NO VACANCY HERE! A National Moto. (Part 2)

In my previous post I looked at how corporate Zimbabwe has consistently replicated certain traits of the government and political parties. I initially meant for this to be a follow-up outlining how those negative traits have impacted the economy and how they can be corrected, however, this idea was overtaken by events. Over the last three weeks I have worked and reworked the article as one event after another changed Zimbabwe’s trajectory leading me to widen the scope of this post. Now that the political dust seems to have settled, albeit temporarily, the time has come to look at the economy and particularly the private sector’s role in it’s recovery.

Zimbabwe’s Real Economic Dependency Ratio.

A country’s dependency ratio is defined as the ratio of economically active workers compared to inactive. In Zimbabwe one has to take into consideration the fact that the unemployment rate has been stubbornly above 90% for years and despite government’s best attempts to rework the numbers, the truth of a failing economy is impossible to hide. Recently I was told about middle management staff at a certain bank, most of them have been there for a number of years and enjoy numerous benefits including access to hard currency and school fees being paid for by the employer. These people are getting on in years but have no intention of leaving their positions to make space for new blood because of the fear of unemployment. This means there is no chance for upward mobility for those lower down the totem pole, and no chance of entry for those applying for jobs at that same bank. Now extrapolate this to the entire economy and you start to get a sense of the difficulties in reducing the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.

As we all wait for the announcement of President Mnangagwa’s cabinet, something I expected to have happened within hours of his swearing in, and government’s economic recovery framework, we have to consider some of the potential landmines that can scupper Zimbabwe’s recovery.

A multi-generational time bomb.

I come from a generation that started their adult life with much promise in the mid-nineties and went through the trauma of watching those opportunities wither and die over the last twenty years. In that period, many Zimbabweans who cam of age have been unable to get jobs and those who did, the vast majority were not able to hold onto them. This has led to two failed generations of Zimbabweans with little to no experience who have been forced to make a living in any way they can yet yearn for the security of a regular pay cheque. We now find ourselves looking at potentially a third failed generation if there isn’t a radical transformation of the economy. Assuming that government and business are able to quickly craft and immediately implement policies that see rapid job creation, how will they deal with three generations all simultaneously seeking employment? These jobs will need to be sustainable and contribute to economic recovery, rather than just be window-dressing.

Government’s wage bill conundrum.

Zimbabwe’s public service has long been plagued by ghost workers, an inefficient and bloated workforce, and a hugely excessive wage bill accounting for over 86% of overheads in January 2017. As finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa tried repeatedly to reduce this wage bill but was blocked by then President Mugabe for purely populist reasons. For any economic recovery strategy to be taken seriously, it will need to include not only drastic cuts in the government wage bill, but also a plan for where these people will go to avoid worsening an already terrible unemployment crisis. Government even went as far as changing the legislation to avoid hefty severance packages. This however, may no longer be possible and if government sought to retrench employees to reduce the wage bill, they would likely have to borrow to fund the process which is something that would bring it’s own challenges considering government’s current inability to borrow internationally and illiquidity of the local market. With an unenviably long list of development priorities it will be interesting to see how government handles this.

The diaspora factor.

Much has been said over the years about Zimbabwe and her relationship with her diaspora, you can find my thoughts here, however, this segment of the population is going to be key to the country’s economic recovery. This will require specific policies to attract this resource back to the country even if it is at risk of a local backlash from those who have toughed it out through the worst of the economic decline. The risk of backlash can be mitigated if policies are designed in such a way as to attract diaspora resources without affording undue benefit, as was done in the past by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) under then governor Gideon Gono.

In the past the RBZ’s only way of engaging the diaspora has been through encouraging remittances, this money has almost exclusively gone towards consumptive expenditure. Past efforts to encourage corporate investment have fallen flat due to a well founded lack of trust in the government, despite the positive wave the new administration is riding on, it will take some work to turn this goodwill into investment.

What the future holds.

Some have expressed disappointment that Zimbabwe missed an opportunity for a new democratic dispensation, this view does not take into account the country’s history. Since it’s inception as a nation Zimbabwe has never known the type democratic dispensation that they imagine and this was never going to happen with the cast of characters behind this latest change of the guard. To be frank, Zimbabwe is a quasi-authoritarian state with a strong military influence on governance. Looking at the continent this may actually not be a bad thing for the economy when one considers that Africa’s fastest growing economies are similarly structured, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Egypt, which recently overtook South Africa as Africa’s largest receiver of foreign direct investment (FDI), all fall into the quasi-authoritarian mould. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame who regularly wins elections with more than 90% of the vote has been referred to as a benevolent dictator. Maybe the question Zimbabwe needs to face is, how much democratic space are we willing to give up for economic recovery and subsequently growth? Going by the events of the last two weeks this question may already have been answered for us.

Whilst I do not trust politicians, I do have utmost faith in their instincts of self-preservation and this new administration in the making has shown unique tenacity in coming back from the political brink to force the resignation of Robert Mugabe. If this is anything to go by, the easiest way for them to hold onto power is to facilitate an economic recovery.  The new government has it all to do and is currently riding on a wave of national euphoria that it still has not fully taken advantage of. Everything hinges on the cabinet announcement and policy direction, the sooner that happens the better. It is notable that the British government have been the first to unequivocally pledge their support for Zimbabwe’s economic recovery and their minister for Africa, Rory Stewart, was on the ground as soon as former President Mugabe resigned. Despite some initial misgivings about the British being the first to show up, I believe anyone stepping up to help Zimbabwe at this point should at least be considered, the country has a long  recovery and the sooner this journey begins, the better.