Still new in my job I was a mute number two beside my boss in the second row of the Rainbow Tourist Group’s annual general meeting. In row one sat Nasty Nick van Hoogstraten. Nasty Nick is notorious back home in Britain for conducting his business violently (with a grenade through a window) or allegedly violently (with hired hit men committing murder). He’d managed to get himself into a position, by stumping up a large amount of cash to underwrite a rights issue, in which he believed he was owed a portion of Rainbow Group shares that had found their way into the hands of a shady Jewish consortium who’d made their money in Romania.
With the votes attached to his remaining shares Nasty Nick attempted to block all but one of the motions proposed. He called the Jewish non-executive director an illegally elected carpet bagger. The representative holding the shares for the National Indigenisation Trust told Nasty Nick that a white man like him should jolly well pipe down and remember who’s in charge now (not, I think, implying the Jews). Nasty Nick’s chummy relationship with the old man Mugabe didn’t appear to carry any weight this time, because in an easily won proxy vote the government’s block of shares went with the Jewish director and the rest of the board and against van Hoogstraten. Nasty Nick vowed to see them all in court.
It begs the question quite what is going on in Zimbabwe when such corporate shenanigans generate such heat. I mean, I thought this was a country with no economy left.
It clearly isn’t. At a lunch a week before with some financial friends the announcement in the Herald, the propagandist government paper, that an ‘indigenisation’ bill was on its way caused a ripple of concern. But a ripple only, because talk of such a bill has come to nothing before. This time, though, word was that it had gone through parliament and was just awaiting the old man’s sign-off, or had got his sign-off and was just waiting to go through parliament…With no idea whether the Herald was on this occasion the voice of Zanu-PF, or exercising its well honed ability for utter fabrication, this bit of news was after all still a rumour. What ‘facts’ there were amounted to the probable requirement that all companies would have to be 51% indigenously owned. There was confusion over definitions. Whilst, as far as it could be fathomed at all, the bill was explicit in its use of the term ‘indigenous’, the word ‘local’ had also been bandied about. For the white Zimbabweans I was having lunch with, although not for Nasty Nick, this, of course, would make the world of difference. The point was made, not for the first time, that when in such cases the word indigenous is employed, what it really means is black. Historically shifting populations anywhere render the word indigenous pretty defunct.
A certain amount of satisfaction was evidently taken in accusing Mugabe’s men of racism, but the conversation quickly moved on to practicalities. Would ‘51% of companies’ end up being expanded to include trusts, what about property? One of my lunch companions, to avoid some previous piece of legislation or the threat of it, had established a company, as a ‘front’, which owned all his property. Would he need to make plans to install a dummy team to take over 51%?
What struck me over lunch then, and observing the Rainbow Group hoo-ha, was that among an awful lot of Zimbabweans the economic and political situation as written about in the west is regarded completely without dramatic sensation. Of course, I’m in the capital, and in the case of that lunchtime and that AGM my companions were Hararean money men – stock brokers and deal makers for whom the current bull market is reaping rewards. (The stock market is for many the preferred form of investment since saving cash is clearly crazy and for other assets, like property, you need US dollars and anyway will probably be outbid by an aid worker or expat.) But they were not all party men, nor callous profiteers (except maybe Nasty Nick), nor the kind of people who if the country was about to enter its self destructive apogee you’d expect to remain ignorant. Despite the economic situation and the indigenisation rumblings, business in Harare is not in a state of panic.
It remains to be seen if Nasty Nick will have his way with those Rainbow Tourist Group shares. But interesting, nonetheless, that in a country whose economy is reportedly on its knees there should be such an impassioned fuss over who owns a small portion of shares in one of its hotel chains.