Seeing the real Zimbabwe below the surface

economyDespite all its problems, Zimbabwe still looks robust on the surface. And that superficial evidence has led to errors of judgement by observers and analysts, writes JOHN ROBERTSON. The real picture, he says, is one of devastated production and massive unemployment.

These observers are often people who spend time in many other African countries and, in their comments, they always point out how much better off Zimbabweans are than the citizens of wherever else they have been.

Unfortunately, the superficial impressions are misleading, and even more unfortunately, some of the most misled people are Zimbabweans, not visitors. They also know that most of Zimbabwes neighbours do not have the extensive industrial sites and cannot boast of anything like the extent of Zimbabwes development in schools, hospitals, commercial properties, up-market suburbs and golf courses, but they also misjudge their current status.

Assuming that its installed capacity is still in place, many of these analysts have decided that Zimbabwes prospects of recovery are so good that only slight changes in direction and a couple of years would be enough to see the country regain its former ranking, second only to South Africas.

Zimbabwes politicians, of whichever stripe, have enthusiastically embraced this belief, so much do they want it to be true. Their conviction that it is true has been vigorously fed into the short-term and medium-term recovery plans, which all hinge on forecast recoveries in investment inflows, employment, export revenues and tax revenues.

In their efforts to force obedience and compliance from the business sector as well as from ordinary citizens, government brought productive sector investment almost to a halt. This has been immensely costly because, in a competitive world, continuous investment is needed in industrial plant, in production methods, in staff training, in market research, in design engineering and in establishing sources of material supplies as well as sound destinations for finished goods. In Zimbabwe, all this investment dried up.

Massive handicaps

Government interference in the business sector, through its adoption of fixed exchange rates, price controls, interest rate controls, import controls and state-controlled buying monopolies for fuel as well as staple foods, brought an end to inflows of new ideas that would have kept Zimbabwean goods competitive.

They even made the maintenance of existing production facilities impossible to fund, or even to justify. They also brought massive handicaps to bear on those who became responsible for tens of thousands of industrial workers, but who could be far too easily blamed for business failures for which they were in no way responsible.

Now, Zimbabwes manufacturing capacity has fallen to a fraction of its former size and the country has become more dependent on imported finished goods than at any time since it started building its own industrial base. Few companies can afford to offer apprenticeships or training courses, and very few are even planning for the expansion of their workforce.

This accounts for the Zimbabwean diaspora. Years ago, many of those who had good jobs in Zimbabwe realised that their career development paths had either become indistinct, or they had disappeared completely. For many of their younger counterparts, the prospects of even getting onto a career path were evaporating as employers, constrained by price controls, absurd exchange rates and enormous difficulties in acquiring foreign currency, found it impossible to work to business expansion plans. For many workers and work seekers alike, their best option was to leave the country.

As many of the same constraints affected the state-run services, the skilled technicians and administrators who knew how to make railways, hospitals or water purification plants work properly, or knew how to maintain aircraft, power stations, traffic lights or roads, decided that their own careers would progress faster somewhere else. With their departures, the services infrastructure has fallen into disrepair.

Loss of expertise

The roads are crumbling, power supplies are erratic, water no longer reaches many suburbs and now it cannot even be relied upon to keep flowing in business areas. The railways and airways can cope with only a fraction of traffic handled ten years ago, the health services collapsed in most parts of the country and the quality of teaching has left most children incapable of passing school examinations.

One of the most telling of the estimated national statistics is that the number of people in formal employment is now put at little more than 800,000 people, including the civil service. It has fallen to that level from more than 1,300,000 in 1997. The last time a figure as low as 800,000 was recorded in the countrys statistics was in 1970, 40 years ago, but at that time, Zimbabwes population was about half the size it is now.

Fleeting observers who note the bustling business activity and all the vehicles on the roads would not easily see the underlying weakness of the economy, partly because it is disguised by the huge numbers now seeking some kind of income from the informal economy.

The informal economy includes the communal land farmers, where this year almost all of Zimbabwes farming activities are taking place. The land confiscated from large-scale commercial farms lies uncultivated throughout the country. Subsidies are needed to replace the loans the banks used to offer when the farmers owned the land, but no such funds are now available.

So the quick recovery is not on its way. And it will not be able to start before a great deal of headway is made in fixing the infrastructure, updating the manufacturing plant, winning back lost markets, overcoming dependence on imports and rebuilding governments tax base.

Every step of the way calls for people. But the people concerned are not on their way either, and wont be until the needed political changes have restored their confidence.

Post published in: Opinions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *