Time for the business sector to stand up and be counted

BY MUCHADEYI MASUNDA

THERE can be no doubt that Zimbabwe is at an impasse. Our constitution is under threat, as are crucial instruments of our democracy such as Parliament and the judiciary. Human rights abuses continue, media freedom is being trampled on, poverty is rife and corruption is at unsustainably high levels.

The effects on our nation, our economy and our people are palpable and were brought into sharp focus last week with the publication by the Daily Maverick news website of the report on cartel power dynamics in our country.

All of which begs the question: what is to be done?

As someone who has been an active citizen in the Zimbabwean business and socio-political community for more than four decades, I believe it is time for organised business to step up and for credible business leaders to take a stand.

We must collectively say no to corruption, human rights abuses, patronage and the further subjugation of Zimbabweans by Zimbabweans.

We must say yes to a new future for Zimbabwe, with the revival of our economy as the core focus — bringing with it a new future built on prosperity, equality and growth as well as a fundamental commitment to the principles of democracy.

This means developing home-grown catalytic solutions that draw on the experiences of the region and result in fundamental economic transformation which will, in turn, inform fundamental societal change.

In my view, the best way to move out of the current crisis and towards revived constitutionalism is through a two-track process of inclusive national dialogue and political settlement involving credible players who have the true interests of Zimbabwe and its people at heart and who are committed to building a sustainable democracy.

There are a number of important points to bear in mind here:

  • All our country’s social partners —business, labour, civic society and political parties — have a role to play in any national dialogue process. But those with credibility are likely to have the most impact — which means credible organisations should be first in line to initiate such a process and to drive it.
  • Business has a particularly important role to play given our hollowed-out economy, our emasculated business institutions and the stimulating role that a revived economy could play in bringing about fundamental change.
  • As a start, credible business leaders and institutions should begin a process of developing common purpose or consensus around our understanding of the core problems and common solutions and then focus on how we translate common purpose into common action.

Toxic environment

I do not under-estimate the scale of such a challenge, particularly when I scan our current business environment and the often-toxic interface between business and the State.

Many businesses and business leaders are compromised. In view of the parlous state of our economy, private sector companies are almost entirely dependent on the State for business. As a result, they are hesitant to speak out primarily because they are afraid of losing out on the only opportunities that still exist.

Alongside this, many industry and professional bodies are led by individuals who are associated in one way or another with the politically correct persons within the governing party.  The main forte in their skills seems to lie in toeing the party line rather than in providing leadership and acumen. The credibility of “business leadership” is itself in doubt and we should be extremely concerned about that.

The same situation applies to many State-run entities, which are equally lacking in leadership and skills — resulting in a gradual slide into incompetence, corruption and largesse for the politically connected.

Because of the limits of our own private sector, the only way ahead has often been to join the politically connected crowd in State-owned entities. Hollowed-out institutions have become more compromised and more dependent on the political elite and a vicious circle has been created: weak institutions have been provided with weak leaders and become even weaker.

As a result, what were once iconic institutions — our State-owned railways, for example, or our State-owned meat production and processing as well as tobacco sectors — have become increasingly frail and ineffective.

We have to stop this and, in so doing, stop the slide into oblivion.

Time to stand up

Many of the people I interact with, particularly in business, share the view that genuine dialogue is essential — both at the political level (between Zanu PF and the MDC Alliance) and at the national level (between all sectors of society).

But who is willing to stand up and take the lead?

Unfortunately, because of the factors which I have highlighted above, not many people are prepared to do so. Some are wary of following the same path followed by other critics of government: arrest, detention without trial or imprisonment.

Others are afraid of the impact that speaking out may have on their business interests. They may have the desire to step up but are fearful of being tarred with the same brush that has taken down previous critics of government and will lose access to the few opportunities that still exist.

But the honest truth, given where we are now, is that all those who are interested in the future of Zimbabwe have an obligation to stand up and be counted and to put their weight behind a credible dialogue process that aims to restore and reunite our country and its people.

We need to look at alternative scenarios and solutions for Zimbabwe and rally like-minded people around a new vision and a process for achieving it, creating social solidarity and consensus around the shape of change.

We can jumpstart by dialoguing amongst ourselves, building sectorial consensus around the need for genuine dialogue and how to bring it about. These can then be expanded to bring in credible business formations, firstly, and then by reaching out to other key constituencies such as labour, civic society and political formations that have the future of Zimbabwe at heart.

In a repressive environment such as ours, this will not be easy. Transformations of this nature never are. But that should not stop us from trying.

The Zimbabwe we want

We have to work on a national process that will transition Zimbabwe from the state it is now to a place where all people — whether Zimbabwean or not — feel that ours is a country they want to live in.

As we do this, we have to start identifying and preparing new layers of leadership who can work at all levels of government and across all State-owned companies to take the lead and use the space that will open up for competence, commitment and care — in much the same way that Singapore, for example, recognised the importance of excellence and the benefits of meritocracy.

We need to work on a vision that sees us reunited — at home — with the more than five million people in the diaspora who have left our country over the past few decades to build a future elsewhere. They need to be reunited with their families and friends and play a new role in building a new Zimbabwe.

That means shaping a new economy and a new country which is able to attract skills rather than export them. It means developing new layers of leaders who have a place in our society rather than building one somewhere else. It means energising those who are on the fence and building a critical mass of like-minded people who can steer a credible dialogue process focused on a fundamental yet peaceful transformation of our country.

Consider this column a call to action — an invitation, if you like — to take part in an initial business dialogue process that can expand into other sectors of society and culminate in a series of dialogues, across the country, focusing on a new future for Zimbabwe.

Masunda is a senior legal practitioner and chairman/ director of a number of public and private companies. He writes here in his personal capacity