LONDON (Reuters) - Like millions of Zimbabweans living abroad, Leslie Maruziva follows the tortuous power-sharing talks going on at home. He wonders about leaving London and going back. But for now, he is unconvinced.
Up to 4 million Zimbabweans are estimated to live outside the country, in neighboring South Africa, Mozambique or Botswana, or further afield in Britain, the United States and Canada, while around 13 million remain at home.
If President Robert Mugabe were to step down or agree to share power with the opposition, which boycotted June elections condemned internationally as unfair, many might decide to return to Zimbabwe. But until there are guarantees about the pace and extent of change, most will hold off.
“I have one eye looking very closely at developments back home -- I speak to people, I have family there -- but I‘m not going to rush anything,” said Maruziva, 38, a senior executive with the London Development Agency.
He has lived in Britain since 1989 and is now married -- to a Ghanaian -- with young children. His friends in Britain include Zimbabwean investment bankers and doctors.
“I’ve been here a long time, I have a family here and it’s not just a case of upping and leaving and going back. There’s a lot to take into account. I know a lot of Zimbabwean professionals who are in a similar situation.”
A large percentage of those who have left Zimbabwe are well-educated professionals -- the kind of people many African countries want to lure back. They have found jobs in their adopted countries and started families. Returning when things are uncertain is, for many, just too much of a risk.
”I don’t want to go back blind,“ Maruziva said. ”I need to be able to go back and set myself up with a job that allows me to provide for my family, both my immediate family and the extended family, and that is not going to happen overnight.
“Political stability is essential, and other things will fall into place after that, but it will take time.”
Thousands of Nigerians, Kenyans, Ghanaians and other Africans, who left as refugees or to study and work abroad, have returned home in recent years to invest, eager to help their countries’ development and cash in on opportunities for growth.
But the countries that have enticed back their educated diaspora are generally relatively stable -- like Ghana and Nigeria -- or have enjoyed several years of peace after war, like Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Zimbabwe has not been at war but its once promising economy is in ruins, with the world’s highest inflation and chronic fuel and food shortages. Without a resolution to the political crisis, there is little hope of economic recovery.
Zimbabweans, whether educated professionals or the millions of less well-off who have fled by foot across the border, can’t afford to wait forever for their homeland to turn around.
Traditionally a stable and productive nation, Zimbabwe has natural beauty, minerals like platinum, gold and diamonds and an education system that is the envy of the rest of Africa. As a place to invest, it is a hot ticket and the earliest movers may very likely have an advantage.
Russian and Chinese entrepreneurs are already looking at opportunities, and wealthy Zimbabweans abroad are also lining themselves up, having bought property and small businesses on the cheap in recent years, betting that the situation would eventually turn and they would be well placed.
This year, investors have so far poured an estimated $150-$250 million (80-134 million pounds) into what was once southern Africa’s major grain producer, and Zimbabweans abroad send back around $50 million a month.
Investors from other African nations, such as Nigeria and Ghana, are also staying abreast of the situation, familiar with how rapidly nations can turn around and business opportunities spring up. Timing, for all, is of the essence.
“Right now, the risk-takers are already taking up positions,” said Shingai Ndoro, 29, the chief executive of JT Global Group, a London-based consultancy that is looking to help investors and skilled Zimbabweans return to the country.
”Even the regular man on the street in Zimbabwe right now is very entrepreneurial -- he has to be or otherwise he won’t make enough to survive. I think that entrepreneurial spirit is going to be carried forward, and so people will have to be sharp.
“A lot of colleagues and professionals living here in England have already developed their networks back home. For me, it wouldn’t take me more than a few months to go back, even if it might take five years for the situation to really turn around, or even for the exchange rate to stabilize.”
Opportunities may abound, but the challenges run deep.
Inflation is running at more than two million percent, a figure that is essentially meaningless -- until a redenomination of the currency this month, the largest note was worth 100 billion. Most fundamentally, there is not enough food.
Even if Mugabe, 84, were to step aside, or at least share power, the differences between his ZANU-PF party and their rivals would not be settled overnight, and the militant mobs who support him are unlikely to stop their attacks on opponents.
Thousands of people who have voted against Mugabe or openly opposed his rule say they have been beaten and tortured by his followers before fleeing into exile. They want justice, or at least a fair hearing, and won’t return until they feel sure.
“There are many, many people who would want to return and contribute to the rebuilding of Zimbabwe, but there is still uncertainty and a lack of clarity about what role the diaspora would play,” said Gabriel Shumba, the director of the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, a support group based in South Africa.
”There are people who have been tortured, raped, people whose families have been killed. Do they want to return right away, without knowing if there will be justice?
“I think many people will wait to see how the situation develops, to make sure that there is no longer violence, that inflation has gone down. Perhaps it will be one or two years.”
For Maruziva, who left as an adventurous 18-year-old to go backpacking in Europe and didn’t return partly for political reasons, the key will be striking a balance between keeping the family he now has in Britain comfortable, and not missing out on opportunities Zimbabwe may soon offer.
”I think you will see Zimbabweans making new ties, testing the water to go back, but not leaving everything they’ve got here because they can’t afford to go back and lose everything.
“People with money to invest, whether in property or small businesses or mineral processing, they are ready. But the time is not yet. It’s still some time off,” said Maruziva.