Mugabe's last gasp

Zimbabwe's economy is in meltdown. Can Mugabe's successor learn from China?
June 24, 2006

In the early 1980s, South Africa was run by a state security council—answerable to the president and higher than the cabinet. All domestic and international priorities were directed against the encroachment of majority rule from the surrounding black states and the growth of dissent at home. One of the historic moments that precipitated the emergence of the council was the independence of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe in 1980.

This April, with inflation running at 900 per cent and rising, Mugabe announced a Zimbabwe national security council. The major player in the new council will be the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), trained partly by the British but largely by the Chinese—and extremely efficient. Since 1992, it has upstaged the ministry of foreign affairs in influencing foreign policy and, with the advent of serious opposition party politics in 2000, it has played a major role in advising Mugabe as to whose dissident voices need uprooting, pruning back, or left to grow into small flowers as "proof" of democracy in Zimbabwe.

Elections do occur in Zimbabwe (but are judiciously rigged, or used to divide the opposition), independent newspapers are published (and are suppressed when they become daily publications with national readerships), academic dissent flourishes (in tiny academic journals), and (cannily divided) opposition parties thunder away at each other as much as against Mugabe. The tolerance bands for all these are determined by the CIO. When someone slips over the top of what is tolerable, the government can use a raft of suppressive legislation.

Now the CIO, in the new national security council, will help to determine economic policy. Mugabe has realised that neither his cabinet nor his reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono, can cope with stampeding inflation and economic meltdown. The elite burghers of Harare can still eat out at the fancy restaurants of a beautiful modern central city—usually because of corrupt earnings, foreign exchange holdings or their occupation of professional positions with rough and ready index-linked remuneration—yet the bill comes not in a leather folder but a box, in which endless piles of notes must be placed. A bowl of pasta will cost half a million Zimbabwean dollars, but the largest-denomination banknote is only Zim$50,000. A family of six, eating two courses for Easter dinner, drinking wine and coffee, will pile $12m into the box, patiently counting out 240 individual banknotes. The queues at the supermarkets are long, not because commodities are absent, but because the process of payment takes so long. Those without money simply don't go to the supermarkets.

The reluctance to issue banknotes in higher denominations is a sign of the government's reluctance to acknowledge how unwieldy the economic situation now is. Similarly, the coup de théâtre that the government recently pulled off in repaying an overdue portion of its IMF debt by printing Zim$21 trillion—and using its tiny residual value to buy foreign currency to repay the debt—was an act of such reckless bravado that it seems the government still feels it can deny and swagger its way towards recovery. Inflation, of course, merely rose more swiftly as a result.

Zimbabwe has always had a modern, formal and exaggerated managerial sense of itself. The 2005 Operation Murambatsvina ("Clean Out Filth"), which razed acres of informal dwellings to the ground, was masterminded by Didymus Mutasa, CIO chief and land minister, almost as a declaration that, despite everything, Zimbabwe would remain a formal economy with formal planning structures. There would be no unlicensed informal sector in his country.

But what can formal planning accomplish when there is no longer a formal sector that is productive enough to underpin value in a national currency? If inflation reaches 1700 per cent by the end of 2006 (my current estimate), the currency will have moved from notional to abstract value.

The new, younger leadership of the (largely white) Commercial Farmers' Union has, again in April 2006, declared a belated and limited agreement on land reform. It is six years too late but, even so, is more advanced than the policies of either of the two parties claiming to be the official opposition—neither of which has ever had a workable agricultural policy. Urban, intellectual, but hardly technocratic in any relevant sense, the two groups laying claim to the title MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) recognise the absolute importance of land, but have no idea what to do about it. The newer MDC, the faction that agreed to contest recent elections for a new Senate, is led by a handsome former student leader who has spent his subsequent career outside Zimbabwe. The Oxford-trained Arthur Mutambara, a professor of robotics, gives good speeches but seems to have little popular support. The original MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is popular and populist, but could not prevent key lieutenants deserting to the breakaway faction. He chose not to contest the Senate elections, and his decision caused the breach. Robert Mugabe must have enjoyed seeing his use of democracy split the opposition asunder. The interest of foreign governments and agencies in promoting and funding democratic movements in Zimbabwe means that there is much to be gained—and lost—in participating in such democratic processes, as the old fox of a president must have expected.

But none of this helps to stave off economic meltdown. Moreover, Mugabe has said he will not contest the 2008 presidential elections, and this has set into train manoeuvring that, even by Harare's normal barometric intensity, is a tropical storm.

The favoured ticket involves one of the two vice-presidents, Joyce Mujuru, with the CIO's Didymus Mutasa as one of her running mates. The problem is that Mujuru is neither intellectual nor technocratic. A genuine military heroine of the liberation struggle before 1980, she is married to that struggle's military commander, Solomon Mujuru, and both are close friends of Mugabe. They will protect the retired Mugabe from the revenge of powerful enemies after his retirement. But this will leave Mutasa to redevelop the economy.

Mutasa has no base from which to begin doing this. South African credit and overseas remittances from the Zimbabwean diaspora are mainstays of the economy as it is, and they are not enough. Certain commercial agricultural products are still being exported—tobacco for instance—but even if mass production and export could be resumed, Zambian tobacco has aggressively captured many of Zimbabwe's markets. As it is, more farms are lying idle or under-utilised than not. In the long drive from the Zambian border to Harare, a motorist might count two working farms and mile after mile of fallow, clearly ex-cultivated land. This year, unlike the last five, the rains came in strength, but came late—so that the country is green but still not productive. There is a modest mining sector, but most foreign direct investment in the region's mines is going to northern Zambia and southern Congo—where, despite Mugabe's courting of China, most Chinese investment is also going. Elsewhere in the region, formal economic policy is leading to fiscal stability: in Zambia, inflation should be down to 9 per cent by the end of the year.

Mutasa cannot bulldoze Zimbabwe's economy into gear as easily as he bulldozed thousands of unlicensed buildings and hundreds of thousands of people into destruction and despair. What then will he and the CIO want to do in the new national security council? The opposition party is split. Of the three non-government newspaper groups, one is owned by interests close to the reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono, one is majority-owned by the CIO itself, and only one is truly independent (with its owner periodically but relatively lightly harassed). The universities and trade unions are quiet or under control, civil society is losing its key activists to safer or more normal lives outside the country, and every ruling party senior figure who needed land or a share of the mineral wealth derived from Zimbabwean involvement in the Congo war has been provided for. The task now is to turn a suppressed and controlled society into a productive capitalist one. This is the true reason for Zimbabwe's interest in China: how to accomplish economic growth with political control. The answer is that suppression—just short of repression—must exist alongside liberal economic policies, and the crossovers between the formal and informal economies must be overlooked. You can't crush the informal sector because, for a lengthy transition stage, the formal sector needs to be fed by informal inputs as much as formal ones. You cannot just declare first-world modernity. At the same time, a vibrant informal economy, simply by virtue of its informality, is beyond the full control of groups like the CIO and figures like Mutasa. With its organigrams and performance targets, the CIO has become the most modern outfit in Zimbabwe. It has simply outpaced the rest of the country.

The state security council failed in South Africa. The realities of change and popular demand were too much for it. Even in Zimbabwe, those members of the elite shovelling satchels of $Zim50,000 notes in order to maintain their girths with five-star meals might one day recognise their Panglossian situation. Having at a stroke abolished the problem of whiteness, and at another abolished the "eyesore" of shanties and informal communities, they cannot at a stroke abolish meltdown or its accompanying modernistic absurdity. Not as violent as Liberia, certainly not as racist as Rwanda, not even as corrupt as Nigeria or Kenya, no African country is as surreal as Zimbabwe.