There is a limit to what one can read into visual impressions made during the Mining Indaba in Cape Town earlier this month. For one thing, the paucity of Chinese mining, banking or government delegates at a large African mining conference does not reflect the contemporary picture on the continent generally. Meanwhile, the DRC stand in the government delegations section was often deserted — yet there were no shortage of discussions going on about the prospects in and for that country’s mining sectors.
The Zimbabwe country stand was notable mainly for the relatively large number of well-groomed delegates from the country’s Minerals Marketing Board. The stand however hardly appeared swamped with expressions of interest from conference delegates. Now, given the experiences of many farm, mine and business owners in Zimbabwe in the last decade — and continued political and mining policy uncertainty and potential volatility — it may seem unsurprising that conference attendees largely gave the stand a wide berth.
Still, the question remains whether current analysis tends to exaggerate the political risks of investing or operating in Zimbabwe. On the publications table at the Indaba was a pamphlet from a firm that attempts to rank country risk for investors. It placed Zimbabwe alongside settings like Somalia. In addition to puzzling over the methodology employed to arrive at such rankings, it left me unsure whether the pamphlet’s authors have ever visited either place to compare the relative ease and security of doing business. Presumably the authors of such things find unfathomable the recent decision of Emirates to introduce a new Dubai route via Harare.
This is not to discount the considerable operational, political, financial, regulatory and/or reputational risks for outsiders investing or operating in Zimbabwe at present (to say nothing of the hardships, frustrations and uncertainties prevailing in most Zimbabweans’ lives at this time). Taken at face value, ZANU-PF’s indigenisation drive (transfer of 51% of certain categories of business to local black ownership by 2014) is anathema to investment, re-investment or expansion of operations in sectors such as mining. Additionally, the very short-term political horizon of many ZANU-PF ministers both raises their tendency to use formal ‘policy’ positions to seek personal gain from ‘regulatory negotiations’ with firms, and undermines their ability to provide sensible guarantees to investors with regard to how things will look in late 2012, let alone 2014. The likely trajectory of the country is unclear even — or perhaps especially — to those individuals leading the parties that continue to wrestle for control of the state.
Yet blogs are best used as spaces for thinking aloud, and doing so now one wonders whether current analysis tends both to exaggerate the risk of a ‘worst case scenario’ in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, and to translate the understandable difficulty in forecasting the country’s political future too readily into extreme investor country risk. On February 16th, President Mugabe spoke of his vision to see “partnerships between rural communities and non-indigenous investors to guarantee the security of foreign investment”. He was presiding at a function in Zvishavane where a platinum mining firm — repeating the pattern of peers such as Zimplats — celebrated transferring 10% of shares to the local community, along with a trust fund for local service provision. Neither presidential approval nor corporate social investment guarantee security of investment for firms anywhere in the world, nor do they mean the end of demands to surrender more. Operating in Zimbabwe does require exhaustive and highly political negotiations, but it remains too simplistic for analysts to suggest that indigenisation moves or political uncertainty make it irrational to invest or plan to soon invest in Zimbabwe.
Last week I chatted to workers at a Chinese-owned gravel-making outfit just south-west of Harare. The electricity was off temporarily. The workers go unpaid during such downtime days, but this was not the only source of their grievances: the particular granite kopjes (outcrops) being blasted and crushed are considered by some to be significant in terms of local ancestral traditions. Chinese businesses in Zimbabwe are not necessarily going to be immune to adverse sentiment at local level or to eventual counter-claims; but nor are ‘Western’ investors necessarily at greater risk than such ‘new’ actors, or unable to begin the process of building a viable operation. Like Zimbabwe’s overall investment climate, the truth is probably somewhere in between: the country is hardly first on the list of choice destinations for new investors; but those who go about advising their clients that the country is ‘off the map’ in risk terms remain somewhat wide of the mark themselves.
Jolyon Ford is a senior analyst at Oxford Analytica, the global analysis and advisory firm.