Zimbabwe Braces for Shifts In Regional Leadership Role

Ten years after its bold start, an economic bloc of Front-line States fighting apartheid is shifting its strategy. Spurred by political reforms in South Africa, neighboring states now are preparing to include the regional giant in efforts to promote growth and political stability.

ZIMBABWE, a leading member of SADCC, is looking forward to the emergence of a majority-ruled South Africa with both anticipation and fear. Once white-ruled itself, Zimbabwe has campaigned vigorously for an end to apartheid in South Africa. But as that day draws closer, Zimbabweans are increasingly aware that a new South Africa will dwarf this country's star role in regional affairs, as well as threaten its fledgling industries.

Zimbabwe's strong economy and central location have given the country an unofficial leadership role in SADCC, the 10-member South African Development Coordination Conference. It has the largest industrial sector and boasts the most-educated leadership in the SADCC grouping. Gaining full independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe emerged just as SADCC was formed. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been a high-profile figure in African affairs, and as head of the ``Nonaligned Movement.''

Because of SADCC's emphasis on shared responsibility, Zimbabwe, which coordinates the portfolio responsible for food security in the region, is not officially more prominent than the group's other nine members.

But ``right now Zimbabwe is the biggest fish in a small pond,'' says an economist at the University of Zimbabwe. ``When South Africa comes in [joins SADCC as a black-ruled state], not only will the size of the pond increase dramatically, but it will be as though a whale - maybe even a shark - has been put into it.''

``Although this is not a popular thing to say right now,'' he says, ``it is not clear that the economic impact of a free South Africa will be less harmful than the economic impact of overt destabilization.''

Zimbabwean business leaders fear that better political relations would lead to cheap South African goods flooding its markets and pushing them out of business. Many of Zimbabwe's industries, which grew up under the artificial protection of pre-independence (1980) sanctions, are inefficient and badly in need of new equipment.

These industries would also find it difficult to compete with South Africa in regional markets. Although South Africa has continued to trade with its neighbors, it has been shut off from countries further afield, like Tanzania, and those which have barred South African products, like Angola. Some South African goods still reach these countries through indirect and black market routes.

Zimbabwe's industry and commerce minister, Kumbirai Kangai, told a recent business meeting here that the country's industries would soon be competing with South Africa in regional markets and would have to ``arm themselves with aggressive marketing and professional practices or risk folding.'' A similar theme has been echoed by other government officials. A businessman in Harare says that ``developments in South Africa will only be positive if we are innovative enough.''

Before Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) became independent, the country coexisted with its prosperous neighbor by finding niches - like manufacturing special types of furniture or electronic goods - where it had competitive advantages, a Zimbabwean banker says.

The likelihood of a free South Africa emerging, according to the banker, has simply highlighted the need for Zimbabwe to push ahead with a much-talked-about trade liberalization plan. Zimbabwe's finance minister, Bernard Chidzero, announced at a Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries meeting this week that the Cabinet has approved a policy framework including trade liberalization, but will not release the details until later this month.

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