FORGET smart partnership and South-South cooperation, a new form of colonialism is developing in Zimbabwe although this time around it has nothing to do with territorial occupation. Chinese entrepreneurs ar
e dumping their substandard goods on Zimbabwe — from clothes and toys to toilet tissues.
Over the past four years, Zimbabwe has been trying to strengthen its relations with countries in the Far East after its fallout with the West. This has seen Zimbabwe struggling to consolidate its partnerships with China and other Asian tigers.
President Robert Mugabe is battling to promote his “Look East” policy in a bid to find new trading partners as traditional Western economic ties show signs of severe strain.
Taking a cue from the president’s call, business trips have been organised to China, Singapore and Malaysia to promote new trade links. However, this policy has so far largely succeeded in reducing Zimbabwe to a dumping site, especially of Chinese products.
Chinese entrepreneurs are taking up office space and retail outlets and have opened restaurants in residential areas. In the Harare CBD some butcheries have been converted to retail use.
Shoes, electrical goods and clothing are the main products entering the country. Others include toothpaste, toothbrushes, pencils, pens and toys.
As a result, Zimbabwe’s retail and manufacturing sectors are battling to survive under a flood of substandard Chinese products that are being dumped on the Zimbabwe market.
Analysts say if this influx continues it will force many local manufacturing and retail outlets out of business. This could lead to massive retrenchments as companies battle to survive due to loss of market share that has been taken by Chinese products.
Over the past three years, Chinese outlets have mushroomed in Harare’s central business district and in the process marginalised local firms.
It’s a new form of colonialism, the analysts say.
The government believes that the new strategy is paying dividends.
Recently it received tractors from China and last year Malaysians promised Zimbabwe large quantities of fuel after Mugabe’s visit.
Despite the well-publicised promise which was supposed to see supplies transported via Beira, nothing has so far materialised.
Also the Chinese government has promised to support the land reform. Businesspeople in Zimbabwe have however remained sceptical of the initiative. They argue that the relationship is lopsided.
Their claims have been proven right if the current situation is anything to go by. Asian products have invaded the market.
Independent economic commentator Eric Bloch said the country was yet to benefit from the policy shift.
“I don’t believe that we have really benefited from the Asian products, especially from China. There has been some limited investment in the form of bricks and other things but the country has been flooded with low quality products which have prejudiced our industry,” he said.
“We are unable to compete with these products because they are heavily-subsidised,” he said. “What is happening is that Zimbabwe has been recolonised through these Asian products.”
Since holding the disputed 2000 and 2002 parliamentary and presidential elections the Zimbabwe government has been pushing for business with the Asian tigers.
During the opening of the Fifth Session of parliament this year, Mugabe reiterated the need for the country to do business with the Asian bloc.
One of the major problems that has been cited with products from Asia is lack of durability.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions acting secretary-general Colleen Gwiyo is not at all pleased with the influx of products from the East, which he says has led to widespread worker exploitation.
“Most of the workers who work for these Asian orgnisations are paid very low wages. Government is to blame for this crisis,” he said.
“For some strange reason they just opened up markets under the guise of economic liberalisation yet they do not know the effects.”
Gwiyo said some of the industries affected by the influx of products from Asia are leather and textiles.
“The disturbing thing is that most of these products do not last more than two months. Most of the products only have a shelf life of two months, whilst others last for a month.”
Despite the outcry from labour, business and the general populace, Mugabe’s Industry and International Trade minister Samuel Mumbengegwi says the concerns are not justified.
He argues that since consumers are benefiting from the availability of cheap products, concerns by industry can be dismissed.
Black empowerment activist Paddington Japajapa last month wrote a letter of complaint to the portfolio committee on Foreign Affairs, Industry and International Trade on the influx of Asian products and what he termed “human trafficking”.
Japajapa also complained of marriages of convenience by foreigners to obtain resident permits and citizenships.
Japajapa’s letter led to a fact-finding mission by the parliamentary task force which last week said that they were greatly worried about the influx of the Asian products.
Phillip Chiyangwa, the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and trade, refused to comment on the problems industry is facing.
“I cannot comment on that issue because that would be making pre-emptive statements which will not be proper,” he said.
“Once the fact-finding mission is completed I will be able to comment on that matter.”
Under the “Look East” policy Zimbabwe has been given some agricultural equipment in the form of tractors.
A bank economist who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the trading environment between Zimbabwe and the Asian countries was heavily skewed in favour of the latter.
“The problem is that everything has been politicised at the expense of fair trade,” the economist said.
“There is political expediency. Politicians do not care, but I believe local industry is not doing enough to highlight their plight. The greatest shortcoming we have is that parliamentarians are used to rubber-stamp agreements without first doing a proper economic analysis of what the country will get.”
The economist said that the major problem MPs were facing was that most trade agreements only received ratification after they had already been signed.
MDC economic advisor Eddie Cross said Zimbabwe was failing to make use of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to protect her market.
“All we know is that some local products have suffered immensely; these Chinese products are coming into the country at very low prices,” Cross said.
“Most of these products are substandard and these guys are exploiting the vulnerability of the Zimbabwean market. Since China has joined the WTO we should be able to use international trade rules to protect ourselves, but we cannot do that because of the political link between the Zimbabwean government and the Chinese,” he said.