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Zimbabwe’s Economy: Can It Restore Its Splendour?

 10 min read / 

These days, when people think of Zimbabwe, they think of this failed third-world state until a few days ago was run by a brutal dictator. Little do they know that this nation was, until the mid-1990’s, one of Africa’s better-performing economies.

Former Tanzanian Julius Nyerere, not long after Zimbabwean independence, is reported to have told Robert Mugabe that “You have inherited a jewel, keep it that way”. Needless to say, this advice was not kept. As the world has seen, this jewel was allowed to be scratched, dropped, then left to collect dust.

There are serious problems that require serious investment and economic reform to allow Zimbabwe to prosper. Infrastructure needs serious investment, with the Kariba Dam in danger of collapsing, the transport network likewise has been neglected with poorly paved roads and trains from the colonial era being brought back into service.

But the biggest problem, alongside corruption, has to be government interference with the economy as a whole, with centralised economic planning and state ownership proving to be a disaster. But while there is doom and gloom, there is hope.

The Case for Optimism

This jewel, as badly damaged as it is, is still a jewel. It just needs tender love and care. When it comes to mining, the nation is rich in raw resources, particularly gold, platinum, diamonds and coal.

The education system, one of Mugabe’s few positive acts, is one of the best in Africa. Agriculture is an area with a future, with history proving it can be one of the strongest economic sectors in the country. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to kickstart the tourism sector, with promising growth in recent years. It is worth identifying strengths to build on, and weaknesses to repair if Zimbabwe wants to recover.

Left to Rot

The Kariba Dam was once the showpiece of the white minority government, with the artificial lake behind it becoming a tourist and recreation attraction in its own right. However, this dam, constructed in the 1950s, has been neglected over the decades, so much so it has been likened to Mosul Dam in Iraq.

Although not at immediate danger just yet, due to drought and overuse culminating in a regional water crisis, it is feared as sudden flood, of which the Zambezi Valley region is known for, could spark a cascading tsunami. The BBC argues that, should the dam collapse and cause a tsunami, it would destroy the downstream Cahora Bossa Dam in Mozambique, which would have a serious impact on Southern Africa’s hydroelectric capacity as well as put up to 3.5 million lives at risk.

It is a similar story across the country. While not threatening to cause a regional catastrophe, Zimbabwe’s infrastructure all round is in a serious state of disrepair. The national road network has itself become a death trap. 21 people were killed when a truck carrying mourners collided with a tanker in October 2013.

In July 2014, a collision between a truck and a minibus killed 16. In June 2017, 43 were killed when a bus crashed into a tree. It may seem horrific, but when the conditions of the roads are examined, such accidents are waiting to happen. The state newspaper, The Herald, acknowledged that the lack of funding was of a serious concern in 2012.

It is a similar story when it comes to rail. Zimbabwe is lucky as it is situated in a choke point between South Africa and the rest of Eastern and Central Africa. However, little investment has been made, with only 3077km of rail tracks, of which all but 313km is electrified and all but 28km is dual track.

Whilst it is argued that this is sufficient as long as it is well maintained, this has not occurred, with the Railway Association of Enginemen referring to the rail network as a ‘death trap’. Diesel shortages have also seen the return of steam engines, primarily for safari excursions and shunting in the railyards of Bulawayo. The government-owned operator, National Rail Zimbabwe, was close to collapse in 2010, with salary cuts of 50% in 2016, displaying that the situation is still precarious.

The Problem

The root of this rail calamity, as is with much of Zimbabwe’s critical infrastructure, is government interference and bureaucracy. Now considering that the governing party, ZANU-PF, is a strong advocate of nationalisation, this is no surprise.

However, its application has proven to be disastrous. The Land Reform programme was such a debacle that even Mugabe himself admitted it was poorly orchestrated.

Indigenisation, the policy where 51% of a foreign business in Zimbabwe must be owned by a local partner, is said to be scaring away much needed foreign investment. Parastatals such as NRZ are said to be seriously mismanaged, causing friction with the workers, while haemorrhaging its budget.

All this begs the question, if, as the government line has been consistently, nationalisation has been implemented to redistribute wealth to ordinary Zimbabweans, why are they not receiving the benefits, instead dealing with failing infrastructure? The answer to that is clear – corruption, fed by mismanagement and patronage.

On the issue of opulence, for a president who was claimed by his supporters to be one of the worlds poorest, Mugabe lived a life of extravagance while in office. The Land Reform programme was abused by the ruling class – by 2010, The Guardian estimated that 40% of land seized from white farmers had been distributed among Mugabe and fellow cronies.

Considering its financial woes, NRZ has ordered a forensic audit to examine the extent of embezzlement. Corruption has become such a problem it is considered the norm, creating a two-tiered system. Its been argued that Zimbabwe loses $1 Billion annually from corrupt practices, though that figure could be higher.

Can Zimbabwe Rebuild?

It might be argued that Zimbabwe lacks a bright future, that it is stuck in an endless cycle. However, that would be ignorant of its many strengths. One of the reasons NRZ has been keen on using steam locomotives is the abundance of coal. There is reportedly estimated to be up to 26 billion tonnes of coal reserves.

Although this claim is contradicted by international organisations who argue it is only half-a-billion, it is still a significant amount for a small economy. With extraction per annum around the 3 million tonnes mark, the market is prime for a sustainable increase. Likewise, gold, diamonds and platinum are ripe for exploitation.

Considering the rise of the burgeoning Asian middle class, these are areas worth exploring however, there are several handicaps. With gold, there is a culture of small-scale mining.

Despite gold-mining being the third-biggest market, a lack of ability for these small miners to explore, as well as the amount of unused mine claims, hampers development. As for platinum, it is known the nation has the second largest reserves on earth, and the Marange Diamond fields are said to be one of the worlds largest.

Despite this opportunity, state-ownership has restricted the ability for Zimbabwe to encourage mining. The market is heavily politicised, with the Parastatal organisation the Zimbabwe Mining Development Commission unable to rehabilitate older mines due to the cost. Accusations of plundering by the ruling elite and the ever-present threat of nationalisation contribute to foreign investors’ fears.

Education-wise, the primary, secondary and tertiary systems are a source of pride for Zimbabweans. While the colonial-era private school system still educates the nation’s elite, the decision by Mugabe to invest in the education system has contributed to a well-educated populace, with a literacy rate of 87%, putting it among the top-20 bracket in all Africa.

Some concerns do linger, however. There has been a decline in standards in recent years, no doubt tied to the enduring financial crisis, to the point it is claimed that 51% of men have never had a formal education. And while the education system is by principle free and compulsory, tuition and other material fees are an obstacle for many.

However, by African standards, Zimbabwe’s progress is remarkable. While in the colonial era there were only two universities, today there are fifteen. But this creates its own challenges. Because of the high unemployment rate, there is a mass exodus of graduates across the Limpopo in search of better opportunities. Since 1996, students at
university have to pay tuition fees – around $500.

This may sound a pittance to western readers, but considering the unemployment rate and the fact that Zimbabwe’s average salary is $253 per month, this is a lot. For many Zimbabweans, even being well educated does not even come close to guaranteeing a future.

Other Sectors

It would be silly to conclude without mentioning the agricultural and tourism sectors. Tobacco is a cash crop, with the industry being the second largest in Africa.

Despite a drastic collapse resulting from land reforms, the industry recovered to achieve its third highest harvest in 2014. China is by far the largest market, with 54% of all exports headed to Chinese consumers.

However, this is just one bright spot. Maize has not recovered from land reforms, with an annual yield of 400,000 tonnes well short of the estimated 2.2 million needed to keep the nation’s stomachs full. As for tourism, this is one of the big earners. Blessed with sites such as Matopo National Park, Hwange reserve, Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe, this is a tourism mecca.

However, this industry naturally declined with the rest of the nation once the economy began to decline. Despite the industry boosting the economy by $890m in 2016, it needs improvement. Overpricing and the behaviour of the police are said to be major contributors toward scaring tourists away, combined with the general confidence, public perception and a fragile hospitality sector.

Overall, this is a country with endless opportunity. There are underutilised sectors which, if utilised to their fullest extent, can rebuild the nation. However, the story is the same. Corruption and government mismanagement are causing major headaches. The decision to ditch the Zimbabwean Dollar in favour of foreign currency stabilised the economy after hyperinflation, but the creation of ‘bond notes’ on par with the USD only just restarted the panic.

This sort of government interference, as is the case with almost every industry, is hampering Zimbabwe’s development. And while Zimbabwe is hardly ready for a laissez-faire economy which would likely increase the gulf between rich and poor, the government needs to be more receptive to free market concepts.

Foreign investment is needed; policies such as nationalisation and indigenisation do nothing but scare it away. As for corruption, cleaning up an ingrained practice is extremely difficult. It is a well-known fact that nations with the least corruption are the most successful, but it is easier said than done. It can be done – Singapore eradicated corruption after independence, emerging as a leading financial destination. But it requires a collective will, and the total removal of the corrupt.

Conclusion

As said earlier, Zimbabwe may be a battered, neglected and dust-collecting jewel, but it is still a jewel. The question, however, is whether this jewel will shine again.

Zimbabweans want a brighter future than the one they have endured for the past two decades. However, government policy, enacted on the premise it would benefit the masses, has only made life harder.

Furthermore, leaders making these decisions have engrossed themselves at everyone else’s expense. A bright future, whilst always within grasp, requires the focus and determination of all Zimbabweans not just to grasp, but to hold on and rebuild.

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