Community share schemes: more questions than just about political gimmickry

Dec 14, 2011

As part of its campaign strategy for a crucial upcoming election in which it must seriously consider the prospect of being beaten by the MDC, ZANU-PF has embarked on a shakedown of mining and other big companies. The shares they are being persuaded or arm twisted into ceding to local communities have been described by some as an ‘election gimmick.’ They probably are at least in part, but there are other even serious questions about them that remain unanswered.
The Standard newspaper had a recent editorial comment (Share scheme, a ZANU PF poll trick) asserting that these community share schemes were “nothing but a ZANU PF campaign gimmick disguised as a national programme.”

“Though communities stand to benefit from the largesse extorted from mines, there is something blatantly wrong in the manner in which the programme is being carried out,” the comment continued.

“The empowerment regulations have been adopted without any consensus in the (ZANU PF/MDC) inclusive government. The party’s announcement exposed the programme for what it is: a Zanu PF campaign project.
Hiding behind a banner of empowering indigenous Zimbabweans, President Mugabe and his Zanu PF party are clearly playing politics with a matter that has a serious bearing on Zimbabwe’s economy.

After running down the economy following years of mismanagement, Mugabe is desperate for something to offer a restive electorate that has gravitated over the years to support the MDC-T led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in protest against his ruinous policies.

The veteran politician knows he needs something new, something that would entice villagers to vote for him and members of Zanu PF in parliamentary and local elections.

Forcing companies to surrender their shareholding to the so-called community share ownership trusts and to part with US$10 million, as in the case of Zimplats, is one way Mugabe can energize his supporters.

If one considers the number of mines dotted around the country, ZANU PF’s game plan becomes clearer for all to see: suddenly the bankrupt party has something new to offer thousands of people staying in areas where the mines operate.

Many of these people, ironically impoverished by years of Mugabe’s rule, may begin to see the 87-year-old president in new light, as their savior. This is the same trick that Mugabe used when he encouraged invasions of white-owned commercial farms over a decade ago. Zimbabweans must be wary of such projects.
All of this is hard to dispute. It is particularly galling that Mugabe is now claiming to ‘empower’ the same people he has arguably ‘disempowered’ in many other ways over his 30 years in power. He and his party want to given credit for the ‘empowerment’ they are doling out after simply twisting it from the arms of the scared mining companies, but they refuse to accept any responsibility for the terrible deprivations many Zimbabweans have endured in recent years.

In that sense the share shakedowns and handouts are an election gimmick. But if “communities stand to benefit from the largesse extorted from mines,” as the Standard opines, is that not also what political parties are supposed to deliver? When it says Mugabe “needs something new that would entice villagers to vote for him and members of Zanu PF,” that is a need of all political parties, and is correct to say that one that has ruled for as long as 30 years needs to particularly resort to ‘gimmicks.’

The point about this policy being carried out by one half of the coalition government without the accent of the other is valid. That is raw abuse of ZANU-PF’s defacto power, but also to be expected for an incumbent party. It is unfortunately also entirely part of politics that a party, even in a coalition, will try to do as much as it can get away with it for its benefit, which has almost become a ZANU-PF specialty. In similar historical, power balance and pre-election circumstances, the MDC would likely do the same.

So yes, ZANU-PF is partly being its old cynically self-serving self, but it is also doing the expected for a party that is fighting for its political life.

It must also be mentioned that the idea of such schemes is not new to Zimbabwe. In fact in Zimbabwe’s case it seems to have first been copied from less controversial examples in South Africa. The questions about whether mining companies are ‘giving back’ to local communities from which they extract minerals simply by paying taxes is also one increasingly posed all over the world, not just in Zimbabwe.

In a real sense then that may not be palatable to the Standard, ZANU-PF is not doing anything new or unheard of. However, it is also legitimate for the Standard to point out that ZANU-PF’s record with implementing even well-intentioned schemes is at least questionable to many people, ‘fast track’ land reform being the most notorious example.

But there are other questions that have not been asked much. Is just taking money from the mining companies and putting it directly into the hands of these trusts the best way of ‘empowering’ communities? Is this not too easy? Does it not lead to a culture of expecting easy handouts, and can this not do more long term harm than short term good? Will these communities really be ‘empowered’ to have a say in how these funds are used, or will they circulate amongst a small privileged group?

Zimbabwe may have many mines, but not many which can ‘donate’ $10 million at a pop. Why should communities with smaller or no mineral deposits feel sidelined? Is it not the government’s responsibility to try to create centrally collected ‘empowerment’ and ‘development’ and distribute it relatively equally everywhere in the country?

The sudden, easy-riches syndrome that has tripped up many lottery winners is a well studied phenomenon. Are there any steps being taken to ensure that the sudden windfalls the communities are getting avoid this trap? How do two neighboring communities, one with a richly financed share trust, and one without, co-exist? What will be the new dynamic between them; and the social, political cultural and economic repercussions of those relations?

These are some of the issues that may be even more important and whose answers more far-reaching than whether ZANU-PF is playing election gimmicks or not. It is in the nature of political parties to play whatever gimmicks they can get away with.

The Standard is right to warn Zimbabweans to “be wary of such projects,” but the wariness may need to be on many more and deeper grounds. The fact that ZANU-PF primarily has self-serving interests for championing these trusts may turn out to be small part of the problems they may cause if many other basic questions are not well answered.

The Zimbabwe Review


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