BSR: Business and Human Rights in a Noxious Political Environment


“Osuofia in London”

The tag line for him on social media is Osuofia in London. In the popular Nigerian comedy film, a villager Osuofia travels from his rural home in Nigeria to London where a large inheritance from his deceased brother awaits him. In a case of cultural conflict, Osuofia cuts a confused character in the big city far away from home.

This is the metaphor that a section of Zimbabweans used to caricature new Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema during his recent trip to the US where he attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York before proceeding to the capital Washington D.C. where he met Vice President Kamala Harris. He also met with the heads of the Bretton Woods institutions, among others.

But why mock the leader of a friendly neighbouring country? President Hichilema has not said a bad word about Zimbabwe or its leadership since he took office. He has carried on with the dignity that the office demands. His offence to members of the Zimbabwean establishment, it appears, is his friendship with Zimbabwe’s popular opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, a rival to President Mnangagwa.

When he was recently inaugurated, President Hichilema did something unusual in the region. He invited leaders of opposition parties and Chamisa was one of them. His gesture courted the ire of senior public officers in the Zimbabwean regime. On the day of the inauguration, President Mnangagwa’s spokesman repeated an old jibe that President Hichilema was a “sell-out”. The Osuofia in London caricature is consistent with this anti-Hichilema sentiment which seeks to belittle him.

On the other side is a group that strongly supports the Zambian leader. His success against many odds in the recent elections is seen as a boon for opposition parties. It’s not often that an opposition party beats an incumbent on the continent. His gesture of inviting Chamisa and other opposition leaders to his inauguration was seen as a great positive.

A Kenyan Tourist

A few weeks ago, a Kenyan tourist arrived in Harare. A furore erupted when she reported that some immigration officers at Robert Mugabe International Airport demanded a bribe from her. Many Zimbabweans rallied around her and criticised the government for corruption. It was an embarrassing moment that showcased the scourge of corruption that permeates all layers of Zimbabwean society. However, the government sensed an opportunity to turn that moment of adversity into an advantage. Apologies poured in from government officials and promises were made to “get to the bottom” of the matter.

Soon after, the Kenyan tourist who goes by the name @Kenyansista on social media assumed the unofficial role of tourism ambassador for Zimbabwe. The people who had rallied around her during her predicament began to distance themselves. Her offence, it seems, was that she had become too cosy with the regime which they revile. In their view, she had become a public relations instrument for the regime. The criticism increased when she tweeted from one of Zimbabwe’s old trains, which the government has recently converted for commuter transportation in Harare. Critics thought she was sanitising the regime.

Temperatures soon escalated when she suggested in a tweet that Zimbabwe has 6 television channels. Apparently, she had googled. “I don’t know” would have been a perfectly beautiful answer. Long-suffering Zimbabweans have only ever known one television station, the dour ZBC TV which is owned by the state. It’s an embarrassing situation for one of the first African countries to run a television service now lagging behind the majority on the continent thanks to an unhealthy affinity to authoritarian rule. Google says the government has issued more television licenses and, indeed, there is an internet-based channel ZTN, which is also run by the state. A tourist misrepresenting their sorry situation poured fuel to a raging fire. But the reaction was not one-sided. Some rallied behind the guest, choosing to see past the faux pas and praising her for positively showcasing Zimbabwe’s tourist delights. In their view, the criticism was unwarranted and petty, and it was by people who “hate their country”.

In the middle of a toxic political whirlwind

These two cases present a microcosm of the extreme polarity that exists in Zimbabwean society based on political affiliation. Both President Hichilema and the Kenyan tourist find themselves in the middle of a toxic political whirlwind that has engulfed Zimbabwean society for more than two decades. It’s a political whirlwind that is represented by the two leading political parties: on the one hand, ZANU PF and on the other, the MDC Alliance. This binary view is, of course, not entirely representative of Zimbabwean society. There are smaller groups in between, but they are not as consequential in the greater scheme of things. If anything, they are also caught up in that whirlwind. As the old saying goes, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. You don’t want to be caught between the two giants, and if you’re a guest, you’re best advised to tread with caution.  

On the one hand, if you’re perceived to be aligned to the MDC Alliance, ZANU PF supporters will come after you and as the incumbent, ZANU PF has the advantage of state apparatus to deploy. On the other hand, if you are perceived to be aligned with the ZANU PF regime, the MDC supporters will descend upon you but without the advantage of incumbency, they must resort to other measures which are beyond state control. In this regard, social media is one handy platform. In the past, aggrieved citizens might have written letters to the editor so that newspapers could publish their criticism. They had no control over the output. Radio and television are largely controlled by the state which parrots the ruling party’s propaganda to the exclusion of opposition voices. Now, however, the internet and social media have democratised space and given them a voice. They can tweet. They can blog. They can share information instantly via WhatsApp. And with new avenues like Twitter Spaces, they can organise their own talk-shows where they can question, vent and criticise without any controls. And it is on these theatres that the duels are being staged. 

An argument for boycotts  

Where possible, they can also use boycott as an instrument to register their displeasure. The boycott strategy has courted the ire of opponents. They argue that it hurts businesses and consequently affects workers and the economy in general. But it is not hard to see why the boycott strategy has become a popular tool of expression. In an authoritarian state, it is one of the few forms of expression that opposition supporters can use without the risk of getting arrested. This is an environment in which freedoms to demonstrate and petition are still highly controlled by the state. Under Zimbabwean law, you need permission from the state to hold a demonstration. But you don’t have to seek permission to stage a boycott. A boycott is a passive form of resistance: you do not have to do anything and no authority is going to come to you to demand why you are not buying a particular product or from a certain shop. It is rational for a person to choose the path of least resistance. After all, it is a path that is within one’s control.  

Consider the case of Impala Car Rental. One of its vehicles was allegedly used in the abduction and torture of journalism student Tawanda Muchehiwa last July. The state did nothing to bring perpetrators of those heinous crimes to book, yet another instance of impunity. Student leader Takudzwa Ngadziore and his peers went to demonstrate at the company’s premises. They were arrested by the police and kept in custody for long periods. Their cases are still pending in court. There was also a call to boycott Impala Car Rental. It had several clients in civil society and development organisations. Some withdrew their business from the car rental company in response to the call for a boycott. Its ratings fell drastically. No one has been arrested for boycotting it. You demonstrate and you get arrested. You boycott and there is no ground to arrest you. In the circumstances, it should not surprise anyone that boycotting is a preferred way of political expression in an authoritarian regime.

The trouble with boycotts

A stronger argument against the boycott strategy is that it is often selective and targets the smaller and weaker entities. The larger and equally offensive players are harder to boycott and get away with it and to that extent, it may be regarded as weak. Besides, Zimbabwe has a shrinking economy that is increasingly dominated by a few big businesses, some of which have a ZANU PF footprint. You would be hard-pressed to find a Zimbabwean who has not bought or used products that do not have a ZANU PF footprint during their lifetime. Take ZIDCO Holdings for example. It is the holding company for ZANU PF’s businesses and in its heyday had investments in vast areas of the Zimbabwe economy. One of those companies was National Blankets, which was the leading manufacturer of blankets in Zimbabwe. Another was Jongwe Printers, which was also a large publishing and printing company. It also had a stake in Catercraft, the leading supplier of aircraft catering. There is also FBC, one of the major banks in the country.

If you have built a house in Zimbabwe, chances are that you bought door and window frames from Treger Holdings. If you are a proud owner of a Kango pot or teapot, that too came from Treger Holdings. Ever heard of Monarch Steel, Treger Plastics, Zimbabwe Grain Bag? They too are part of the Treger corporate family. Unbeknown to some people these quintessentially Zimbabwean brands are owned by a company in which ZANU PF has long had a shareholding. Founded in 1911, Treger has stood the test of time, economic challenges, and even the wrangling in ZANU PF and is a major exporter to the region. And here, we are only talking of companies in which ZANU PF has had a direct shareholding since independence. A lot of them are struggling or have become defunct, thanks to mismanagement, corruption, and looting.

However, there are many more big businesses that have contributed to and enabled ZANU PF over the years. Take Meikles for example, the corporate behemoth which owned the iconic Meikles Hotel in central Harare for over a century and has stakes in the ubiquitous Pick & Pay supermarket chain. In 2013, Meikles chairman, John Moxon was reported to have bought several vehicles for ZANU PF’s election campaign. Whenever ZANU PF is holding its Congress or party conference, it routinely calls on local businesses to make financial and other contributions. Most of them pay silently.

The point here is that it is hard to find a business in Zimbabwe that has never done ZANU PF a favour and if the boycott strategy were to be applied generally the average Zimbabwean. While some are enthusiastic contributors that support ZANU PF, for the rest it is not a matter of choice but a question of survival in an authoritarian environment. To their credit, some of them might occasionally support the opposition but it would be suicidal for them to make this public. In some cases, businesses pursue a strategy of hedging their bets: they deliberately support both sides so that they are on the good side of whoever wins an election. This is not new. One prominent businessman, Nicholas van Hoogstraten told The Guardian newspaper in 2000 that he had supported both Mugabe and Nkomo’s parties during the liberation struggle. “I gave Zanu-PF five thousand here and five thousand there, a lot of money in those days. I also used to pay for Nkomo’s hotel bills when he was in London, but I stopped that when his side brought down a civilian airliner,” he told The Guardian. Some businessmen still do the same today, it’s only that the players have changed.

These political donations are part of the reason why doing business in Zimbabwe is expensive because they are effectively taxes on top of normal taxes. A few years ago, some business executives tried to host a business indaba to which both Mnangagwa and Chamisa were invited. It was an audacious bridge-building effort by the business sector. They were reportedly frustrated by the regime. Instead of being commended, they spent a long period apologising as if they had committed an offence. It is therefore not because business leaders do not support the opposition but because they have learned from past experiences that it is harmful to their businesses to be publicly associated with the opposition. This means whatever support they offer, whether, in terms of ideas, strategy, or financial, must be silent. 

Risk of alienating silent allies

Unfortunately, because of its discreet nature, this support to the opposition is neither seen nor heard by the multitudes of opposition supporters. They only see the public displays when it involves ZANU PF and this inevitably leads to a one-sided bashing spree. Unbeknown to those doing the bashing, this is to ZANU PF’s delight because it creates a chasm between those businesses and the opposition party. This is the reason why the moment the system identifies a business that appears to have an opposition footprint, it swiftly moves in for a takeover. Opposition supporters who are not well-versed with the complexities and nuances of doing business in Zimbabwe play right not the hands of ZANU PF when they go an orgy of abuse. The risk is that such conduct pushes away allies who are otherwise silently working in the background to assist an organisation whose official sources of funding have been shut down by the authoritarian regime. A person will say, why should I make a silent contribution to this organisation when its supporters lynch me like this?

A Mafia-regime

In the past, I have used the metaphor of the Mafia to understand the way ZANU PF operates. It is appropriate in this context to demonstrate the challenges that are faced by a business operating in an authoritarian environment. The Capo di tutti Capi is the Boss of all bosses. He sits at the top of the food chain. He has the Consigliere, who is his chief adviser. Below him is the Underboss who has several Capo Regime (Capo or Captain) under him. The Capo Regime has Soldiers (Saldato) under their charge and finally the Associates at the bottom of the food chain. Those at the bottom are the foot soldiers who do the collections, and whatever is collected is passed up the food chain right up to the Boss. They have their spheres of operation, and few can afford to refuse compliance.

Businesses operating in Zimbabwe are soon made aware of the rules of the game. When ZANU PF comes calling, they have very little choice but to comply. Those who intend to do business are also subjected to similar demands. Former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki once raised the issue with President Mugabe: some of Zimbabwe’s ministers were soliciting bribes from prospective investors seeking to establish a business in the country. In the 1990s it was reported that Mugabe had a falling out with one of his senior ministers who had collected a large amount of campaign funding from Tiny Rowland, a wealthy British businessman of the Lonrho business empire. Apparently, the senior minister passed on the funds to Mugabe but kept some for himself. 

One of the tools used to extract funds from businesses is tax. If you refuse to contribute, the system simply checks the tax records. Operating in a tough business environment, there is every chance that there is something amiss at ZIMRA. It’s a form of kompromat. The threat of jail for executives or a heavy penalty is a sufficient nudge to comply. The foreign currency shortages also provide another opportunity for weaponization. Given the scarcity of foreign currency, many businesses must rely on the illegal parallel market. The illegality places them at the mercy of the state. The regime simply makes it known to the business that it has violated the laws of the land and if it does not comply the sword will fall upon it. In this way, an adverse situation is turned into an advantage.

Licencing is another rent-seeking opportunity. To operate in a regulated sector, a business must acquire or renew a licence from the state. Again, should a business refuse to comply with the demands of the ruling party, it might as well kiss goodbye to any chances of getting or renewing the licence. Finally, public contracts present another opportunity for the regime to emasculate business. Large public contracts must go to tender. If the business does not play ball, it will never get a public contract. Those that get public contracts must pay some tribute otherwise it will be withdrawn, or they might never get a similar contract again in the future.

These things happen because of the corrupt environment that flourishes in an authoritarian state. It does not matter how large the business might be. A business must choose between compliance with the demands, which aids the regime, or defiance, which might result in collapse. Most take the path of compliance. This makes many businesses enablers of authoritarianism. But there is one way in which they might mitigate the risk of totally enabling the regime. It is to offer support to the other side privately. It should never be known because the consequences will be worse than a refusal to comply.

Tough grilling

Take the case of HotPlate Grill, which has been highly topical this week after it “donated” a restaurant to President Mnangagwa’s wife’s charity, Angel of Hope. HotPlate Grill has suffered charges of enabling the regime in the court of public opinion. Others have defended it. But just like the examples of President Hichilema and the Kenyan tourist, the young business has been caught up in the whirlwind of Zimbabwe’s highly polarised politics. Few of the participants in the public debates seem to have seriously considered and appreciated the political nuances of the saga. Some might say HotPlate Grill made its bed and must therefore lie in it. They might argue that this is a case of a public relations strategy backfiring spectacularly.

The company drew attention from its promotional campaign. The strong social media campaign was designed to promote its business and it seemed to be working very well. It did so by riding on the popularity of “good causes” represented by large social media accounts. It offered “free meals” to individuals chosen by these accounts. The most prominent were aligned or perceived to be aligned to the opposition. The business took the spotlight when it offered free meals via Hopewell Chin’ono whom the Mnangagwa regime regards as a thorn in its flesh. It was then that members of the regime took greater interest and asked for similar favours. It did not help that the Brand Ambassador was @LynneStactia, another vocal critic of the regime. I suspect things only got worse when they asked me to promote their brand.

As pressure mounted, the business began to include more individuals aligned to the ruling party. But that was not enough to assuage the concerns of the regime. The only way was to take over and remove the footprint of anything remotely critical of the government. The restaurant donation is the equivalent of the proverbial “poison pill” in a corporate takeover bid. A “poison pill” is when a target company in a takeover bid does something to make itself unattractive to the bidding company. In this case, the ZANU PF association with HotPlate Grill renders it unattractive to those who had aligned with it in the past. Unsurprisingly, the Brand Ambassador stood down, itself an expression of disapproval. But even if she had not departed, she would have been pushed. It did not help that ZANU PF apparatchiks celebrated the takeover, with the presidential spokesperson sloganeering #EDpfee! as a sign of victory. All the effort that the business had put in to build its brand significantly diminished in one day. Interestingly, while critics of those calling for a boycott accuse them of politicising the issue, they are mum when ZANU PF characters are making it plain that it is a political victory.

I have already highlighted the challenges of using the boycott strategy in an environment as small as Zimbabwe where ZANU PF’s footprint is ubiquitous. If applied generally, people might find that they must abandon more than 90 percent of the economic players, which creates practical challenges. I have also shown why an indiscriminate application of the boycott strategy might have unintended consequences such as alienating businesses that are also quietly supporting the party in the background. This does not mean I discount it as a strategy of political expression. I have already shown that applied on a case-by-case basis, it is a legitimate and effective form of political expression. If it were not effective, its opponents would not be vehement in their opposition to it. They would simply ignore it because it is useless.

Re-framing the Boycott strategy

In my view, there is another way to frame the boycott strategy beyond the political frame. It can be framed in economic terms as a market reaction within the context of market forces. If Shop X acquires notoriety for selling stale bread, consumers will probably abandon it in favour of an alternative, assuming it is available. No one forces consumers to buy bread from Shop X or to abandon it. Consumers are rational agents who can make choices based on a calculation of the costs and benefits. You do not need a higher authority to tell you that the costs of buying stale bread are too high and unacceptable.

Likewise, whether individuals want to patronise a restaurant and a car rental company is down to their judgment based on the things that matter to them. If they believe torture is unacceptable and they do not want to associate with a business that is involved in torture, and if they can afford to live with the costs of disassociation, they will boycott it. But where the costs of disassociating are impossibly high, the boycott strategy will not work, and they might have to use other methods. For example, it is impossible to boycott petrol in Zimbabwe because one company, Greenfuel, has a near-monopoly of supplying ethanol. The fact that it is closely associated with and probably supports the regime might be disgusting, but the costs of boycotting it are prohibitive. Those who are appalled by its conduct will have to find other methods of resistance. 

I have tried in this article to present a balanced account that takes into consideration the concerns of citizens and the challenges that businesses operating in Zimbabwe face. The greatest lesson, I hope, is that nothing, in this case, is straightforward and it is better to take a critical approach on a case-by-case basis. Our major problem arises from the polarised nature of our political environment. One’s rightness or wrongfulness is based on which side of the political divide you are located. President Hichilema is attacked by ruling party supporters because he is friendly to Chamisa and the MDC Alliance. The Kenyan tourist is attacked by opposition supporters because of perceptions that she is doing a PR campaign for the regime. Opposition supporters are unhappy that HotPlate Grill is now associating with the regime while regime supporters are celebrating that HotPlate Grill is now associating with the regime. Our problem lies in the toxic polarisation of politics and the pettiness that accompanies it.

Tiny Rowland v Donald Trelford

I wish to end this BSR with a historical note that lends weight to the need to respect fundamental rights and freedoms ahead of business interests. The New York Times called it “London Duel: Business v Journalism”.

Sometime in 1984, Donald Trelford who was editor of The Observer newspaper in Britain travelled to Zimbabwe, which was just 4 years into independence. The Observer newspaper, a pillar of British journalism, had been acquired by Lonrho, the huge business empire chaired by R. W. Rowland or Tiny Rowland as he was popularly known. Tiny Rowland had huge business interests in Zimbabwe and had strategically supported the black nationalists during the struggle for independence.

Upon his return from his trip to Zimbabwe, Trelford wrote a landmark story describing the serious and egregious human rights violations that were taking place in Matebeleland. Described as “tribal slaughter”, Trelford described the widespread killings that were being committed by the Fifth Brigade. This dark episode of Zimbabwe’s history is widely referred to as Gukurahundi.

Tiny Rowland was furious with his editor, as this story in the New York Times recounts. He immediately wrote a letter to the then Zimbabwean Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe according to the New York Times “apologizing for the reports, criticizing them and disassociating himself and his company from them”. “I take full responsibility,” Tiny Rowland is quoted as having written, “for what in my view was discourteous, disingenuous and wrong in the editor of a serious paper, widely read in Africa”.

When the letter arrived in Harare, it was made public by the government and Mugabe launched a diatribe against foreign journalists, accusing them of reporting falsehoods to tarnish the image of his young government.

Trelford, on the other hand, was unapologetic. ”I stand by every word that I wrote,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. ”I have my job to do, which is to tell the truth. Mr. Rowland feels he has his job to do, which is to protect his company’s commercial interests in Zimbabwe. I shall publish exactly what I want to publish in the way of news and political comment, and I will not be intimidated by the sort of intimidation that is coming forward at the moment.”

The clash was between business interests and journalistic freedom. One man was on bended knees to the Zimbabwean regime to protect business interests. The other man was just doing his job, to tell the truth. There is no prize for guessing whom between the two men has been vindicated by the faithful hand of history. But imagine if more attention had been paid to Trelford’s work? Imagine how many lives might have been saved? Perhaps the course of history might have been different. Unfortunately, business interests trumped journalism and human rights. And here is the question: have we learned anything from history? 

And on that learning moment, this BSR must conclude.