Award winning author Petina Gappah, who is also a former advisor in the Office of the President and Cabinet, believes that President Emmerson Mnangagwa must step out of late president Robert Mugabe’s shadow and become his own man.
Gappah (PG) told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that Mnangagwa’s presidency should not be an imitation of his predecessor’s style.
She felt that the president should connect more with the people and find his own style. Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: Fantastic, congratulations for amazing work. You have made Zimbabwe proud working at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) between 2007 and 2018 doing amazing work there and I always wonder: what is it like to work in a functioning institution, in a functioning society when home does not look that great?
PG: Actually that is one biographical fact that a lot of people get wrong. I worked in Geneva from 1999 to 2015, but I did not work for the WTO the whole time. I worked for the WTO for the first three years and then for the rest of the time I worked for an organisation called the Advisory Centre for the WTO, which supports more than 70 developing countries from Latin America, Caribbea, Africa and Asia in the trade policy work and so it was a wonderful opportunity to develop my competence as a trade lawyer, which is one of the biggest passions of my life, but you know you ask a very important question, it is a sense that I think many diaspora Zimbabweans feel and I call it the state of permanent heartbreak.
I felt that my heart was always aching because I was working in these, what you said, functional organisations where every day is predictable and back home in Zimbabwe, it was not functional in any meaningful way and if you are privileged enough to have enjoyed the kind of education that I did, to have the kind of experience that I got, you naturally tend to ask question, ‘what can I do’ about my own disfunctioning country?
TN: Did that lead you to accept the appointment in December 2017 to July 2018 to be the external consultant, advisor on treasury investment law and policy in the Office of the President and Cabinet?
PG: Yes and no. And honestly it was the most accidental thing to have happened. November 2017 happened and there was that transition and there was all that optimism and all that hope and naturally I was one of the hopeful and optimistic people. I came home for Christmas in December 2017 and now ambassador Christian Katsande — he was then deputy chief secretary in the OPC — learnt that I was in Zimbabwe. What people do not know is that I have always worked with government in an informal capacity with all our ambassadors in Geneva giving advice sometimes informal and other times formally through the African group.
I have always given advice on trade law and policy in one way or the other.
So Ambassador Katsande learns that I am in Zimbabwe and he asks if can do a concept paper to guide the participation of the president at Davos.
So I stay up all night to do a concept paper and what I think the message should be and how best to take advantage of the incredible opportunity, to announce a new investment policy.
He reads it the next morning and says would you like to come and assist us and that is how it began, as accidental as that.
The one condition that I had was that it was not right for the president to go out to the world and talk about a new investment policy before consulting Zimbabweans who are in business.
So I said the first thing we needed to do was have an investment conference in Zimbabwe and so we did that and we had about 200 people and it was extremely well-received and then we realised that the three women we had asked to speak on the different panels were unable to come and it was looking increasingly embarrassing to have all these men on the panels and then Ambassador Katsande said to me, ‘you should say something,’ and so I was actually the last speaker with Lance Mambondiyani.
I looked around the room and there were businesspeople and there was the president and vice-president and I thought here was my opportunity to say something that I have always wanted to say.
So I tore into government policy, communications and policy inconsistencies and I thought people would be extremely uncomfortable, but actually that is the thing that made them want to work with me.
I understand that the president afterwards said she needs to actually come to Davos and not just do the concept paper and that is how I ended up working for the OPC.
TN: What were the highlights in the OPC for you?
PG: It is something that I always knew because as I said I was sort of on the periphery of government for a very long time but there are some very impressive people in government and in the civil service. Some incredibly impressive people on the individual level, but the system lets them down. We have a systemically dysfunctional government. The most frustrating thing is that every decision is a collective decision and so it’s meeting after meeting, after meeting. Trevor, there is no bigger waste of time than meetings.
TN: I hate meetings.
PG: You do not achieve anything with meetings and another dysfunctional area is in the communications whether, it’s internal or external communications.
Let me just talk about internal communications, you have things like there are no templates really and so a letter will look different depending on who typed it up. You know the fonts will look different depending on who has typed it up and that might seem like a small thing but it’s all part of presenting an organisation that is functioning and then of cause the internal communication between ministries and even departments is not always what it should be. Then of course there is the external communications you know, which I believe to be an absolute disaster. It’s no secret that I had many arguments with some, otherwise very good and competent people in government on the use of propaganda for instance.
I do not think the use of propaganda is particularly helpful in a time when you have social media and every person is potentially a journalist.
You cannot manipulate messages in the same way that you could when you were controlling the one and only permanent television station.
TN: You know, on that point, I don’t know what you think about this, I think there is a difference between lies and propaganda. Propaganda is sophisticated manipulation of information and lies is a person lying to people thinking that its propaganda, what is your response to that?
PG: I do not like propaganda at all and I do not like manipulation of information at all. I like an approach that is called strategic communication, which is that you tell the truth about your situation and if your situation is bad, you apologise for it and you explain it but you do not lie about it, you do not manipulate it. So if something terrible happens, you don’t try to cover it up, you simply confront it and explain it and if necessary apologise for it.
We saw the government of Zimbabwe at its best during Cyclone Idai. The message was clear, what needed to be done was clear. That is what I would like to know because I think that it is an absolute mistake for the government to continue to act as if ZBC is where people get their information, it’s not.
TN: Perhaps communication, from my vantage point, is one of the biggest weaknesses of the current government, what is your take on that?
PG: You know, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what has gone wrong. Communication is just a symptom I think. It’s a symptom of something that is not right. And I think I have got an idea of what it is that has gone wrong and I know people will disagree.
I am sure this section of this interview will be much talked over and maybe even generate what Mthuli [Ncube] called exciting headlines and so on, but I think what fundamentally went wrong was the quick transition.
So currently the government is not on a strong ideological footing. They are trying to find their way and are trying to find out who they are as a government and everything that they have planned and have agreed on, whether it is vision 2030 or this and that, it is all patched up and it is coming top-down without any real buy-in from everyone. I actually learnt something of a shock that there apparently hasn’t been any cabinet retreat of any kind.
You know my field is in trade and if for instance your new policy or new ideological thrust is to open up investment, you have to understand that you cannot be an open business without also being an open society, it’s not possible.
You cannot be open for business and you have police beating people on the streets because those messages, like it or not, will be linked to your open for business approach and people will be asking what country is open for business that projects itself as a place where people can be thumped and beaten up?
TN: Why is that happening? Why the contradiction? We are open for business but we are not an open society? You are beating up people and so forth, explain that to us, why is that happening and why is that a serious contradiction between what government says, what the president says and what happens on the ground?
PG: That is exactly what I was saying that I think there is a misunderstanding that this new ideological thrust has to come with some pain and some sacrifices and it has to come with some real change, real change in terms of the way we were doing things in the past if you want to be open for business, genuinely. Trevor, you have to be an open society which means you cannot have police brutality.
You cannot have soldiers shooting people in broad daylight and to me this seems so obvious but I think there is a disconnect in government and a failure to understand that what you do domestically has a real impact on what you do in terms of your foreign policy.
Everything is connected and so this idea of separation of this is foreign policy and this is domestic policy, this is home affairs business, it doesn’t work anymore.
TN: What if the president believes in the ‘open for business’ mantra and there are certain people in certain areas of his administration that do not believe in open for business and they are the people behind the shooting and beating up of people and so forth. Are there entrenched interests deliberately made to oust the president, what do you think?
PG: I wouldn’t say that there are entrenched interests to oust the president. I would say that as with any system that is trying to change there will always be vested interests. There will always be people who are fearful of change for perhaps ideological reasons and maybe there are people who genuinely believe we are better off with the Chinese or the Russians and that we do not want to open up to the West.
So that is an ideological disagreement right there.
Then there are people who much fear change for very basic material reasons, they might lose their jobs.
You also have to factor in those concerns as well but ultimately Trevor, the buck stops at the top.
So the president needs to understand what change looks like and I think my fear and my disappointment is that I do not think it’s always clear what change looks like and I will go even further and say that it is not possible to have change without change agents and if you yourself are not an agent of change and have been part of the system, then the very least you can do is to bring in fresh blood — to be surrounded by fresh energy.
I have had disagreements with our friend Shingi Munyeza on this issue of women participation for instance.
But one of the things that really propelled Rwanda forward was bringing in women in the government and we haven’t nearly done that in the Zimbabwean government and we haven’t brought in young people into government and for as long as you have the same men, with respect, who have failed, you are really not going to have as much change as you want.
In Conversation with Trevor is brought to you by Titan Law . You can connect via Twitter @ConvoWithTrevor and Youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/InConversationWithTrevor