Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe File picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Johannesburg -

A couple of weeks before President Robert Mugabe’s state visit to South Africa, which begins on Tuesday, Zimbabwe’s foreign affairs ministry delivered a letter to the private sector begging it to fund a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Harare at the end of this month.

The letter was sent out after the government reportedly decided – at the last minute – against asking South Africa to host the SADC summit on industrialisation which begins on April 26. Participating heads of state and government will attend on April 29.

Mugabe, 91, is the current chairman of SADC and also of the AU.

These honours are obligations which some economic analysts in Harare say Zimbabwe cannot afford.

Zimbabwe’s Independent newspaper published details of the letter last week, written by foreign affairs secretary Joey Bimha to bankers: “As you are aware, preparations for hosting of the SADC Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government are progressing… Please find attached our proposal for possible areas of funding which your organisation may assist.”

The letter to the Bankers Association asked for “resource mobilisation” of R700 000 in cash to host the conference, and funding for 1 200 T-shirts, 40 000 “units” of mineral water, 42 000l of fuel, 500 “units” of beverages, and conference clothing for about 200 aides, such as drivers and ushers.

Some analysts believe Mugabe may ask President Jacob Zuma to help fund the industrialisation summit. Another reason for the state visit, some say, is that Mugabe is looking for South Africa and Namibia to sign an SADC trade protocol – which has been two years in the making – that would commit funds (from South Africa at least) towards industrialisation of all member states. Both countries say they are looking for some guarantees in the protocol.

At the SADC summit in Victoria Falls last year, Mugabe said: “We want a reciprocal relationship where we sell to each other and are not just receiving products from one source.”

He called on South Africa to help the region industrialise.

Latest statistics show that Zimbabwe imports about R28 billion in goods and services from South Africa, while exports from Zimbabwe are worth only R2bn.

Zimbabwe spends more than 80 percent of government revenue on its public service wage bill, with a shrinking tax base. Most indigenous banks closed in the last year, and Zimbabwe’s mining sector has been hit by lowering commodity prices.

“We expect Mugabe to get some relief from his meetings with Zuma,” said a Harare merchant banker who asked not to be named for professional reasons.

Although Zuma was critical of Mugabe during the SADC mediation period, those days are seen as “history” now.

“Previously, Mbeki helped Zimbabwe out financially on a couple of occasions, so it looks as if Mugabe does understand that Zimbabwe is broke and he is looking for help from Zuma.”

He said Mugabe would continue to repeat that US “sanctions” are the main reason the economy is shrinking. “We understand South Africans pretty much understand the real problem with the economy, but some of us expect Zuma will find a way of helping out with some costs towards Zimbabwe’s role as chair of the AU and SADC.”

South African officials said this week they were not aware of any request for direct financial assistance that Mugabe might make.

They did point out that the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Industrial Development Corporation were already financing infrastructure projects in Zimbabwe through loans. These were mainly to improve major roads, which would also benefit South Africa as some would improve corridors across the continent.

They added that Mugabe was bringing a business delegation to meet South African business executives who would make sure the Zimbabweans got the message that they have to create a more attractive environment for investment. That would include reassurances about the Indigenisation Act, which requires all foreign investors to cede at least 51 percent ownership to black Zimbabweans. It is probably the largest obstacle to investment.

Mugabe will arrive on Tuesday, on board one of Air Zimbabwe’s 767-200Rs , which is more or less his personal plane these days, with about 45 ministers, senior civil servants and aides.

His wife Grace, 49, is expected to accompany him. She emerged back into the public eye last Thursday at a Zanu-PF politburo meeting where former vice-president Joice Mujuru was expelled from the party she joined as a teenager.

Some media reports speculated that Grace had colon cancer. But she looked well in photographs released this week.

Mugabe said she had her appendix out while on holiday in Singapore in January, and her husband said there had then been complications. Early in March he said she was still recovering from that surgery and then she was not seen again until last week.

Grace played the key role last year in the dismissal of Mujuru from her post as Zimbabwe’s first female vice-president.

She accused Mujuru of plotting a coup to end her husband’s 35-year rule.

With information from his wife, Mugabe went on to accuse Mujuru of stripping naked with Nigerian sangomas to create spells against him.Mujuru has largely remained quiet in the flood of extraordinary accusations in the Zanu-PF dominated media.

Sunday Independent