China obsession only the latest fad
MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was in South Africa last week to discuss new trade deals and enhance investment between the two countries while President Mugabe took his begging bowl to China.
Badawi and President Thabo Mbeki agreed to set up a joint Malaysia-South Africa Trade and Investment Committee to follow up on agreements and ensure that impediments to trade are removed. From China, we had vague mention of trade deals being struck between Harare and Beijing. The Chinese will be active in the refurbishment of Hwange Power Station and coal-mining. But apart from a handful of computers and US$6 million in food aid, President Mugabe returned largely empty-handed. While China has pledged to prevent UN Security Council censure over Operation Murambatsvina, the British accomplished their primary mission in having Anna Tibaijuka’s report tabled for discussion.
It is not surprising that on his return from China, Mugabe spoke more fervently about solidarity and the veto and not about trade. That is because his diplomacy revolves around his ego. It is a parochial mindset that our true allies are only those who praise our every obtuse move. Badawi’s visit to South Africa last week was important because it reminded us of opportunities we have lost in the so-called “Look East” policy.
Badawi’s predecessor, Mahathir Mohammad, a leader of similar demagogic inclinations, found time to stroke Mugabe’s ego. Zimbabwe’s salvation, we were told by our local media, lay in Kuala Lumpur. Bilateral investment agreements were inked in for agriculture, information technology, air travel, tourism and energy. We were told that the Malaysians were expected to fund the construction of the water pipeline from the Zambezi River to Bulawayo and that a Malaysian company, YTL, would take ownership of Hwange Power Station.
Enter Badawi who evidently does not possess the same fawning zeal as Mahathir when dealing with Mugabe, and Malaysia has suddenly disappeared from the lips of Mugabe and his ministers. Nothing has come out of the myriad deals with Malaysia. Badawi has been careful not to open up on Harare but he has not been complimentary either.
In South Africa last week he said he was “concerned about the developments in Zimbabwe”.
Nothing tangible has come out of Malaysia because relations between the two countries were never built on a strong business platform involving the private sector. It was a political partnership — “South-South” Mugabe said in regard to Hwange — whose lifeblood was the camaraderie of Mugabe and Mahathir. Zimbabweans have nothing to show for that relationship today but Mugabe did get some timber for his private mansion in Helensvale.
We have not forgotten the hype around Muammar Gaddafi’s messianic persona when he was singing Mugabe’s praises. We were told Libya would invest in Zimbabwe. Fuel problems were “now a thing of the past”. Gaddafi entered Harare in the longest motorcade ever seen after crossing Chirundu bridge on foot from Zambia. This grandeur never translated into anything tangible because the Libyan leader preferred to do business with the West. At the African Union Summit in Libya last month, he was praising Mugabe’s arch-enemy British prime minister Tony Blair while telling African leaders “to stop begging”. Nobody was left in any doubt about who he was referring to. He is no longer an ally.
We have not of late heard nothing either from Mugabe’s other friend Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He is yet to bring in fuel the government promised us two years ago. Iran is currently playing ball but for how long?
Mugabe’s differences with Blair have also moulded national policy. We should all abhor him because Mugabe hates him. Similarly we should all learn to speak Mandarin because Mugabe has embraced China as his true friend — for the time being. But history should warn Zimbabweans that these friendships are not cast in stone. A change of leadership as was the case with Malaysia, or a change of policy as was the case with Libya, could see Mugabe groping around for new allies and new panaceas.
In fact there is no strong commercial bond in the deals that have been agreed between Mugabe and China. Local business leaders who should be helping to drive business linkages between the two countries have been left out.
They do not have ownership of the process and it is only a matter of time before the cookie starts to crumble again.
Zimbabwe will not reap any meaningful benefits as long as Mugabe yearns for friends who praise him and declares his critics enemies. That has killed direct foreign investment from countries that have been branded enemies and scared off tourists.
Foreign direct investment declined by 95 % from US$98 million in 1995 to US$4,5 million in 2003. Portfolio investment also shrunk by 83% from US$64 million in 1995 to US$10,8 million in 2003. Grants contracted by 78% from US$167 million in 1995 to only US$36,1 million in the same period.
China today is operating in the global village where business sense takes primacy over solidarity slogans. It is 26 years since Deng Xiaoping opened up China to precisely those reforms Mugabe eschews. Zimbabwe is a risky investment destination because of Mugabe’s posturing and Chinese companies know it. They tend to ask around before opening their wallets.
The fist-waving scenes at Harare International Airport on Sunday had about them the whiff of a revolution gone stale. The Chinese will have been the first to spot that!