Rebuilding Zimbabwe's Economy: Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Immediate Priorities

Zimbabwe cannot expect to rebuild in the same economic model that brought previous prosperity.

Expert comment Published 28 November 2017 Updated 10 May 2023 3 minute READ
Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as president on 24 November. Photo: Getty Images.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is sworn in as president on 24 November. Photo: Getty Images.

Returning to Harare as Zimbabwe’s president-designate Emmerson Mnangagwa declared, ‘We want to grow our economy, we want peace, we want jobs, jobs, jobs.’

Robert Mugabe leaves a legacy of an independent Zimbabwe in a deep economic crisis. Much remains uncertain as to what a new government in Zimbabwe will look like, and there is sure to be continuity as well as considerable change.

What is clear is that a new administration under Mnangagwa will need to turn the economy around to garner support and legitimacy from the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabwe’s economic output halved over the period 1997–2008, and it has not recovered. With more than 80 per cent of Zimbabweans in the informal economy, and with social and economic resilience undermined by previous crises and decades of mismanagement, the stakes for the new leader are very high.

Reform will be difficult particularly because politically connected elites have acquired businesses through uncompetitive means. They will be reluctant to see significantly more competition. But they will also want an improved economic environment. And there is scope for the people of Zimbabwe to benefit from this.

An important change will be in the prioritization of economic stability. Mugabe demonstrated that he was willing to make political decisions irrespective of the economic consequences. Mnangagwa is thought to be less ideological and more of a pragmatist. For him, delivering economic recovery will be crucial to building political support.

The most pressing fiscal priority is the public wage bill. Employment costs account for over 80 per cent of government expenditure, crowding out spending on social programmes, health and education. But the fragility of the economy means that reform cannot be fast-tracked. The public wage bill accounts for over 20 per cent of GDP and is an essential driver of demand. Public sector workers are also politically influential. Another further priority is the reform of state-owned enterprises that are pressuring the fiscus.

A new administration will need to rebuild confidence. Policymakers have been operating in a low-confidence environment for a long time, but for any meaningful change to take root there has to be trust between the government, businesses and the people of Zimbabwe. Businesses and citizens will want to see a plan of action for remonetizing the economy. Zimbabwe faces an acute liquidity crisis. A shortage of US dollars and a lack of confidence in government-issued bond notes are testing resilience.

The financial system has recovered from a crisis of nonperforming loans – triggered by high debt amassed during the post-dollarization boom, and weak corporate governance. But the system remains highly fragile and swamped with government debt. Hard cash US dollar deposits fell from 49 per cent ($582 million) in 2009 to just six per cent ($269 million) in 2016. In 2015, industrial utilization stood at just 34.3 per cent of installed capacity, and it was estimated that just five per cent of the country’s businesses were viable.

The crux of the Zimbabwean economy is the linkage between agriculture and manufacturing. Commercial agriculture contributes approximately 12 per cent of the country’s GDP, and more than 60 per cent of inputs into the manufacturing sector. Tobacco in particular is a vital earner of much needed foreign exchange. Policies to support mid-scale farmers will have multiplier effects. They drive agricultural growth and generate jobs throughout the supply chain.

Zimbabwe also has world-class natural resource endowments including ferrochrome, gold, copper, iron ore, lithium, diamonds and platinum group metals. But longer investment-gestation periods and industry risk adversity will mean that payoffs from fresh investments in this sector will take longer to materialize.

Domestic finance will need to be mobilized to generate recovery, and this will need to be supported by international investment. But international investors entering the country must be cognizant of Zimbabwean’s expectations and also historical perceptions – especially around the scepticism of neoliberal economics as a result of failed structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s.

Zimbabweans have high social expectations for international investors. Educated, tech-savvy, internationally connected youth are at the core of the consumer class that investors will be targeting, to both sell products to but also to staff offices in country. But this cohort also has a greater expectation of international companies to adhere to the norms and standards that they abide by at home and not take advantage of weak governance or poor regulation to exploit citizens.

Investors in Zimbabwe must also recognize that behind the controversial Mugabe policies of land reform and indigenization – the empowerment of local citizens through shared ownership – was a popular desire for postcolonial economic transformation. This sentiment remains. Working in partnership with local entities and communicating the economic contribution made to society will be necessary to build a long-term presence in Zimbabwe, and reap the dividend of what many hope to be a new start for the country.

Fresh thinking is required from domestic policymakers and international partners. A skilled population and estimated 3-5 million-strong diaspora will bring international experience and make a considerable contribution to this process. Some of this thinking has been done. The Lima process of re-engagement with international financial institutions that was agreed at the end of 2015 has laid some of the groundwork, especially around international expectations regarding both economic and governance reform – the substance of which was analysed in a 2016 Chatham House paper. The implementation of recommendations of the well-regarded auditor-general’s report on SOE reform will also be a key prerequisite for long-term reform.

Zimbabweans are not alone in processing what has happened and how to react. Investors have long been poised to capitalize on what is perceived to be one of the continent’s best long-term prospects. A lot will remain unchanged following the transition. But significantly, for the first time in decades, there is a real opportunity to effect positive change and improve the livelihoods of millions of Zimbabweans.

This article was originally published at the Huffington Post.