It is not every day I get cajoled to sing happy birthday to President Robert Mugabe.
The old man, guest of honour at an African tourism conference in Harare last week, looked pleased as the praise singers that surrounded him (otherwise known as government officials) cranked out the ‘happy birthday’ tune to mark his 86th birthday, exhorting, with limited success, the delegates to take part.
This fawning exercise diverted the otherwise informative event from its business – and annoyed many Zimbabweans who muttered about it after the Ego had swept from the room.
Chief among the sycophants was Zimbabwe’s tourism minister who conveniently forgot the president has been responsible for the sector’s hardships over the past decade. Still, some said Mugabe’s appearance was no more outrageous than his brazen attendance at international food forums.
The elephant in the room during the tourism event was the recently gazetted indigenisation law, which forces all foreign investors with businesses worth more than $500 000 to cede 51% of their enterprises to black Zimbabweans over five years. The legislation, which runs to more than 100 pages, provides for hefty fines and a five-year jail term for directors and company owners who violate it.
Ministers called for investment in tourism and related sectors but made no mention of the new regulations. Mugabe’s speech referred obliquely to partnerships.
At the closing lunch, Deputy Prime Minister, the MDC’s Thokozani Khupe, broke the conspiracy of silence, saying the ministers of Economic Planning (MDC) and Youth Development, Indigenisation and Empowerment (Zanu-PF) had “taken note” of concerns and the law would go back to the drawing board.
Her statement contradicted the Indigenisation Minister’s earlier insistence that the law was irreversible while Mugabe, after the conference, told reporters investors should be grateful for a 49% stake, saying it was a lot of equity. He did not mention a change of plan. The cracks were showing.
Two days later, the government issued a statement saying only the Indigenisation Minister was allowed to speak on government’s behalf about the empowerment law.
This effectively means the legislation will not change as that minister is a major proponent of it. The MDC, already ineffective in stopping land seizures, looks like it has been snookered.
Zanu-PF “owns” the law and after sitting on it this long – since 2007 – is not going to back down now. It knows what the response will be and is pushing it as part of a bigger, undisclosed plan.
It will counter MDC accusations of improper process in gazetting it with the defence that it is acting within the law. As with the land seizures, Zanu-PF has been careful to give its agenda to expropriate assets a veneer of legality.
Zimbabwean business people I spoke to said the principle of empowerment was well accepted but the new law’s onerous provisions were detrimental to economic revival.
They pointed out that most sectors of the economy had become largely indigenised over time by default and there was no need for such stringent conditions. There were also concerns about a sinister agenda by Zanu-PF.
They said targeting foreign investors in this way was a looting opportunity, not a real empowerment plan. There are not many Zimbabweans outside the political elite who are well capitalised enough after a decade of recession to afford big stakes in foreign companies.
The government has, however, suggested the establishment of an empowerment fund to facilitate deals – and companies are bracing themselves for a hefty levy to finance it.
The timing of the gazette is important. The legislation is not new. It passed through parliament in October 2007 and the president signed it in April 2008.
One body of opinion believes Mugabe has his eye on a 2011 election and will use the empowerment drive as a bait for votes – or as a stick to beat the MDC for failing to improve the economy, the poisoned chalice its ministers were given.
There is also the view that the law will be applied selectively to boost the fortunes of a few, taking advantage of the lack of transparency in the business landscape.
A third aspect is that Mugabe is annoyed that international sanctions against him are still in place and wants to remind everyone that he is still the boss.