobacco industry, cotton production and a strong irrigation infrastructure.

That economy, which enabled the likes of Manheru to acquire a fine education that current generations can only hear romantic tales of, is what made Zimbabwe the envy of the African continent, what the late Julius Nyerere called the “jewel of Africa”.

When Manheru hears people in government talking about restoring Zimbabwe’s status as the “breadbasket” of the region, they are referring to the same economy that he is free to deride as Rhodesian, the same economy that won Prime Minister Robert Mugabe an award for the “sustainable end to hunger in Africa” in the 1980s. It was an economy of plenty that still evokes nostalgia.

You could buy anything, anywhere, anytime from an honest day’s labour. Here I am talking of education, medicines, food, clothes, transport, fuel, fertiliser, a house and a decent car. Purchasing a television set or furniture today is like trying to book a ticket to the moon. In short, whatever its claimed limitations of distributive reach and capacity, there is no gainsaying that it was a functioning economy. People were flocking in from the region after Independence. It was the new Eldorado. People had money to buy all the newspapers they wanted.
Then disaster struck. What the noble but unplanned and badly-executed land reform has done since 2000 is to lay waste to what took nearly a century of painstaking effort to put together — commercial agriculture, industry, commerce and all the infrastructure. It has destroyed the source of all raw materials. Now we have an economy so murky in its operations it is euphemistically called the parallel economy. I don’t know what it runs parallel to because the formal one is all but gone. Not a single honest worker likes this new invention. While service stations lie idle, fuel is sold at every street corner. The same goes for sugar. Rice is a luxury for the well-heeled. Nearly three million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid.

Today every other person you meet is a millionaire but cannot afford to spare change to buy a newspaper. In the “Rhodesian economy” up to 2000, even hopeless party publications such as The Voice and the Zimbabwe News had buyers. Not any more.

If Manheru had eyes of his own, he would have realised none in the newspaper industry is immune to the escalating cost of newsprint from monopolies such as Mutare Board & Paper Mills. He would also have known that at its peak under Willie Musarurwa the Sunday Mail had a circulation of close to 400 000 copies weekly. The Herald was doing close to 100 000 daily.

Let’s have the numbers today from the new economy. How is the Herald coping in this toxic business climate — even when its main rival has been killed off by state censors desperate to prevent competition? Why doesn’t he mention the eight loss-making entities under the Zimpapers stable?

I must thank Manheru though for reminding me of semiotics, even at this late hour. If there is any demise taking place it is that of the national economy. Operation Murambatsvina finished off the informal sector, including the thriving fleamarket trade that served as a safety net for retrenched workers or school-leavers who could not be absorbed into the shrinking formal economy.

My disillusionment stems from a sad sense of paradox: The settlers who built the Rhodesian economy did it like they wanted to stay for a thousand years and the natives who inherited it by the act of Independence have plundered it like they are fearing an impending holocaust.

In the circumstances, the independent press is doing surprisingly well. But that won’t always be the case if Manheru’s employers continue to wreak havoc and destroy enterprise of any sort.

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