/ 31 May 2022

OPINION | What value does Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa bring to Davos?

The Chinese
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Photo: Supplied

Contemporary African intellectuals, historians, self-styled Pan-Africanists, patriots and good old liberal political commentators such as myself carry divergent opinions of why South Africa shuns — or does not commemorate — Africa Day.

I have, ever since my country shrugged off Rhodesian colonialism in 1980, bought the story hook, line and sinker that May is truly “Africa Day Month” and why every African country worth its weight in gold should celebrate the day. And this for myriad good reasons.

Most students of African political history of my age group understood the importance of not just Kwame Nkrumah’s groundbreaking revolutionary exploits, but also the critical role that African unity played in our continent’s decolonisation. 

Nkrumah triggered a deluge of national self-actualisation that stretched for almost four decades up to the time when Nelson Mandela finally walked to freedom. If anything, the early part of the 1990s witnessed relentless efforts by most independent African countries pounding the shores and borders of apartheid to ensure South Africans became members of the community of nations. 

It is therefore impossible to comprehend why South Africans do not have Africa Day on their calendar of national holidays, but that aspect is not important in my thesis today.

What is important is that South Africa has turned out to be one of the greatest assets in Africa’s economic algorithm. So great that the country is having to deal with a complex inbound asylum problem that has left its citizens deeply divided. 

This has happened because the country is the continent’s leading light in economic growth and industrial productivity. Unlike the rest of Africa, the damning effects of national bad governance, corruption, civil war and drought have not had that much impact on its economic trajectory. 

Black South Africans continue to mourn that the nation’s resources are still not fully in their hands, but we classical liberals argue that South Africa puts too much emphasis on welfarism — ah — only because of affirmative action “to reverse the effects of apartheid”. 

Yet we still concur that South Africa is indeed “poor Africa’s” first choice welfare destination, what with literally thousands of political and economic asylum seekers trooping to that country every month. That country’s social support system is about to burst at the seams.

It is noteworthy that, this May, Africa Day coincided with Davos’ World Economic Forum (WEF). As one socialist colleague of mine posits, Davos is an arena for capitalist playboys; it might be that the rest of black Africa would have just “requested” South Africa to represent the continent’s views at Davos. 

If it is true that Davos is really meant for serious global economic policy discourse, what would “poor” African countries like Zimbabwe be doing there?

Davos is not the United Nations Security Council where crybabies scramble onto the desks in pursuit of undeserved attention. The founder of WEF, Professor Klaus Schwab, had in mind an arena for public and private cooperation, but it would seem to me the small boys from poor African countries are only there to pick up the scraps as beneficiaries rather than initiators of global collaboration. 

Virtual libraries state that “the World Economic Forum’s membership features a cross- section of representatives from the private and public sector and includes some of the most prominent CEOs, ambassadors, public figures, media personnel, government officials, religious leaders and union representatives from around the world.” 

But whose voice is really heard in this congested forum? Can countries like Zimbabwe and Rwanda really hope to “shape global, regional and industry agendas”? Do these shameless dictators from pariah states “have the drive and the influence to make positive change”? If they do, then the world has galloped on while I wallow in deep intellectual slumber.

If you, like myself, have followed proceedings at this glamorous event year after year, you may have witnessed incredible speeches from African presidents, who usually do not miss an opportunity to be first on the Geneva tarmac. 

Jamii Forums blogger Bona calls it FOMO – the fear of missing out. Three quarters of African leaders who patronise the WEF drag their poor countries into intractable debt without any realistic long-term returns; I doubt whether their great speeches ever turn into sumptuous development peaches. 

Bona puts it more succinctly than I would that Davos “is largely about people who immerse themselves with others for the express purpose of immersing themselves with others”. He continues blithely, “With rare exceptions, it’s not about content and ideas, but rather the process and the interaction.”

I have heard President Cyril Ramaphosa brag about high value waste-to-energy transfer of technology to South Africa. Paul Kagame of Rwanda posits theories on communication technology, but one wonders what value addition Emmerson Mnangagwa brings to his hyperinflation-stricken country. 

Apart from having to defend a democracy that looks like a horror film contraption, he cannot justify hired planes that cost $30 000 per flying hour, scores of government officers and unproductive security agents milling around Davos only on shopping excursions. Wouldn’t it make sense to go as a collective African team and seek large-scale projects that exploit comparative advantage?

For instance, electricity power-starved Southern African countries can invite a multibillion-dollar investor in nuclear power stations so we share infrastructure costs. This strategy would apply to airlines, railways, renewable energy, ICT and port facilities. 

Right now, both Zimbabwe and South Africa are suffering from a debilitating electricity deficit traceable to high level corruption and incompetence in Zesa and Eskom respectively. Imagine if the world’s leading power supplier was at Davos and both Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa persuaded them to set up base in Limpopo. 

The point is that as we commemorate Africa Day month, we need to focus on areas of comparative advantage rather than exalting individual sovereignty that yields nothing but self-righteousness. Moreover, Davos trips count for nothing where the state of national governance points to instability. If African speeches do not bring peaches, it is nothing short of a trajectory at Mach speeds into a terrestrial black hole. 

Rejoice Ngwenya is the founder and executive director of the Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions in Zimbabwe, which works for a Zimbabwe that respects the free market, property rights and constitutionalism. She writes for the Free Market Foundation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.