Mzee: Soul of the Nation
Ambassador Christopher Mutsvangwa
Comrade Muzenda had a deep and abiding love for his homeland Zimbabwe. He sacrificed all he could to make sure it got the freedom it now enjoys. He went to the extent of encouraging even his own children to take part in a war he was prosecuting and would lose a deer daughter in battle.
For him there was no battlefield commitment for the offspring of other compatriots while he spared his own.
Having known him since 1977 during the national liberation war, I am bound to have many fond memories of this great patriot. Yet in all, what is poignantly etched in my mind was how he fought tenaciously while battling terminal cancer at his death bed in Beijing. His new war was how to lure Chinese capital to Zimbabwe to support the new tobacco farmer.
The glowing success of Zimbabwe’s land reform owes much to how all important leaf tobacco is quickly recovering to restore Zimbabwe to it s tradition of primacy in this global cash crop.
Season after season the new indigenous farmer is confounding those who have been propounding the fallacy of a new found genetic bond between Zimbabwe soils and colonial settlers of British stock. Day in day out, crass propaganda is spewed out to the import that Zimbabwe’s soils can only produce bountiful harvest if tilled for the benefit of Ex-Rhodesian white colonials. Alas, turn over the same soils to the indigenous Africans who had tilled it for millennia, it resorts to dejected animation and rewards these dark skinned interlopers with barren harvests.
Today leaf tobacco is doing well for Zimbabwe’s GDP. With US$1,2 billion in total exports it is standing at the roost of Zimbabwe’s major foreign currency earnings, still well ahead of gold, diamond and platinum.
This year over US$600 million dollars has found its way into pockets of more than 60 000 new farmers of the golden leaf signalling a millennial transformation of rural lives into the global cash economy. Courtesy or burgeoning rural prosperity Zimbabweans has been vaulted into top echelons of cell phone penetration on the African continent. Global suppliers telecommunications gear and world class handset manufacturers are all delighted by this exciting market. This is all within a short 4 years from the unprecedented meltdown of 2008.
This jamboree of growing riches is assured to be an annual affair engendered by each new season of tobacco farming. More crops and productive animal husbandry will rightly augment the income of Zimbabwe’s rural communities with the ascension of the farmer friendly regime of Zanu-PF in the wake of the resounding victory in 2013 Harmonized Elections.
Mzee Muzenda had stood four square with President Mugabe in defying British wrath as they embarked on the historic land reform. Offended metropolitan capital retaliated with the merciless weapon of economic sanctions as an instrument of regime change. Zimbabwe’s umbilicus to global capital markets had to be excised. The economy had to induced to screams so an impoverished populace could cut its links to the offending Zanu-PF, the party of the revolution.
It was under these gathering clouds of economic warfare that I was summoned back to diplomatic life and head the embassy in Beijing. I had been out of Foreign Service for a dozen years. Along the way I had an ill fated sojourn at ZBC where I left on a crowd of political bad will. A combination of good education and serendipity gave me a new lease of rewarding life in the information business of broadband, digital cell phones and the Internet which I helped pioneer for Zimbabwe. Playing golf became my pastime and I often went to Cape Town to enjoy the game. One day I came back from the golf round to be advised by my Monica that Minister Mudenge was frantically looking for me back home. I wondered. I flew back to be told that the post of ambassador to Beijing, China was mine to take up after a year of seeking the right candidate. Any equivocation I could have entertained was dispelled by the revelation that Mzee had transmitted this invitation to the Minister from none other than the Head of State.
I took up my new post in Beijing at a time when a dark cloud was hovering above Zimbabwe. Minister Mudenge had just taken delivery of the ultimatum of Robin Cook the British Foreign Secretary about economic Armageddon for Zimbabwe if it proceeded with the dispossession of white kith and kin. Very few believed in my assignment as a saviour to the painful travails now facing the nation. I was swimming in a sea of skepticism and downright foolhardiness on the part of Zimbabwe as it faced the mighty but hostile West.
Minister Mudenge took no time in leading a delegation to Beijing to woo the Chinese as an alternative source of investment and capital.
That trip has turned out to be a singular lesson for me as the cunning mendacity of British diplomacy. Bo Xilai, the disgraced former senior Chinese politician now awaiting sentence for corruption was head of the Ministry of Commerce which is the official channel of economic co-operation. At the time, he had a very cozy relationship with British business interests.
Strangely, a very important “investment meeting” was pencilled on exactly the same hour he was slated to meet the ministerial delegation of Zimbabwe.
Sensing mischief, I advised my delegation to stay in their hotel rooms rather that bestow diplomatic dignity to junior ranking Chinese officials who were now leading the talks. My defiance worked as the Communist Party intervened to pull the haughty Bo Xilai out his business discussions so he could discharge his duty of protocol to Zimbabwean friends from afar. Of course I duly delivered my ministers of commensurate rank from their hotel rooms for successful bilateral talks.
I did not fare much better when President Mugabe followed with a state visit. His delegation was made up of skeptics on china who came with an incredible $10 billion credit line demand from a China that was rapidly accumulating foreign currency reserves as a new and rising economic power.
The rationale for this hare brain demand was that China goes around as a friend of Zanu-PF and President Mugabe so show your hand by doling out such cash to offset Western hostility. Being a student of international finance and a businessman, I fell out with my compatriots. I could only find support from President Mugabe who directed a new approach to negotiations where hard resource assets displace political solidarity as security for requested loans.
In a bizarre twist, the same patriots were persisting in placing faith in Trevor Emmanuel, the Finance Minister of South Africa who was dangling the mirage of a four billion rand loan that has remained a mirage to this day, a full decade later. He was phoning the gullible Zimbabwean officials to ditch China for his promised Western-sponsored credit line for the salvation of Zimbabwe at his own price.
It did not take me long to realise that conventional diplomacy was not going to deliver. And very soon brick bats of a failed ambassador would begin to be thrown at me to the delight of Western detractors and their legions of home-grown acolytes. It was a scenario I could not brook with my revolutionary pedigree.
My study of the Chinese economy would lead me to identify tobacco as common ground of business relationship underpinned by share economic interests.
The challenge was how to entice the China Tobacco; a hide bound state monopoly given to conservatism to look at Zimbabwe’s new farmers as a target of profitable investment. With the land reform, these new African farmers now possessed the legendary special soils that produce the much coveted blend leaf tobacco which accords designer status to premier global and Chinese cigarette brands.
My first shot at luck came with the visit of Minister Chinamasa on a cooperation agenda for prison services. A typical alert mind ever quick to the ball took no persuasion from Ambassador Mutsvangwa to include an incongruous tobacco item onto the Minister’s bilateral discussions with Lou Gan, a Politburo counterpart in the Chinese Communist Party.
Breakthrough came when a meeting was arranged with the head of China Tobacco with instructions to assist the Zimbabwe tobacco farmer being denied solely needed capital by the rapacious and sulking traditional economic cooperating partners.
The heavens would descend to smile to the new tobacco farmer in Zimbabwe a couple of weeks later when the sick Vice President flew to Beijing to seek treatment from friendly Chinese doctors of his terminal cancer. Ever keen to work for his country and more so to assist his lifelong colleague, President Mugabe he asked for reports of my ambassadorial work, notwithstanding his weakening body frame.
He stumbled upon my tobacco initiative with a zest that overlooked his poor medical condition.
He proceeded to launch a direct appeal to the topmost leadership of China to engage Zimbabwe in tobacco investment. His daunting courage at an hour personal agony impressed his Chinese host, President Hu Jinato and the Chinese Communist Party.
I soon noticed Chinese business magic that combines political will and business acumen at work. In no time, Mzee’s private ward was turned into a boardroom as he summoned various directors of China Tobacco to discuss how they could proceed to pour capital into tobacco production. A momentous decision had been for the first time ever that Chinese money could now go beyond mere buying of leaf tobacco abroad to actual investment leaf tobacco production.
This was promptly followed by planning sessions that saw crop production teams being dispatched to Zimbabwe to map out plans of contract farming so as to bypass the auction system still under the lock hold of unfriendly tobacco majors from the West.
Ministers Chinamasa and made were quick to oblige by putting in place an enabling legislation that embraced contract tobacco farming as a means to plough capital directly to the farmer bypassing unhelpful middlemen who were the hostile Western banks still hankering for the times of the disposed minority racist settler farmer.
As new farmers make their fortunes in leaf tobacco farming, I encourage them to spare another thankful thought to Mzee Muzenda, the old lion of the fight for political freedom. He dedicated the last ounces of his patriotic fight to the cause of the Zimbabwe farmer.
He ensured that they find their rightful place as equally worth players at the business pantheon of global tobacco production. The bulging pockets of tobacco dollars that fatten with each new season of tobacco production are the clearest vindication of the vision behind the bold land reform which President Mbeki has refreshingly come around to praise after earlier criticism. Please; more roses at the eternal home of National Hero Simon Vengesayi Muzenda.
Ambassador Christopher Mutsvangwa is deputy minister of foreign affairs and former ambassador to China.