Don’t Rush to ‘Unbundle’ the National Railways of Zimbabwe.
By Takura Zhangazha.
There is a lot of media and political attention over state parastatals and their performance of late. It is fair to say that this sort of attention being given to state enterprises is important and necessary in order for them to be reformed or at least scrutinized for their failures or their successes. The most media and politically prone state enterprise has been our beleaguered national airline, Air Zimbabwe with various sections of our society calling for its privatization. Close on the heels of the national airline is the National Railways of Zimbabwe with calls for its privatization (read ‘unbundling’) reaching a new crescendo in the light of a strike by its workers in the last two weeks.
There are distinct problems with what can be considered as a ‘knee-jerk’ response by way of calling for the ‘unbundling’ of the NRZ as a panacea to its functional problems. While we are all entitled to various opinions on the advantages or disadvantages of privatization, our country’s disastrous experience with the ‘privatization’ phenomenon under the Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes(ESAP)must be instructive in how we find a solution to the shortcomings of the NRZ.
I have specifically chosen to discuss the NRZ because it is a very important parastatal of national strategic interest. Its network links our major cities and it is a key mode of transport for citizens as well as commodities. This is regardless of how it remains critically underutilized at the present moment. It is unfortunate that it may become an easy target for privatization because no one really talks earnestly about it and its importance to our economy and our public transport system.
On first glance it is evident that things are not well with the NRZ and they have not been so for a very long time. The reasons cited as to why such a state of affairs exist have varied from poor management, the economic crisis that has straddled Zimbabwe for the last 15 or so years and where one asks World Bank economists, an intrusive government. And it is the former that tends to be blamed primarily on the premise that it does not have the capacity or innovation to run the railway company in tandem with the needs of the ‘market’.
Such an argument is classic neo-liberal economics, an economics which is now increasingly discredited across the world due to the global financial crisis. This is however not to absolve the government of any blame at the state of affairs at the NRZ. And before we all rush to the technical details of the failure by government to run the parastatal, it is important to initially examine the national transport and communications policy of the government either via the Ministry of Transport and Communications or even the Ministry of Parastatals and State Enterprises.
I know there has been debate around such a policy but to this day it is unknown (if it exists) to members of the public and probably Parliament. So before we take up the easy argument of selling one of our country’s most strategic assets, we must ask central government for an explanation and our approval of the national transport policy together with how the potential commercialization or privatization of the NRZ fits into it.
Even where the government explains its national transport policy, there are other options besides privatization of one component or other of the NRZ. There is the option of commercialization of the entity which will be predicated on a national understanding of why we need to make the parastatal work in the national interest.
This national interest would relate to its ability to expand its public transportation services to include the sadly abandoned urban transportation network and the still underutilized Masvingo-Gweru railway line. This would also entail internal reform of the NRZ to ensure accountable management as well as efficiency of the state company. It is agreed that this would need a lot of investment and resources that the government has argued it does not have. But this is a matter of priorities and it should be a paramount priority for the NRZ to work again, initially with direct state funding, and eventually on the basis of its ability generate and manage its revenues in the provision of a critical national service.
It is evidently a difficult endeavour to find solutions to the myriad of problems that our national economy and our parastatals are facing, particularly for our inclusive government. This however should not be seen as easy permission for us or government ministers to find solutions in templates that have a history of making things worse. To seek to privatise the NRZ at this juncture is either to be incorrectly over confident in the World Bank’s understanding of ‘liberal economies’ and ‘economic reform’ or it is to be lacking in conscientious commitment to working to find sustainable and people centered solutions to our economic challenges.