By Jeffrey Moyo
Jobless and weighed down by idleness, 53-year-old Jasper Mhandu, in the Zimbabwean capital, now has to spend time sited at a street corner chatting with gangs of drug-taking jobless youths in Highfield, a poor income suburb here.
Mhandu used to work for a clothing factory that shut its operations in 2007 when Zimbabwe’s comatose economy forced many firms to close down.
15 years later, nothing has changed for many Zimbabweans like Mhandu, with no functioning industry to turn to while more and more jobless young people join him.
Yet that is not the story for Zimbabwe alone.
In neighbouring South Africa, despite the country being famed for being Africa’s economic powerhouse, industries have been closing down as the economy falls apart.
South Africa’s current unemployment rate stands out at 34 per cent.
The latest data from Statistics South Africa has shown there have been 997 liquidations of companies and close corporations between January and June 2021, up from 763 businesses over the same period in 2020.
Even as South Africans have over the years blamed foreigners for taking their jobs, economists there have painted a gloomy picture of the country’s deteriorating industrialization.
De-industrialization is happening instead.
As such, African countries like Zimbabwe have not been spared either, with 55 foreign-owned companies closing down since President Emmerson Mnangagwa seized power through a military coup in 2017.
Hundreds more firms had already shut down around 2007 and 2008 at the peak of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary era when inflation shot to 231 million per cent.
Now, battling to find answers to Africa’s industrialization crisis, the African Union (AU) Extraordinary Summit on Industrialization and Economic Diversification and AU Extraordinary Session on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) took place in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, from November 20 to 25.
Here, African leaders hoped to give a boost to the developing continent’s industrialization pace.
In fact, the 20th of every November is commemorated as the Africa Industrialization Day, adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the then Organization of African Unity in July 1989, in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
But for many Africans like Mhandu in Zimbabwe, such gatherings have meant nothing.
“Those are meetings for political elites, and I think they earn huge allowances just for attending such gatherings which don’t benefit poor Africans, particularly the many jobless young people you see here taking leisure in abusing drugs,” Mhandu told IDN.
As Mhandu shuns the just-ended AU industrialization summit, Zimbabwe has about 90 per cent unemployment, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
South Africa, laden with a population of 60 million people amid the closure of industries, has seen its citizens pinning the blame for unemployment on the influx of foreigners to their country.
“We have too many foreigners offering cheap labour to the industries here, and these employers now don’t prefer us for job opportunities because we know our worth,” 34-year-old Lwandile Zwane, a jobless South African with a diploma in Marketing, told IDN.
It is the same story in Malawi, where many more Malawians have remained jobless decades after the country gained independence from Britain as many industries shut down.
Just last year in Malawi, Kanengo Tobacco Processors Limited closed down, rendering more than 150 people jobless while the country’s Manica Limited and Bakhresa Malawi Limited announced plans to scale down and retrench some workers.
Yet the AU Summit on Industrialization and Economic Diversification was this year convened under the theme “Industrializing Africa: Renewed commitment towards an Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization and Economic Diversification.”
It (the Summit) was convened as part of the Africa Industrialization Week annual commemorative activities in Niger, one of the largest inland countries in West Africa.
Despite criticism from jobless Africans like Mhandu, twenty heads of state and government, as well as their representatives, attended the AU summit on industrialization.
With many unemployed youths across Africa speaking at the AU Industrialization Summit, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari urged African governments to optimize the continent’s huge youthful population for the growth of the underdeveloped continent.
“The African continent is blessed with a large youth population that can meet our labor shortages. Therefore, we need to tap into this abundant human resource by providing our youth with a quality education that is relevant to their goals and meets the requirements of the labour market,” said the Nigerian President.
Speaking at the continent’s industrial summit, Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, said the way forward on industrialization entails investment in energy and infrastructure.
“The pace of industrialization in Africa is still too slow to achieve Africa’s development goals under Agenda 2063. We need to invest more of our national budgets in industrial policy, and significantly increase energy and infrastructure capacity,” said Rwanda’s President.
In fact, at the summit, calls were made that Africa must industrialize, with leaders particularly agreeing to accelerate a commodity-based industrialization as an engine of growth, productive jobs and economic diversification through a regional value chain on the continent’s natural resources endowments.
However, just like Mhandu in Zimbabwe, for several other jobless Malawians like 32-year-old Andrew Banda, who holds a university degree, the AU industrialization summit has meant very little to him.
“We have been particularly led by corrupt leaders here in Malawi over the decades, and these kinds of regional meetings are not new to us. They are just standard meetings bringing together our oppressors, probably boasting amongst themselves on how they have profiteered ruling us,” Banda told IDN.
In any case, though, even as many Africans like Banda are sceptical, at the just-ended AU Industrialization summit, African leaders committed to decisions to accelerate industrialization, economic diversification and trade on the continent.
Present at the AU Industrialization Summit, Albert Muenda Muchanga, the African Union’s Commissioner for Economic Development, Trade, Tourism, Industry and Minerals, said, “we shall work on an action-oriented outcome document that opens new possibilities for the accelerated industrialization and economic diversification of Africa.”
Development expert in South Africa, Thembalathi Khumalo, based in Johannesburg, said Africa needs to overcome corruption from amongst its own leaders before it can start talking about industrialization.
“For as long as our bribe-taking leaders sign deals with corrupt investors from countries like China whose many industries evade paying tax, we are going nowhere and we will continue to see rising industries that don’t benefit us as Africans,” Khumalo told IDN.