Martin Vander Weyer’s thoughts on the world of business
Shell and Barclays were the two highest-profile British companies in South Africa during the apartheid era. Both pursued non- racial business practices as far as they could, but both endured years of disrupted shareholder meetings and flak from the student Left. Shell stuck it out — and shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela declared, ‘We’re glad you stayed.’ Barclays bowed to the protesters and abandoned its network of 900 branches in 1986; when the bank returned in 1995 to open one office in Johannesburg, Mandela told the men from Lombard Street, ‘You should never have sold.’ British companies operating in Zimbabwe today (including Barclays, which has been there since 1912) must be confused as to the right thing to do: the Prime Minister has advised them to ‘reconsider’; Lord Malloch-Brown, his minister for Africa, has suggested they might be pressed to leave as part of tougher sanctions against Mugabe; the Foreign Office has been quietly advising them to stay. Of course it must be difficult to operate without being tainted by such a viciously corrupt regime; banks, for example, are required to buy treasury bills from the central bank in Harare (thus ‘bankrolling Mugabe’) to meet ‘reserve requirements’ which are a condition of operating at all. But on balance, the best thing British firms can do for Mugabe’s victims is to hang in there and provide elements of commercial normality and contact with the wider economic world, while having as little truck as possible with Zanu-PF. I’m sure that’s what Mandela would recommend.
On a happier note, I attended a cere- mony last week in which our vicar was inducted into the college of canons of York Minster.