What is Christmas going to bring to Zimbabwean Homes?

We are going to have a very subdued Christmas this year. In the 30 months since the 2013 elections that gave us an old/new government our economy has shrunk dramatically, confidence in the business sector has not recovered and if anything, has declined still further. If you have assets in the stock markets you are two thirds poorer than in 2013. The season is not looking good, a regional food deficit of record proportions is looming, prices are declining but incomes are falling even faster and there are few signs that our leadership even understands what is wrong, let alone what to do about it.

But as always, Africa might surprise us again as it has done so many times in the past, this past two weeks we have seen signs that at long last the State President has taken steps to halt the infighting that has paralyzed the State in the past two years. Although nothing has been said, the spoor on the ground is unmistakable – Grace has been told to curb her ambitions and that the status quo in terms of leadership is not going to change any time soon.

Had she been allowed to continue with her unbridled rhetoric it could have plunged us into a real crisis and I was deeply concerned about the stability of the State. So now it’s just the health of Mr. Mugabe that remains, his fragility was clearly on display in the recent G20 summit in Turkey and there is persistent talk of the use of a wheel chair.

It is clear to all, except the incumbent, that his capacity to handle the affairs of State is now declining fast. He must, in the interests of the country, put his affairs in order and make arrangements for a orderly transfer of power to a selected successor.

Two weeks ago elections were held in Burma and the opposition Party was elected into power with over 90 per cent of the vote and a sufficient majority to form the next government on its own despite the reserved seats in the House for the Military Junta that has run the country for nearly 40 years. Six years ago, their leadership was in house detention, the Junta entrenched and little sign of any hope of a democratic transition.

Then, just when real changes seemed to be impossible, the Chinese chose to use their regional influence and power to persuade the Junta to allow a transition to democracy. The leadership of the opposition was engaged in secret talks and released from detention. A transitional government was negotiated with a clear reform agenda designed to bring Burma to a democratic election. Change was suddenly possible when it had seemed to be impossible.

Fundamental changes came to Burma – the economy expanded rapidly following signals from the major western Nations that the situation was being rectified. Reforms were implemented and finally on Sunday two weeks ago, Burmese voters had the chance to freely vote for new leadership. The results were stunning and overwhelming, the Junta was tossed aside and the opposition swept into power.

Clearly this was the work of the Chinese and one has to ask why? Big powers do not use their capacity to tackle every problem in their reach, they have to use it sparingly and in this case the Chinese government decided that Burma was a problem worthy of their attention. The success of the exercise has yielded substantial dividends for the Chinese who have been accepted into the Club of States regarded as being on the side of good government and governance.

At the end of this month, the Chinese leadership will visit Harare and they are not here to have coffee with Mr. Mugabe. Have they decided that Zimbabwe is the next Pariah State in their entourage to get attention? I think this is on the agenda and the template will be the same as Burma.

The motivation is to entrench the Chinese as a potential force for “good” on the planet. If they can sort out the mess in Harare they will reap a political dividend that will be far bigger than this small errant country deserves. All the western majors and quite a few African majors will breathe a sigh of relief that at last, Mugabe has met his match. In a strange way, Mugabe is right where Smith was in September 1976 when another super power took time out to end a nasty civil war and open the door to Independence for Zimbabwe.

In 1976, the American Secretary of State had no idea how the future would unfold for this small Central African State, he simply recognised that he had to break Smith’s hold on power and then allow others to work out the way forward. None of us are happy with the final outcome, but he gave Zimbabweans a negotiated democratic transition and ended the conflict. In many ways the Prime Minister of Britain played the same role in South Africa a decade later with similar results.

Without such external intervention by a real power broker, these situations can simply smolder on causing considerable direct and indirect collateral damage. Left to their own devices, such situations can rapidly deteriorate into civil war and social and political conflict with disastrous results. The difficulty is often how to get a power broker to take the time, trouble and expense to deal with a situation that is of little real interest or concern to their own interests and needs.

The application of the Burmese template to the Zimbabwe situation has considerable potential. Like Burma, the economic recovery and new growth could happen almost immediately, especially if the major Western powers indicate they are happy with the way things are going. Like our experience in the GNU the bounce back would be fast and considerable.

In the GNU period, the major failure was the inability of regional States to follow through on their undertakings to facilitate the reforms that were negotiated at its inception. Eventually they forced us to negotiate and adopt a new Constitution, but nothing else was achieved and the inevitable collapse after the elections in 2013 took place.

This time our economic situation has put us at the mercy of the majority shareholders in the IMF/World Bank. The skeleton of a deal to take over the burden of our external debt and to open up our economy to global financial markets and multilateral support is already in place – but will not be implemented unless our Government agrees to political reform and a free and fair election in the near future.

As in Burma, at the end of such a transition Zimbabweans would be free to elect a Government of their choice for the first time since 1980. What they do with that opportunity is anyone’s guess, but I have a sneaky feeling that the outcome here might be similar to the final outcome in Burma.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this year, our Father Christmas will be Chinese. Zimbabweans in all walks of life will welcome him, no matter what he looks like.

Eddie Cross
Harare 29th November 2015