Monday, March 4, 2024
HomenewsBritish-Zimbabwe trade ties win-win for everyone – The Herald

British-Zimbabwe trade ties win-win for everyone – The Herald

The visit by a delegation of the Westminster Africa Business Group to Zimbabwe, led by its chairman Mr Laurence Robertson, a Conservative Party Member of the British House of Commons, is perhaps the most important of the growing contacts between Britain and Zimbabwe and a sign of normalising relations, at least across a wide swathe of activity, the business world.

The Westminster Africa Business Group was set up in 1947, as relations between Britain and its African colonies and protectorates were changing rapidly and it became obvious that the colonial empire would become independent over the next two decades and so demanded a completely new way of approaching business and investment ties, one where the British would have to compete rather than just step in as of right.

The group brings together politicians and business people, since whatever pure economic theory might suggest, many trade and investment ties do require political and Government input to operate efficiently and even to open doors. So the group is important and the visit to Zimbabwe is important.

Mr Robertson, although a backbencher, is not a naïve politician. He has been in the House of Commons since 1997 and chaired the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for seven years.

That valuable experience of seeing and dealing with a difficult political climate seems to have cemented his convictions that trade and investment are the drivers of economic growth and produce more permanent solutions than pure political operations, but which also require a degree of political input to work properly.

Relations between Britain and Zimbabwe have always been somewhat difficult, thanks to perhaps too much shared history. 

Zimbabwe was conquered and colonised by a British chartered company, and Britain was the colonial power that gave effective control to the settler population just over 30 years later, a settler population of largely British descent.

Then there was the UDI period, when those same settlers and their descendants took total control with the British imposing a wide range of sanctions, but sanctions that did not see any significant disinvestment in the rebel colony although dividends could no longer be remitted to Britain by local subsidiaries. 

The British resumed their responsibilities in late 1979 and delivered independence in 1980, in what many regard as a pretty fair showing and so trade and other ties were resumed and British investors returned to Zimbabwe. In fact relations were rather good.

The land reform of the early 2000s caused a complete change, largely because those losing their title deeds were mostly people of British descent. 

Britain was one of the main leaders of the sanctions regime imposed on Zimbabwe and trade and other ties were disrupted quite extensively. Businesses from other countries moved in to take up the slack.

Mr Robertson in his initial public comments wants to reverse a lot of the acrimony and other problems that arose over the last couple of decades. Britain used to be the top trading partner of Zimbabwe in Europe, simply because of so much shared history, and has now sunk to fifth, still a respectable position, but showing where there is scope for a lot more business between the business sectors of the two countries.

Land reform, the trigger for the 2000 break, is now regarded in Zimbabwe as a closed chapter. The reforms went ahead, and far more recently under the Second Republic a deal was struck with the former landowners for compensation over the improvements they had made to their land. 

Payment of the compensation is admittedly slow at first, but as relations with the global community improve these can be speeded up significantly. 

In fact the former farmers are possibly one of the major groups pressing for normalisation so they can get their money more quickly.

Mr Robertson’s strongly expressed views that while aid is important, and Britain does give aid to its former empire in Africa, the growth of trade, investment and business ties are perhaps more important will strike a strong chord in Zimbabwe.

Business ties are more permanent and can quite easily outstrip aid when it comes to helping African countries accelerate their growth so that they can meet the goals of their people. In the end, as Africa grows richer, trade relations will dominate relations with other countries outside the continent, and that is how it should be.

But politics can also oil the wheels, and here Mr Robertson wants to use his access and influence to talk to the two relevant British ministers on his return. 

This is helpful, as among other factors what Zimbabwe really wants is to be treated as a normal country, not some special case. 

Its whole foreign policy has been built under the Second Republic on engagement and re-engagement, so that normal relations are possible and Zimbabwean and foreign businesses can trade and work together for everyone’s benefit.

The Westminster Africa Business Group delegation will now doubt be seeing a wide range of Zimbabweans in Government and the private sector, as well as having a good look at how the new systems designed to make investment and business as easy as possible work in practice, so they can make a sensible report on their return.

The Government has already opened its doors to the delegation and presumably the private sector and their independent representative organisations will be doing likewise. Considering the sort of influence exercised by a British grouping that brings together British politicians interested in expanding their country’s trade, and British businesses that are already active in Africa, we would expect most Zimbabweans of influence to be fairly excited.

The re-establishment, or the growth, in British and Zimbabwean trade and other relations will never return to the sort of near monopoly that Britain once held here, but the more business we can do with more countries will accelerate the growth we have been seeing in the last few years.

We need to remember that when trade grows there are two winners, one each end of every single transaction, since trade and business deals cannot be imposed. Both parties to every deal need to win, and improved business relations between Britain and Zimbabwe will allow more of these win-win deals to take place.

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