Although no reliable data exists as to the actual number of Zimbabweans who have left Zimbabwe to seek pastures new, it is authoritatively estimated that between three and four million of the country’s nationals have left to seek employment in South Africa and other countries in southern Africa, in the UK, Germany, US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. This emigration has reduced Zimbabwe’s population from an estimated 15 million to 11- 12 million.
The overwhelming majority of those who are now known as the Zimbabwean diaspora were motivated by economic desperation. Such was the magnitude of unemployment in Zimbabwe as the economy progressively declined that millions sought income opportunities elsewhere. Not only did they do so in order to support and sustain themselves, but also to support their families and many dependants.
The economic decline was so intense and financially debilitating that whilst an authoritative survey in 1991 determined that the average Zimbabwean employee had been supporting himself and five dependants, a similar survey in 2008 assessed that the average Zimbabwean worker was wholly or partially supporting himself and 19 others!
The first major development to escalating unemployment was in 2000 when Zimbabwe embarked upon its ill-considered and mismanaged land reform programme, which resulted in more than 300 000 agricultural workers losing employment, and hence approximately two million (being those workers, their families and their dependants) becoming destitute.
As government progressively destroyed the economy further through its disastrous economic policies and actions, more and more became unemployed — primarily workers in the manufacturing sector of the economy —- followed by inevitable downsizing of other economic sectors, including the wholesale and retail operations and those in the tourism and financial services sectors.
Unable to obtain alternative legitimate sources of income, many of the unemployed turned to informal sector activities in desperate attempts to generate income to support themselves, their families and numerous other dependants (which dependants included many others who had become unemployed, HIV/Aids widows and orphans, those afflicted by severe ill-health due to malnutrition and inability to access essential healthcare).
But even the immense growth of informal sector economic activity did not suffice to fund the support needed by so many, and thereafter that sector’s operations markedly declined following the necessary demonetisation of Zimbabwe’s currency, and as some small economic upturn started in 2009. That upturn was of major importance as a first (albeit small) step towards Zimbabwe’s long-term economic recovery, but did not suffice to restore employment opportunities for the millions that had become unemployed.
As a result millions perceived no opportunities for their survival and that of the many financially-reliant upon them, other than to seek income-generating opportunities elsewhere. Progressively, more and more fled Zimbabwe in a desperate attempt to earn that which they, their families, and other dependants needed to survive. Almost without exception, they perceived their departures from Zimbabwe to be beyond their control, determined to return to their homeland as soon as an economic upturn made it possible for them to do so.
However, as the years went by, the major economic recovery so anxiously awaited did not occur, notwithstanding the hopes and expectations that developed when 2009, 2010 and 2011 showed some economic growth (but not sufficient to re-create employment opportunities). Families became increasingly scattered and shattered, with many of those who had departed Zimbabwe at best being able to visit their beloved ones at home only once a year, and maintaining limited contact telephonically.
Although the majority of Zimbabweans who left to seek employment elsewhere had every intention to return permanently to Zimbabwe as soon as possible, that prospect progressively diminished. As time went by, they sank new roots in their adopted foreign homes. Many were promoted, made new friends, some married abroad and, as time went by, started families.
New homes and investments were acquired; consequently their resolve to one day return to Zimbabwe diminished more and more, although fortunately not all have lost that resolve.
Apart from the appalling fall in family interactions, with the attendant distress suffered by so many in Zimbabwe, the country, its economy and its resident population have also suffered the great magnitude of loss of invaluable skills. That loss has been yet another constraint upon achieving substantive national economic recovery and growth.
It will only be compensated for over an extended period of time as Zimbabwe progressively develops a new pool of the skilled, and is able to motivate those who acquire the skills to remain in Zimbabwe. Those will only be achieved if, belatedly, politicians do the right things to assure economic wellbeing, and to attract transitional expatriate skills pending a sufficient resource of skilled, resident Zimbabweans.
There is only one material compensation for the huge loss of skilled Zimbabweans to other countries: the absentee Zimbabweans have, despite not being active in the country’s economy, become a key mainstay of its sustenance. A recent survey assessed that the remittances they send to their Zimbabwean families and dependants approximates US$850 million per annum.
Some of these funds are transferred through the formal money market channels, whilst a large portion enters Zimbabwe unofficially, either when the Zimbabweans abroad visit their families, or through the services of “runners”. However, the inflows to Zimbabwe from diasporans are considerably greater than the survey suggests. In addition to the transfers of funds, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods are also sent to the families at home from relations abroad.
In part, those goods are forwarded through official channels, especially so as and when the diasporans visit their families, and great quantities are brought into the country by “runners” who have become very skilled in evading customs authorities. These goods range from consumables to clothing, electrical appliances and equipment. This is either for consumption by the recipients, or for trade on the informal markets.
Thus, the total economic contribution that Zimbabwe enjoys from its nationals abroad considerably exceeded US$1 billion per annum — comparable to, or greater than the substantial earnings of Zimbabwe’s mining sector.
These inflows are not incorporated in the determination of Zimbabwe’s Gross Domestic Product, which is the barometer for measurement of economic growth or contraction, and therefore real economic recovery is somewhat greater than statistically determined. Indisputably, Zimbabweans abroad constitute one of the mainstays of the economy, which is moderate compensation for the losses and prejudices suffered by the country from their no longer being at home.