Beginning in 2000, Zimbabwe experienced a decade of unprecedented political and economic crisis that was only temporarily alleviated by the inception of a government of national unity in 2010. Despite the occasional populist and radical pronouncements of the head of state, Robert Mugabe, against British and American imperialism, it became difficult to see his government as an ethical alternative.
The abandonment of principles became apparent earlier, soon after the adoption of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1990, which essentially crippled the growth of a developmental state, prevented ethical leadership in the institutions of government and triggered the erosion of facilities that had once been designed to protect the poor.
Levels of credibility hit their lowest ebb as an executive branch dominated by former firebrand guerrilla leaders from Zanu and Zapu adopted opulent lifestyles supported by corruption. Plundering state resources became the norm.
Liberalisation and privatisation created a platform where politicians and civil servants regarded the state simply as a tool for primitive accumulation and rent-seeking. They openly aligned with predatory business networks and became champions of the market economy in an attempt to remedy some of the failures they had plunged the post-independent state into.
One telling transformation was a shift among those who saw the state as having a key role in controlling the economy. From calling for nationalisation of key resources, they began talking about ‘indigenisation’ as the answer to foreign domination in the economy.
Indeginisation took legal effect in 2008: the stated idea behind the law is to indegenise the Zimbabwean economy by promoting the participation of ‘indigenous’ Zimbabweans in business and the exploitation of economic resources. It requires a 51% stake in businesses meeting the minimum net asset threshold of at leas $500 000 to be owned by indigenous Zimbabweans as defined in the Indigenisation Act.
This discourse pretended its roots lay in reclaiming the state on behalf of the people, but promoted a fight for control of fragments here and there, while well-connected elites bit off generous chunks of the country’s wealth and exploited resources to their own narrow benefit. Many Zimbabweans quickly identified indigenisation as producing problematic patterns of ownership, unsustainable exploitation of resources, and deeply unequal sharing of benefits.
Where they were confronted with people power — over the extractive industries, for example — Mugabe and his team quickly opted for “community empowerment” schemes and trust companies. These programmes were expertly designed by politically astute and educated teams, making them difficult to oppose in theory. But in practice, elite capture of the state has allowed the ruling elite and its allies to hide behind structures such as traditional leadership, emptying participatory consultations of content.
It is not the first time that Mugabe’s political machinery has successfully diverted the people’s genuine grievances elsewhere. The same happened with the unequal redistribution of land. The Zanu government failed to address the land question for almost two decades, forcing a number of rural communities to march into white-owned farms they had identified as their ancestral homes. The energy and direction of the land repossession movement had an anti-statist inclination, but Mugabe quickly turned this by the deployment of war veterans and other elements of his bureaucracy and propaganda machine. These elements pushed the line that government had long been waiting for the uprisings to begin, and directed them against white settlers rather than the state.
A similar process is now taking place behind the discourse on indigenisation.
In the mid 1980s, Mugabe eased back from outright nationalisation and let certain sections of his party carry out a milder version of wealth transfer and control through affirmative action followed by some indigenisation. Neither actions threatened established capitalist concerns as it was easy to arrange for a token African presence on the boards of their companies. Indigenisation at the time was limited to mobilising state resources to encourage Africans entering business.
The country was soon awash with a class of these beneficiaries, who then sank back into obscurity as they failed to compete with established business or did to prudently utilise their expensive state guarantees. Many in Zimbabwe still refer to a business with no tangible results as ‘indigenous’.
Indigenisation was put into the freezer only to be brought back out for microwaving after the relative success of the land repossession programmes. The land seizures not only put Zanu-PF back on the front foot in the aftermath of the SAPs, it also helped reestablish some of ailing structures and create new ones.
A good example is ‘Chipangano’, a vigilante group which collects tribute from businesses whose political affiliation is not with Zanu. Groups such as halted the growing influence of rural communities and NGOs that were growing increasingly vocal on what type of government and quality of services they wanted.Terrorised communities were gaining strength and moral authority from their daily experiences, and pointing to bad governance as the reason for their impoverishment. In places like diamond-rich Chiadzwa, and in the granite-mining area of Mutoko, communities were were openly arguing that the management of the extractive sector has not been anchored on good governance, transparency and accountability, respect of human rights, environmental sustainability, socio-economic justice, cultural integrity and inter-generational equity.
The diamond communities are still enjoying the honeymoon of participating in the diamond bonanza and have not fully grasped the need to enforce their rights for sustainable development. However, with awareness dawning that their communities are not really benefitting from the diamond operations, there is a minority who are willing to take the lead to advocate for community ownership and benefit-sharing, paying particular attention to the fact that while foreigners will come and go, it will be up to the people of Chiadzwa in particular, and Zimbabweans in general, to sustainably develop the land.
Around the world, it is recognised that exploitation of mineral resources has played a significant role in achieving development and industrialisation. The diamond industry has created jobs, led to infrastructure development such as (roads, clinics, hospitals, houses and schools) as well as other social services, but alas, this development has not taken place without its casualties. It has been noted throughout the world that mining companies violate communities’ environmental, economic, social and cultural rights.
There is overwhelming evidence that the Zimbabwean government has failed to adequately protect communities from mining operators. It is clear that few of these communities have the capacity to challenge the destructive aspect of the operations.
The affected communities have numerous grievances and issues, but the framing of the current discourse on indigenisation in many areas shows a limited understanding of the existing legal framework and other related protocols that should protect these rights.
Mining has left many neighbouring communities in crisis, with food security and livelihoods disrupted, food security and health threatened, and cultural sites destroyed. Mining companies may have caused harm while operating within their legal rights. Still, they have an obligation to make sure their activities remain in harmony with the needs of communities and the environment.
In Zimbabwe, the problems are exacerbated by the fact that there is such limited transparency and accountability in the mining sector, especially in the context of the political and economic crisis.
The communities of Mutoko North have an operating environment that allows for nurturing the discourse on reclaiming and enforcing their rights. Their strategies have been strengthened by the fact that the indeginisation process is being driven by community representatives and ably supported by civil society organisations with relatively good exposure to global advocacy. There is evidence that this type of support is a critical ingredient in protecting and improving community rights and benefits.
Techniques for advocating greater transparency and accountability have not reached community-based organisations, but have attracted the attention of NGOs and CSOs that operate at the regional and global levels on things such as mining laws, royalty proposals, climate change and the Kimberley process. The extreme hostility between state and society has made it difficult to engage in an objective discussion on transparency and accountability with regards to contracts, revenue from mining, corporate social responsibility, and impact assessments. Government has openly attacked both NGOs and private companies, creating an environment of extreme mistrust. Private companies have on the other hand highlighted it is the government’s responsibility to put any information on mining operations in the public domain.
The Zimbabwean state must be reclaimed for the people. It should return to its traditional development role, with a more activist and interventionist character, to protect the poor and vulnerable, and offer much-needed leadership, direction and energy to the African people as a whole in these critical times.
Thomas Deve is an antipoverty campaigner and journalist based in Zimbabwe. He is currently employed by the United Nations Millennium Campaign as the Southern Africa regional coordinator.