At a time when Zimbabwe should be experiencing a brain gain, its brain drain shows no sign of abetting. At least not just yet.
It is naive to have expected aspiring Zimbabweans blessed with what used to be some of the continent’s most illustrious education, to have stayed on in the country when things were falling apart. Initially in the late 90s, not many frowned on this category of émigrés who were variously labelled economic migrants and some even going further to classify them as highly desirable knowledge workers possessing a strong work ethic. However, when a less sophisticated citizenry from that nation started swelling the ranks of refugees, perceptions changed and a less flattering, in fact, negative stereotyping of the Zimbabwean, emerged.
For some time now, much of the world has grown disenchanted with this nation which is perceived not to want to help itself as much as it needs the world’s help. The West in particular has so far concentrated much of its pressure on forcing the hand of the politicians believed to be at the heart of the mess through travel bans and such other targeted sanctions. Nowadays, however, there is also an intensifying focus on the country’s exiled community whose very presence in foreign lands is increasingly becoming untenable.
All kinds of messages are being sent to Zimbabwean exiles, both subtly and regrettably, the messages have also been sent through inexcusable and appalling means as those who bore the brunt of xenophobic violence in South African found out last year. Going by the current evidence, it is safe to conclude that although these messages have been heard loud and clear, for the foreseeable future, they will not be acted upon en-masse. And that in itself is a tragic expression of an exiled people missing perhaps the last window of opportunity to restore the fortunes of a once great nation.
On the one extreme, there is the detached attitude of Zimbabwe’s exiled middle class who, credit to them, have continued to thrive wherever they have found their proverbial patch of greener pastures. They are the quintessential knowledge-economy workers for whom opportunities elsewhere have provided them a much-needed break to internationalise their careers. Most in this category have no legal hangovers having gone through authorised channels to secure work and residence permits.
Some amongst Zimbabwe’s exiled middle class have vowed not to return. Their emotional links to the country of their birth can only wane over time as they re-establish their social and economic roots in other countries. What is most interesting about this group is their nonchalance towards the political events unfolding in Harare, preferring to pontificate over the sorry state of the country they left from the comfort of Sandton and London pubs.
And then there is the ambivalent group of undocumented refugees, most of who survive on the fringes of society in their new chosen countries. Theirs is the genuine fear and insecurity that even if they returned tomorrow, they would be unemployable in a country still suffering a 90% jobless rate. In all probability, the idea of hassling in the informal economy does not sit well with them.
Finally, there is a third category made up of those who took the political asylum route as a means of obtaining legal immigration status. Many in this category were victims of political repression. But many more were opportunists who saw the process as an escape route from desperation. The majority of the opportunists in this category hailed from quarters of Zimbabwean society which under normal circumstances would never have made it overseas anyway. Ironically for this lot, change in their home country might not be such a desirable thing if it means them losing their immigration status secured on the basis of grossly exaggerated and even fabricated political asylum claims.
Recently Zimbabwe’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, was heckled in the UK by an assorted crowd of Zimbabwean expatriates and asylum seekers when he boldly stated that his countrymen “must” return home. It was an ill-advised proclamation from the prime minister. The return of exiles should not be demanded but facilitated.
Their return can be facilitated through the revitalisation of the informal sector, which was brutally annihilated and then criminalised by the campaign designed to weaken urban opposition — “Operation Murambatsvina” (clean out the filth) — in 2005, which according to the UN affected at least 2.4 million people at the time. It can also be made possible by reforming the civil service, amending media laws, privatising some state institutions, relaxing indigenisation laws, relaxing citizenship laws, reducing taxes, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for victims of previous political atrocities, guaranteeing private property rights and generally doing everything possible that permits free enterprise to flourish. Without effecting these reforms, the politicians who were banking on the sheer euphoria of the Global Political Agreement as being enough to coax exiles back home, have underestimated the challenges facing them. Evidently, the new Zimbabwean government has embarked on initiatives towards attracting back exiles but the PR around such initiatives is still not sexy enough, let alone not nearly as visible and convincing as it should be.
At the same time, the advent of a Government of National Unity which until recently was an event not likely to happen at least not in the next one thousand years, should be seized upon by all exiles as a signal that their part in the epic of rebuilding Zimbabwe has now come. Never before in the struggle for a free Zimbabwe has there been such an opportunity where the exiled component of Zimbabwe’s middle class, has for the first time, a more pronounced leverage over the political process.
The present opportunity in Zimbabwe is for its exiled middle-class community to strategically inject itself in the process of national healing and reconstruction. Using the skills and experience gained from the exposure in better run economies, Zimbabwe’s exiled middle class should seek to become an indispensable supervisory and management class in the new dispensation, driving innovation and new approaches to developmental challenges.
Secondly, it should produce a class of investors who will supply the capital to restart industry and other commercial enterprises. The fact that Zimbabwe’s capacity utilisation is currently estimated to be about 30% and is projected to reach only 60% by year end, suggests that there is a gap which government interventions alone will not be able to close. It is therefore opportune for diasporans to collaborate on the best means of mobilising funds and finding ways of investing in the country. Not doing so, will be to exhibit the sort of self-centeredness for which only future generations of Zimbabweans will pay the ultimate price.
Thirdly and most importantly, they must endeavour to become a formidable pressure and leadership bloc that will push for accountability and developmental politics in the new dispensation.
Perhaps, the choices facing Zimbabwe’s exiled community were eloquently captured by John F Kennedy when he spoke in a different context of the reality that “there are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction”. In my view, preferring the comforts and security of exile, whilst occasionally appeasing the conscience through remittances to relatives back home, is a part and parcel of this “comfortable inaction”.
In the long-term context of a lifetime, remittances are unsustainable. In the medium term, measured in years, remittances breed long-lasting insecurity and dependency in the lives of their recipients. They create a vicious cycle of human capital flight from the continent whereby the goal of the dependants is someday to escape Africa to some overseas country, from whence the money comes from. From this perspective, remittances like aid, are a deadly enemy to Zimbabwe’s reconstruction agenda, let alone, to all of Africa’s as well.
It can be argued that there are very few countries in Africa which have surpassed Zimbabwe’s record in its hey-day of producing a large and diverse skilled labour force comprising farmers, miners, artisans, engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, bankers, accountants, business managers, IT technicians, stockbrokers etc. The cream of this skilled labour force has now had the opportunity of having its expertise enriched by exposure in foreign working environments. With respect to the émigré contingent in the UK, one hopes that it has also lost its reverence for all things white, having witnessed the corruption and profligacy of British parliamentarians exposed in the recent expenses scandal. That particular group of exiles has borne first-hand witness to the fact the there is no sacrosanct democracy in the world. You can run but cannot hide from the disappointment of politics anywhere in the world. But there is a glimmer of hope back in Zimbabwe, which exiles can only ignore at their own peril.
It is still a long road to travel. However, the exiled must not wait on the government’s invitation. They must of necessity join the journey to the point where a return to prosperity is assured. Though the country’s government and its private human capital agencies need to play a pivotal role in getting the scattered exiled skills to collaborate by producing an attractive model that will be the catalyst for a homecoming revolution, the exiled must seize the initiative. It is worth repeating once more that if they choose to take the path of less resistance by returning home and re-engage constructively, they can indeed be a formidable leadership bloc that will oversee political accountability in a new dispensation.
Not to act on the imperatives of re-engagement in the civic, economic and political spheres, which Zimbabwe now desperately needs, is to give free rein to the neo-colonial Western multinationals as well as the Asians who in this era of an accelerated scramble for resources (of which Zimbabwe has plenty and is reputed to have the second largest reserves of platinum in the world) can only lead to more dependency on aid and some marginal economic growth.
Historically, political dominance in Africa has always been the preserve of an exclusive club of career politicians. They begin well, riding the wave of widespread disaffection and once in power, end up replacing the previous elite, which abused the mandate given by the masses. The middle class is yet to play a transformative role in this type of suffocating politics. If anything, the powers that be have always made sure that a vibrant middle class is non-existent and where it does exist, that it is repressed. In 2002 for instance, a prominent struggle politician in Zimbabwe when asked about how he felt about the mass exodus from the country of skilled blacks and whites, replied: “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own [ruling party] people who supported the liberation struggle. We don’t want all these extra people.” This time around, the middle-class project in a new Zimbabwe must not be allowed to fail.
As with all seasons in life, there is a time for everything. If then was the time to leave, now is the time to return. If all were to stay away, vowing not to return, there will forever be a leadership and governance vacuum in Zimbabwe, which opportunistic politicians will take advantage of to advance their own agendas. Under this scenario, the country could be relegated to a permanent state of ruin.
Should Africa prove to be the last frontier where the best of human redemption and progress will be exhibited in the not-so-distant future, Zimbabwe must be the beginning of that grandiose exhibition. It is up to the country’s exiled community to realise this possibility.