Since the turn of the millennium, Zimbabwe’s relations with European Union (EU) member states have been frosty. The bloc has accused President Robert Mugabe’s government of gross human rights violations, electoral fraud and a flagrant disregard for property rights. Two months before her four-year diplomatic posting comes to an end, the Harare-based Dutch ambassador to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, Gera Sneller (GS, pictured), this week spoke to Zimbabwe Independent assistant editor Brezhnev Malaba (BM). She reveals that 80 Dutch-owned farms were compulsorily acquired during Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform programme and discussions are ongoing with the government on compensation. The ambassador says she has promoted trade, the empowerment of women and respect for human rights. Below are excerpts of the interview:
BM: How long have you been in the Dutch diplomatic service?
GS: I’ve been with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1993. I did an internship in 1992 and I thought this is where I want to work, but little did I know that there was a very long, profound and difficult selection process.
BM: How has been your experience in Zimbabwe?
GS: Zimbabwe is such an amazing country. I think it is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen in my life. I think the people are amazing, they are very friendly, very warm and welcoming. But Zimbabweans are also very strong. If you look at the situation in the country, it is so difficult, and yet people make a plan every day, they say that’s what Zimbabweans do, they make a plan to get through to tomorrow and then they make a plan to the day after tomorrow.
BM: You say Zimbabweans are facing difficulties, what exactly is causing these difficulties?
GS: There’s a whole array of things. Some of them are historical, some of them are very recent. The first issue you think about is the economy; the economic situation is dire, there’s no other word for it. The number of formal jobs has gone down considerably, some of the statistics point to around 90% unemployment in the country.
People don’t know where their next income will come from, so it’s very difficult just to get to the next day but also to plan for the future of your children, because you don’t know if tomorrow you’ll be able to make a living. The situation doesn’t seem to be improving.
BM: But ambassador, Zimbabwe is richly endowed with vast resources. Is it a political problem that is causing these difficulties for ordinary people?
GS: I think it’s a mixed problem. If you look at the economy, Zimbabwe has very great potential, enormous potential, it is a country that is in a region that is growing. It has a central location within that region and historically it has had a very well-educated population.
It has great natural wealth. If you look at the five climatic zones in the country where you can have different kinds of agriculture. But also if you look at the extractive sector, the mineral deposits, the potential should be better.
However, when you look at the economics — and I’m an economist myself — economics is a very complex process.
BM: Are you therefore convinced that Zimbabwe has all the necessary ingredients for economic success and prosperity?
GS: You have got to have natural resources and you have got to have human resources, but you also need to have policies that are conducive, to ensure that the potential bears fruit.
Unfortunately, the policies within the country have not always been conducive for economic growth and that is something for both the government and private sector to sit down and see what can be done. The government has to put the right policies in place and the private sector has to make use of those policies to create economic growth.
Part of the reason why things are not going well is the lack of consistent conducive policies. The other part is about perception; there’s a very negative perception of Zimbabwe in the world.
BM: What would you attribute this negative perception to?
GS: I would partly attribute it to things that have happened and also partly attribute it to the fact that people don’t know Zimbabwe very well. Unfortunately, if you look at the kind of exposure that Zimbabwe gets in the Western press, it tends to be on the negative side, there is not much exposure of the potential that I have spoken about. The negative message is reinforced. At the same time, though, there are things that are not going well in Zimbabwe.
BM: Ambassador, surely there’s a reason why journalists report the way they do. For instance, policy inconsistency has been a major weakness of the Zimbabwean government, would you agree?
GS: When I speak to the (Zimbabwean) government and they ask me whether Dutch investors are interested in Zimbabwe, I say yes they are. And when I speak to Dutch investors and they ask me whether Zimbabwe is open for business, I wish I could say yes without any hesitation. However, what we’ve seen is that the government has done a lot on the technical side of improving the business climate.
There is just been a report which shows that many of the more technical aspects of the one window where you go to register a company, the number of days it takes and the paperwork that you need to establish a company, it’s been streamlined, all those things are moving ahead quite well. However, economics is perception.
Investors need to know certain things: they need to know that they’re welcome, they need to know what the policies are that will affect their investment, they need to know that those policies are consistent and that they’re consistently applied. Unfortunately those are some of the things that have been lacking in Zimbabwe.
BM: How big a problem is policy inconsistency?
GS: Sometimes you have one minister saying something on Monday, then another minister says the complete opposite on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday everybody is quiet and on Thursday we hear that they have to reconsider. And so on Friday we don’t know where we are. But more importantly, this Dutch investor doesn’t know and if they ask me I don’t know where we are because I’m also left in the dark. That is bad for business.
BM: Is policy inconsistency a product of technocratic deficiencies or just poor governance?
GS: When I talk to government people both at a technical and at a political level, I find that they know very well what needs to be done. Zimbabweans are very knowledgeable, at all levels, they are very professional, at all levels.
I’m not a politician myself, but if I look at my own country, I see that politics sometimes becomes more important. I don’t know to what extent that influences the decisions that are being made, it’s just what we see. I think it is always extremely important for any government to speak with one voice and to have a consistent message.
BM: The land issue has brought mixed emotions both to locals and to foreigners. There were Dutch farmers here whose property was supposed to be protected under Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (Bippa). How far have you gone in securing compensation for them?
GS: When we talk about the land issue, it’s one thing that I had to learn. I’m a civil servant and we tend to look at things technocratically. When I came here I really had to learn how much land is such a part of the national identity. It comes with a lot of emotion and a lot of politics as a result. It is also the number one natural resource and production resource of Zimbabwe, so it’s extremely important.
BM: Let’s talk about compensation.
GS: When it comes to the land issue and the issue of compensation, if you look at Bippas it has two parts, the promotion part and the protection part. We have been working very hard as an embassy when it comes to the promotion part, we have engaged with the private sector here and with the private sector in the Netherlands, trying to foster those relationships.
When it comes to the protection part, BippaA is a framework reached between two governments, but the protection part under Bippa is protection for private investors — they can be farmers or other types of investors. It is not a case of government-to-government, so our role as an embassy is to stimulate dialogue, but the final decisions and final agreements on any kind of compensation have to be reached between the government and the individual farmers because it only them who can do it.
When it comes to the framework part, we’ve had very good discussions with government in the past few years that there’s now greater understanding both on our side and on the side of government of the importance to move this ahead.
BM: In terms of compensation, what is the cumulative quantum being demanded by the Dutch farmers from the government of Zimbabwe?
GS: I would not know that number because that will be a negotiation between the government and the affected farmers. There are about 80 Dutch farms that were taken during the fast-track land reform but that is the number of farms but those farms can range from large farms to small farms, horticultural to dairy farms, so I couldn’t put a number on that.
BM: What has the Netherlands done to promote trade with Zimbabwe?
GS: In (US) dollar terms, the level of trade is still quite low. The most recent numbers are for 2015. Exports from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands was about US$66 million. Exports from the Netherlands to Zimbabwe, which is mostly machinery and chemicals mostly used in the agricultural sector, it was about US$16 million. The good news is that although Zimbabwe has a trade deficit with a lot of other countries, with the Netherlands you have has a US$50 million trade surplus.
BM: The Netherlands is funding the Zimbabweans government’s programme to re-align laws with the national constitution. How much work has been accomplished in that regard?
GS: The constitution is a hugely important document and it provides Zimbabwe with a strong basis, it’s a rights-based constitution. If the constitution is fully implemented, it really means a huge next step towards a more democratic, more prosperous, more free Zimbabwe.
We really want to assist the government in implementing the constitution. We have done that in two ways: on one hand—and we are one of the founding members of the EU — the EU is working directly with government on the actual implementation. What we’ve worked on is more indirect; we’ve worked with different NGOs on what we call constitutionalism.
Basically, these organisations work in the field, explaining to the citizens that this is the new constitution, these are your rights, for instance with Dutch funding the constitution was translated into different languages
BM: What is your proudest achievement as ambassador to Zimbabwe?
GS: Every ambassador tends to pick certain things. I have picked gender, empowerment of women and girls and specifically I have worked on the issues of child labour and child marriage. Those are things that are detrimental to the future of this country, and when you talk about development you look at the future, so to me that was very important.