Selfish Millers Deserve no Protection

I CANNOT claim to be schooled in economics apart from growing up vending fruit and vegetables in Marondera. However, economic imperatives affect all of us and the Zimbabwean situation is no different.


Everyone agrees that Zimbabwe’s industry is at its lowest ebb ever, if there is any industry to talk about at all. A good example is the fact that Zimbabwe’s famous brands such as the Mazoe drink, available in supermarkets in Windhoek, Namibia, are manufactured in South Africa.

The only product from Zimbabwe I have encountered with a sense of pride in a foreign country is Tanganda’s silver tea on the supermarket shelves. Nothing more demonstrates industrial collapse than the near collapse of Mutare Board and Paper Mills, where machinery that appeared on ZBC news recently looks like relics from the German Krupps factories of the early 1900s. Zimbabwe’s industrial capacity of the 1980s and early 1990s is gone.

This brings us to the current public media push on the subsidies and duties that captains of industry have been asking from government. For some time now industrialists in the food industry, especially millers, have been pushing vigorously for a revision of government policy on food imports, especially maize meal.

The argument goes that the imported maize meal is too cheap hence it is pushing them out of the business or stopping them from coming back into business. The argument goes further that the millers should be protected so that they can have the sole rights to Zimbabwe’s consumers.

And, in my thinking, also raise prices to meet their production costs in an environment in which almost 90% of people are unemployed and five million surviving on donor food and millions surviving on less than a dollar a day.

In this regard the argument being advanced by Zimbabwe’s millers and food producers is very selfish and self-serving.

This argument is not driven by the national interest that people have no food, no money and are poor, but the desire by a few to resuscitate their “industry” and make money.

Granted, industry needs to be supported to get back to reasonable productive capacity. The question is, whose responsibility is it to do so? The second question is what is the Zimbabwe government’s priority under the current circumstances?

The priority should be to feed the people and avert the disaster of people starving.  The majority of poor Zimbabweans have benefited from the decreasing food prices. At some point it became impossible to buy anything with US$100 in Zimbabwe.

I am, however, sure that civil servants can now afford to buy maize meal and cooking oil. This is not a justification of their paltry salary but an acknowledgement that US$100 now makes a difference in Zimbabwe. This is largely as a result of the reasonably priced food imports flooding the country.

Common sense tells me that if industry in South Africa can export maize meal to Zimbabwe at a profit, then it should be possible for Zimbabwe’s millers to produce the same product even cheaper. Bread is now cheaper in Zimbabwe compared to South Africa. 

Again taking note of the dire situation in Zimbabwe — shortages of water, power, skills, and obsolete industrial machinery — we then have to agree that bringing Zimbabwe’s industry back on line is not a question of simply banning or imposing duty on food imports alone, thereby punishing an already suffering and overburdened populace.

As a priority Zimbabwe needs to save lives and not a handful of millers. As a second priority Zimbabwe needs to assist industry with subsidies such as reduced costs of water and power as well as a waiver of duty on imported machinery in order to help revive industry.

One gets the feeling that the millers and industry have a sinister motive, as always, of squeezing the little, if any, foreign currency that Zimbabweans have.

The argument to impose duty on imported maize meal and hence raise the price of locally produced maize meal is a move that has to be rejected by all people as it will worsen an already bad food situation.

Government should look at other ways to support industry than do not punish struggling citizens. 

A key point that also comes from these debates is the primacy with which the unity government is giving the voice of industry and far less the voice of ordinary Zimbabweans with regard to economic revival.

All of a sudden, millers and other industrialists who have since 1980 failed to assist in reducing Zimbabwe’s unemployment now seek the further punishment of ordinary citizens as the solution to their “problems”.

The unity government, especially the Ministry of Finance, should be seen to be developing people-orientated economic policies. For example should the millers get their desire to ban foreign maize meal from Zimbabwe, how many jobs are they going to create? How much in taxes are they going to contribute to the fiscus?

These are real and developmental questions that have to be asked before any hasty decisions that hurt people are made. More than 90% of Zimbabweans, both in rural and urban areas, have created their own economy that has served and saved them and seen them through this crisis.

Is it not time that the unity government looks at how people are surviving and boost such industries rather than operate on the basis that millers and other “big” industries are the deus-ex-machina that would solve all our economic challenges.

It has to be accepted that something has changed in Zimbabwe, and that rebuilding Zimbabwe’s industry has to be done from the base or the foundation, from what people are doing and how they are surviving.

Italy’s leading export industry of leather shoes, bags, among others, is largely family run businesses supported by the government.

So is France’s famous cheese industry. The unity government should be discouraged from taking a narrow, “big industry” determinist and absolute narrow path as the panacea to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.

It has to be accepted that in any economic developmental process, there will be casualties, be they deliberate or collateral damage, that might never come back. In this regard it is possible that Zimbabwe’s millers are one of those casualties, and in all seriousness it is not the business of people in Budiriro, Mbare, Makokoba and Sakubva to save Zimbabwean millers.

Maybe instead of imposing duty on imported maize meal, millers will be saved naturally by increased maize production and steady supplies of power, water, etc. I seriously doubt that the “reviving industry” absolutism that is being shoved down the throats of Zimbabweans is the only solution to our economic problems.

Some industries are gone and gone for good and that should still be an acceptable position.

The unity government should strive to bring as many voices as possible to its discussion on economic revival. So far we have not had any vigorous consultations with labour and civil society and rural communities.

This debate is now hijacked by big, or once big industry, bankers etc who have their own agenda — that of profit even as they jump over corpses of their starved-to-death fellow citizens.  

  • Rashweat Mukundu is a Programme Specialist: Media Freedom Monitoring, Misa Regional Secretariat.

BY RASHWEAT MUKUNDU