The Sunday Mail
On November 29, 2017, Zimpapers Television Network’s Nomsa Nkala engaged the United States’ top diplomat in Zimbabwe, Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr, on the future of Harare-Washington relations following President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inauguration. We publish excerpts of that interview here. The full TV version is available at www.ztn.co.zw
Q: Ambassador, what are your thoughts on the new political dispensation in Zimbabwe?
A: We are excited at the possibilities it gives the Zimbabwean people to achieve democracy according to your 2013 Constitution. More importantly, our excitement marks the excitement we have seen over the last few weeks as people have tried to embrace true democracy.
Q: So, you believe it was lawfully achieved?
A: I can’t interpret your law. I will say that whatever was achieved, it was something the Zimbabwean people wanted. And my country joins the international community in looking forward and hoping that free and fair elections are held, and that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission adheres to your Constitution; that BVR is done according to your Constitution.
Q: In your view, Ambassador, what happened in Zimbabwe was not a coup?
A: Well, it was a military intervention – clearly. And what we would like to see is the troops return to the barracks. We would like to see democracy flourish. We were very pleased that this was done in an almost – not 100 percent – non-violent manner.
Q: You do support the new Zimbabwean leadership then. . .
A: Well, we wish President Mnangagwa well.
Q: What are your thoughts on the new President?
A: I have only had the opportunity to meet him once in my nearly two years here, so I hope to have the opportunity to engage with him in the future; to get an assessment. The important thing is not what I think of him. The important thing is what the Zimbabwean people; the Zimbabwean voters think of him.
And I would want to hear what he would want from my country as we go forward; how he envisions his administration partnering with my nation as well as the global community.
Q: Is there likely to be a policy shift, perhaps in the short-term?
A: Let’s be fair. Let’s give President Mnangagwa a chance to tell the world community what he would like to do, to speak with Ambassadors – my colleagues – from all over the world and say what does he want to do? We listened to his speech at the inauguration. It was inspiring. We want to lay down the plan. The National Budget will be. . .the first sign to the international community of where this Zimbabwe is going to go on finance, trade and investment.
Q: You haven’t been actively involved in the economy itself. Are we likely to see that change?
A: Thank you for that, but I respectfully disagree. We are building a new embassy, employing 700 Zimbabweans everyday when you source the bricks, the floors from here. Nationals who are working on our new embassy are staying at your lodges and hotels. Americans are the largest tourists by far – over 50 000 Americans come to Vic Falls every year. I think we are very involved in the economy. Our wonderful Zimbabwean employees – over 250 working at our embassy – contribute to the economy.
Q: True, Ambassador, but clearly, America can do much better in terms of investment.
A: We don’t have Government investment; we have private sector investment. Pepsi Cola is about to open here. That’s a very large American company.
(Increased investment) is not up to the government. That is up to the private sector, and the private sector makes decisions. . .
Q: And it takes its cue from the government. . .
A: Not in the United States, no; maybe in other countries of the world. American businesspersons make decisions based on the economic reality in the country.
Q: But your foreign policy influences what the private sector does; any country’s foreign policy would.
A: I think what influences them is: Can they make money? Are the courts fair? Can they get their money out? Will their properties be taken over? Can they own 100, 70, 80, 90 percent? That is what influences. Now, why we are optimistic about Zimbabwe: I served in India, Bangladesh, The Philippines who saw their economies turn around in a rapid manner. I have visited Cambodia numerous times, and they were far in their depths compared to Zimbabwe, and they’ve turned around.
And look at Rwanda under President Kagame; how they’ve turned their economy around. And why did the world come? Not because the Ambassador said yes or no, but because the conditions on the ground were set.
Q: Does America have a post-Mugabe policy?
A: We would very much like to partner with this administration. We have to see where they are going to go, and to be fair, I can’t comment because President Mnangagwa has only been in office under a week, and we have to see what he wants to do.
Q: You spoke about the embassy you are building in Harare. It’s going to be one of the biggest in Africa. Why that much investment?
A: Because we are committed to the Zimbabwean people. Our embassy is in several locations; we have to consolidate it into one. That’s efficient economics. If you look at the wall, that’s going to be a tribute to Great Zimbabwe. You are going to see Shona sculpture. The mbira will be an overhang in the chancery where I will work, again in tribute to Zimbabwe.
But it’s not the largest embassy in Africa. There’s Cairo, Abuja, Nairobi, Addis. There are far larger populations, too.
Q: In your congratulatory message to President Mnangagwa, you pledged to support Zimbabwe in the spheres of “democracy and economic recovery”. Economically, what is your intended contribution to Zimbabwe?
A: First of all, we have to see what the budget is. We have been on record, for several years, supporting the Lima reform policy and package, and we continue to support (it) should that be President Mnangagwa’s goal. Minister Chinamasa has been on record as supporting getting the indigenisation (legislation) correct. If he does that, we will clearly support that because that would bring not only American, but foreign direct investment and stem capital flight.
Q: Are we likely to see balanced partnerships because the West is usually criticised for creating exploitative relationships with African countries.
A: I think that is neo-colonial language. Zimbabwe has trade surplus with the United States. So, clearly, I’m not doing enough of my job to get American products sold here. You sell more Zimbabwean products to the United States, so I want to reverse that.
Q: So, we are likely to see growing trade?
A: Yes, we would like to see that, but the economic conditions have to be right.
Q: And on democracy?
A: You know what? There’s no one kind of democracy. There’s no American democracy, British democracy. . .What we would like to see is Zimbabwean democracy. You and your fellow citizens are in full support of the 2013 Constitution, so that is your Constitution.
You implement it as you choose. It’s not for us to be prescriptive.
Q: In 2001, the US imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. Do you believe these were justified?
A: It’s not what I believe. It’s what my president does and what our Congress does because we, too, are a democracy. So, Zidera was imposed. It was kept by subsequent presidents as well as Congress. It’s my job to implement our laws and regulations.
Q: Some feel that the US should not have involved itself in a bilateral dispute between Zimbabwe and Britain.
A: I think we have to respect the decisions of our president, congress and the international community. Clearly, those sanctions were European Union, United States, Australia, Canada.
So, that is a large swathe of the world.
Q: Are we likely to see that law being scrapped?
A: That’s up to our senate, congress and the president of the United States. I think they will act on performance.
Look, we would like to see that removed. And if there are free and fair elections, if the electoral commission is free, if there are true human rights, if there is freedom in social media – people aren’t arrested for tweeting.