Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Respect for property rights vital to prosperity

Respect for property rights vital to prosperity

Zimbabwe’s frequent appearances in the world’s news bulletins are usually 
describing the unacceptable conduct of its pre- and post-independence 
politicians, rather than their achievements. Have things changed enough to 
suggest that its leaders are deserving of a break?

by John Robertson

Considering the advantages that these people squandered, it would be easy to 
argue that they deserve nothing, but it is also easy to argue that the 
millions who make up the rest of the population are casualties who do not 
deserve what they are experiencing either. But if the country is thought to 
be deserving of more positive treatment because of them, then very carefully 
planned efforts will be needed to make certain that compassion will not go 
to waste.

Even though all the politicians were elected on their promises to serve the 
people, very nearly all of them were soon claiming that the people were 
there to serve them. These politicians have vigorously exploited deeply 
entrenched traditions that permit leaders to demand respect. Unfortunately, 
when political disregard turns into contempt, as it has in Zimbabwe, and 
when nothing is done in response, it becomes compelling evidence that 
traditional respect for leadership trumps everything else.

If one of the best examples of successful development anywhere in the third 
world can be torn down and trashed by the greed, corruption and power-lust 
of a handful of politicians without generating an effective reaction from 
anywhere, what hopes can there be for the rest?

If international bodies dismiss Zimbabwe’s plight as “outside their 
jurisdiction”, the world’s political leaders will confirm the impression 
already shared by the world’s business leaders that nobody will come to the 
defence of investors if the political heavyweights in any African country 
choose to dispossess them of their assets.

Again and again, the topic comes back to respect for property rights. Every 
situation in which all the players respect each other’s property rights, the 
patterns of behaviour become supportive of investment and development.

When initiative-takers are routinely targeted for asset expropriations, the 
best of them will take their talents and ambitions to countries in which 
their property rights are respected.

Zimbabwe’s progress in earlier years outpaced that of its neighbours because 
its formalised property rights and laws of contract. Zimbabwe was once among 
the world’s most outstanding examples of what could be achieved by a 
developing country. With a little carefully directed help, it could reclaim 
that status fairly quickly, but if the Government of National Unity is 
prevented from delivering the civil rights and property rights reforms it 
has promised, or it too is corrupted, the country’s descent into poverty 
will soon start gathering momentum again.

But a large segment of the political policy plank remains the politicians’ 
determination to carry on blaming the former colonial powers forever. So 
whether or not they misunderstand their long-term interests, and whether or 
not they agree that their national pride has turned into swaggering 
self-delusion, they remain determined to keep alive the claim that all the 
faults of any consequence absolutely and permanently lie with the former 
colonial power.

Even if the politicians in former colonising countries can be persuaded to 
never stop feeling guilty and to carry on pouring aid into their former 
colonies, the people will remain poor. To the people who actually matter, 
the investors, these countries will remain unattractive and the continuing 
weaknesses will make the current argument more compelling: the whole of 
Sub-Saharan Africa should be considered suitable only for short-term 
speculative high-risk, high return ventures and every project should include 
a rapid exit plan.

Unfortunately, this is driven by just about every African leader’s belief 
that he should always retain the right to sweep aside the property rights of 
anyone within his territory if it suits his purposes to do so.

And because this leads to conduct that causes dissatisfaction, he should 
bolster his security arrangements and avoid ever being held to account by 
never relinquishing office.

Zimbabwe’s leadership has chosen to define the economic success of all but 
its own supporters as a potential threat, so the successful business owners 
had to be brought to heel somehow.

The means chosen was very straightforward: property rights can be made 
forfeit by government edict. The nationalisation of all farmland was 
supposed to place Zimbabwe’s biggest business sector under government 

So far, all that this achieved was to turn the sector into a much smaller 
producer over which government still does not have control, but it is now 
too weak to be a threat. Government then turned its attention to foreign 
owned companies and is trying to force all of them to relinquish 51% of 
their shares.

Clearly, the people who gain control will be selected and directed by the 
authorities, and even if government again finds it does not have the talents 
to keep the businesses productive, it will claim success: the businesses 
will no longer be run by people who the party feels might not deserve their 
trust, but by people they select, all of whom will be far more easily 

But millions of Zimbabweans have moved with the times and shown themselves 
to be as capable and resourceful as their counterparts in developed 

Zanu PF politicians are wrong to think that most people will be happy to be 
forced back into the much more confining range of options that was the lot 
of their forefathers.

Many have already chosen to leave for other countries where they can take 
full advantage of respect for civil rights in general and property rights in 

These rights did not feature in traditional society, but many were 
introduced in more recent colonial years. Zimbabwe’s problem today is that 
these rights are under attack and are being dismantled.

Today, the principal missing elements in Zimbabwe’s hoped-for recovery are 
the security and encouragement that investors need, whether they are 
Zimbabweans or foreigners.

The stepping-stones to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery and progress are simply 
the basic civil rights and property rights essentials that have to be in 
place to support each investor and every investment process.

The path Zimbabwe took to get into its current severely weakened state has 
been chosen to deliberately interfere with the objectives of all investors 
who do not show a willingness to be totally subjugated themselves to the 
wishes of the ruling party.


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