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Editior’s Memo

Not so smart

I HAD a letter this week from Nicholas Kitikiti, executive secretary of the National Economic Consultative Forum, inviting me to attend a national dialogue session on the subject of ”

resolving the national economic crisis”. Kitikiti said the NECF’s patron, “HE Cde RG Mugabe” had convened the session.

“It is extremely opportune that our Patron has summoned the nation, through the NECF, to a dialogue intended to forge a national consensus on how to resolve this entrenched national crisis,” he said.

The NECF, in conformity with standards adopted by the International Smart Partnership Movement where all stakeholders contribute to a national dialogue, was keen to have the participation of the media alongside business, labour, government and civil society, Kitikiti said.

I am grateful to him for the invitation even though I was struck by the redundant form of address accorded the president and the obsequious manner in which we were all “summoned” to discuss the “national economic crisis”.

It would be nice to think this finally represented some acknowledgement by the head of state that such a crisis exists. But Mugabe spurned the very meeting that he had “convened” to attend to more pressing business elsewhere – the donation of computers to a high school in Kadoma – leaving John Nkomo to read his speech to the assembled business leaders.

With the notable exceptions of Herbert Murerwa and Francis Nhema who were present, the meeting was thinly attended by senior ministers – confirming, as we have long suspected, that the NECF is little more than window dressing, providing an impression of consensus to decisions already taken elsewhere.

In part the NECF has only itself to blame if it is not taken seriously by those in authority. Agreeing to be summoned to consider a situation which has been evident to everybody else for over a year does nothing for its credibility. And how useful is a meeting of this sort when Mugabe has already decided who is to blame?

It is all the fault of Britain, the European Union and the United States, he told the party faithful last Friday.

But this didn’t prevent some of the business people present from speaking out on the delusional propaganda currently being peddled at the highest levels.

Zimbabwe Council for Tourism chief Shingi Munyeza pointed out that the promotional video on the Victoria Falls released recently with great fanfare was highly misleading. It for instance showed planes and trains in action when nothing in the country was moving. Only the water tumbling over the falls was real, he said. That was the only thing actually moving!

In 1999 tourism together with downstream activities generated US$700 million, he said. “Last year we could only generate $70 million.”

Munyeza referred to what he called “a dying spirit” in the country that started with the leadership.

“We need to be honest about the situation,” he said. “At some stage we have to say I am sorry.”

These remarks will not go down well with the smoke-and-mirrors brigade that have been looking for somebody else to blame for the mess we are in. But they do redeem the NECF.

At the heart of the NECF’s deliberations was the role of the parallel market. Mugabe claims it is “run and supported by a mercenary breed of wily and selfish merchants, a breed that neither sows nor sweats but harvests millions from base speculative activities that have spawned so much grief and ruin for honest citizens”.

That sounds suspiciously like a description of Zanu PF chefs, the people who owned the bureaux de change, who take forex from banks at the official rate and change it at the parallel rate, who educate their children abroad and seek medical attention there when they need it.

It is this hypocrisy that is at the root of our problems. But the most damaging aspect of the current crisis is an artificial exchange rate that disadvantages producers by obliging them to borrow at the parallel rate and remit their earnings at the official rate, or close to it. Nothing could be more calculated to prejudice legitimate business and discourage entrepreneurial activity.

Underlying the disparity between the official exchange rate and the parallel – or real – rate is 500% inflation fuelled by runaway borrowing and spending driven by political needs. Zimbabwe is thus trading with African markets where inflation is no more than 21% (and mostly half that) and overseas markets where it is 2%. That is a recipe for exchange-rate disaster in any society. Government’s inability to rein in inflation is thus the single biggest factor in distorting the exchange rate.

Meanwhile, depressed earnings from tobacco as a result of farm seizures, a tourist stayaway, falling mineral production and profligate consumption of what little forex is left by government officials travelling abroad have all contributed to forex shortages.

Business leaders need to spell out these problems. Their current policy of “quiet diplomacy” is not working.

What NECF initiatives have been taken up by the government to date? What is the government’s record on the advice tendered to it by the NECF or indeed any other advisory body? This is a government that is deaf to reason.

The Smart Partnership concept, the subject of a number of conferences attended by Mugabe and his advisors, most notably in Langkawi, is cited as the template for the NECF’s deliberations. In fact, there is no such thing in Zimbabwe. The tripartite forum between government, business and labour collapsed when government made unilateral decisions on the economy and workfront, and civil society has never been consulted about anything including laws that directly affect its operations.

At this week’s NECF session the business sector complained that government was not serious about talks on the economy, it had done nothing to reduce inflation to the 96% target set by Murerwa last year, and more than anything else it had failed to improve its behaviour in ways that would help to re-engage the international community.

There is very simply nothing smart about the way in which this government goes about making decisions. It would be nice if the NECF found its voice and asked what happened to its previous resolutions. It must rock the boat a bit if it is to command attention. It must not thank the president effusively for agreeing to afford the nation the chance to share with him his muddled views – articulated by somebody else because he was too busy to attend!

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