Tanzania is probably the only country in East Africa where a foreign machinga (petty trader) can pass for an investor. The neighbourhood of Kitumbini in Dar es Salaam's central business district is full of such investors. Of course, all of them have their papers in order - and some are even certified as bona fide citizens.
On the other hand, Tanzania has been able to attract many genuine foreign investors, notably in its nascent, but lucrative mining sector.
But whether we are talking about genuine or machinga investors, the battle lines are almost always blurred by self-interest.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the ongoing dispute between freelance tanzanite gemstone miners and African Gem Resources (Afgem) of South Africa at the Mererani gemstone mines in Arusha.
In this particular case, Afgem is being portrayed as a brutal force, out to harass, threaten and intimidate small-scale miners. A series of violent confrontations have occurred, in which enthusiastic Afgem security guards have been accused of using live bullets and vicious guard dogs.
Granted, there has been an unwarranted use of force on the part of
Afgem. But the incident also reflects a broader trend of reckless display of
financial muscle by Tanzania's foreign investors, who are seldom held
accountable for their actions - all for fear of
scaring away investors.
In Mererani, 285 blocks out of the 300 mining sites have been allocated to senior ruling party functionaries and civil servants - the latter mostly army officers - from both Arusha region and Dar.
President Mkapa, in his May Day address, sympathised with Tanzania's workers when he noted that there were a number of fake investors who mistreated their workers.
Some pay workers wages below the compulsory minimum, which is pegged at Tsh45,000 ($52) per month, while the workers provide labour for more than the standard eight hours a day for five days. There is no overtime payment. Workers are locked in factories for hours on end without rest.
There are others who seem to have no interest in the working conditions in their factories, observing no safety measures against machines or chemicals.
President Mkapa has in recent months instructed the country's privatisation organisation to review the investors' role. Many of them promised, when buying state-owned institutions and factories, to benefit Tanzanians by expanding business and to creating jobs. Instead, they have turned them into simple warehouses.
It it is necessary to review labour laws and strengthen labour unions for the good of investors, the government and Tanzanian workers.
That Prsident Mkapa has expressed a resolve resolve to make Tanzania a better place to invest in and work for foreigners and locals alike is commendable. However, what Tanzanians need is concrete action in that direction. The investors have had it too good for far too long.