Zimbabwe: the challenge to de-politicize economic reform

In the nearly six months now since Zimbabwe held national elections, the country’s politics and economy remain almost at a standstill. To the government, opposition, and civil society, relief can’t come soon enough. The challenge, though, is reconciling what needs to change in order to unblock stasis.

The President Emmerson Mnangagwa-led Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government has emphasized economic austerity measures, reducing the size of the civil service, and reducing the budget deficit, to get toward a sustainably balanced budget.  The Zimbabwean government has introduced amending some economic policies that had hitherto discouraged foreign investment, notably in potentially privatizing government enterprises and permitting majority ownership in strategic mining sectors, to include the politically-sensitive diamond sector, and in raising the amounts of foreign exchange currency that domestic and foreign companies can retain. The Mnangagwa administration has also budgeted to compensate white Zimbabwean farmers for properties they were dispossessed of under the Robert Mugabe-led regime (though, to be sure, the amount budgeted is not the same as the amount available). Such developments were made in order to restore confidence in Zimbabwe at home and abroad.

Zimbabwean economic reforms have not translated into meaningful improvements in the country’s economy, however. Inflation remains at stubbornly high levels (reaching a ten-year high at the end of 2018), foreign exchange shortages have disrupted much business activity (the country has seen intermittent closures of retail and industrial enterprises), and the citizenry faces a high cost of living not commensurate with most pay levels. Much of the Zimbabwean public, not only from striking teachers and medical workers, and from private enterprise have turned to demand payment in U.S. dollars so as to defend their purchasing power against the unceasing stress of the country’s difficult economic conditions. 

Zimbabwe’s principal political opposition, the Nelson Chamisa-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has persistently called for wide-ranging dialogue with and acceptance by Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF to yield on political demands over the country’s 2018 elections results the opposition leader still disputes. While ZANU-PF has sought to amend some controversial political legislation, notably the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) of 2002 that among other concerns restricts media and democratic freedoms and expressions, the ruling party has entertained no discussion that questions their legitimate elections victory. As a result, a conciliatory engagement between Zimbabwe’s opposition and the ruling party has found little traction, which has had the consequence of constraining Western government support of the Zimbabwean government.

Donor governments, for their part, have consistently stated that broad political reforms – electoral openness, financial transparency, accountability for prior abuses of power – need to be seen before substantial support can be mobilized for Zimbabwe. In other words, Western governments, to include the U.S., are of the position that reforms effected so far by ZANU-PF are insufficient. On the other hand, neighboring governments, notably South Africa’s, have called for patience and stated that Zimbabwe is conducting meaningful reform and as such the government should be supported by seeing sanctions against it be removed. 

Given that it has been almost six months since the Mnangagwa-led ZANU-PF was elected into power, introducing significant economic reforms as far as the liberation-era ruling party is concerned, and not modifying their political hegemony, it is not likely the Zimbabwean government will buckle on prioritizing economic reform initiatives such as austerity seen critical to renewing the Zimbabwean economy. No matter the protest action against the country’s very difficult economic conditions, these strikes, while important, are not a confrontation against the legitimacy of the ZANU-PF-led government. Rather, the protests, some of which have been appeased by promises of funding concessions, are against persistent and prevailing economic underperformance (of which the MDC believes the solution is forming a new government). In other words, the Mnangagwa administration does not face political peril during this time of economic stress, though neither does it earn confidence. Mnangagwa is positioning Zimbabwe to attract crucial foreign investment, but what is garnering tentative attention are primary and extractive industries, and unfortunately not the sectors conducive to more rapid advances in socioeconomic development. Getting to broad-based growth and development is the intention shared in common by Zimbabwean stakeholders, but how to get there knows no such consensus.  

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