The Sunday Mail
HE Ambassador Suzanne McCourt
Today, Australia’s chief diplomat in Zimbabwe, Ambassador Suzanne McCourt, heads back home after completing her tour of duty. The Sunday Mail’s Senior Reporter Lincoln Towindo engaged Ambassador McCourt on her reflections on Australia-Zimbabwe relations in light of the new political dispensation in the African state. We publish the Ambassador in her own words.
I have had a fantastic time in Zimbabwe. One of the interesting parts of an Australian Ambassador’s role is that we cover other countries as well — Zambia, Malawi and the DRC.
It has been fascinating being in Zimbabwe, but also having a regional understanding and to compare the success of Zimbabwe to other countries in the region.
My impressions have been mixed in a professional sense.
I had come with a very clear objective of building business relations. That required — as I made very clear at the beginning of my time here — some movement in terms of economic policies and doing business policies to encourage Australian businesses to come.
The Australian government cannot tell Australian businesses to come here. The environment needs to be attractive to Australian business.
Our role as the Australian Embassy is to facilitate for Australian businesses wanting to find out more about the country; to facilitate meetings and engagement, and explaining the situation here.
Over the last few months, we’ve heard messages out of the new Government, with the new President (saying) that he is very interested in being open for business and very interested in developing the economy of the country.
We saw in the National Budget Statement there were some very specific changes in relation to, for example, the indigenisation law that we hope will mean that the environment will be more attractive to Australian business.
The onus is on the Zimbabwean Government, including its trade and investment promotion arms, to get out there and sell the good news if Zimbabwe is now genuinely open for business to foreign investors and foreign companies.
We welcome the President’s reference to strengthening property rights, ensuring the courts are left to do their job.
The courts are a critical element of a strong economy. You cannot have a successful economy when people cannot have their rights respected.
They won’t bring their money here if they are not confident that it will be protected.
A pressing and immediate issue that needs to be dealt with is the cash crisis.
We don’t have details of the President’s plan to deal with that, but a lot of work has been done previously by the Minister of Finance in relation to the Lima process to resolve debt issues with international financial institutions.
My personal view is that agriculture needs a lot of attention and work.
It’s an obvious area where over a couple of years’ export earnings could massively increase by ensuring people have confidence to develop agriculture products and sell them.
That could not only reduce reliance on imports, but also support the resurrection of local manufacturing.
Impressions of Zimbabwe
A diplomat will never seek to presume what role they are going into. But, certainly, my impression of Zimbabwe is that for the most part, it is a peaceful country with a talented population; an enormous natural wealth both in the people themselves and also in the mining and agriculture sectors.
So, I guess (for) part of my time here I felt some frustration that there is no more economic activity here; that there are no more jobs; that Zimbabwe is not thriving as it should given its natural endowments and that all comes down to governance and confidence.
Hopefully, we are seeing an era where the confidence will increase.
The President has said that he will try to ensure free and fair elections this year and that is a really important signal for the international community to start to build confidence that Zimbabwe is genuinely interested in engaging internationally and moving on as a country.
There are other markers as well.
I mentioned economic reforms and that is something that we are interested in seeing.
Also an openness in the country: the Government’s will to have discussion and frank exchanges with Zimbabweans and other countries about how we can work together to move forward.
I had a meeting, as you know, with His Excellency President Mnangagwa and I was encouraged by that because he was clearly indicating that he is willing to have those discussions so that we can develop our relations.
Now, there are many things that we touched on in that meeting. The starting point is to open that discussion and move on from there and I look forward to my successor taking up that role and building on it.
Obviously, we were watching closely and the ministers in Australia were watching, too; so was the rest of the world.
We would like to see political situations in any country resolved peacefully and calmly, with full respect for human rights.
I think it is important that the new President — after all that happened — has indicated that elections will go ahead as planned and that they will be free and fair.
The process of last year has now been completed. What is now critically important, according to the Zimbabwe Constitution, is that the people of Zimbabwe have the opportunity to freely express on who they want to rule the country and that is what we are looking forward to in 2018.
For a long time, Australia has been keen to improve relations with Zimbabwe. It’s a partnership that is required; confidence and trust develop a relationship.
That has been part of my role and it’s part of the role of Zimbabwe’s Ambassador in Australia. We look forward to building through the frank exchanges we have just had.
We care deeply about the people of Zimbabwe.
President Mnangagwa and economic turnaround
There have been a lot of positive signals. However, we need to see action and we have to be realistic. There are a lot of priorities for Government and a lot can be done.
We are encouraged by the first steps, though this is a longer process.
The key next flag for building on this re-engagement is free and fair elections.
I have had the opportunity to meet him several times in his capacity as Vice-President. I felt (when we met in early January 2018) that even though he was in his new capacity, we were building from an already established relationship. That is why I am pleased that it wasn’t the first time to meet him.
He clearly has a focus on economic recovery and we fully support that.
It’s absolutely critical for Zimbabwe to begin to turn around the economy because its people are really struggling at the moment.
I am encouraged by the President’s comments — both in his inauguration speech and subsequently — about getting this country on track.
We would like to do what we can to support that.
My understanding is that there are many countries that have a similar positive approach.
I have no reason to believe he cannot (succeed) if he brings together a good team and delivers on the policy changes that should occur.
There are many economists who have for many years set out clearly what needs to happen to turn this economy around.
I guess he needs to consider what is the best advice available and actually implement.
The other critical aspect is to appreciate that Zimbabwe will need to sell its story to the rest of the world if it wants foreign investment and closer engagement with other countries.
Not to just presume that all policies have changed and money will flow, (I mean) actually going out and promoting Zimbabwe.
Improving the Zimbabwe brand can be done through embassies, trade missions, ministerial visits in both directions and generally getting out there to sell the story.
We have built relations in a whole range of ways. We have a large water and sanitation programme, which is finishing up in a few years but has touched thousands of Zimbabweans both in cities, small towns and regional towns.
We have supported civil society here, which we consider important for a vibrant democracy; where they can — among other things — help hold Government to account and help people.
We also had a small grant scheme, which has enabled us to fund community projects that are much smaller but targeted often in rural areas.
So, we made a difference in people’s lives.
The other aspect of what we would like to have done is to give Zimbabweans an understanding of Australia, and we do that through public diplomacy.
To do that, we are going to launch our Facebook page next year to further our reach through social media and give Zimbabweans a better understanding of how Australia operates.
Another terrific part of our engagement has been developing our alumni associations because there are many Zimbabweans studying in Australia at university level.
They are young, vibrant people who have much to contribute to this country and can really support our bilateral partnership.
In addition, we have supported the Zimbabwe-Australia Business Council, which is based here and there is also an equivalent based in Sydney.
We are looking at ways of enhancing those relations.
Government-to-government relations can do so much, but business linkages and people-to-people linkages can give a lot of depth.