Nestlé under pressure to renew commercial ties with Mugabes
By Alex Bell
23 October 2009
International food giant Nestlé has this week come under growing pressure from groups loyal to Robert Mugabe and his family, to renew its recently severed commercial ties with the First Family.
The group ended its commercial link with the Grace Mugabe owned Gushongo Dairy Estate, a farm which was seized at the height of the land ‘reform’ programme, over international condemnation of the relationship. In petty retaliation, the company’s bank accounts in Zimbabwe were frozen, but although that situation has been rectified, the pressure on Nestlé to reverse its decision has kept building.
Last week a group of youths tried to force the Zimbabwe branch of Nestlé to buy more than 20 000 litres milk from Gushongo Estate. It’s understood the group, led by Youth Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and his ZANU PF politburo member brother Tongai, tried to force Nestlé staff to offload the milk tanker that had been transported from Gushongo farm. But after a four hour stand off, including intense debate and negotiations with Nestlé Zimbabwe management, the tanker and the ZANU PF youth group were turned away.
A local black empowerment group then lashed out at Nestlé on Wednesday, saying the international group should be forced to sell its Harare branch to local blacks if it refuses to renew its relationship with Mrs Mugabe. The Affirmative Action Group (AAG), whose members are reported to be closely linked to ZANU PF, on Wednesday said Nestlé’s refusal to buy milk from Gushungo farm was part of a ‘foreign regime change agenda’. The group added that the international firm should not be allowed to continue ‘embarrassing’ the President’s family.
Independent economist John Robertson explained to SW Radio Africa on Friday that the pressure on Nestlé by Mugabe loyalists “was to be expected,” adding the threats won’t affect Nestlé’s decision.
“The pressure has come without any official power or authority to follow through on the threats,” Robertson said. “They don’t have the power to sway a big corporation like Nestlé.”
Robertson at the same time dismissed the comments by the AAG, saying “the people or individuals needed are just not there to take over this company.” He agreed the ‘milk-saga’ has been incredibly embarrassing for Nestlé, but said it will now work to protect its international reputation first.
“Nestlé would rather remove themselves from Zimbabwe altogether than cave to this pressure,” Robertson said.
The move to sever ties with Mrs Mugabe came after Nestlé faced intense pressure from human rights groups and concerned individuals, amid revelations that the Swiss company was buying up to a million litres of milk a year from the Gushongo Dairy Estate. This was despite the fact that the dairy farm was owned by the First Family, responsible for the destruction of Zimbabwean agriculture through so called land ‘reform’.
Although Switzerland has restrictions against members of the Mugabe regime, the Swiss government had defended Nestlé Zimbabwe’s relationship with Mrs Mugabe, arguing the regulations they have in place only apply to firms in Switzerland and not subsidiaries elsewhere in the world. But critics immediately lashed out at the food group over its disregard for basic corporate responsibility, saying multinational support of the Mugabes would ensure their continued corrupt practices.