Economic Empowerment: the bottom line

“I believe that if we solve the economic problems then other things will fall into place. It is like this: if you are a healthy person you can do everything, but if you are sick you can’t do anything.”

As a founding director and current secretary of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Development Chamber, I am based in South Africa and my goal is to economically empower the Zimbabwean diaspora.

If members of the diaspora are empowered economically they can make a meaningful impact back home, where people are suffering everyday from poverty and government oppression.

The current situation of Zimbabweans in South Africa is a Catch 22. Initially we were not recognized as refugees unless we could prove that we were beaten and our life was threatened in Zimbabwe. We lobbied the South African government to insist that sometimes people are secondary or tertiary victims of the violence that happens in Zimbabwe. We succeeded in that.

Now the issue is that Zimbabweans come to South Africa looking for work because there is 94% unemployment in our country and, as of 2009, the Zimbabwean currency was suspended. Yet when people arrive in South African officials say, “We cannot give you refugee status. You must have a work permit.”

The irony of it is that the Zimbabwean government doesn’t have the capacity to issue its citizens with passports and you need a passport to get a work permit. People come illegally into South Africa only because they have no other option—it is not that they want to stay in the country undocumented.

The South African government recently declared a moratorium stating that by December 31, 2010 all Zimbabweans in South Africa must have work permits. Yet the Zimbabwean government is still not issuing passports. The same problem—lack of documentation— that led people to apply for asylum in the first place still exists.

So what are people to do? The only solution I see is for the South African government to give the Zimbabwean government money to process passports.

The solution is not for people to be forced back to Zimbabwe. Even if the political situation is to normalize the economic situation has a long way to go. I, and others like me, will serve no purpose if we go back to Zimbabwe. And if I go back, my seven years of activism in South Africa will be wasted. I am better positioned to do something for my country from the outside.

Currently people in the diaspora send money to their relatives in Zimbabwe informally. I worked for 4 years in foreign exchange at Barclays bank and I understand that this will not strengthen an economy like the one we have in Zimbabwe. But if an individual owns a business outside and then opens a branch in Zimbabwe that would help the economy.

People can get employment from that kind of investment. And in this way, the diaspora can have a very powerful impact. Through the Zimbabwe Diaspora Development Chamber we tell people, “You can be the employer rather than always having to shout about the unemployment rates. You can help our citizens.”

If we empower the citizens, they won’t be bulldozed by the systems. For example, right now in Zimbabwe if you don’t have a party card and there is a drought you don’t get food aid. In that way, people are bulldozed by the system. However, if people had their own access to food they wouldn’t need the government rations. It is for this reason that I believe empowering citizens is important.

In 2003, I read the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki – I took a lot of life lessons from it. One specific lesson was: work for free and money will come. That is my life philosophy now.

In Africa the first and foremost issue is a bread and butter issue. People are poor. You can’t put democracy on a plate and eat it. In the United States you don’t kill each other when you are campaigning for elections. In Zimbabwe people are dying.

People are dying as they mobilize for a new constitution. People need to be in our shoes and see it from our perspective to know what solutions will work. The bottom line needs to be about the citizens.

I believe that if we solve the economic problems then other things will fall into place. It is like this: if you are a healthy person you can do everything, but if you are sick you can’t do anything. If African citizens are economically empowered then democracy will come.

– Tapiwa is a former 2010 Women PeaceMaker at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. This article was first published in October 2010 and appeared at: It is re-published here with the author’s permission.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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