Business leaders stay clear of ‘antagonism’ in first meeting with Mugabe for a decade

Business leaders stay clear of ‘antagonism’ in first meeting with Mugabe for a decade

HARARE, September 8 (The Source) – Zimbabwe’s business leaders have told President Robert Mugabe that the country is in need of “comprehensive reforms” to attract investment, end cash shortages and stave off rising inflation but stopped short of telling the aging leader that the country was in a crisis.

But, at what was his first meeting with business leaders in a decade, Mugabe on Thursday gave no signals that he is willing to change course, lecturing the leaders on their pleas for foreign direct investment and once again railing against foreign ownership of businesses.

The business leaders, comprising heads of the country’s largest business groups, were also careful not to offend Mugabe, littering their presentation with praises to the President.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) immediate past president, Busisa Moyo, defended businesses unwillingness to be candid with Mugabe about the state of the economy.

“I think to start a dialogue by being antagonist or crass would be naive and lacking intact. We want to build not destroy!” Moyo said on his Twitter account.

The delegation presented a 4000-word document to Mugabe at State House, listing a range of reforms that they said Zimbabwe needed to make in order to bring the country out of crisis.

“Comprehensive structural reforms are required to sustain medium term growth of the economy, in terms of both macroeconomic and structural as well as sectoral policies,” the business leaders said.

“These reforms would be, especially designed with special focus on reducing the cost of doing business – Zimbabwe is currently among the countries with the highest cost of doing business in the region and there is need to address the cost of doing business.”

They warned that “latent inflationary pressures are beginning to manifest” and that foreign exchange rationing by central bank were hurting industry.

In the soft-ball fashion that has characterised big business’ engagement with government, the business leaders said the current cash shortages had been caused by “current account deficits, symptomatic of an economy excessively reliant on domestic absorption”.

At the last meeting with Mugabe, in 2007, business leaders had drawn criticism by kowtowing to Mugabe. In their meeting him at the time, held amid damaging price controls and arrests of over 5 000 businesspeople, they had apologised to Mugabe for “letting you down as there exists a glaring gap between your goals and our performance as an economy”.

On Thursday, the leaders were again careful not to offend Mugabe, praising his ZimAsset and Ten-Point Plan policies for being responsible for the few positive developments they said had happened in the economy over recent months.

“We thank you Your Excellency for your leadership and support for these initiatives,” the business leaders said. “We appreciate your clarion calls for an agenda for industrialisation within SADC and in Africa during your tenure as Chairman of SADC which have resulted in industrialization becoming a lead issue in SADC.”

Their praise did not stop Mugabe from displaying the contempt that has seen him refuse to engage big business for a decade. Mugabe told the meeting that his major disagreement with them was their support for foreign investment over more local ownership.

He gave the meeting a lengthy lecture on the liberation struggle, saying the lesson was necessary for the business leaders to see that they were now free to start their own businesses without foreign help.

“The country was liberated. Must we continue to depend on whites to set up the companies?” Mugabe said.

He once again took a dig at South Africa, for the third time inside a month, saying the ruling African National Congress (ANC) had only delivered political freedom but left the economy in the hands of whites.

“I made comments about South Africa and (ANC secretary general) Gwede Mantashe stupidly reacts. They (South Africa) fought only to remove apartheid. Ours was just not political freedom,” Mugabe said.

Zimbabwean business leaders needed to stop relying on foreign investment and start their own businesses, he said.

“Start, start your own; they will grow in time,” he said, adding the country must not rely on the World Bank and the AfDB.

Among the key proposals by the business leaders was clarity on 51 percent local ownership empowerment laws, blamed largely for investor flight over the past 10 years. A statement by Mugabe last April, in which he said companies operating in Zimbabwe could still comply by spending 75 percent of their procurement locally, has still not been made law.

“His Excellency, the President, gave clarity on this matter. What remains is to comprehensively change the current legislation relating to Indigenization and Economic Empowerment (IEE) to reflect the position as clarified by H.E. the President on the matter. Business is pointedly supportive of Government efforts on IEE,” business leaders said.

They also called on Mugabe to “deal decisively with all acts of corruption – both the tigers and the flies – comprehensively, systematically and without favour”. In response, Mugabe said corruption was rising in both the private sector and government, saying he did not know where the culture was coming from.

After spending 10 years without meeting Mugabe, the business leaders asked to meet him each quarter. Mugabe said he was ready to meet business in more relaxed settings where “we can ask each other questions.”

At the end of the event, in scenes that portrayed relations between Mugabe and big business, the business leaders lined up to donate laptops to the President. The gift, they said, was “to President Mugabe to continue the good educational vision that he has for school children.”