Speech delivered to the 2018 Zimbabwe Accountants meeting at the Harare International Conference Centre.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Zimbabweans and friends, good morning. It’s an honour for me to have been invited to speak about leadership. This is one of the topics that matter most to me, and on which I spend a great deal of my time. Why, you may wonder? Because leadership matters. In times of stability it matters. In times of crisis it matters even more. But we don’t give it nearly enough attention, because so many of us somehow expect leaders to always do the right thing. But what we need is not optimism, but rather to strengthen the institutions that our leaders operate within.
I think one of the great tragedies of our continent is the extent to which we have mortgaged our future to the cult of personality. And in this way we have created what many rightly call Africa’s Big Man Syndrome. What this invariably means is that the leader becomes more powerful than the institutions. In fact one of the conditions for success as a Big Man is to weaken institutions so that they enable the leader to usurp the powers that rightly belong to the institution. And in time it becomes impossible to distinguish between the personal powers of the leader and those of the institutions.
This situation that I describe is one that is all too familiar not just to us as Zimbabweans, but also to many Africans. Think of Uganda where Yoweri Museveni has clung to power for the past 32 years. Look at Cameroon where Paul Biya has ruled with an iron fist for the past 35 years. Our own Robert Gabriel Mugabe had grabbed power for a similar period. The common effect of such a hold on power by one individual is that institutions decay, the laws are perverted for the protection of this one individual, and democracy disappears. In short this is the very antithesis of leadership. Because when citizens fear those in power, there is an absence of leadership in the true sense of the word. Because at its heart, leadership cannot be exercised through coercion.
One of the surest signs of a collapse in socio-political leadership is the suppression of the freedom of speech. As a newspaper proprietor I saw first-hand one of the most telling effects of the collapse of credible leadership within Zimbabwe. And that was the muzzling of the press. Journalists were intimidated, harassed and imprisoned. All because Robert Mugabe saw the truth as a threat to his tyrannical regime. The State invested heavily in a propaganda press, and Zimpapers and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation became no more than a personal mouthpiece for State House. Few believed it but His Masters Voice had to be put out there with the diligence that is required by despots.
As Zimbabweans we saw the brute force of a desperate despot grow exponentially as his thirst for absolute control became increasingly at odds with the needs and aspirations of the country. We watched in disbelief as our country lurched from crisis to crisis whilst ZANU PF were at the service of the ego of their President. Our factories closed, our agricultural sector shrunk, our people left in millions and our currency imploded. All in a few decades of a truly calamitous failure of leadership by Robert Mugabe and his cronies.
By the time Robert Mugabe was forced out of office he had totally exhausted the patience of the Zimbabwean people. But just as crucially, he had alienated virtually all former allies and supporters of our nation. Our Central Bank vaults had been emptied, diplomatic goodwill squandered and an entire generation condemned to a life of forced economic and political exile. Except for die hard sycophants it was clear that this old man had become a shameful shadow of the figure who had played such a pivotal role in our liberation.
Robert Mugabe’s fall takes us squarely to the fact that leaders have to know when their time is up. Even as a brutal dictator, he still could have found what little grace was in him to exit the stage on his own terms. But it was clear that he had every intention to die in office. Because it had become unthinkable for him that anyone else could be installed President of the country while he still lived.
The net effect of all this was that by the time the 15 momentous days came last year, Robert Mugabe was completely cornered. He had so depleted any public goodwill that it was only a matter of time before the public erupted in unstoppable protests once it became clear that the military wanted him out of State House. And no I don’t believe what we had last year was a coup. It was a unique Zimbabwean moment when several institutions, including the military ejected a senile despot out of power.
It is worth noting that Robert Mugabe was so afraid of being challenged for the leadership of the country that he ensured there was no known or credible successor. Instead three factions fought it out to fill the vacuum and causing instability in the party and government. Old age had overtaken the once mighty Mugabe. But still he refused to grasp his vulnerability and so created the conditions for his embarrassing ouster.
In over three decades at the helm, Robert Mugabe presided over a crumbling economy, destruction of careers and abandoned generational dreams. His is a textbook case of how to fail dismally at leadership.
Whether we agree or not the military showed a semblance of leadership by helping Zanu PF to oust the old despot and create the conditions for the change in leadership Robert Mugabe had wanted to avoid in his lifetime. The public expects the military to show leadership and professionalism and go back to the barracks.
The challenge for the current president of Zimbabwe and future presidents is that after November 18, 2017, it will be impossible for Zimbabweans to stand by as their country is wrecked. Citizens are no longer afraid of power and this will require our leaders to negotiate very differently compared to the years of tyranny.
I wonder where most of you were during those 15 days and particularly on that historic day when the masses took to the streets demanding Mugabe’s resignation. Were you on the streets with the masses or watching television from the comfort and safety of your homes and air conditioned offices? It was so affirming to see ordinary Zimbabweans say enough is enough, out with tyranny
But it is also clear that we did not arrive at the impossible impasse because of Robert Mugabe only. There was also an abject failure by both the business and civic leadership. They were paralysed by their fear of speaking out against an all powerful despot. The overwhelming thinking amongst our ranks was that standing up and speaking out is for the masses who have nothing to lose. Having witnessed the value destruction over the past 37 years l hope we have learnt that there is nothing to be gained from failing to be active corporate citizens and business leaders in a democracy.
Getting rid of Robert Mugabe has given Zimbabwe an opportunity to change direction and chart a new course. While l maintain that Zanu PF is a culture and a system which cannot easily be changed by the removal of a few individuals, l am encouraged by the pronouncements from President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
We should support and make tangible his bold declaration that Zimbabwe is open for business. This has already energised the nation and raised hopes of a better tomorrow. But this is only the first of many steps that are required to improve what has been a story of abject failure and hopelessness for several decades.
Clearly it will take more than one man to dig us out of the hole that we dug ourselves into close onto four decades. It is important that we all play our part in fully embracing the mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business.
The world that we abandoned following the violent land grab 20 years ago has changed in a big way. When we walked away from the rest of the world there was a sense that the global village was becoming a reality. There was a global consensus on a number of things such as climate change, the importance of global institutions to underpin corporate stability and the importance of international trade as an engine for human progress.
Thus we seek to re-engage with an international community which is significantly altered from the one we abandoned. Terrorism has changed the way we travel and do business. The financial crisis of 2008 has markedly changed rules governing the banking sector and slowed down many economies.
Instead of a global village there is an upsurge of right wing nationalist sentiment across the world. Global institutions such as the WTO and the United Nations are under attack. Donald Trump’s America First policy threatens a trade war with China and others. US abandonment of its leadership role on the international stage has seen a resurgent belingerant Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Elsewhere in the world attention is focused on authoritarian regimes like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, the recently elected Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and China’s Xi Ping who might become president for life. This is a worrying trend with authoritarian governing parties taking control in Hungary, the Philippines and Turkey.
On the other hand the smooth transfer of power in Botswana and leadership changes in South Africa mean that we have serious competition in our neighborhood in attracting the world’s attention let alone foreign investment capital.
We do have a number of positive things going for us. Our people are the biggest asset we have particularly the young generation. Let us go back to an education system that produces young people equipped with skills and not just academic qualifications. Let us co-create an education policy that speaks to our industrial and economic strategy.
Our focus should be on growing our own timber. Growing a talent pool that values a superior work ethic and helps us compete with the rest of the international community.
While we were focused on the “Look East Policy” and pretending that the “Land was the Economy and the Economy was the land” Google, Facebook, Twitter , SnapChat and Spotify emerged as global technology giants changing the way the world communicates and does business. By the way Spotify got listed only last week with a market value of US$26,5 billion. Let me remind you that latest figures indicate that our GDP stands at only US$16,3 billion.
Let us emulate what Rwanda and Kenya have done by heavily investing into backbone technological infrastructure for the private sector use and for our bright youth to build and create cool things. Invest in technological hubs across the country with affordable internet for the creative youth to build and create solutions driven products/services. Let us also emulate Singapore by having a deliberate policy of selecting young people from all disciplines and sending them to the best universities in the world with a proviso that they return home soon after graduation.
I suggest that we also make it easy for Zimbabweans in the diaspora with badly needed skills to come back home and help in rebuilding the country.
Our tourism, mining and agriculture are low hanging fruit so l am not going to waste your time discussing the huge potential that flows from these three sectors. Fix the road infrastructure, allow tourism products to rebuild, provide affordable energy to mining and make sure that real farmers are on our farms.
In June 2016 while Mnangagwa was still Vice-President he spoke of his desire to get Zimbabwe in the top 100 Ease of Doing Business Global Rankings. There are many reforms that need to be embarked on to make it easy for foreign and local investors to start and operate businesses in Zimbabwe. This includes eliminating delays in granting construction permits, registering property, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. Access to credit facilities and tax reforms would also help the ease of doing business.
President Mnangagwa recently met with the Rwanda Development Board which has contributed to Rwanda being ranked the 2nd easiest place to do business in Africa. The business leadership in this room, the public accountants and auditors have a huge responsibility in helping put measures and policies that remove impediments to doing business in Zimbabwe. Most of you encounter these challenges everyday and l suspect some you profit from some of these hurdles.
As leaders we should be compassionate, broad minded, considerate and driven by ethics, principles and convictions. Instead of being self-absorbed, narrow minded individuals driven only by profit. The development of our nation given our recent history requires us to re-evaluate our role and purpose as leaders.
In a democracy leaders in this room have a responsibility to lead from the front instead of finding all sorts of excuses why they should be opting out of their patriotic and constitutional obligations. Stand up. Speak up. Act in supporting the values and principles that you want to see in your country. That is your patriotic duty as leaders and citizens.
For our society to thrive now and in future we must be part of an informed and active citizenry that holds government and all those in authority accountable. Silence and fear in the face of repression and abuse of the taxpayers money is giving in to tyranny and certainly not liberty.
Lastly let me speak about our values and work ethics as a nation. A political leadership that has taught us that it is OK to grab farms and factories without breaking a sweat has corroded our values and work ethic. We have watched in total amazement as politicians and those politically connecting getting filthy rich while pillaging. Education, hard work and honest enterprise have all been devalued as the get-rich-quick-brigade has taken centre stage.
We need to get back to valuing hard work, skills and excellency. We need to get back to the values and the work ethic that made us so proud to be Zimbabwean and made us the bread basket of Southern Africa. This starts with each one of us in this room creating centres of excellence wherever we are and not celebrating mediocrity. That is the kind of leadership we need.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity for sharing my thoughts on leadership.