A conference in London to address the unravelling economic and social crisis in Zimbabwe drew more attention for the backlash the country’s finance minister received from Zimbabweans in London, than the substance of the discussion itself.
Organized by the London-based Africa Confidential, a long-running independent, specialist publication on Africa, the Zimbabwe 2016 Conference drew participants from a wide range of Zimbabwe’s government and non-government sectors.
To name a few, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor, John Mangudya, Transport Minister Obert Mpofu, Industry and Commerce Minister Mike Bimha, Mines Minister Walter Chidhakwa, former Finance Minister and opposition Progressive People’s Party leader Tendai Biti, Chatham House Fellow Knox Chitiyo, SAPES Trust Executive Chair, Ibbo Mandaza, Law Lecturer Alex Magaisa, Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries President Busisa Moyo, film maker and journalist Farai Sevenzo, and author and lawyer, Petinah Gappah.
The aim of the conference, explained Africa Confidential managing director Bryan Pearson, who conceptualized the idea during a visit to Zimbabwe last year, was to help the southern African country get back on track, through constructive dialogue.
“You can either have no dialogue, or critical dialogue, and that is what I think we achieved,” said Pearson, describing the discussion as having “a good, robust exchange. Very open, very critical,” Pearson said.
Pearson said the urgency to hold the discussion was largely dictated by the deteriorating state of the country’s economy and other sectors, evidenced by the shortage of cash, high unemployed and delayed salaries for the country’s government workers.
In a revolt, many of the country’s citizens took part in a nationwide call by several non-political groups, for workers to stay away from work and shutdown businesses, so as to force President Robert Mugabe and his government to address the crisis, with urgency.
“They’ve got challenges that are complex and difficult and no one’s really got a solution,” Pearson said, adding that the conference attempted to put all issues of concern to citizens on the table.
“We were talking about governance, we were talking about finances, we were talking about currency, big difficulty, they are using the US-dollar at the moment, and as (Minister) Chinamasa said, it’s actually become a commodity rather than a currency. Now they then come up with an idea of bonds (bond notes) which would not be transferable, as the currency is just disappearing off-shore straight away.”
Announced by the Reserve Bank governor recently, and set to hit the market sometime this year as a way to help boost exports, the anticipated bonds have not eased many citizen’s concerns, which Pearson said the conference revealed.
“The bond is actually very, very unpopular but actually no one has yet come up with an alternative that would keep financial movement within the country.”
“There’s an economy that’s growing at one-and-a-quarter percent, it needs to be growing probably at least 4, 4% per annum just to keep pace with the demographics of growth and things.”
Noting the backlash to Minister Chinamasa’s presence at the London Conference, Pearson said he understood the concerns raised by Zimbabweans in London, including accusations against the government of mismanaging the economy and enabling corruption as President Mugabe recently alluded to in the case of the disappearance of US$15 billion from diamond revenues, and offered assurances that the minister did not get an easy pass.
“People are absolutely within their right to demonstrate, you know we’ve been there ourselves, if you like. But I think the US$15 billion as you say, was raised in the conference directly, by the (former) finance minster (Tendai Biti.)
The Zimbabwe 2016 Conference was the first that Africa Confidential has hosted on Zimbabwe, but Pearson said they’ve been sponsoring such conferences on other countries as well over the years. There was no follow up meeting arranged or resolutions reached at the end of the Conference.