The United Kingdom (UK) has slapped targeted sanctions on four top allies to President Emmerson Mnangagwa, among them security chiefs, accusing them of having a hand in the killing of Zimbabwean protesters.
According to a statement Monday by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, those targeted are state security minister Owen Ncube and intelligence director Isaac Moyo.
Also targeted was Police Commissioner General Godwin Matanga and former leader the Zimbabwe National Army Presidential Guard Anselem Sanyatwe (now Zimbabwe ambassador to Tanzania).
"These sanctions send a clear message that we will hold to account those responsible for the most egregious human rights violations, including the deaths of innocent Zimbabweans.
"We will continue to press for the necessary political and economic reforms that will benefit all Zimbabweans," reads the statement by Raab.
The UK government believes the four were responsible for quashing demonstrations and killing innocent citizens since Mnangagwa's takeover in November 2017.
Six Zimbabweans were gunned down August 1, 2018 after the State deployed soldiers to quell post-election violence sparked by claims of rigging by the Mnangagwa led administration.
Some 17 more locals also died January 2019 when nationwide anti-poverty protests elicited a brutal reaction from the state leading to the deaths.
Several more were maimed during the violence episodes.
The sanctions on the Zimbabwean officials comes as a blow to Mnangagwa's efforts to re-engage the West after years of international isolation.
Ncube and Sanyatwe were already targeted for US sanctions in March last year.
Source: New Zimbabwe
In November 2017 Zimbabwe’s military replaced Robert Mugabe as head of state with his long-time confidante Emmerson Mnangagwa. He declared Zimbabwe “open for business”, linking foreign relations with economic policy. As he stated
We look forward to playing a positive and constructive role as a free, democratic, transparent and responsible member of the family of nations.
International expectations (more so than those among local people) looked forward to translating these promises into policy. This was despite the fact that Mugabe’s departure had been anything but democratic.
But there have been few if any changes in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory. A deepening economic crisis combined with a brutal crackdown on the government’s domestic opponents has resulted in disappointments.
On the foreign policy front Mnangagwa has fared no better. In a recently published analysis we examine the status of Zimbabwe’s foreign policy. We identify what’s gone wrong in its efforts at rapprochement with Western countries in a bid to get sanctions lifted, and why its efforts at cosying up to China haven’t gone to plan either.
We conclude that Mnangagwa’s hopes of reorienting Zimbabwe’s foreign policy have been confounded by his government’s own actions. Its repressive response to mounting economic and political crisis increased rather than diminished its isolation. The more the Mnangagwa government fails to engage democratically with its own citizens, the more it will negate any prospect of re-engagement.
Relations with its neighbours
Since the Mugabe era the African Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) have been tolerant of the Zanu-PF regime’s politics.
SADC’s annual summit in 2019 demanded an end to Western sanctions. But the continued repressive nature of Mnangagwa’s regime is not making this loyalty easy.
Tensions have begun to show. In August 2020, South Africa dispatched official envoys to Harare to press for restraint on the Mnangagwa government in its actions against opposition figures. The envoys weren’t greeted warmly. Instead they were subjected to a presidential harangue and denied the opportunity to meet the opposition.
A subsequent mission by South Africa’s governing party the African National Congress (ANC), acting as a fellow liberation movement, was as shoddily treated.
South Africa’s patience may be wearing thin. But, for its part, the Southern African Development Community has preferred to officially ignore developments by remaining silent. But while “business as usual” translates into continued political loyalty, it does not translate into increased economic collaboration.
Two decades ago the US and European Union imposed sanctions on those linked to the government in response to human rights abuses. Mugabe’s regime reacted by blaming its economic woes on the West. Mnangagwa decried sanctions as western attempts to bring about “regime change”.
In contrast, the EU demonstrated more willingness to reengage with Harare. In October 2019 the EU announced an aid package, bringing support during the year to €67.5 million. Aid to Zimbabwe since 2014 stood at €287 million in 2020. This made the EU Zimbabwe’s biggest donor. To ease the woes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it added another €14.2 million humanitarian assistance in 2020.
Mnangagwa, however, continued to blame the West for sanctions he compared with cancer. Responding to criticism the EU declared
Zimbabwe is not where it is because of the so-called sanctions, but years of mismanagement of the economy and corruption.
Similarly, the US Ambassador dismissed “any responsibility for the catastrophic state of the economy and the government’s abuse of its own citizens”.
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Jim Risch called upon the Southern African Development Community’s 16 members states to
The deterioration of Zimbabwe’s relations with the West coincided with growing Chinese interest in access to African resources for its own rapidly expanding industries. Zimbabwe’s growing isolation offered a convenient entry point.
But, China’s greater involvement was spurred less by solidarity than by self-interest. And it’s singular importance in throwing a life-line to the Zimbabwean regime in need gave it enormous influence in directing the collaboration. Failure to mend relations with the West and other global institutions leaves Zimbabwe with no other partners for development and cooperation, thus vulnerable to manipulation by China.
An initial honeymoon started at the turn of the century, after Zimbabwe became isolated from the West through its fast-track land reform of 2000, and the increased repression of the political opposition. But China became increasingly concerned about Mugabe’s indigenisation policy. With Chinese companies the largest foreign direct investors, the announced enforcement of the 51% Zimbabwean ownership in assets exceeding US$ 500,000 from April 2016 caused discomfort.
Mnangagwa’s elevation to the presidency may have received China’s blessing as the best option available. Nonetheless, strains soon appeared. When it became increasingly apparent that Zimbabwe was unable to service its debts, China wrote off some of the liabilities in 2018.
What particularly rankled Beijing was that Harare’s incapacity to pay its debts was deemed to be due to the government’s misappropriation or misuse of Chinese funds. Accordingly, there was need to tighten controls. This culminated in the signing of a currency swap deal in January 2020.
Back in mid-2019 China’s embassy in Harare had already stressed that development relied mainly on a country’s own efforts. It expressed hope that the Zimbabwean side would continue to create a more favourable environment for all foreign direct investment, including Chinese enterprises.
Indications suggest that China’s patience with the ailing Zimbabwean “all weather friend” is wearing thinner. The new economic challenges following the COVID-19 pandemic might have shifted priorities in global supply chains. This is also affecting the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive global infrastructure project. This might reduce interest in what Zimbabwe has to offer by way of natural resources.
No stability, no money, few friends?
Zimbabwean foreign policy remains locked in the parameters of recent times past: looking to regional solidarity, estranged from the West, and increasingly dependent on China.
Yet China has its own very clearly defined interests. These focus on resource extraction in mining and agriculture for its own domestic economy. As a strategic and developmental partner, Zimbabwe is of minor interest.
Chinese-Zimbabwean relations serve an elite in the Zanu-PF government. They are accused of “asset stripping”. They exclude any oversight, civil society involvement, and lack transparency and accountability. The absence of visible benefits for ordinary Zimbabweans has engendered anti-Chinese sentiments.
Having failed to restore friendly relations with the West, and its “look east policy” not bearing fruits, has left the Mnangagwa regime with few options. Russia has entered the arena, showing increased interest in the extractive industries, arms trade and political fraternisation.
This sounds not much like an alternative to the current ties with China. The bedfellows remain more than less of the same. And an old adage comes to mind: with friends like these one does not need enemies.
In Africa, radio still has wider geographical reach and higher audiences than any other information and communication technology, including television and newspapers.
Like the rest of the world, African radio is breaking away from being an analogue communication tool that relies on top down information flows to one that relies on multiple feedback loops. The main driver of this is digital media technologies.
It’s a trend I examine in a paper called Mobile Phones and a Million Chatter: Performed Inclusivity and Silenced Voices in Zimbabwean Talk Radio. I wanted to observe what is really happening at the convergence between radio, smartphones and related mobile-based applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
I found that apps like WhatsApp have indeed grown public discourse by connecting more voices to participate in live talkback radio – but this came with new challenges as newsrooms experience an oversupply of digital information from audiences.
A radio station in Harare
I set out to study a local radio station in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe through live studio ethnography and sustained interviews with radio producers and 21 audience members, the latter largely working class Harare residents.
Unsurprisingly, both producers and audiences found the convergence between radio and mobile phones is stretching out the communicative space. It allows more inclusive, seamless and real time debate between radio hosts and audiences. There was a strong feeling that radio continues to inculcate a sense of imagined community. One producer said:
Because we have a dedicated mobile line for WhatsApp, our programme has grown a bit in popularity and we know some of our listeners in person. Some of them visit us during the day just to explain a point discussed in the previous show or even to give us story leads.
And one of the listeners told me:
I tune in to radio through my mobile phone while I am selling vegetables on the market. I know that my neighbour is listening to this show also.
Apps like WhatsApp have become so pervasive and immersed in our everyday lives that many more people can now easily communicate with larger numbers of contacts than before. In the context of live talk radio, mobile phones are allowing more people to cheaply and conveniently access studio debates.
Prior to the emergence of digital media technologies, land lines were expensive and not nearly as widely domesticated as mobile phones are today.
By 2017, WhatApp was already by far the most popular app in Zimbabwe. It accounts for up to 44% of all mobile internet usage in a country where 98% of all internet usage is mobile. According to Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, promotional WhatsApp and Facebook access bundles, marketed by the country’s mobile operators, are helping drive up use of these platforms.
The digital downside
However, there’s also a downside to the advent of digital media technologies and digitalised newsrooms. Observing live studio shows I witnessed a number of structural constraints.
For example, while radio audiences may celebrate the possibilities of easily sending critical questions via WhatsApp to studio hosts, an apparently unintended consequence was that the journalist managing live studio debates struggled to read out all the messages received. The studio WhatsApp number commonly becomes congested.
Some messages and comments are left unread and get buried under an avalanche of newer ones popping up on the screen, in turn buried under even newer ones. Once this happens, it’s hard to tell how many quality contributions have been lost by not being read. So not all voices reaching the studio get a fair chance of being heard.
I call these unintended constraints, though, because they are not necessarily a result of failure by journalists and producers. They are more a technical setback in which an oversupply of information via dedicated WhatsApp lines eluded even the most astute radio presenter.
In addition, some messages reaching the studio WhatsApp channel were so badly typed that they would be set aside, the journalist preferring to read out only well-typed messages. Newsroom pressures and deadlines associated with broadcast media mean that there isn’t the luxury of spending too much time on one question.
In mass communication studies, these are seen as exclusionary practices in live radio talkback shows.
Democratising the airwaves
Democracy is normatively seen as thriving in environments where all voices, opinions and views across diverse population profiles are respected and given a fair chance of representation.
My study showed that, at least in terms of volume, the convergence between radio and mobile phones is stretching out the public sphere to accommodate more voices.
Digital technologies are allowing for new participants to engage actively with radio.
Zimbabwe is targeting annual average economic growth of 5% for the next five years, and aims to bring down inflation to single digits and create 760,000 formal jobs as part of a new economic recovery plan announced on Monday.
The worst economic crisis in more than a decade has seen inflation reach 471.25% and the Zimbabwe dollar currency collapse, with a shortage of foreign exchange.
Under its National Development Strategy (NDS), the government aims to increase foreign reserves to at least 6 months of import cover by 2025 and ensure “a market-determined and competitive foreign exchange rate regime”.
The economic recovery would be driven by investing in the mining sector, boosting agriculture production to ensure food security and maintaining the budget deficit below 3% of gross domestic product.
“This is also based on swift implementation of structural reforms aimed at removing bottlenecks and improving economic efficiency,” the NDS said.
The annual inflation rate is seen easing to 134.8% next year, falling further to 10.5% by 2023 and then into single digit territory thereafter, according to the NDS.
Zimbabwe has in the last three decades launched several economic recovery plans, many of which have missed their targets due to failure by authorities to follow through on reforms and keep expenditure within budget.
Under the new recovery plan, Zimbabwe would also seek to develop an economic reform programme with the International Monetary Fund and accelerate the raising of funding to pay $3 billion to white former farmers whose land was confiscated.
Zimbabwe owes international creditors more than $8 billion, most of it arrears, which prevents it accessing new funding.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa commit resources to promote agricultural innovations. This is based on the assumption that rural livelihoods are mainly agricultural and that the innovations will increase agricultural production and household income.
As resources come under pressure from growing populations and natural resource degradation, governments and donors want to see that agricultural research and innovation has an impact. They want to see “success” and “value for money”.
But success is understood in different ways. It depends on how it’s framed and by whom.
Studying conflict in agricultural innovations can lead to a better understanding of the appropriateness of certain technologies in terms of how they’re designed, promoted and how they’re linked to rural livelihoods.
Conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe provides a good example of an innovation like this. This approach to farming has been widely promoted by non-governmental organisations, research institutes and the state. It’s also promoted in other countries of eastern and southern Africa.
The method is based on minimal soil disturbance, mulching soil with crop residues, and crop rotation. These are meant to conserve moisture, reduce soil erosion and build up soil organic matter to improve crop yields and rural livelihoods.
We wanted to know how this innovation was promoted and implemented in Zimbabwe and how its “success” was framed and assessed. Our study found that there were differences in how farmers and promoters of conservation agriculture defined its success.
These differences matter when investments are made in promoting agricultural innovations. It’s particularly important to understand the diversity of rural livelihoods.
Our study was conducted in Gwanda and Insiza districts in south western Zimbabwe. Droughts are a common feature in the area, occurring on average every two or three years. We collected data via a household questionnaire survey, interviews and focus group discussions. Participants included farmers, NGO and government extension officers.
We found that innovation was understood by the majority of respondents as having three main attributes, namely, “novelty”, “adaptability” and “utility”. Despite novelty being mentioned more often than other understandings of innovation, some felt that it existed in theory and not practically.
For example, a farmer said interventions promoted in their communities weren’t new but rather repackaged existing technologies with different names. Some weren’t suitable for the area.
Conservation agriculture was identified as the innovation most often promoted by non-governmental organisations and government extension officers in the area. Huge investments were committed to promoting it – the Department for International Development set aside about US$23 million to promote it in Zimbabwe. Yet after the project’s three year lifespan, farmers mostly abandoned the practice.
The locals gave it the name “diga ufe”, which means “dig and die”, because it required so much physical labour. The manual digging of conservation basins during land preparation and the multiple weeding was labour intensive.
Farmers did find, though, that using the conservation agriculture techniques in their vegetable gardens yielded better results compared to bigger plots. Under crop production, farmers prioritised irrigated agriculture compared to rain-fed agriculture. Gardening was therefore identified as the second ranked important livelihood source after livestock production.
Respondents agreed that innovation was vital for sustaining food security and nutrition in the context of climate change. One farmer said innovation was about experimenting with resources at one’s disposal to come up with something new and suitable for the area. He also emphasised that innovation was a collective action that includes farmers, researchers, extension agents and the private sector. He said it was not only confined to new technology (hardware), but processes such as governance, that would yield positive results.
Climate smart crops such as sorghum, millet and cowpeas and climate smart livestock (goats and indigenous poultry) were identified by locals as potentially suitable in addressing dry spells in the area. But poor informal markets, limited bargaining power, shortage of grazing land, pests and diseases constrained productivity.
Diversifying out of agriculture was identified as an alternative response to climate change. It could boost the income of the household and help sustain food and nutrition security.
Government extension officers felt that innovations in the area should be targeted towards livestock production. The area’s semi-arid climate means it’s not conducive for rain-fed agriculture.
So, despite the efforts to promote conservation agriculture, dry land cropping was ranked as the lowest source of livelihood for rural people. People in the area prioritised livestock production. Promoting more livestock production related innovations would have been ideal for the area.
What does this mean for policy and innovations?
Innovation can thrive in rural areas. But this depends on understanding the communities’ perceptions and livelihood context to appreciate their priorities.
Rural communities are dynamic and complex. Imposing innovations that don’t speak to the needs of these communities won’t achieve rural development. Our study showed the importance of developing innovations with communities as opposed to innovations for communities.
People in rural areas don’t lack capacity. They need support to utilise available resources and innovate in a flexible manner that’s context specific. They should be key players in coming up with solutions, since they have a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within their communities.
Mobile financial services are, in most African countries, born out of crises. In 2011, Zimbabwe had gone through a volatile decade of economic crises – hyperinflation, currency instability and a collapse of the formal financial system. Consumers, mostly employed in the informal sector, had a widespread mistrust of the formal banking system.
In came Econet, a major mobile operator, to launch a mobile money service called Ecocash. Taking advantage of the country’s high mobile penetration, the service had 2.3 million users within 18 months. Today, close to 90% of adult Zimbabweans use Ecocash. In addition, Ecocash paved the way for competitors such as OneMoney, Telecash and Mycash.
The economic crisis in Zimbabwe spurred the rapid adoption and use of mobile money. First came cash shortages coupled with higher cash withdrawal fees and lower withdrawal limits. Then loss of savings to soaring inflation and loan denials in the formal banking system engendered mistrust among consumers. This forced a government-led drive towards a cashless economy and non-cash transactions.
Mobile money transfers in Zimbabwe are mainly from one person to another. This allows for urban to rural money remittances for family support, payment for goods and services in retail settings and financial flows between the formal and informal business sectors. Another important use of mobile money is to store money securely in high crime areas.
An important benefit is the cash-in and cash-out functionality. This allows users to deposit cash into a mobile account through a mobile money agent and withdraw physical cash at a convenient time and place. They can avoid the long queues and withdrawal limits set by the formal banking system.
Despite the compelling value proposition that mobile money offers, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe recently placed significant regulatory restrictions on its operations. The regulator said mobile money services were fuelling illegal foreign currency exchange, money laundering and fraud, especially through the cash-in/cash-out service.
The restrictions followed the Reserve Bank’s audit of the four mobile money platforms, including Ecocash. It found that some accounts were opened using fictitious or unverified identification documents. There was also a rampant misuse of mobile money accounts for money laundering schemes and fraudulent overdrafts or fictitious credit. It also cited cases of foreign currency trading outside the formal channels.
Users are now restricted to just one mobile wallet account per person and a daily transfer limit of ZW$5,000 (US$50). In addition, users can no longer transact through mobile money agents. Their operations have been abolished.
As a result, close to 50,000 mobile money agents have lost their source of income. This is likely to affect customers in the rural areas of Zimbabwe who depended on the agents to access mobile money services. These agents gave rural consumers the opportunity to be integrated into the financial system.
The overall effect is that mobile money accounts can only be used for transacting but not “store of value” purposes. Store of value means savings or investment accounts. This is seemingly at odds with findings by academics and development practitioners that mobile money accounts encourage poor customers who are not well served by the formal financial sector to save regularly.
This is all the more so in a country battling with a shortage of banknotes and coins and the collapse of the traditional financial system. The stringent restrictions could stifle innovation among mobile money operators and hinder access to financial services for many unbanked Zimbabweans.
The blanket restrictions may have the unintended consequence of excluding legitimate merchants and consumers from accessing financial services. The new regulations also appear out of proportion to the risk. For instance, a tiered approach to know-your-customer regulation could have allowed the regulator to distinguish between risky high-value transactions and low-value transactions.
Zimbabwe has a national population registration system which is only accessible by authorised government workers. The ordinary mobile money agent would not have access to it. But customers without adequate identification could still sign up for a basic account with low transaction and withdrawal limits, instead of being excluded entirely from the financial system.
Alternative forms of identification could have been used for opening accounts. These could include utility bills or letters from local church and village leaders.
The mobile money agent network increased access to financial services in rural and hard-to-reach areas of Zimbabwe. Instead of abolishing the role of mobile money agents, the financial regulator could have reprimanded and fined agents found guilty of money laundering and the trading of foreign exchange without a licence.
The Reserve Bank also needs a financial sector policy that facilitates the development of safe and accessible mobile money services for Zimbabweans who currently don’t have access to financial services. This would require that all stakeholders, including the regulator, mobile money operators, telecommunication regulators and financial intelligence authorities, develop a collaborative regulatory framework.
Such a framework would seek to protect the integrity of the financial system from fraud and misuse. At the same time it would ensure that consumers and merchants enjoyed the full benefits of mobile money services. At all times, the end goal of greater financial inclusion must remain a priority.
“No Cash Accepted” signs are increasingly common in Australian shops, thanks to COVID-19. Even before the the pandemic struck, though, we were well along the cashless path, with demand for coins halving between 2013 and 2019.
For the most part Australians have taken cashless payments in their stride. A fully cashless society is often envisaged as inevitable.
But the experiences of Sweden and Zimbabwe, two very different countries that have gone much farther down the path to a cashless society, highlight the pitfalls of such thinking. Sweden shows the need to safeguard access to cash. Zimbabwe shows the importance of the transition not being forced.
Sweden’s cashless experience
Sweden was quick to move toward a cashless society. In the decade to 2018, its central bank, the Riksbank, says the proportion of purchases in shops using cash dropped from about 40% to 13%. Now even panhandlers and public toilets take cards or a mobile payment system called Swish.
But the bloom started coming off Sweden’s cashless rose relatively quickly.
Over the past few years Swedes have been increasingly concerned about the elderly, those living in rural areas and people from migrant backgrounds being left behind by businesses switching to Swish no longer accepting cash.
Last year all but one of Sweden’s political parties supported new laws requiring Sweden’s major banks to continue to offer cash services across the country.
Britain’s government has also promised to guarantee access to cash, with the UK Treasury drafting legislation based on the Swedish laws.
In Australia, research by the Reserve Bank of Australia (from 2019) suggests about a quarter of the population remain “high cash users”, for whom no longer being able to use cash would be “a major inconvenience or genuine hardship”:
These high cash users are more likely to be older, have lower household income, live in regional areas, and/or have limited internet access.
With the vast majority of Australians still wanting the choice of cash, the moral from Sweden is maintaining access to cash is likely to require regulation.
Zimbabwe’s cashless experience
The lesson from Zimbabwe’s experience with cashless transactions is rather different. It’s about the importance of the move to cashless being voluntary, and occurring organically.
While the conditions shaping Zimbabwe’s experience are unlikely to be replicated in Australia, it is nonetheless worth understanding for the broader moral.
In Sweden the transition to cashless payments was overwhelmingly welcomed. In Zimbabwe, the change was mixed up with bigger economic travails. It was neither wanted nor particularly welcomed.
Zimbabwe’s chequered history of economic crises include hyperinflation hitting 231,000,000% in October 2008. To deal with that problem, in 2009 the government suspended the Zimbabwean dollar and instead allowed Zimbabweans to use foreign currencies as legal tender. US dollars fast became the cash of choice.
This de facto “dollarisation” stabilised the economy, but it also resulted in a scarcity of cash. Supply could not be topped up by the government printing money. The supply of US dollars was also reduced by their use to buy imports as well as being stashed away as savings.
Government attempts to address this cash shortage, such the introduction of a “surrogate currency” in 2014, failed due to the lack of popular trust. Zimbabweans instead turned to electronic payment platforms such as Ecocash, a phone-based money-transfer service. By 2017, 96% of all transactions were electronic.
Use shapes understanding
In Sweden, the transition to cashless payments has not fundamentally affected people’s concepts of money and value.
In Zimbabwe, however, the move toward cashlessness has been experienced as a disruption of pre-existing forms of economic life, rather than their seamless extension.
It is tainted by distrust in government institutions and the value of all money. “Bad cash is better than good plastic!” as one street trader in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe’s second-largest city) told me.
This crisis of trust in the very understanding of money is worth noting at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates our move to cashless transactions. Changes in everyday economic life brought about by the shift to cashless transactions have the potential to reshape how we understand money in unpredictable ways.
Zimbabwean authorities are in discussions with several international investment banks to support a new stock exchange that will trade exclusively in foreign currency, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube said.
“The interest has been huge,” Ncube told an analyst briefing. He declined to give further details.
Yvonne Mhango, sub-Saharan Africa economist at Renaissance Capital, told the briefing that uppermost on foreign investors’ minds was the ability to repatriate their capital. “What they want is a functioning stock exchange,” Mhango said.
The global lenders would handle clearing and settlement of trades, thereby guaranteeing investors’ funds, Zimbabwe Stock Exchange Chief Executive Officer Justin Bgoni said at the event. The companies involved in talks are based in Africa, Asia and Europe, he said.
The exchange, to be known as VFEX and based in the resort town of Victoria Falls, will open in “a couple of weeks,” said Bgoni, who will also head the bourse.
There is a general perception that there is no film industry to talk about in Zimbabwe. This argument is mostly based on comparisons with other well-resourced film economies, such as Hollywood, or even South Africa’s.
Based on my study of the Zimbabwean film industry I disagree with this view. Zimbabwe does have a film industry, but perhaps, not one that meets everyone’s expectations and certainly not one that can be comparable to Hollywood’s formal value chain.
Zimbabwe, like many other developing countries, faces political and economic challenges and the film industry’s problems are compounded by a lack of either governmental or corporate support, which has led media scholar Nyasha Mboti to observe that the sector is “orphaned”.
There are, nevertheless, efforts at the grassroots, of various informally constituted cottage industries producing video-film products. These include video-films shot in as little as a week, on very low to zero budgets and by remarkably lean crews (who may also feature as the acting talent). These efforts should be celebrated as indications of enthusiasm, creative genius and sheer endeavour that auger well for the future of an industry (by any definition).
Making it work
In a recent paper I argue that making a film in most developing countries is mégotage, as observed by the ‘father of African cinema’, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. The mégotage metaphor means that producing a film in such contexts is a desperate endeavour, akin to scrounging around for cigarette butts.
It is such a grit and grunt, huff and puff affair, to the extent that even a 10-minute short film has to be admired.
Evidence on the ground shows that the mégotage sometimes pays off. Zimbabweans are known for their resilience and ability to kiya-kiya (‘make things work’ in the Shona language) when faced with what seems to be a dead end. A large portion of the country’s economy is characterised by such kiya-kiya efforts, as anthropologist Jeremy Jones observes.
Zimbabwe’s film industry appears to thrive under very difficult circumstances. Recent video-films like Kushata Kwemoyo, Escape, Chinhoyi 7 and lately, the Netflix hit Cook Off, all made during the so-called Zimbabwean crisis (stretching from around 2000 to date) showcase the filmmaking talent and cinematographic capabilities abundant in the country. It’s what once led film scholar Frank Ukadike, in his book Black African Cinema, to remark that Zimbabwe was Africa’s Hollywood.
Ukadike made his remark more than 20 years ago. It was based on the film-friendliness that Zimbabwe exhibited back then. At the time, many Hollywood companies, including the Cannon Group who were popular for blockbusters like Missing In Action and Cyborg featuring stars like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, used Zimbabwe as a filmmaking location because of its splendid scenery, efficient financial systems and durable infrastructure. Famous faces such as Sharon Stone (in King Solomon’s Mines) and Denzel Washington (in Cry Freedom) graced the country as cast in the movies.
At the same time, Zimbabwe’s Central Film Laboratories serviced the southern African region’s film processing needs. All this promise has disappeared, owing to a combination of political and economic factors that have traumatised most economic sectors, and this is the source of the pessimism.
Riches from grassroots
What I celebrate is that, in the midst of such adversity, filmmaking continues to thrive. A critical mass of youthful filmmakers armed with camcoders, laptops, cell phones and an assortment of improvisations, has emerged and continues to keep the filmmaking impulse alive. Among the leading lights are Von Tavaziva (Go Chanaiwa Go Reloaded), Shem Zemura (Kushata Kwemoyo), Joe Njagu (Cook Off) and Nakai Tsuro (Mwanasikana), to mention just a few.
Most of the time, their route to audience is the DVD or Youtube, often for little or no returns. But the enterprising ones, like Von Tavaziva, have discovered ways of beating the scourge of piracy by producing high volumes of DVDs and selling them at very affordable prices in accessible city spaces.
With proceeds from such endeavours, they mount their next productions – no government support, no bank loan, no moaning!
There are further encouraging signs, if the aesthetics of contemporary music videos is anything to go by. The work of Vusa ‘Blaqs’ Hlatshwayo and Willard ‘Slimmaz’ Magombedze indicates cinematographic competences that can further improve the video-film genre. A veteran of the crisis years, filmmaker Tawanda Gunda Mupengo (Tanyaradzwa and Peretera Maneta) told me that if people keep at it, the local art of filmmaking will only get better. He believes that emerging talent, even away from the major cities, should be encouraged and this will have a multiplier effect, not only on volumes of video-films, but also the human resource-base needed for profitable film business in the future. He says:
Let there be a competent crew in Masvingo. If that crew makes a film that is successful, they will breed a community of filmmakers. They will be training people on the ground when they are shooting and editing, so that we have vibrant little pockets.
The informal filmmaking practices (which are in fact Zimbabwe’s film industry), should be encouraged to thrive, with or without government support. The example of Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, which has grown from rags to riches, offers inspiration in terms of how grassroots efforts may blossom in the long run. As it was for Nigeria, so can it be for Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwean government recently signed an agreement to pay 4,500 white farmers US$3.5 billion for infrastructure improvements on the land expropriated by the government during the chaotic land reform programme of 1997/8.
The initiative shows commitment to constitutionalism and respect for property rights and restoring the rule of law. The agreement is also a noble attempt at bringing closure to a questionable episode of the country’s land history.
But the proposal to fund the exercise by issuing a sovereign bond is highly ambitious. With an ailing economy, the country simply doesn’t have the resources to meet its commitment to white farmers. In his letter dated 2 April 2020 to the heads of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB), Paris Club and European Investment Bank, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube clearly outlined that the country does not have the medical and financial resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the government cleared its US$107.9 million arrears with the IMF in 2016, it is still struggling to settle its US$2.2 billion debt to other international financial institutions, including the World Bank and African Development Bank.
The government has proposed issuing a long-term sovereign bond, a process where the government sells bonds to investors on either domestic or international financial markets to raise funds. This year, only Ghana, Gabon and Egypt have managed to do so.
It has also called on international donors to help it raise the needed funding. If these options do not raise sufficient funds, another proposal is to sell municipal land around the nation’s biggest cities.
In my view issuing a sovereign bond would be ill-advised. The main reasons for this are that the economic and political conditions are not conducive to an issuance of such a bond. For a country to successfully issue a sovereign bond, it needs some basics in place. It needs an international sovereign credit rating, stable domestic economic fundamentals and investor confidence. None of these are currently present in Zimbabwe.
Why it’s a bad idea
Most of the factors relate to internal political and economic fundamentals.
Firstly, Zimbabwe does not have a sovereign credit rating from the three international credit rating agencies – Fitch, Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s. Without a rating, it is impossible to successfully issue a sovereign bond on international markets because it’s a key input in determining yield and coupon payment on a bond. The government has not yet solicited a rating from the big three rating agencies. It is among the 23 African countries that are yet to request an international sovereign rating.
Secondly, the country has no domestic debt market. If it did, it could try to mobilise local investors who understand the associated risk exposures and could perform their own due diligence. Domestic institutional investors would have to subscribe for the government’s bond issuance to be successful.
Thirdly, the country has changed its currency more than 10 times since 2000. In 2019, the Central Bank banned the use of foreign currency for trading and reintroduced the Zimbabwe dollar quasi-currency that had been abandoned in 2009. The local currency depreciated by more than 320% in less than a year. This eroded savings and pensions, and saw a further loss of confidence in the entire financial system. Strength of a country’s currency determines the attractiveness of its bond issues. A weak currency compounds the risk of default and debt sustainability as repayments will still have to be made in foreign currency.
Fourthly, the increasing economic crisis in the country has eroded the goodwill that the current government accrued post-Mugabe era. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s actions have failed to tally with his “open for business” mantra. His trips to Davos have failed to yield any significant foreign direct investment as investors question his credibility.
Fifth, the government has been hostile to the private sector. It ordered the closure of the stock exchange on 29 June 2020 and accused businesses of fuelling currency devaluation. State security agencies attempted to stop certain business operations of Econet and Old Mutual, the two largest companies listed on the stock exchange. They were accused of fuelling hostilities against the government. It is these companies and their multinational networks that would support the bond issuance by purchasing the government bonds.
Sixth, the government’s brand has been damaged by a number of government officials being targeted for sanctions. Some are calling for stronger sanctions for human rights abuses. Investors perceive a country that does not respect its rule of law as unlikely to respect its sovereign bond covenants nor honour its obligations on time.
In addition, the government’s commitment to transparency and integrity has been called into question on the back of accusations of mass corruption. Despite promises, there has been little to no action against government officials embroiled in corruption scandals.
Seventh, Zimbabwe’s economy has failed to pick up in the post-Mugabe era. Instead, it has become worse. Food production is at its all time low, the health sector has been paralysed by constant protests and inflation has been estimated at more than 800%.
The last internal factor to consider is that the country’s central bank can no longer perform its functions as the lender of last resort and facilitating cross-border transactions, because of the lack of foreign exchange reserves. Forex access has been restricted to government agencies, departments and selected individuals. Local banks technically have the liberty to make their own forex transaction arrangements with other international corresponding banks.
There are also some external factors that make raising capital this way a bad idea right now. The international debt market has been depressed as a result of COVID-19 and is likely to remain so for the next two years as investors wait to see how countries emerge from the crisis. And the cost of issuing a bond has doubled, which has priced most African countries out of the market. Zimbabwe is no exception.
All these factors are not favourable for Zimbabwe to issue a sovereign bond.
Zimbabwe has many pressing issues. Given that the economy is at its lowest, compensating farmers is a luxury the country cannot afford. It will not yield the implied results of increasing foreign direct investment.
Instead, Zimbabwe should focus on demonstrating the political will to restore business confidence. Evidence of this will include the removal from public office and prosecution of people involved in corruption.
It should also acknowledge the challenges it faces and commit to genuine political dialogue. International partners and investors interpret the denial of the challenges faced by the country as being dishonest and untrustworthy.
Lastly, the government should implement the economic reforms previously agreed with multilateral lenders. Under the agreement, policies should focus on eliminating the government’s double-digit fiscal deficit and adopting reforms to allow market forces to drive the functioning of foreign exchange and other financial markets. These will help stabilise the currency and monetary policy. Without fully implementing these reforms agreed with multilateral agencies, mobilising foreign direct investment will remain a dream.