Bernard Chidzero: Portrait of a Comprador

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Patrick Bond and Tendai Biti

“We talk about ideologies without doing much about it.” –Bernard Chidzero, Zimbabwean Finance Minister

“THERE EXISTS AMONG the membership of the new ZANU(PF) a minority, but very powerful bourgeois group which champions the cause of international finance and national private capital, whose interests thus stand opposed to the development and growth of a socialist and egalitarian society in Zimbabwe.”

These were the words of none other than Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, in 1989, a year after the merger of the bitter rival parties ZANU and ZAPU. (See box for brief background–ed.) Many asked, hopefully, whether political unity might bring to this nation of ten million (mainly poor) blacks and 100,000 (generally wealthy) whites a renewal of the 1970s struggle for social justice.

The answer, in the negative, came quickly. Today, Zimbabwe is heading down an ultra-capitalist road mapped out by a “home-grown” Structural Adjustment program. Facing extinction in this new environment are tens of thousands of government jobs, all manner of subsidies ranging from basic foodstuffs to parastatal enterprises, and, quite likely, a manufacturing sector which was the envy of Africa, supplying 25% of the country’s national income (a greater share than in the United States).

Traveling along this road we are beginning to come across the wreckage of lives and misappropriated capital so familiar to economies under the thumb of international capital. At one level, the finished products of multinational corporations are squeezing out local firms (in the process drawing away scarce foreign currency that should be instead utilized for retooling plant and equipment).

At another level, vast amounts of food production are being abandoned in favor of well-irrigated tobacco for export, as tens of thousands starve during the country’s worst drought in memory. Under these conditions there may be a slight detour to the land reform issue. Mugabe has created a tempest in a teapot by threatening to transfer land from rich white farmers to thousands of rural families suffering extreme land hunger.

This should distract no one, however, from the deeper shift in the balance of forces. In reality, local progressive agricultural experts see Mugabe’s threat as a desperate political ploy to retain some vestiges of liberation struggle credibility. The government has neither the political will nor the funds to go beyond the largely symbolic act of passing a land reform bill.

Consider Mugabe’s 1989 rave about the “bourgeois group” of black Zimbabweans. Was Zimbabwe’s president finally getting down to a class analysis of why socialism had moved off his ruling party’s official agenda? Most intriguingly, was Mugabe sending a bitter message to his Senior Minister for Finance, Economic Planning and Development, the well-respected Bernard Chidzero?

The Man Who Sets The Agenda

In fact, most ZANU-watchers agree, Mugabe is not strong enough to purge the ideological traitors he refers to, since there are literally thousands by now. Today, while the beleaguered Mugabe surrenders his egalitarian rhetoric under pressure from World Bank and IMF free-market principles and a flood of new foreign loans, it is Chidzero who appears to have reached unprecedented new peaks of power and influence.

What are the origins of the man who is ranked only fourth in the government hierarchy, but who many say now guides Mugabe on some of Zimbabwe’s most crucial choices–from the one-party state to socialism? How did this victim of virulent Rhodesian racism rise to become perhaps the most important black banker in history, and runner-up in the 1991 race for UN Secretary General?

The Zimbabwean’s ascent offers telling traces of “compradorism” at its most sophisticated and dangerous, today practiced with elan by financiers who must also dapple in diplomacy. This combination has proven devastating to most Zimbabweans and to many others across the Third World. A detailed examination of Chidzero’s background provides insights into the uneasy recent marriage of international capitalism and what was once in many countries revolutionary nationalism.

Chidzero’s mother was Shona (Zimbabwe’s majority ethnicity), and his Malawian father a farmworker, then a shop assistant, and then able, finally in the 1950s, to set up his own storehouse. After Bernard, six more children were reared.

That the Chidzero family managed to maintain an urban existence (near what is now the Harare suburb of Hatfield)–in the face of Rhodesian laws and customs aimed at permitting only male workers access to the towns–suggests a capacity to exist and prosper in the nooks and crannies of a ruthless system. (This perhaps foreshadowed the eldest son’s somewhat more momentous future accomplishments in this vein.)

After an early Catholic mission education, Bernard Chidzero earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Pius XII University College, now the National University of Lesotho. He moved to Canada for further education, first at Ottawa University (M.A. cum laude) and then McGill, which conferred on the hard-working student a doctorate in political science in 1958.

Chidzero then spent two years at Oxford, where he studied the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. His PhD thesis, on British policy in Tanzania, was published in 1961, while an earlier Shona novel he wrote was used widely in the schools (Nzvengamutsvairo–“Broom-Dodger”).

A typical paragraph, in which the protagonist appeals to some militant youngsters, makes clear why the Rhodesians appreciated the book:

“It is our country together. For us to fight with them with sticks, axes, spears and knives only, drunkards can say that… What surprised me, fellows, is that what you eat, what you put on, what gives you happiness, are all things of the white man… Whites are our blessers. It is true that they wrong us many times. Many of them think we are baboons with tails… We must show them that even though we are in darkness we are people who love the white, even if we are people of a black skin we are the sons of one father, we are children with soft hearts and kindness.”

The Ford Foundation helped Chidzero return home briefly in 1959. He was even offered a teaching job at the country’s young university, but a year earlier Chidzero had married a French-Canadian woman, who is white, and as a result of such forbidden racial mixing the job offer was withdrawn.

In 1960, Chidzero entered nationalist politics, and was given the mission of convincing Lord Home and the British government to retain power over Southern Rhodesia, against the ascendant Rhodesian right wing, as constitutional discussions were underway in the early 1960s. He joined ZANU when it was founded in 1963.

Also in 1960, Chidzero began two decades of employment with the United Nations, receiving an initial posting in Addis Ababa as Economic Affairs Officer. From 1963-68 he worked in Kenya as resident representative for the UN Development Program. Chidzero quickly rose to high levels within this new clique of international financial and development bureaucrats. His timing was perfect, because financiers soon began to shape the Third World in ways that other exhausted forces–colonialism, CIA interventions, the client dictators of Western and Eastern powers, and even multinational corporations–couldn’t.

In this swelling pond of money mandarins, Chidzero grew to be an ever-bigger fish. He became director of the Commodities Division of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1968, and then in 1976 was named UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General. Also in 1976, he was economic advisor to the Patriotic Front liberation movement at the ill-fated Geneva conference, and in 1979 he supervised the fairly progressive UNCTAD study Zimbabwe: Towards a New Order.

In sum, Chidzero emerged convincingly from an environment which combined brutal racial repression with ambitious but stunted petty bourgeois circumstances. Despite playing no direct role in the war effort, he qualified as a solid movement nationalist. But via the rigors of Catholic missionary education and three of the world’s elite universities, he had also secured an esteemed post at the top level of the global civil service.

This background gave Chidzero the perfect credentials, in 1980,to fuse the new rulers of independent Zimbabwe with international finance.*

Control of Zimbabwe’s Economy

In the early years, Minister for Economic Planning and Development Chidzero faced a tough opponent: Zimbabwe’s first Finance Minister, Enos Nkala. (Nkala recently fled the country to find work with the giant multinational Lonrho, following his conviction on corruption charges.) A decade ago, the most pressing question was whether the Zimbabwe dollar should be devalued. Nkala didn’t mince words on the subject, for example in Parliament in late 1981:

“Devaluation has entered the language of saboteurs who should quit. The Ministry of Finance is not being run by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, donor countries or the monster, Ian Smith. We are organizing our own economy and the World Bank and the IMF have no role to play. Anyone going around spreading rumors that these were the people making decisions for us is simply being silly and mischievous.”

But though characteristic of ZANU’s fierce anti-imperialist pride, that was then. With Nkala’s 1982 demotion, Chidzero, the new Finance Minister, moved into top gear. Chidzero made statements to Parliament denying that devaluation was on the cards, but by early December he announced a 20% decline in the dollar, conceding that it “had been under consideration for some months.” And though Chidzero claimed outsiders had nothing to do with it, the World Bank admitted Zimbabwe’s 1982 devaluation was “a result of the dialogue” with the IMF.

Chidzero simultaneously called on Zimbabweans “to moderate their demands for goods and services and their expectations for increases in wages.” This request happily coincided with his efforts to please international bankers. “We are socialists, are we encouraging you to come so that tomorrow we can grab you?” Chidzero asked a New York conference of bankers and corporate leaders in 1982, before reassuring them:

“Life is more serious than to be controlled by ideologies. Life is very down-to-earth, let us just look at the realities of life. And I believe that good businessmen enter into riskier areas than areas where we talk about ideologies without doing much about it.”

It was the povo (poor and working people) who paid for Chidzero’s opportunism. One of the first indications of the costs associated with the sell-out to international finance was a letter Chidzero wrote to the president of the World Bank in mid-1982. He promised that the dramatic rise in interest rates he had helped engineer the year before–from 4.5% to 9.5%–would remain intact for the duration of the loan (the rates have since more than doubled).

Aside from making it harder to afford housing bonds and consumer loans, the interest rate increase also hurt Zimbabwean industries. After a while, even Zimbank’s chief economist became worried, and in 1983 blamed it for a rise in “distress borrowing” and “a disincentive to investment.” In addition to the high rates, other barriers to investment were being erected by Harare financial elites in the 1980s, with Chidzero generally unwilling or unable to take action.

Thanks to outrageous speculation in real estate and the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange beginning in 1984, local financial institutions–most controlled from London headquarters–began raking in record profits. At the same time, however, they refused loans to black businesses and to rural areas. An astonishing 97% of bank loans go to Zimbabwe’s white community (1% of the population).

An exasperated Chidzero commented last year, “The existing financial institutions have enjoyed cozy protection from the rough wind of more aggressive international market players. Hence their ability to generate substantial profits.” His solution: deregulate them, which in most countries has resulted not in solving the problem of excessive speculation, but worsening it.

Struggles with International Finance

Even with Chidzero at the helm, Zimbabwe’s international financial relations weren’t smooth sailing. In 1984, the IMF cut off a $375 million line of credit because of a budget deficit caused by “excessive” spending on health, education, food subsidies and defense against South African destabilization. The government-run newspaper even attacked the IMF in 1987, at the point that a nearly unbearable amount of scarce foreign exchange was going towards into debt repayments:

“It is the squint-eyed view of economic problems in the Third World and the manner of its operations which caused former Tanzanian president, Cde Julius Nyerere, to describe the IMF as “a gang of robbers.”

The gang’s strategies were designed in part by the IMF-World Bank “Development Committee,” which was chaired, at the time, by Bernard Chidzero–although the blinkered press didn’t mention this fact to readers.

Indeed, this period may have been Chidzero’s finest hour. The Development Committee was then searching far and wide for $85 billion in fresh capital to bale out the World Bank, a difficult (but ultimately successful) task given the Bank’s extremely high failure rate. This required the appointment of new personnel sophisticated enough to sell the Bank to hostile elements in the international political establishment.

To massage the right wing in the U.S. Congress, there was a new Bank president: Barber Conable, a back-slapping, former Republican member of the House of Representatives. And to offset radical Third World politicians like Fidel Castro (who had boldly called for a “debtors’ cartel”, Chidzero was meant, perhaps, to calm bruised nationalist egos, and to promise that more good money would be thrown after bad.

For high finance, this was an inspired choice, because the potentially-troublesome Non-Aligned Movement was then chaired by Zimbabwe, and so coopting Chidzero killed two birds with one stone. “Developing countries are exporting capital back to the industrialized countries, almost subsidizing them,” he said upon accepting the post in late 1986. “We will have to do something dramatic about this.”

Such talk didn’t worry anyone in power. Chidzero had just been named a “Banker of the Year” by Euromoney magazine, a sure sign of his obedience. And mirroring his earlier claims that Zimbabwe would be paying only 4% of hard currency earnings on debt repayments by that point (the actual figure was 35%), once again Chidzero was wildly over-optimistic about the Third World’s chances.

By the end of his reign as chair of the Development Committee, the outflow “subsidy” from South to North had reached $50 billion a year, quite a “dramatic” increase from a positive inflow six years earlier.

Adjusting Zimbabwe

Back in Zimbabwe, Chidzero was tightening the screws on the povo. The first hints of Structural Adjustment were to be found in World Bank reports around 1986, and in Chidzero’s actions. “We are squeezing the domestic economy, depriving it of increased foreign allocations, benefitting the foreigners, which is going to create tensions at home,” he announced in 1987. “That is the price we must pay for investment which came into this country–and also for our good name.”

But there was little or no new investment, foreign or local, thanks to a general climate of stagnation reflected, in large part, by absurdly high returns from speculation. Chidzero nevertheless persuaded the cabinet that Zimbabwe should sign multilateral investment codes and put out the red carpet to multinationals. Even the World Bank was dubious, conceding in 1989 that “too much should not be expected in terms of new investment inflows in view of the global pattern of new foreign investment.”

Notwithstanding the self-confessed imminent failure of its free-market recommendations, the Bank, which has loaned Zimbabwe $800 million, was dominating more and more of the local economy. Chidzero’s daughter had married the son of the local Bank representative the previous year, a symbolic reflection of the attachment of the Zimbabwean government to international finance.

And Chidzero’s own personal ambitions were subsequently fuelled in 1991, as prospects increased that he would win the post of UN Secretary General.

A few things stood in his way. Though he has a “Mister Clean” image, Chidzero played a part–even minor–in some of Zimbabwe’s more unseemly political controversies. For example, when he was confronted quite early on (1983) by local white business leaders about the government’s now-infamous corruption, Chidzero’s reaction was to downplay it, and he uttered the thin-skinned remark, “people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

When running for election as Member of Parliament for central Harare in 1985, he appealed to voters to vote for ZANU to show that “Harare is a one-party state.” And at the same time, Chidzero also slammed dissidents “being sent by leaders of minority parties who want to rule this country”–a very serious charge that referred to rival ZAPU leaders. (ZAPU had by that time made clear its opposition to the so-called “super-ZAPU” dissident movement in the Matabelelands, which just a couple of years earlier had provoked government massacres of thousands of innocent people.)

Chidzero’s indelicate use of this as an electioneering scare tactic fed the general flame of ZANU intolerance which was then developing into an inferno of harassment, detentions and bannings, and hastened the effective formation of a one-party state–a situation which, ironically, Chidzero won praise from liberal and international quarters for opposing in 1990.

With these gaffes in mind, some Zimbabwean opposition politicians, from both the right and the left, took advantage of Chidzero’s nomination to press home fears about their future under the one-party state. International press coverage featured the message, as one politician put it, “If he can’t be relied upon to safeguard political and human rights in his own country, why should he be trusted with the world?”

When the votes were tallied last November, Chidzero came in a very close second to Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as the United States’ geopolitical agenda in the Middle East was probably a more pressing concern to the Security Council than the Third World economic dilemma.

Chidzero was reportedly chastened by the failure, and the local business newsweekly rubbed his nose in it: “Those who must have closely looked at Dr Chidzero’s ability to head the United Nations must surely have questioned his apparent inability to direct the country towards the prosperity it could assuredly achieve. The incapability of so many ministries to account for their monies spent reflects badly on him.”

But Chidzero was not deterred from his Structural Adjustment program. By devaluing the currency by an unprecedented 42% last year, he managed to reduce Zimbabwe’s official IMF status from “middle-income” to “low-income.” The point was to qualify for a cut-rate loan–which may not be available now because of an IMF funding shortfall.

In fact, Structural Adjustment is now hitting hard across the economy. Liberalization of financial markets led in late 1991 to capital flight into the bond markets, and a concomitant 60% collapse of the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange and 30% decline in residential real estate prices in Harare.

While the currency and other financial assets plummeted, both interest rates and inflation skyrocketed, and by February 1992 maize supplies had run out and desperation measures were required to import food from South Africa to fend off starvation of tens of thousands. But with a bevy of foreign loans in 1991, Chidzero had run up the debt service ratio from 20% to more than 30%, and even larger inflows of foreign loans in 1992 were geared to upgrading plant and machinery, not buying food.

The contradictions today appear insurmountable, and a straight-line decay into Zambia-style conditions is a real possibility. For what was once the best-balanced economy on the continent–indeed one of the fastest-growing in the world (during the period of anti-Rhodesian sanctions)–and a proud independent African country making strong social welfare strides in the early 1980s, Zimbabwe now appears a tragedy in the making. The country’s first IMF riots may be only months away.


In his book The Silent Revolution in Africa Ethiopian development economist Fantu Cheru concludes that in general, African leaders “have resisted challenging the debt crisis because of self-interest. As such, they cannot be expected to act in the best interests of their citizens.” Cheru advocates an “exit option”–widespread “opting-out” by the peasantry–but in Zimbabwe would this make a difference? (And has this option been short-circuited by recent promises of land reform?)

Or could formal working class organizations in the industriali sectors present a threat to the establishment? The answers are not promising in the short-term, yet there do appear medium-term prospects for an authentic popular social movement, in which (following Cheru) democracy, accountability, self-reliance and sustainability are uncompromisable components of a different vision of development.

These might derive from what, at this stage, are mere murmurs of radical resistance: huge numbers of peasants who are fed up with the formal agricultural marketing and finance system (and who are currently defaulting on state loans at an 80% rate); militant university students, who have long complained Chidzero is selling out the country to big capital; and the national trade union leaders’ call for “mass action” by workers against Structural Adjustment.

Indeed the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions recently issued a major alternative economic strategy for Zimbabwe in order to build an anti-Adjustment coalition. If these sorts of forces get their act together, Chidzero’s “talk about ideologies without doing much about it” might one day be replaced by a more humane economic policy that takes seriously both ideology and ordinary peoples’ lives.

* After returning to Zimbabwe at Independence, Chidzero was not forgotten by the international development jet set, and was even offered the top job at UNCTAD in 1984 (which he refused because the Organization of African Unity had decided on another candidate). He served on the following boards during the 1980s: the North-South Roundtable; the UN-sponsored World Commission on Environment and Development; the Commonwealth Consultative Group on International Economic Issues; former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s Independent Group on Financial Flows; the Rome-based Society for International Development; the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics and Research; the editorial board of the prestigious Journal of Modern African Studies; the UN Committee for Development Planning; the PTA Trade and Development Bank (chair); the African Development Bank and African Development Fund (chair); UNCTAD’s VIIth conference (chair); and the Development Committee of the IMF and World Bank (chair).

July-August 1992, ATC 39