On Friday last week the Sadc region as a whole mounted a coordinated protest against the European and American-targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe. I am a veteran of the United Nations (UN) mandatory sanctions programme mounted against Rhodesia after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. Although it is a long time ago, the programme was one of the toughest set of sanctions ever imposed by the UN on a delinquent State. The sanctions were absolute on trade, financial transactions and movement. They were reinforced by an armed blockade of the main port of the country at Beira in Mozambique.

I was a junior economist with the Agricultural Marketing Authority which was at the time the largest business organisation in the country. Because of my political views at the time as a well-known activist, I was regarded as a security risk by the government and the Minister of Justice called for me to be dismissed from the authority because of our key role in sanctions. Fortunately for me the chairman of the board refused to do so. In the next 12 years, we battled sanctions as agriculture generated half of all exports. We were involved in about US$1,5 billion of foreign trade per year. It is a great pity that so many who were involved in that exercise are no longer with us as it would have made a marvellous story. Their ingenuity and enterprise was amazing and we had people in the authority with global connections and who spoke a dozen languages. Most of the records of that era were destroyed at Independence in 1980. We built alternative infrastructure in record time and we used many different routes and means of delivering our products and returning the funds generated therefrom, to our local banks.

Despite the effort put into the sanctions, Rhodesia thrived. Import substitution grew the industrial sector and after three years agriculture was back to full production — only more diversified. Despite the sanctions, the Rhodesian dollar maintained its value against other currencies. Although the authorities were proud of the secrecy in which these sanction-busting efforts were being made, I now know that the major Western nations knew pretty much what we were doing. Even the Soviets played along and when we were caught with millions of dollars of exports in Maputo in 1975 after then Mozambican leader Samora Machel closed the border. It was the Russians who bought the whole lot for cash and eventually we were paid.

Apart from the cynicism of any sanctions, in the end it was not sanctions that brought change to both Rhodesia and South Africa. In the end it was the liberation war plus brute political force on the part of the United States that ended the Ian Smith regime. In South Africa it was the UK Premier Margaret Thatcher government that simply threatened to force the country out of global financial systems that finally the National Party decided that they had to accept change. What the UN underestimated when they tried to make the Rhodesians change by imposing sanctions, was the strength of relationships across the world and the fact that the regime in Salisbury had many friends and sympathisers in many places. They also underestimated the response of the private sector who, when pushed against the wall, fought for survival. In the process, contrary to their stated objectives, many local individuals made a fortune in the process and were certainly not in favour of any changes.

The new Zimbabwe government was no angel of light. In a savage campaign from 1983 to 1987, they committed genocide against the supporters of the only effective opposition in the form of Zapu. Tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands fled the country for safety. The West, not one of them, took any action and turned a blind eye to the whole shameful episode. From 1987 to 1997, the Robert Mugabe regime simply crushed any opposition and maintained a one-party State that brooked no opposition and rapidly became one of the most corrupt and dictatorial States in Africa.

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Throughout this period, Western criticism of Mugabe and his colleagues was at best, muted. It was only when the trade unions took to the field and created the Movement for Democratic Change and began to agitate for the dismantling of the one-party State and the adoption of a new Constitution, that the basic structure of Zimbabwean politics began to change. Few Western governments made any effort to help this fledgling movement that was almost entirely made up of the poor and disadvantaged. A British NGO made a grant to the MDC of $100 000 and the British government nearly fell over themselves trying to distance themselves from the grant. But by 2002 it was becoming obvious to everyone that the MDC was here to stay and that they were, almost single-handedly, dismantling the one-party State system at the cost of hundreds of their supporters and many of their leaders. In a belated attempt to help, Western States imposed targeted sanctions on some 200 individuals and companies with a demand that the Zanu PF regime adopts reforms that would in fact commit them to political suicide in the struggle with the MDC.

That was never going to happen, but instead of helping the MDC with the struggle and in its campaigns during regular elections on an uneven playing field, they maintained their ”principled stand” that they were not giving support to any opposition party.

Just as the Rhodesians had made a mockery of UN sanctions, the sanctions imposed on the Zanu PF regime were more of a nuisance than a real deterrent to delinquent behaviour. Instead, the Mugabe regime intensified its efforts to crush opposition and the casualties of the internal political struggle mounted. To be frank, anyone understanding the power play here and the mismatch of forces in the field would have known that change could only come when the regime itself decided that this was essential to its own survival. That came in November 2017 and the people poured out onto the streets in mass celebration following Mugabe’s ouster in a military coup.

But the change was in no way due to the sanctions programme now 15 years old — three years longer than the UN programme. The government, newly elected and recognised, lost no time in outlining that they knew exactly what was needed to regain entry to global markets and access to the clubs that control world trade, only to discover that the internal forces that had helped with the change in 2017, were now opposed to any real changes in the way the country was being run.

In one respect, I have to say that the current government’s view that sanctions are damaging is not ill founded. They may be targeted as we hear repeatedly, but those of us who are in business know all too well the cost. While the countries of the Far East have been able to trade freely with the rest of the world and borrow massive sums of money from international markets at very low interest rates, Zimbabweans have had to constantly battle with what is seen as country risk which as any analysis will tell you is partly influenced by the financial restrictions the major countries in the West use against those with whom they have disagreement.

Our banks are, in the majority, denied normal relationships with international banks and any money transfer of over US$5 000 is monitored by the US authorities. The recent unilateral imposition of a fine on our largest bank of US$300 million is just one more example of this bullying activity.

We cannot hope to compete or to grow our economy until such constraints are removed and the main casualty of this process is not those targeted, but the poor and the marginalised. The very people who have fought a brave and tough campaign to end the one-party State and bring us back to democracy under a half decent Constitution. If he had lived to this day, MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai would have joined forces with those who have argued for a change in strategy by the West. Have sanctions changed Cuba one iota? No! Former US President Barack Obama was right by opening up Cuba to trade and tourism, change would inevitably come to Cubans — who in the meantime are able to make a better living.

Sanctions are a blunt instrument that seldom produces change in the countries so targeted. One thing history tells us is that opening up societies and raising living standards and building up the middle class is a better way.

 Eddie Cross is a local economist and writes here in his personal capacity