As Zimbabwe’s economy continues its descent since a military coup installed Emmerson Mnangagwa as the nation’s ruler in November 2017, his government’s response has been to double down on its ruinous neoliberal reform program.
How much more austerity the Zimbabwean people can endure is another question, following an economic downturn of 6.5% last year and an unemployment rate that is said to stand at 95%.  The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) slams the additional austerity measures that were “implemented in 2019 against the backdrop of deep socio-economic woes,” charging that “they cultivated an enabling environment for inequality to thrive,” while budget cuts have “further relegated ordinary citizens to abject poverty.” 
Privatization and Privation
Mnangagwa’s aim is nothing less than the total transformation of the economy, and Minister of Finance and Economic Development Mthuli Ncube has proclaimed, “We will be privatizing the banking assets that we own; we are going to make a lot of progress this year, and we want to make sure that we really create a private sector-led economy in Zimbabwe.” 
On October 5, 2018, Mnangagwa’s government published its Transitional Stabilization Program (TSP), which detailed the reform measures that the government planned to implement over the following two years. In the document’s preface, Mnangagwa stated that the policy “will inevitably be driven by the private sector,” which will entail “opening the country to international investors and financiers.” The Civil Service is being repurposed so that it focuses on serving the needs of private capital. Mnangagwa wants the government to create “an enabling environment for state and non-state actors, including the private sector and communities in the delivery of public goods and services, and development.” 
The aim of what the TSP terms an “entrepreneurial Civil Service” is to facilitate “the identification and creation of opportunities” for investors looking to establish “service delivery and enterprises.” State and private sector actors will team in producing “the delivery of public goods and services, and development.”  Investors taking over privatized public services will undoubtedly be motivated by profit-seeking rather than serving the common good, while the role of government is to provide business with profitable opportunities.
A key goal of the stabilization program is to dismantle much of the public sector. As the document phrases it, the objective is to “scale down” government support for “public entities and local authorities,” in favor of “deepening synergies with the private sector.”  As interpreted by privatization-inclined officials, where there can be “efficiency gains, it will be desirable for Government entities and local authorities to move out in favor of private sector service provision.”  Since no amount of evidence can persuade the neoliberal mind that there could ever be a case of efficient public service, this amounts to coded language for near-total privatization.
The first phase of privatization is slated to be completed by the end of 2020. By that time, eleven state-owned enterprises should be privatized, along with 23 subsidiaries of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation. Additionally, two state-owned firms and three IDC subsidiaries are to be liquidated altogether. 
The privatization effort is an ongoing process, and many other public enterprises will undergo performance reviews, which will “recommend to Government on the best options for reforming these.”  Initially, more than half of 107 state entities will be “undergoing reform.”  While investors can seize the chance to purchase state-owned enterprises at bargain-basement prices, government workers will follow a different economic trajectory, as the program promises that “the salary and benefits freeze imposed on all State Entities…remains in force.”  Those enterprises not immediately privatized will have the groundwork laid for their eventual disposal, as the plan calls for the “introduction of more private-sector experts in overseeing management of public enterprises.” 
Mnangagwa’s economic policymakers want to pit provinces and localities against each other in lowering costs to compete in attracting investors. “Marketwise,” the policy document states, “each province and Local Authority will transform itself into an investment and economic zone,” in order to make themselves “attractive for both local and foreign investment.”  The logic of the approach is that the return for maximizing profitability for investors will be a downward spiral in living standards for ordinary workers, as they are compelled to undercut other areas.
Except for diamonds and platinum, Mnangagwa had already jettisoned Zimbabwe’s Indigenization and Empowerment Act, which had mandated a minimum of 51% local ownership in mining companies. Now he has also eliminated the local ownership provision for diamond and platinum mining operations.  As Minister Ncube explains, “We say Zimbabwe is open for business; you can only be open if you allow ownership of 100 percent.”  As a further inducement to foreign investors, the royalty rate on diamond mining is being reduced by one third this year. 
When a government is more eager to please Western investors than its people, the conventional approach is to seek the advice of the IMF, and Mnangagwa’s government is no different. It asked the IMF to help direct and manage its neoliberal stabilization program through a Staff-Monitored Program (SMP) for the period of May 15, 2019, to March 15, 2020,  which presumably may be extended. Not surprisingly, the advice the IMF has to offer adheres to its customary tried-and-failed approach. The IMF says the SMP “is designed to support the authorities’ reform agenda,” which, among other structural measures, includes a “market-based foreign exchange,” and “steps to reform and privatize state-owned enterprises.” 
As an inducement to the IMF, Minister Ncube attached a letter in his request to the IMF to establish the SMP, offering two carrots that would be enough to gladden the heart of any public-sector slashing wrecker. He pointed out that Zimbabwe’s budget “will reduce the real wages of public servants,” while state-owned enterprises “have been earmarked for privatization, liquidation, or merger.” As for the agricultural sector, Ncube assured the IMF that “our objective is to reorient the financing model for agriculture to crowd in private-sector financing, reduce significantly government footprint in production, and lessen the dependence on the budget.” 
The IMF applauded the government’s 2019 budget cuts that targeted programs that benefit the population at large, including “further fiscal consolidation by containing the wage bill, reducing transfers to SOEs [State Owned Enterprises] and improving the design of agricultural subsidies.”  What the IMF meant by its use of the word ‘improving’ was made more explicit when it noted that Zimbabwe’s budget “envisages a gradual phasing out of these subsidies, allowing the private sector to take the lead in driving” what it rather imaginatively termed “sustainable growth in the agricultural sector.” 
Despite all these steps, the government’s drive to liberalize the economy has not been fast enough to suit the IMF, as Zimbabwe has missed hitting some IMF-set targets. A meeting will be held in Washington, DC later this month to determine “the way forward.” 
A standard aim of neoliberal economic policy is to shift costs from the wealthy onto working people. Following that prescription, Zimbabwe has raised fuel costs until the nation now has the world’s highest-priced gasoline.  In a further blow to a population reeling from the impact of hyperinflation caused by Mnangagwa’s misconceived launch of a new currency, the government boosted the average tariff on electricity by 320%. Worse yet, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority announced that the tax would be indexed to the U.S. dollar.  Given the rapidly declining value of Zimbabwe’s dollar relative to the U.S. dollar, in real terms the increase is far larger for the average person receiving pay in local currency.
Meanwhile, this year’s budget reduces the corporate tax rate to less than 25%.  Western corporations investing in Zimbabwe’s Special Economic Zones can enjoy zero tax for the first five years, followed by 15% after that. They are also granted an allowance of 50% of costs in the first year, and 25% for the next two years, as well as an array of other benefits.  Contrast that with the tax on individuals. There is a value-added tax rate of 14.5%, which by its nature disproportionally impacts working people. Personal income over US$3,601 is taxed at 25%, topping the corporate rate. Anything earned above US$12,001 is taxed at 30% and so on, in steps reaching to the maximum 40%. 
Mnangagwa’s Transitional Stabilization Program is still in its early stages, but already the harm that it has caused is such that one can say it would be more accurate to preface the word stabilization with ‘de-.‘ Or as Minister Ncube rather revealingly put it, “Zimbabwe is easily the biggest buy in Africa right now.”  Whether the Zimbabwean people are quite as keen on selling out their country is another matter.
Dismantling Land Reform in Slow Motion
Fast-track land reform in Zimbabwe was an ambitious program that counteracted many of the inequities inherited from the periods of colonial and apartheid rule. The program retains considerable popularity, which has the effect of blocking Mnangagwa from launching a frontal attack against it. However, the program is vulnerable to being chipped away through indirect means.
Historically, reliance on private financing in Zimbabwe has disadvantaged farmers who raise crops for domestic consumption, as banks preferred to support export-oriented operations. Small farm holders have not always had access to the inputs they needed to achieve full productivity. Because private contract farming focused mainly on the export market, the government of Zimbabwe stepped in and established its Command Agriculture program in 2016, as a state-run project to provide much-needed inputs and a ready market for farmers producing crops oriented for domestic consumption.
Command Agriculture prioritized the needs of farmers and the nation over banking and Western interests. As four prominent agricultural specialists concluded in an analysis published by Agrarian South, “Command Agriculture has been a direct challenge to World Bank policy recommendations and Western think tanks, which see no role for the state in agricultural financing and marketing, save for the provision of infrastructural development.” 
The success of farming operations is highly dependent on the provision of sufficient and timely inputs. Although Western sanctions hampered the government, it “provided much-needed inputs…albeit in varying quantities and with inadequate supply of inputs and late input distribution.” Nevertheless, this was a decided improvement over the lack of support from private contract farming. Command Agriculture “also provided a ready market for the maize, favorable prices and much-needed extension services,” the Agrarian South report added, based on observation in the Zvimba district. 
Because agriculture is a crucial pillar in Zimbabwe’s economy, it is a prime target for neoliberal transformation. Indeed, land issues have been at the forefront of Western hostility. Mnangagwa hungers for Western approval, but he cannot win that until he he demonstrates progress in undoing land reform to a noticeable extent and in liberalizing the agricultural sector.
A joint review by the World Bank and Zimbabwean government officials identifies agriculture as “a top priority” under the Transitional Stabilization Program. Under Mnangagwa’s direction, ‘Command Agriculture’ has been rechristened as ‘Smart Agriculture,’ and financing is being shifted from the government back to the same banks that had consistently proved recalcitrant in engaging with domestically-oriented farming operations.
One will not hear this from Mnangagwa’s officials, but Command Agriculture showed immediate and positive results, and maize production jumped by 321% in the 2016/2017 season. By comparison, production languished for those commercial grain crops that had not been covered by Command Agriculture support. As a result of the support given to farmers, the area planted in maize exceeded that of any time in the previous ten years, and “yields were also high, surpassing the national maize requirements for the first time in many years.” 
The World Bank concedes that the government’s “agricultural support, notably the Special Maize Program, did support agricultural production – without such programs, output and thus revenue would have declined, but adds that “it is difficult to disentangle the impact of government support from the effects of the rebound from the drought.” Certainly, improving weather that season was a factor, but given that non-supported grain crops fared far worse during the same planting season points to the efficacy of Command Agriculture.
No matter the results, Command Agriculture had to go. The joint World Bank-Zimbabwe government report complains that “continued pressure from Command Agriculture on public spending…makes restoring macroeconomic stability difficult,” thus making it a prime target for budget-cutting. To no one’s surprise, the report advocates “reforming” the program and “reducing its cost.” 
The stabilization program calls for agricultural growth that is “premised on performance of cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and soya beans” aimed at the export market.  This goal dovetails with the program’s call for “greater involvement of the domestic financial system in underpinning financing of agriculture.”  Under Mnangagwa, the government’s role will be withdrawn while “private sector support gathers[s] momentum.” 
Tradable new leases are replacing Zimbabwe’s system of 99-year land leases.  That systemic change is in line with the recommendation of the World Bank-Zimbabwe report, which asserts, “Zimbabwe should aspire to a well-functioning commercial agriculture sector that should be able to finance most of its working capital and capital expenditure needs through lines of credit with banks.” 
According to Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Water, and Rural Resettlement Perrance Shiri, “Previously we used not to allow joint ventures but we have relaxed the law and our people are now free to borrow using land.”  People will also be free to lose land, now that it is to be used as collateral in commercial loans or subjected to unequal economic relationships in joint ventures. The inevitable outcome of this policy change will be to consolidate land into fewer and more economically advantaged hands.
In an assessment by ZIMCODD, the shift to “commercialization of agriculture through shrinking of agricultural subsidies” is a “purely neo-liberal ideology” that will disadvantage small farm holders. “Giving room for private sector support is a way of privatizing the agricultural sector, a move that threatens food security for the nation.”  The baleful impact on the agricultural sector is a factor that Shiri elides in his celebration of the commercialization of land.
The Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies warns that “contract farming and joint ventures spearheaded by private capital” have the “potential of undermining the peasantry base through land alienation, in some cases, labor exploitation, and unequal exchange of surplus value which occurs through input and output markets.” There is historical precedent, and the institute points to the example of Mozambique, where “a majority of peasants lost their land when they entered into asymmetrical relationships with domestic and foreign agrarian capital in sugar cane farming.” 
For peasants, “property loss through market effects happens through mechanisms of distress sales, economic recession, bad harvest, illness or death in the family, or calamity, and through mortgage default.” Markets provide an unequal playing surface, favoring “strong market actors, that is, those with the capital, know-how, and information to protect and expand their property rights, and to buffer themselves against risk.” Over time, more and more land is transferred to “capital-rich actors.” 
Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector must cope with two serious challenges. Western sanctions remain in place, aimed at depriving the nation of access to financial resources. Worse yet, the Southern Africa region is expected to be among the hardest hit by climate change. Nothing can alter the fact that the extent and quality of arable land in Zimbabwe will steadily decline in the years ahead.
Already, drought has struck Zimbabwe for two years running, and the current one is the worst in nearly forty years. Grain reserves are nearly depleted, and the World Food Program classifies half of Zimbabwe’s population as “food insecure.”
Neither of those is the key issue, according to the Transitional Stabilization Program, which blames the decrease in agricultural productivity on “declining investment, and lack of know-how, among others.” The solution, as Mnangagwa’s government sees, lies in “embracing former displaced white farmers to form joint venture partnerships with the beneficiary A1 [small-scale] and A2 [medium- and large-scale] farmers.” Acting as “anchor farmers to other beneficiaries,” white farmers will, it is claimed, “ensure increased production on the farms.”  Never mind the parlous impact of sanctions or climate change; according to the TSP, bringing back wealthy white farmers will turn around production.
And where are these anchor farms to be formed? Minister Perrance Shiri says, “The time will come when the government may really consider taking back all underutilized land and allocate it to other potential users.”  Mnangagwa is already defining “underutilized” in a politically expedient way, targeting individuals who had opposed his scheming and were therefore forced to flee the country after the military coup, even though some of their farms continue to be fully operational. 
It does not require much imagination to anticipate how ‘anchor farms’ may be established. First, specific tracts of land are identified. Then excuses will be sought to define that land as ‘underutilized.’ Small farm holders dealing with the impact of drought or facing temporary economic challenges may have their land handed over to returning wealthy white farmers.
Astonishingly, the Transitional Stabilization Program argues that “the New Dispensation will also tap into the vast agricultural knowledge, skills, experience, and farming competencies that are inherent in the operations of most of those former farmers who lost farms and are currently without access to land,” thereby “ensuring the revival of the agricultural sector.” 
Note the usage of the word ‘inherent’ in the above quotation. Such language embraces the insulting and misleading Western narrative that white large farm owners are uniquely knowledgeable, capable, and efficient, while black farmers inherently lack ability. This concept is problematic on so many levels. For one thing, it confuses wealth and privilege with ability. It also discounts the disparity in wealth imposed by colonialism and apartheid.
Two decades have passed since fast-track land reform. Surely resettled black farmers have learned a thing or two in all that time! Moreover, many of them had previously managed farms in the arid communal areas, so their experience extends even further back. Reestablishing extreme economic disparity in the agricultural sector is not a solution to productivity. Nor do black farmers need wealthy white farmers to “advise” them on what they already know from long experience. Basing agricultural policy on demeaning mythology can only have a damaging effect.
What is needed is to provide farmers with the support they need to do the job they are quite capable of doing. That is precisely what Command Agriculture is designed to do. Field studies by experts such as Sam Moyo, Ian Scoones, and others have shown how productive resettled farmers have been when supplied with adequate inputs, and in many cases, even when not.
Command Agriculture should be expanded to enhance reliability and timeliness in the provision of inputs. An ambitious government-supported program to broaden water access and extend irrigation infrastructure would help to counteract the effects of climate change. None of that fits with the free-market mentality. Instead, Mnangagwa is eliminating Command Agriculture and commercializing production.
Mnangagwa’s vision, as he puts it, is that “critically…we must be a destination where capital feels safe to come, and to do so we had to introduce various economic measures to attract global capital into our jurisdiction.”  If only he had a care for the economic safety of the Zimbabwean people.
Western leaders demand nothing less than total subjugation, and while Mnangagwa has made significant strides in that direction, more is expected from him. Western capital is waiting for further concessions. Responding to such concerns, Mnangagwa assured Western diplomats that he would “accelerate” neoliberal reforms. In what can only portend more hardship for the Zimbabwean people, he added that this year, “elaborate plans will be implemented to achieve our key objectives.” 
The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, offers no alternative, as Mnangagwa has mostly adopted its neoliberal program. At any rate, it may be difficult to dislodge ‘president’ Emmerson Mnangagwa and ‘vice president’ Constantino Chiwenga, the former general who led the military coup that brought them both to power. One doesn’t seize political power through military violence, only to willingly relinquish it.
Sadly, as long as Zimbabwe remains in the hands of self-serving usurpers, the nation can only look forward to a protracted period of economic dislocation.
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