Saturday, August 03, 2013

Zimbabwe: What do elections in Zimbabwe really mean?

Source: ISS

What do elections in Zimbabwe really mean?

More than three decades of rule by President Robert Mugabe, recently as part of an uneasy alliance with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), have reduced the income per person in Zimbabwe to levels equivalent to that in Somalia, slightly better than in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and roughly comparable to that in Burundi. On a per capita basis, Zimbabweans have a purchasing power income half that of their Mozambican compatriots.

Although many in the region have been anxiously watching the elections in Zimbabwe, the results are of limited economic importance. By 2012 the Zimbabwean economy had shrunk to 35 times smaller than that of South Africa, and roughly double in size to that of Swaziland. Although the Zimbabwean economy had not done terribly well before 2000, the subsequent period has been disastrous. Last year Zimbabwe had one of the lowest gross domestic income levels in the world at around $600 per person per year. It abandoned its national currency in 2009 and is largely dependent on limited resource extraction, which benefits only the privileged few. Most of its talented and well-educated citizens have left.

In 2000 Zimbabwe had one of the larger economies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), at only 28 times smaller than that of South Africa and slightly bigger than that of Zambia. Now the Zambian economy is more than double that of Zimbabwe and big brother has become little brother. Although there have been signs of growth in recent years, it may take several decades to undo the damage that the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has done to the former breadbasket of the region. With an economy today that is two-thirds the size of Namibia, it would make little difference if Zimbabwe were to leave SADC (if size were the only criterion), as Mugabe has threatened.

The World Bank estimates that the Zimbabwean economy is ranked at 125th in size in the world, compared to Botswana, with its much smaller population, in 116th spot. Even Mozambique now has an economy significantly bigger than Zimbabwe’s, and Angola’s economy is almost 13 times larger. Whatever the economic freedom fighters like Julius Malema in South Africa would have us believe, in economic terms Zimbabwe in 2013 is a significantly worse-off place than Zimbabwe in 2000, or Zimbabwe in 1980 for that matter.

Over the years the surrounding regional economies, particularly those of South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, have absorbed the damage wreaked by the economic turbulence in Zimbabwe. They grow despite the events in Harare and the antics of a fading leader who has become a source of frustration and distraction in the region. They could, of course, grow much faster without the drag of what has become a fragile state at the heart of southern Africa, equal only to Swaziland in terms of its negative potential.

Looking forward, the eventual transition from authoritarian leadership to accountability will inevitably be accompanied by considerable instability, particularly given the partisan nature of the security agencies and the extent to which Zimbabwe’s institutions, including the courts, media and civil society, have been weakened.

Yet Zimbabwe continues to be important for SADC because it has become an ‘empty space’ in the centre of the region, hampering regional integration in practical and political terms. Practically because its poor infrastructure cannot facilitate regional trade and politically because of the associated impasse within SADC, an organisation that has much potential but remains hamstrung by the regional differences among its members and their subsequent lack of commitment to regional economic integration.

The legacy of the Frontline States has allowed Mugabe to effectively block progress within SADC, which has long been poisoned by the stand-off among some of its erstwhile important members. Yet the alliance that he built to contain South Africa during the Mandela and Mbeki years has largely come undone and, given the size of the Zimbabwean economy, hardly matters today.

Mugabe’s recent attack on Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa’s de facto point person on the Zimbabwean crisis, should be seen in this context. It was an unsuccessful diversion tactic that South Africa did not fall for. It reflected the success of President Jacob Zuma’s administration in creating a common SADC position on Zimbabwe, for what that is worth. In addition, the gap between SADC and the European Union (EU), the largest economic block in the world despite the rise of China, has narrowed considerably – a development that could facilitate trade and investment in the future but only with a Zimbabwe where the rule of law has been restored. The result is a greater shared view of the challenges that the incoming administration in Harare will face, although the extent to which the international community may want to assist rather than simply trade, has waned considerably.

For Zuma, Zimbabwe is not important enough to justify serious and committed engagement. Rather South Africa seems inclined to wait for a post-Mugabe regime that could offer SADC and others an opportunity to re-engage with its sickly member. Today Zimbabwe is largely of humanitarian concern as the region awaits election results that could, at best, allow the start of a long process of healing and rebuilding. When the official results are eventually released they are hardly going to change the miserable circumstances of most Zimbabweans, or allow for the invigoration of the region.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS