Zimbabwe concerned over US reluctance to invest

Several months after proclamations from the US business community of being ''bullish'' on the new state of Zimbabwe, American investment there is still hanging fire.

But whether this situation is the fault of Zimbabwe, for sending mixed signals about its openness to trade with the West, or of the American business community, for its hesitancy to take the Zimbabweans at their word when they say they welcome investment, seems to depend on whom you talk with.

That ''bullishness'' was a little unexpected in the first place. As their first prime minister in independence, Zimbabweans elected Robert G. Mugabe, a Marxist whose Zimbabwe African National Union guerrillas were trained and supported by China. But he soon proclaimed his interest in retaining a vigorous private sector for some time to come, despite his long-term goal of socialism.

US business people remain reluctant, however. Bernard Chidzero, the Zimbabwe minister of finance, economic planning, and development, chided them recently in New York: ''Are we encouraging you to come so that tomorrow we can grab you? If that's what you think, I can assure you that we can build a new form of socialism (including) the public sector and the private sector.''

In fact, the goals for Zimbabwe's forthcoming three-year economic plan - likely to be announced in July - call for a breakdown of 45 percent private investment, 55 percent public. One observer said the program would mean more private investment than during any similar period in Zimbabwe's -- or Rhodesia's -- history.

Still, Zimbabwe's lack of a foreign investment code troubles US companies -- although a code is said to be in the works for the three-year plan. Prime Minister Mugabe's occasional Marxist blasts don't help any, either.

Another bad sign, from the US point of view, is the Zimbabwe Cabinet's decision to reject an agreement for US-government-sponsored insurance to protect US investments against nationalization, inconvertible currency, and war damage. More than 100 nations have such agreements with the US, including many of Zimbabwe's neighbors.

But the Mugabe government replies: Why does the US need such insurance when our Constitution has safeguards to protect foreign investors against nationalization?

''And then we tell them,'' says Princeton Lyman, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, ''that this is one of the negative signals you keep sending.''

There have been positive signals, though, Mr. Lyman adds, including the relatively small amounts budgeted for nationalizations. Also, the highly regarded Mr. Chidzero has taken over the finance portfolio, held previously by the often polemical Enos Nkala.

A US observer argues, ''It's up to the US people to see how far they can go. Foreign investment is going to be handled on a case-by-case basis. The Zimbabweans have been saying that the longer US business hesitates, the worse (the sense of indirection) will get.''

One disappointments in Zimbabwe's evolution has been that after all the government aid pledged by the West to the new country -- $1.8 billion -- there has been such an absence of private involvement.

One cheering note, however, is that those out in the field seem more optimistic than those trying to read the tea leaves from back home. One US executive fresh back from the latest of his half-dozen or so trips to Africa this year says: ''I tell people to buy a ticket and go to Zimbabwe and get out and talk to people. Then they'll find out that things are better than they expect.''

H. J. Heinz & Co. seems to concur: This Pittsburgh pickle company is planning a plant in Harare (formerly Salisbury). It is to be a launching pad for a thrust into the Saharan area. The first major US investment in Zimbabwe since independence in April 1980, it will be a joint venture with the government; Heinz will retain controlling interest.

The minerals sector has been another case of mixed signals -- although the latest signs seem positive.

In recent months legislation has been passed to establish a minerals marketing board, a public company that would buy from producers and then resell the commodities on the world market. The idea is to get fairer (i.e., higher) prices, thereby increasing the wealth of Zimbabweans. The argument for such a board is that multinationals would otherwise buy minerals at artificially low prices from their own local subsidiaries.

Multinationals, which deny this, have opposed the creation of the board, and the government has made it clear that the board will not just be a paper authority, as some business concerns had hoped.

But it seems the board is going to be starting out only very gradually, handling just a few minerals. Roy Lander, chairman of Zimbabwe's Chamber of Mines, the producers' organization, is said to have reversed his earlier opposition to the board. There have even been reports that a former official of the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith has been chosen to head the board -- although an official at the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington could not confirm this.

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