The year was 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the record-breaking hyperinflation which devastated Zimbabwe’s economy, wiping out life savings, obliterating pensions and basically impoverishing almost the entire populace.
Candid Comment,Brezhnev Malaba
We had been reduced to a primitive hunter-gatherer society, thanks to former president Robert Mugabe’s antediluvian politics. The previous year, Mugabe had been roundly defeated at the ballot box by MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
The long-time ruler was on the verge of throwing in the towel when the powerful securocrats — who are now in power after ousting him in November last year — engineered a bloody comeback, bludgeoning to death hundreds of opposition supporters and installing Mugabe in office.
Tendai Biti, a brash lawyer, was among the opposition MDC-T officials who went into a power-sharing government with Zanu PF. Assigned the influential Finance ministry portfolio, Biti enjoyed a vantage point giving him superb insight into government dealings.
This week, he shared an interesting anecdote. Writing on the micro-blogging platform Twitter on New Year’s day, Biti revealed: “In 2006 the ZANU gvt mortgaged a certain piece of land in the District of Hartley measuring 104 000 square Km’s with an estimated 52 million ounces of platinum for $200m. In 2009, I tried to have the mortgage cancelled. Guess who prevented me?”
Quite astonishing! But this is not the only example of how Mugabe and his lackeys were in the despicable habit of mortgaging Zimbabwe for a song—and brazenly enriching themselves in the process, while impoverishing the nation. The practice was widespread. Think of any big mining deal. Diamonds, chrome, gold, nickel . . . the list is endless. Sometimes money from these filthy deals flowed into Zanu PF coffers, financing violent election campaigns and also trickling into the pockets of fat cats.
Here is my takeaway message: Zimbabwe is bad at negotiating economic deals. There are several reasons for this. One of the obvious factors is corruption, but there is another equally important reason: failure by the government to harness the skills of competent deal-makers and negotiators.
In most instances, the people who are assigned to sit down and negotiate with foreign investors lack the technocratic nous and the killer instinct to wring solid concessions from investors. Investors laugh and salivate when they see the Mickey Mouse characters we send to negotiate on our behalf.
Let us be clear. Foreign investors must come to Zimbabwe on Zimbabwean terms. Even though we desperately need all the investment we can get, we cannot afford to give investors carte blanche to do as they please. Yes, capital is fickle, but those who want to do business in this country must play by the rules.
The scrapping of indigenisation law by Zimbabwe’s new government has generated considerable debate. It also creates a worrying dimension. If we are not careful, we will discover, long after the post-coup euphoria has dissipated, that the average Zimbabwean has been reduced to a helpless bystander insofar as participating in the mainstream economy is concerned.