I’m a better person because of Facebook (we all are)

DebateAP2202_468x355Pretty much anybody I meet I try to friend on Facebook.  I’m friends with my dad, I’m friends with some kids I used to teach, my colleagues, my uni friends, school friends, some people I’ve only ever met once, and I’m sure I’m friends with some people I don’t actually like.

Let me quickly say this is not a post about how you should use Facebook.  There are legitimate conversations to be had about how we should interact with each other online.  But you miss the point if you debate things like how many friends you ‘should’ have on Facebook (what portion of your social graph you should friend).  The internet is almost defined by the fact that we are able to use the tools that emerge in – often unexpected – ways that most suit us. Continue reading I’m a better person because of Facebook (we all are)


A little (Blairite?) optimism about the internet.

Peasants Revolt 1381
Richard II diffuses the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt at Smithfield

The tools that are (really only just) becoming available on the internet have the potential to place the interests of the many, probably for the first time in our history (since the early Medieval period, since…forever?) , on an equal footing with the special interests of the few.

Continue reading A little (Blairite?) optimism about the internet.

The beginning of the end…

I have had a lucky escape and narrowly avoided looking like a wally.  An online magazine had expressed a tentative interest in me writing something on Zimbabwe for them and I’d pitched the title: ‘Why there won’t be a revolution any time soon’.  You may have noted in my last postcard a certain wonderment at the alarmism churned out about the country given that business was then still booming.  I had been forming a point of view that saw the crisis here rolling along indefinitely.


In my defence it might not have been so far off the mark.  The western press have been shrill and this crisis has been going on for an awfully long seven and a half years.  A hyperinflationary economy tends not to be close to meltdown when there’s food on the shelves and power still flows.  Moreover, Zimbabweans usually anticipate a bit of political trouble around now, mid-winter.  The government likes to nip in the bud any grumbling unrest caused by power diverted from homes to wheat production and a spike in the dollar, but things soon return to normality.  And let’s not forget, because my consultancy job here (coming to an end in time for the start of autumn back home) gives me a good view of it, that the Harare Stock Exchange had been on an upward trend pretty consistently since January.  In one day in June it jumped 50%.


Naturally then, it was a bit of a shock to get a call from my boss as I was away on a business trip in Mozambique saying, “Maybe you’d better take your time in returning”.  Things had turned nasty.  Power wasn’t flowing – at least there were several blackouts every day.  The shelves were emptying.  “Damn”, I thought, “There goes that article”.


The cause of all this was a Eureka moment from the old man Mugabe who’d come up with a sure fire way to halt inflation.  He demanded that retailers charge less.  Forget supply and demand.  Forget the cost of your goods.  Slash your prices.  There’s a great rumour about the Price Commission (as sinister and Orwellian as they sound) turning up at a car dealer’s.  They slashed the price for Isuzu twin cab trucks to 15 million Zim dollars and promptly bought up the lot of them.  15 million Zim dollars works out as about fifty quid a car!


Now back in Harare it does look like this time things can’t return to normality.  Some businesses appear to have taken the attitude that if the old man is going to go down this route and force them to sell unprofitably, well, rather than duck and dive through as they have previous troubles, they’ll let their stock be cleaned out and shut up shop.


The result will be, and is already in the first industries to go, that supply chains collapse.  As this happens it will become evident that price-cut-by-edict doesn’t work (oh, really?!) and that the only option left will be nationalisation.  That indigenisation bill I dismissed in my last postcard?  Maybe I am looking like a bit of a wally after all.


All this is not a revolution.  But what it is is the crisis reaching a new stage.  It is likely now, although I’m steering clear of predictions, that this is the beginning of the end.  A period in which confidence won’t bounce back a little in the course of a general decline, but in which things will only get worse.  It might be for six months or a year, but by the end of it Mugabe will have gone.  The best case and probably likeliest scenario being a quiet shove from inside Zanu-PF (accompanied by assurances from the West via South Africa that he won’t end up in the International Criminal Court?).


When he does go the international community has an excuse to start lending the country money again and the inflow of dollars will stall hyperinflation.  Whether the new leader, groomed and enriched in corruption, will have the courage to effect the kind of long term change required is quite another question, but, going by the form of the higher echelons of the party so far, sadly unlikely.

Nasty Nick and the Zimbabwe economy

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.