In-depth Zimbabwe’s foreign relations: Grace Tsitsi Mutandiro, The Ambassador of Zimbabwe to Austria
In early 2014 the European Union reviewed its relations with Zimbabwe and took a further step towards normalisation of those relations. Also a report from earlier this year, by Chatham House, suggests that it is time that Europe and in particular, Britain, rethink their policy approach to Zimbabwe. In view of these facts, we thought to ask the Ambassador of Zimbabwe, now in Vienna, how she sees the state of affairs of her country.
As far as I know you served here in Vienna for quite a long time. What was the biggest challenge during your mission here?
The biggest challenge for me Erik, was the political impasse between Zimbabwe and the EU and within that context, trying to get people to understand or even listen to Zimbabwe’s side of the story; the extremely negative coverage of Zimbabwe in the media; and sometimes when I introduced myself to some European colleagues they became very distant making it obvious that they were uncomfortable talking to me. So for me as a diplomat I found that very challenging. However that is part of the work and I was defending my country.
How do you see the recent EU-Zimbabwe relations?
There has been a noticeable shift with a number of European governments signifying their wish to normalise relations and strengthen bilateral cooperation. In 2002, the European Union unilaterally imposed ’restrictive measures’ as they called them but what in effect were sanctions on the government of Zimbabwe, the entire political leadership and heads of security organs in their individual capacities as well as on State Enterprises. Development aid for Zimbabwe under the 10th European Development Fund, from which funds are given to the member countries of the ACP as well as bilateral support was suspended. It was difficult for State companies to trade with the EU and in some instances remittances to those companies were withheld.
The EU has removed the travel ban on all the people except the President and the First Lady, and the Commander of the Defence Forces of Zimbabwe, and the Security Chiefs, as we call them, who are in charge of the different security arms of government.
Some the EU of the members’ countries have indicated to my government that they no longer want to pursue the trajectory of disengagement that is unprofitable and unjustified. The strained relations arose solely on account of the bilateral dispute between Zimbabwe and the UK, however the EU took those punitive measures against Zimbabwe at the behest of the British government. Interestingly, British companies have not disengaged but have continued operations in Zimbabwe even during the most challenging economic period in my country. On the other hand the British government was discouraging other European companies from going into Zimbabwe. We have a situation here in Europe of economies not performing well, and countries at the end of the day are interested in building economic relations, trade and investment, because it is good for their own economies. So European countries are reaching out. Recently Denmark offered Zimbabwe assistance, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany have been engaging with us and the EU has authorised European financial institutes to lend money directly to our companies, to financial institutions. So there is a huge change in our relationship with the EU.
How would you explain the land reform program and its controversy?
If one looks at the history of Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, the black people’s struggle for political independence in Zimbabwe, land has always been central to that struggle. I will take you back in history in 1890. When the main group of white colonial settlers came from South Africa and the UK, there was violent dispossession of land belonging to the black people who were moved marginally productive land. This aspect coupled with racial discrimination in all aspects of life led people to take up arms to fight for self-determination and political independence. The centrality of land to Zimbabwe’s political crisis was further highlighted at the at the Lancaster House constitutional talks on Zimbabwe’s independence. To break the impasse at the Lancaster House talks, the British and the Americans made commitments here to assist in funding land purchases in an independent Zimbabwe to ensure I would not say equitable, but fair distribution of land amongst all Zimbabwe nationals, black and white.
To give you a graphic illustration of the situation obtaining in 1980, the scenario was as follows: 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5 million hectares that is 47% of prime land half of it in the high rainfall agro-ecological regions, 8 500 small scale black commercial farmers owned 1.4 million hectares that is 4% of agricultural land located mostly in the drier agro-ecological regions and 4,3 million black peasant farmers occupied 16,4 million hectares of land lying in the drier agro-ecological regions with marginally fertile soils.
Naturally in the land occupied by black farmers there was land degradation because of overcrowding and overgrazing by livestock and a very strong feeling that our independence was not complete, yes we had political independence. However political independence was meaningless without the repossession of our land and being unable to control the economic resources of Zimbabwe. The British government extended financial support to buy land from white commercial farmers under the then” willing buyer willing seller policy”. However this was done under the concept of counterpart funding, for every pound the British put on the table to fund the land purchases the government of Zimbabwe had to match, pound for pound, dollar for dollar. Between 1980 and 1990 the government managed to acquire 3.5 million hectares of land and could only settle around 1000 farmers. Clearly for any meaningful land reform programme to occur, the policy of willing buyer, willing seller was not viable, because government was being offered very poor land or offered land in the middle of commercial farms. The slow pace of land reform resulted in people getting restless, and in demonstration of their frustration and dire need for land, villagers invaded white owned farms contiguous to the black communal areas and villages. This was the genesis of what we later referred to as the fast track land reform program. Prior to the Fast Track land reform there had been several initiatives to address the land issue with the assistance of the UN. In September 1998, the government convened an international donor’s conference in Harare on Land Reform and Resettlement Programme Phase II to inform and solicit the support of the donor community in the program. Forty-eight countries and international organisations participated and unanimously endorsed the land program, saying it was essential for poverty reduction, political stability and economic growth. The Commercial Farmers Union freely offered to sell to the government 15,000 square kilometres of land for redistribution, however the landowners continued to drag their feet. This was a long winded process, which clearly was intended to delay government’s acquisition of land.
In 2000 the government organised a referendum on the new constitution that provided for all agricultural land to repose in the State and for the appropriation of such land for land resettlement purposes. It is unfortunate that Zimbabwe’s land reform might appears to target only white farmers, however it must be remembered that pre 1980 Zimbabwe was modelled on racial lines. There was a dual system for white Zimbabweans and black Zimbabweans, in fact a two-nation and two-race model. Clearly this could not be the basis to build a peaceful democracy and more so given the historical fact of violent dispossession of the black people. So, land has always been a main issue in Zimbabwe’s black people’s struggle for independence.
But how could things get worse?
Most of the Zimbabwean white commercial farmer’s were of British origins and some of the absentee land owners were part of the British aristocracy were living abroad. Some of the land in Zimbabwe lay idle being used for hunting, meanwhile black Zimbabweans desperately needed land. The subsequent decision by the British government to absolve itself of any obligation towards funding the land reform is what lead to the government of Zimbabwe taking the above measures and to the deterioration of relations between Zimbabwe and Britain. But of course, the rest of the developed world, came on board to support the British alleging the violation of property rights. I maintain that we have to clearly distinguish between agricultural land and other land rights in Zimbabwe. People have rights to owning property in Zimbabwe, there are foreign companies and nationals that own property in Zimbabwe. Like I said, a lot of British companies are operating in Zimbabwe, they have premises, and they own the land where their factories are built there.
So you say there are property rights in Zimbabwe, but only the farming land is an exception?
Indeed private property is very secure. It is only the agricultural land that is owned by the government.
There’s a lot of rhetoric about the economic decline in the country, even the collapse of social services in Zimbabwe. Can you tell me about it?
When we became independent in 1980, the government deliberately channelled a lot of money towards education, health, and building up infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, clinics and roads in previously disadvantaged communities. Universal free primary school education and medical care was introduced. That policy was successful since we have 98% literacy rate, the highest in Africa. So government spent a lot of money on social services. However when government embarked on liberalisation of the economy under the Structural Adjustment Programme as required by the IMF and the World Bank, it meant that people now had to pay for services that were now offered only on a cost recovery basis. The liberalisation resulted in many industries closing leading to increased levels of poverty. Because people did not have money to pay taxes and government now had to limit the portion of the budget put towards the social sector, funds allocated towards the maintenance of facilities went down. Challenges in the economy resulted in levels of exports to go down a bit. Zimbabwe’s economy is an agricultural based, with 60% of input for industry and the manufacturing sector coming from agriculture. The land reform program was of such a magnitude, that there was inevitable destabilization in the economy, so economic indicators went down, our exports went down, we had a series of droughts, normally it we experienced a drought every 10 years however climate change is also negatively affected us and Zimbabwe had four consecutive years of drought from 2000 and this compounded the economic challenges for the country. So in the scenario where the economy is going down, where people are no longer able to pay for services and contribute taxes such that government is not getting enough revenue to provide services, maintain hospitals, clinic, schools and other infrastructure, the challenge of the brain drain, it is not possible to maintain the standards the people are accustomed to and therefore facilities get run down. So, yes because of all these factors, our facilities are going down. It is a fact.
This is actually quite a big challenge. Is there any solution?
We do have a challenge, indeed, to grow the economy, to ensure that there is enough employment for people, increase capacity utilisation in our industries that had gone down to of 10%. Our industries need new equipment and new technology to be able to produce and be competitive in the international market. We lost a number of highly skilled Zimbabweans, who left the country, so we have a deficit of skilled manpower. All these factors mean we have a challenge to rebuild and grow our economy in a sustainable way, recapitalise industry, at the same time ensuring environmental protection and sustainability, creating employment for young people, a lot of young people graduating from universities need employment. We have a challenge to develop our mining sector, our agricultural sector because farmers need money to buy equipment, to finance their activities and industry needs money to purchase raw materials and equipment. We have liquidity crunch, there is not enough money in the banks to finance industry, to finance the mining sector, to finance the farmers. Unfortunately, we are not able to borrow from the IMF or the World Bank, because they say we have debt arrears. But there is a light, the EU say they are ready to lend to the banking sector directly, and we have China, India, Brazil and South Korea taking a very active interest in coming into Zimbabwe, investing and therefore bringing financial inflows into the economy largely on account of the mineral resources Zimbabwe is richly endowed with. So we are looking at leveraging our natural resources to raise money for our economic development. This is what the government is currently working on. And to mention the diaspora as economic factor, the remittances from Zimbabweans abroad were about $2.1 billion in 2012.
As you mentioned Zimbabwe is rich in natural resources, and there are new investors. From these new investments, does everyone equally benefit?
Of course some regions have more resources or natural resources than others, but the wealth comes to the country and the money generated from those resources belongs to the people of Zimbabwe.