Watching in horror as the giants fell, one after another - The demise of public entities in Zimbabwe
At independence we inherited public entities including parastatals as well as government agencies, departments and institutions, all primed and equipped to support the economy. We, of course cannot disregard the truth that most of these organizations as then designed by the colonial regime to serve the elite white minority first, with little attention to the growing black populace. That said, the institutions were in nascent shape, needing only to be expanded, broadened and grown to provide for the newly liberated nation.
The exuberance of the Zimbabwean economy drew the envy of many countries across the world, as shown by the growing interest by investors and well-wishers who flocked to support us and to buttress our early ambitions. The cliché that Zimbabwe was ‘the breadbasket of Africa' aptly arose out of our ability to produce and supply so many goods and services and to compete with the best in the world. The country's capacity was not only limited to agriculture and education as often believed by detractors. The manufacturing sector was bubbling with great promise. Bulawayo was known as the hub of industry while Harare retained its status as the capital and trade nod. Gweru, Redcliff, Kariba, Victoria Falls, Kadoma, Bindura to name a few, also shared the limelight of being beacons of production and trade. Zimbabwe exported power, food, steel, timber, cotton, tobacco, gold and was set to add to this list. Everything seemed to be working for us.
Today most of the public institutions have suffered the blight of collapse or have been comatose for decades on end. The government has been working tirelessly, and rather desperately, to resuscitate some of them, albeit with little or no success in many cases. Then what happened? When did it happen? And why did it happen? These questions cannot be answered in short or simple sentences. There is a long story behind each. I envisage robust debate from my observations, which point to the following as key reason for the great fall of our giant institutions. Note though, that there is not enough space in this article to list and elaborate on each case. Suffice to say, that Zimbabwe is today littered with over 70 cases studies of how to run down successful public entities.
There is loud consensus among analysts and writers on the economic journey of Zimbabwe that most of the parastatals, government agencies and institutions suffered from the following common afflictions, all avoidable:
Lack of a business paradigm. The pervasive absence of a solid business mindset required to successfully run and prosper organizations. Instead, there has been a growing culture of some type of rag tag management systems. The gradual erosion and negation of strict business principles, and their replacement with informal practices all led to the end of the requisite institutional discipline. Malpractices were consistently ignored, patched up or externalized. This tended to close off space for meaningful change in the way things were. Put simply, there has been no shared willingness to do things right, all the time.
Poor management. Commentators sight disastrous management as one of the main contributors to failed parastatals and agencies of government. Paradoxically, Zimbabwe is replete with skills and qualifications in every conceivable field of management. One would expect public executives to be sufficiently schooled in strategy development, implementation and sustenance. Technology has been at their finger-tips all along. All executive boards and management panels have been manned with experts who knew what needed to be done. Yet they have not always chosen to do just that.
Cronyism and nepotism and all their attendant evils. These have been responsible for employment and deployment of human, material and financial resources based on ‘connections'. The result is misplaced resources and poor oversight on performance. Round pegs have been habitually forced onto square holes.
Corruption and looting of public resources. The number one evil. The Zimbabwean economy has been bedevilled by rampart corruption across all layers of society. Stories abound of ministers, executives, managers and even common operatives with any level of authority competing to strip public entities and infrastructure to the bone for their own benefit and enrichment.
Experimental, textbook policies. The parastatal sector was overly regulated until the advent of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of 1990s. Half-baked and imported from other economies, ESAP sought to deregulate business as much as possible while opening up space for private producers and service providers to compete with hitherto established monopolies. Government seemed to be awakening to the need to shift away from what was not its core business. This has not worked too well either since the newly empowered small producers across all sectors were ill equipped and resourced to make meaningful contribution to the economy. The intended empowerment came at a time when the financial sector was taking a real squeeze and its ability to provide loan capital was being seriously hampered. It was simple inopportune.
For nostalgia's sake let me mention some of the economic giants that fell while all watched in utter horror. Most of these have been reduced to shells of their previous might.
Ziscosteel suffered from lack of plant renewal and eventually had to scale down operations to the point of rendering their host, Redcliff, a ghost town as the number of unemployed as well as affected downstream businesses continued to spiral.
Air Zimbabwe, once the flagship of international travel and the pride of the country in the skies, was run down and has recently been beset with embarrassment with its prized assets, including aircraft, being seized outside the country to defray unpaid operational expenses. During its prime, it served the holy cow needs of government prelates, including the country's former president who could commandeer an aeroplane away from a scheduled flight without consideration to the losses entailed.
ZESA - a key player and arguably the very heartbeat of our once growing economy was throttled by erratic supplies of power form Kariba, Bulawayo and Hwange power stations as each for them faced its own demons. Zimbabwe has become an importer of electricity when it was once a major exporter of the commodity, barely four decades ago.
Hwange Colliery - supporting the steel manufacturing, rail transport and indeed many other manufacturing industries, could not cope with the need for continuous plant renewal which needed foreign currency in an environment where its public sector customers could hardly keep up with payments for supplies of coal.
The National Railways of Zimbabwe grew phenomenally at independence, establishing lucrative synergies with newer regional partners, such as Botswana Railways, to service a burgeoning transport network for moving both goods and passengers across the sub region. During its heydays, NRZ boasted a rapidly modernizing fleet of electric powered trains to replace the old coal and diesel locomotives. When power could no longer be supplied consistently, they reverted to coal and diesel trains ominously becoming a perfect example of a regressing giant.
The Grain Marketing Board enjoyed an institutionalised monopoly over grain sourcing and marketing until the ESAP changed the rules. It was once billed as the biggest marketing bard for grain across Africa. The board's role was diminished by the dwindling supply of grain when most commercial farmers where moved from their land during the chaotic reform programme of the early 2000s. It is still battling to regain its stability.
The Cold Storage Commission once enjoyed unparalleled growth when they owned thriving cattle ranches across the country and were expanding into pig and poultry farming as well as meat processing. When it crumbled it was left with as few as 341 herd of cattle in all its any ranches, representing an unsustainable waste of resource capacity. Eventually the CSC was partially sold off to a private company which retrenched staff and struggled to pay affected employees their due benefits.
The District Development Fund entrusted with providing infrastructure support to rural areas developed roads, built clinics and schools and also provided water as well as irrigation infrastructure in remote areas. According to newspaper articles, the DDF was systematically looted by highly placed officials who took equipment and materials to enrich themselves. Today it is largely crippled and unable to provide its core mandate.
Central Mechanical and Equipment Department also would not scape the myriad of institutional challenges facing other organisations in its league. Widespread abuse of public vehicles and misappropriation of spares brought it to its knees.
I close this article with a lingering question. Is our government prepared to learn from such harsh lessons and work towards a promising future for its people? A subsequent instalment of my articles will deal with the demise of more government agencies including councils, national registry, health, education and related institutions that have also had their share of debilitating challenges.
Liverson Mdongo is a highly sought-after strategy development advisor and business performance optimisation specialist with experience gained from across Africa.
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