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‘Think Tanking’ in Zimbabwe

In the late seventies, Zimbabwean thinkers would gather in smoky bars in the capitals of Africa, North America and Europe to ponder over post-liberation war socio-economic revival. Out of these informal processes emerged geniuses like the late Dr Bernard Chidzero, Christopher Kuruneri, Alexander Kanengoni, Dr Ibbo Mandaza, the late Ariston Chambati, Chenjerai Hove, Dr Sam Moyo, Dr Daniel Ndlela, Dambudzo Marechera and Dr Edison Zvobgo.They evolved concept papers that at times were presented at the historic Zimbabwe House in London.

Some of their concepts were the foundation of post-independence public policy used extensively by the new ZANU pf government to portray a false image of a global political dispensation. In fact, the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness that was exuded by, at the time, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, may have borrowed heavily from such concept papers, in addition, of course, to the values of justice and fairness he himself had encountered in his dealings with pro-liberation international civic society organisations.

There was a connection between intellectual entrepreneurs and Mugabe’s sane political behaviour (if you really want to classify Marxist-Leninist ideology under this category!) Mugabe himself being a self-taught intellectual, it is not surprising that independent Zimbabwe went on to have leading institutes in Southern Africa that were torch bearers in the discourse not just on economic reconstruction, poverty alleviation, social arts and health practices but also the eradication of Apartheid. Moeletsi Mbeki and his brother Thabo will remember such institutes during their days in Harare.

Between 1980 and 1990, such institutions (or ‘thinkers’) rose rapidly, top of the intellectual pile being Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS) and Southern Africa Policy and Economic Studies (SAPES). Many intellectuals who fired up ZANU pf’s socialist rhetoric were found in these ‘Think tanks’. They argued that for almost a century, black Zimbabweans had been systematically excluded from the national cake. The fires of social investment and rapid re-distribution of wealth were consequently fanned. This gave rise to development economics; social and political scientists; securing of lucrative jobs and consultancies in public, private and civic society sectors where their egos continued to blossom. This period ironically experienced an emergence of stringent labour laws, politicised trade unionism and high taxation meant to frustrate what ZANU pf’s Ibbo Mandaza constantly referred to as ‘a white capitalist bourgeois class’.

Of greater interest was the use of intellectual entrepreneurs by the Robert Mugabe-controlled public broadcaster to peddle one-party state propaganda in the name of a benevolent revolutionary government. One fugitive from Kenyan injustice, a Sam Ghutto, popularised his utopic socialist rhetoric in some of these forums. Ironically, this was a decade of not just economic boom, but also a phenomenal rise in development aid. Professor Rob Davies says of this: “Most government policy statements in the 1980s combined an incoherent and inconsistent blend of populist wish lists and control-oriented dirigiste thinking.”

From Growth with Equity, via ESAP to now…

To say that think tanks did not play a role in Zimbabwe’s post-war economic transformation would be a lie. I base my generalisation on the proliferation of economic reform programs in the second half of Zimbabwe’s independence. First, it was ‘Growth with Equity’ (1981), then ‘Transitional National Development Plan’ (1982) and later ‘First Five-year National Development Plan’ (1986). Colin Stoneman stated: “The IMF and WB continued to pressure Zimbabwe to pursue more market-oriented policies, especially liberalising its trade regime.” The Economic Structural Adjustment Programme ESAP sprung up in 1991, evoking extensive and intensive intellectual debate. What is not clear is how much of this ‘advice’ the Zimbabwe Government took on board.

Economists, political scientists and journalists at both ZIDS and SAPES were at the forefront of such debates. Former ZIDS director, Bornwell Chakaoza, hosted popular television programs and was eventually ‘captured’ by the regime to be editor of its propaganda newspapers.

ESAP, according to Friedrich Naumann Zimbabwe country director Enoch Moyo, induced a new era of market reforms and consumer enthusiasm, including the famous flea markets pioneered by American-trained entrepreneur Brian Lawrence and the dissolution of the United Touring Company Zimbabwe Omni-bus urban transport monopoly in favour of the matatus (private mini buses). Labour Economist Godfrey Kanyenze observed: “ESAP did not fail, government failed to zero in on budget deficit … there was no broad-based consultation.” Intellectual entrepreneurs would have been correct in the export infrastructure, market intelligence and perhaps political goodwill, but popular ownership and participation were the missing ingredients in the recipe. In 1998, the ‘Zimbabwe Programme for Economic and Social Transformation’ appeared and then the forgettable ‘Millennium Economic Recovery Program’ in 2000.

For a nation pampered for a long time by a benevolent socialist government, we black Zimbabweans were not used to the rigours of market competition. The poverty meter began to tick the wrong direction for the weak. Robert Mugabe’s ‘thinkers’ pushed him to disown the Lancaster House Constitution by transforming his position into executive presidency and tighten his grip on political power.

Political scientists like Professor Jonathan Moyo and Dr John Makumbe began to challenge Robert Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s declining economic and democratic fortunes. Retired High Court Judge Enoch Dumbutshena gathered his peers around The Forum, a loose political coalition of intellectual entrepreneurs, to confront Robert Mugabe’s hegemony. We then see former confidantes of Mugabe – Edgar Tekere (Zimbabwe Unity Movement) and Margaret Dongo (Zimbabwe Union of Democrats) – inviting their own peers for ‘political debate against the one party state system’. International Finance whiz kid Mutumwa Mawere even persuaded the nervous ZTV to air governance debates under his National Development Association ‘talk to the nation’ series.

A series of ‘policy catastrophes’ followed – the Mozambique war, the Matebeleland massacres, the Democratic Republic of Congo war, Fast Track Land Reform and War Veteran Compensation. Zimbabwe sank further and further into the abyss. The fate of the first generation intellectual entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe had been sealed!

Excerpts from Rejoice Ngwenya's presentation during the 2nd Inter Region Economic Network (IREN) Africa Think Tank Leadership Training (Aug 16 - 19, 2007).



By Rejoice Ngwenya
Besides being a Freelance Writer in Zimbabwe, Rejoice runs his own policy dialogue ‘think tank’ called Coalition for Market & Liberal Solutions: COMALISO


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