South African Business In Zimbabwe

Questions are being raised about those who are crying crocodile tears for the victims of Robert Mugabe’s recent “Operation Murambatsvina-Restore Order” (or ‘Drive Out Trash’ in the indigenous Shona language), while making big profits at the same time.

Operation Murambatsvina-Restore Order saw the homes of 300 000 urban, poor Zimbabwean people destroyed over a period of about two months since May 2005. 23 000 traders had their stalls destroyed. According to Gorden Moyo of the Bulawayo Agenda, “the victims of the operation were never fore-warned of the impending disaster. They were ambushed and ransacked like trapped animals. Consequently, the vendors, informal traders, hawkers, slum dwellers, families and general public are traumatized, pauperized and ‘refugeesised’ by the government.” Most of the victims are now being held in well guarded refugee camps in remote rural areas.

Many of the bulldozers used in the destruction of homes and stalls were the notorious Caterpillars. There is already an international campaign against Caterpillar because of their business deals with the Israeli apartheid regime. The “Stop Caterpillar” campaign estimates that “50,000 Palestinians have been made homeless by Caterpillar bulldozers” used by the Israeli military, which have also destroyed massive amounts of trees and agricultural areas.

Because the bulldozers used in Palestine are sourced directly from the USA and Britian, activists in both countries have taken up a strong struggle against the company, demonstrating, organising international days of action, trying to unionise workers and barricading and blockading entrances to Caterpillar plants. And lately, activists in Southern Africa are focusing on ways to “Stop Caterpillar” in Zimbabwe.

Caterpillar bulldozers are represented internationally by the multinational Barloworld, which has its primary stock exchange listing in South Africa. Barloworld’s Caterpillar franchises account for more than a third of the group’s activities.  “Barloworld’s Caterpillar-dominated equipment business…is the flagship of the group, turning over roughly half of the R10-billion-worth of revenue that it generates a year in Iberia and half in Southern Africa”.[1] (R10 billion is $1.4 billion).

It seems that a large amount of this $1.4 billion profit might have come from selling Caterpillar bulldozers in Zimbabwe. While nobody wants to admit that it was their bulldozers that destroyed the Zimbabwean communities, what is known is that Barloworld South Africa wholly owns Barloworld Zimbabwe, which is known as Barzem. And Barzem is the sole supplier of Caterpillar bulldozers in Zimbabwe. Barzem does not have an assembly plant and so the bulldozers and road-graders (also used to demolish structures) are imported fully assembled. Barzem’s website also does not exist in itself, but simply links right back to the Barloworld South Africa website.

A member of the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe who prefers to be known as Rosa Zulu, posed as a buyer to get more information. The Barzem sales department told her that virtually all Caterpillar bulldozers in Zimbabwe are imported from the USA. If there is an urgent order, they will outsource from their Barloworld associates in South Africa, Zambia and Mauritius.

Barzem also told Rosa Zulu that the Zimbabwean government is currently spending $123 000 on every Caterpillar bulldozer it imports. Nobody will say if the Operation Murambatsvina-Restore Order was urgently planned and hence necessitated the import of fully assembled Caterpillar bulldozers from South Africa or if all bulldozers were imported directly from America. 

Barloworld’s Head of Corporate Communications Mark Drewell was asked to comment broadly on political developments in Zimbabwe from a business perspective, Drewell said that “as a business organisation we are frustrated like everybody else with what’s happening in Zimbabwe.”

When asked if Barloworld had any businesses in Zimbabwe, Drewell said that “We have a cement business in Zimbabwe, and although the economy is not functioning effectively we are still operating.”

Drewell refers here to Barloworld’s 70% controlling share in Pretoria Portland Cement Company, which owns the second largest cement supplier in Zimbabwe. When people start rebuilding their bulldozed homes, they are likely to be using Barloworld’s PPC Cement.

Despite the fact that it is the sole agent for Caterpillar bulldozers in Zimbabwe, Drewell claimed that Barloworld has only a “minority interest in the Caterpillar business in Zimbabwe.” Drewell claimed that Barloworld does not own Barzem. “It’s a pity because I don’t have the exact percentage of our shareholders in the company with me at this moment. But the point is we do not own the company.”

None of the big capitalists want to be linked to the destruction of 300 000 homes. While virtually all white South Africans are decrying the tactics of the Mugabe regime, this clearly does not stop white business people from providing the implements used to carry out that destruction.

Yet more capitalists are also benefiting from the repressive practices of the Mugabe regime. In 2002, the Mugabe regime acquired Mercedes Benz trucks from the US-German firm Daimler Chrysler through their local agent Zimoco, had the trucks converted into armoured personnel carriers for use by the police and army. Israel is also helping the Mugabe regime out. More of the same Mercedes Benz trucks were converted by an Israeli company, Beit Alfa Trailer Company, into water cannons.

The Zimbabwe Social Forum’s Youth Council says that the Mugabe regime is trying to “rebuild a full-scale neo-liberal economic order”.

“He wants a new socio-economic culture to support this new order. He wants every economic activity to be taxed; in a sense he wants to be the best (worst) tax collector there is. So when you want to buy a tomato you go into a registered supermarket. Already the cross border traders have come under attack losing goods and their money at borders. While he is mercilessly attacking the poor, Mugabe is doing everything to defend and protect the interests of capital.”

The Youth Council has called for a “general strike to end Mugabe’s ‘operation attack the poor’”. The Youth Council has also called for the “release of all those arrested, return of all confiscated goods, reopening of all flea markets and informal trading areas, an end to harassment of commuters and compensation to all those whose property was destroyed in this madness.”



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