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Zimbabwe’s diaspora question and it’s economic colonisation.

A little spoken about part of our history is that the story of the Zimbabwean Diaspora is as old as the country itself. Members of our first government, including the chief architect of our first constitution the late Edson Zvobgo, spent much time abroad. Members of my family studied for years abroad returning home after 1981. Diasporans were a big part of the establishment of the society that we came to know as Zimbabwe especially in healthcare, education and policy formulation. The country welcomed back her educated sons and daughters and the rest is, well, history.

In 2000 we saw the beginning of the culmination of a number of bad governance decisions which led to the first significant wave of Zimbabweans leaving the country for elsewhere. Without verifiable statistics, it is still not known how many Zimbabweans have since emigrated or the nature of the migration trends. What is verifiable though, is that the relationship between Zimbabweans at home and abroad has, at times, been strained in large part due to the economic effects of what has come to be known as “Zimbabwe’s Lost Decade” from 2000 to 2010. During that period many Diasporans sent remittances home to relatives saving many, many lives. Today numerous families continue to receive remittances from abroad, allowing them a better quality of life. Diasporans also invested in the economy through building homes and establishing businesses. Given all this, I believe that some perspective is needed, we must differentiate between family obligations and suggestions of unacknowledged economic patriotism.

Jump to today and read posts on sites such as swradioafrica.com, newsdzezimbabwe.co.uk, thezimbabwean.co.uk and nehandaradio.com you can be forgiven for concluding Zimbabwe and it’s government, are solely reliant on diaspora remittances. Recently an article, typical of such reporting, by Tanonoka Joseph Wande appeared on SW Radio Africa’s site entitled “Zimbabwe must give better recognition to those in Diaspora”. I take issue with this position because whilst it is indisputable that remittances have saved lives for over a decade, it is not unreasonable to assume that the bulk of this money has gone into consumptive expenditure such as food, accommodation, health, clothing and transport. Who would not help their family if they were in a position to do so? Taking care of ones’ family by sending money home is no different from anyone in Norton, Harare, Bulawayo or Filabusi earning a paycheck to do the same. The suggestion that diaspora remittances and the remitters are more Zimbabwean, deserving greater recognition than those at home is simply ridiculous. Today’s Diasporans take care of their families just as everyone else does every single day, is the fact that those relatives are alive and well not recognition enough for their efforts? What is this sense of entitlement and what exactly is it that they feel entitled to? I have a theory that goes back a few years.

In 2006 Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono was at the height of his powers, people even referred to him as our de-facto Prime Minister, a reference he never publicly objected to. In an effort to mobilise foreign currency the Reserve Bank (RBZ) established its subsidiary Homelink targeting Zimbabweans living abroad. Homelink’s mandate was to offer investments, money transfer services, and mortgages to diasporans wanting to build back home, Governor Gono even went as far as to say Diasporans were the country’s greatest export as they earned Zimbabwe foreign currency and the more young people who went abroad the better. Meanwhile, home-based Zimbabweans were not afforded such opportunities and for the majority, holding foreign currency was a serious criminal offence. I wrote to the Governor advising that this preferential treatment of Diasporans could lead to issues with those at home who were bearing the brunt of the economic collapse fuelled by government profligacy and short-sighted, often punitive, government policies, a situation akin to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, if you will. I never got a reply and as fate would have it, I was to be proven right.

Gono’s policy of Diaspora appeasement found a face in Professor Arthur Mutambabara when the latter became the leader of the splinter MDC party, a Diasporan came home to lead a political party and went on to become Deputy Prime Minister shortly thereafter. This policy found further political support in the government established under the Global Political Agreement (GPA) of 2008 with all kinds of promises being made to woo Diasporans back home, however, when these promises went unfulfilled the Diaspora was not shy in calling out the politicians involved resulting in some embarrassing incidents. Now we are inundated with constant calls for “the right conditions so we can come home”.

Diasporans often say “if things were right” they would be on the next flight or bus home, question is, what are these “right things” and who do they expect to make them so? I’m inclined to believe these are insincere statements made by people who maybe feel embarrassed that they are better off than those they left behind yet know they are at a loss to do anything about it. The majority of Diasporans have become comfortable in their adopted countries and I say good for them, however, whilst many go about their daily lives there are those who have taken on the mantle to save Zimbabwe from itself. This effort has been predominantly political in nature with little, if any, economic aspects. There is a disconnect between Diasporans and those at home when it comes to how to overcome our many challenges, especially, which challenge to deal with, how and when. Diaspora activists seem to not realise that whilst they may have overcome their own economic challenges, they are at different levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to the many at home who struggle daily for food, accommodation, education, health and work. If Diasporans, as a collective, were serious about participating in the economy, they would have already done much more, it’s not as if they haven’t had over a decade to prepare. Granted there are those who are making efforts to do business at home but without coordinated private sector employment and capacity creation, their efforts will not  result in much of a change.

In my interactions with Zimbabweans who have succeeded abroad, many have little economic interest in Zimbabwe beyond providing for their families still here. They talk of entry-level investments to establish a presence so that when “things come right” they will be able to respond quickly, really? Ask them why or when this will be and they list every possible reason why they can’t invest or raise their children here. Oddly enough, the country and it’s investment climate is good enough for their relatives to live in and also good enough for Chinese, Russian and South African investors as it is. Is it any surprise then that China and South Africa are Zimbabwe’s top investors enjoying numerous incentives whilst we go on ad infinitum about how educated and talented our people are at home and abroad? With all our worldly cleverness why are we yet to see adequate liquidity in our banks to support our private sector? Successful and prosperous Zimbabweans are to be found in probably every functional economy on the planet  yet our own economy lurches from one dismal year to the next.

We have fallen for the myth that our national salvation lies in the Chiyadzwa and Marange diamond fields being mined by the Chinese, South Africans,Russians and faceless locals with little benefit to the nation. Another myth we are fed is that everyone can be a farmer or an entrepreneur or part of an indiginization consortium so they can enjoy the economic fruits of our sovereignty.  With formal unemployment estimated at over 80% it is pure fantasy that the latter measure will work, where will the demand come from? We will promote our exports to the East you say? What happens the day they decide to go shopping elsewhere? Over 70% of South Africa’s highest earners are in executive employment, the same is true of established first world economies, logic would follow that Zimbabwe should focus on sustainable employment creation if it hopes to create wealth,this is where I would expect the Diaspora to come in. What sense is there in having 4000 black tobacco farmers replace 400 whites producing the same volumes and exporting unprocessed leaf to the East? Since 2000 there are now three cigarette manufacturers from one yet most of the leaf is still exported unprocessed. In mining chrome miners lobby government to allow them to export raw chrome as they have failed to build refineries yet a Chinese firm is now in the process of building a number of them around the country. According to the Daily News of 15 October 2012 the country holds 12% of the world’s chromite reserves and accounts for 1,2% of world production down from 5% in 2000. Those Diasporans skilled in mining who can protect and develop this national asset have been found lacking.

Zimbabwe has been reduced to a base agriculture and mining economy with little processing, refining and manufacturing activity or capacity. The services, notably banking, and retail sectors enjoyed a growth spurt after dollarisation in 2009 but this has proved to be unsustainable with more players but no growth in the customer base. This has resulted in cannibalism amongst the retailers and drastic restructuring amongst the banks. There has also been increased participation of foreign players in both sectors,

  • South Africa’s Pickn’Pay now owns 49% of TM Supermarkets and is currently rebranding their major stores,
  • MBCA bank is majority owned by Nedbank South Africa, Premier Bank was bought out and rebranded by a Nigerian bank whilst NMB and Kingdom banks have sold equity to foreigners.

Once more Diasporans are found lacking and again I wonder, what “right things” are they waiting for?

Zimbabweans need to rekindle that spirit of the 1980’s that brought our many talents together except this time, with the benefit of experience gained over the last thirty three years. We need to divest ourselves as a people of the sense of entitlement that has handicapped us the last thirteen years. We believe we are entitled to jobs, electricity, clean water, good schools for our children, good roads, clean air and all that life has to offer, however, belief needs deeds or it remains only an idea. If those in a position to make this happen remain on the sidelines they will wake up one day to find that Zimbabwe’s economy has been completely colonised and they will be strangers in their own land, Diasporans who withhold their money, skills and other resources in protest at a supposed lack of recognition are ill-advised.