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Issue 47

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Issue 47, May 2000

Zimbabwe on the brink

    Mugabe's 'Marxism'
    Zimbabwe's 'Red 1990s'
    The character of the opposition

Zimbabwe stands on the edge of a precipice. Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the party of liberation in government since the end of colonial rule, faces defeat in parliamentary elections due this year. WEIZMANN HAMILTON, from the Democratic Socialist Movement (South African affiliate of the CWI), assesses the situation 20 years after independence.

IN FEBRUARY MUGABE suffered a humiliating rebuff in his constitutional referendum. He had promoted his constitutional proposals as being necessary to break the shackles of the Lancaster House constitution, negotiated at independence in 1979. Among other things, the settlement entrenched the dispossession of land held by the white minority. Rejection of the referendum proposals indicated the depth of the hatred amongst the masses for the Mugabe regime.

Tensions have risen sharply as Mugabe, in a desperate attempt to hang onto power, has mobilised the veterans of the liberation struggle to forcibly seize land from white farmers. The Mugabe government (as we go to press) has invoked the special powers of the Law and Order Maintenance Act, a draconian law inherited without amendment from Ian Smith's racist regime, which used it against the liberation movement. Mugabe is now using it to curb the movement of supporters of opposition parties and to ban public gatherings.


Mugabe seems to have the support of the police, who have stood by passively while Zanu-PF supporters have been violently attacking supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and who have refused to enforce the decisions of the courts which have declared the farm occupations illegal. Encouraged by this, Mugabe appears to be preparing for the possibility of holding onto power by force. Talks with the British government on financing land reform have broken down, with Mugabe defiantly rejecting the Blair government's preconditions for the money promised for land reform.

Mugabe believes he cannot lose anything. The land issue is, of course, real. A third of Zimbabwean territory and three-quarters of the best farmland - in a country of 12 million people, with an area the size of Spain - is still owned by 4,500 white commercial farmers.

But Mugabe's sudden conversion into a champion of the dispossessed, 20 years after independence, on the eve of an election in which he is likely to be defeated, is a cynical attempt to manipulate the masses to prolong his rule. It is a ploy to conceal from the masses at home and abroad his real record: 20 years of faithful service at the altar of capitalism, working with imperialism and white minority economic domination.

The denunciation of the West and Britain in particular, and their demands for the restoration of the 'rule of law', have been manna to Mugabe. He portrays the West's reaction as imperialist interference in defence of the white minority, aided and abetted by their local agents, the MDC.


The West's sudden questioning of Mugabe's democratic credentials clearly has absolutely nothing to do with defending the interests of the Zimbabwean masses. The West's only interests are those of imperialism. Their problem with the land invasions is that Mugabe is desecrating a cardinal principle of capitalism: the 'right' to private ownership of property - the basis of capitalist exploitation. Mugabe's threats to nationalise British companies has struck fear into the hearts of imperialism: they recognise that Mugabe is manoeuvring, but they fear that the masses may respond enthusiastically to Mugabe's call.

One-third of the Zimbabwean economy is foreign owned, with South Africa, Britain and the US major stakeholders. The West's demand that Mugabe should uphold the 'rule of law' is really a demand for the 'rights' of the whites (less than 1% of the population) to own the country's best land which it forcibly took possession of during the bloody process of colonisation. White ownership of the land guarantees that the capitalist class and imperialism can continue to exploit the people and the resources of Zimbabwe, while 70% of the population lives in abject poverty in the countryside.

top     Mugabe's 'Marxism'

ALTHOUGH MUGABE WAS portrayed as a 'Marxist' and his government's policies as 'socialist' throughout the post-independence period, the reality is that the West was happy to do business with him. They accepted that there was no reliable alternative to a government which was formed out of a liberation movement and whose rhetoric during the liberation struggle was inevitably anti-capitalist. Their preferred candidate, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, was rejected with contempt by the masses as a stooge of the white minority and imperialism. At the time, the Rhodesian army command seriously considered a coup to stop Mugabe from coming to power, when the elections results showed an overwhelming majority for the party, Zanu-PF, that was seen as being prepared to go the furthest in eradicating all vestiges of imperialism and colonialism. Fortunately, from the standpoint of imperialism, sanity prevailed and no attempt was made to stop Mugabe's accession to power.


British and US imperialism understood the situation and dragged Smith to the negotiating table by the scruff of his neck. He had become a threat to their interests. A coup, to be successful, would have required an invasion by the apartheid South African regime. But this was against the background of the defeat of Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola in 1974, which led to the collapse of capitalism and landlordism in more countries on the western and eastern fronts of Southern African. A further defeat for landlordism and capitalism in Zimbabwe would have left South Africa and its colony, South-West Africa (now Namibia), vulnerable as the sole outposts of white minority rule. Moreover, the apartheid ruling class was faced at home with a restive proletariat, the most powerful in Africa.

As it turned out, however, imperialism could not believe its luck. From the very beginning, Mugabe was a faithful worshipper of the market, and dedicated himself to the preservation of capitalism. Workers who went on strike and occupied factories believing that the 'people's government' would welcome this, found themselves staring into the barrels of the guns of liberation. While Mugabe was entertaining Anglo-American's Harry Oppenheimer in the capital, Harare, workers at the Anglo-American owned Wankie colliery were driven back to work at gunpoint.

Imperialism's quarrel with Mugabe is over the fact that he has outlived his usefulness. They fear that if he does not step aside, the movement could become radicalised and they cannot be sure that the untested MDC will be able to contain the situation.


For the masses, Mugabe's compromises with capitalism meant another 20 years of the very privations that had fuelled the struggle for liberation. Mugabe ruled with an iron fist, brutally suppressing every sign of resistance to his rule, especially by the working class. In the 1980s, 20,000 people were slaughtered in a savage campaign against the Ndebele minority. The present situation is rooted in this history, in the fact that the masses have understood that the party of liberation has betrayed them.

The Mugabe government's economic policies have been disastrous. Unemployment is at record levels, with less than 25% of the economically active population in a job. One-third of Zimbabweans are unable to afford a basic food basket, shelter, minimal clothing, education, health care and transport. The top 10% of Zimbabweans consume 34% of all goods and services while the bottom 10% consumes just 3%.

This situation is a direct result of the implementation of the IMF's structural adjustment programme. Known in Zimbabwe by its acronym, ESAP (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme), it is said by workers to stand for 'Eternal Suffering for African People'. First imposed in 1990, it devastated the economy, leading to a 40% drop in the volume of manufacturing output between 1990 and 1995. Living standards plummeted, rolling back in four years the modest gains of the first ten years of independence.

top     Zimbabwe's 'Red 1990s'

ZIMBABWE GAINED ITS independence in 1979 after a heroic liberation struggle that cost the lives of 30,000 Zimbabweans. However, the settlement negotiated at Lancaster House and accepted by Zanu-PF provided for the protection of Zimbabwean capitalist and imperialist interests. Private ownership of property in industry and land was maintained, leaving industry, the banks, mines and above all commercial farmland, in the hands of the white minority. To add insult to injury, a clause was inserted into the constitution reserving 20 seats in the Zimbabwean parliament for whites.


The effect of this compromise was that the hunger for land - the main driving force of the liberation struggle and the cause for which the Zimbabwean peasants had suffered and sacrificed so much - was not satisfied. The preservation of capitalism in the city and the countryside, together with reserved seats for whites in parliament, combined to frustrate the national-democratic and social aims of the revolution.

For a time, however, the Zanu-PF government was able to introduce some limited reforms. Taking advantage of an economic boom in 1980-81, drawing on resources previously used by the defeated white minority regime for the war against the liberation struggle, and pushed by a strike-wave by workers, Mugabe's government was able to introduce a minimum wage, improve protection for workers, reduce the infant mortality rate to 49 from 86 per 1,000 live births, raise the immunisation rate from 25% to 80%, increase life expectancy from 56 to 62 years, double primary school enrolment and improve health care.

One indication of just how far things have gone back is the fact that today one-in-five adults is infected with HIV/Aids, with 2,000 a week dying from the disease.

The savage assault on the living standards of the masses through ESAP spurred the workers into action. For Zimbabwe, the last decade has been the 'Red 1990s'. Previously constrained by a corrupt trade union leadership imposed by the Zanu-PF bureaucracy, an increasingly militant working class transformed their trade unions and forced the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to break with Zanu-PF. Tied to the Zanu-PF bureaucracy through the personal relationship between the state president and his ZCTU general-secretary brother, Albert, the ZCTU leadership for a long time acted as a brake on the membership, clamping down on any sign of militancy in collaboration with the police and the Central Intelligence Organisation.


By the mid-1990s, the flood of revolt burst over the dam walls. In 1997 the present day 'land invaders' - veterans of the liberation war - inspired by the revolt of the working class, openly confronted Mugabe, demanding compensation payouts and pensions. Shaken by these protests, and unable to utilise the traditional method of repression, the government decided to pay several thousand of them 50,000 Zimbabwean dollars plus Z$2,000 a month pension.

Far from pacifying the situation, however, it merely conveyed an impression of weakness. The government's decision to finance the payment to the war vets by a huge hike in general sales tax acted as a provocation, inflaming the situation, and the movement spread to the countryside. This escalating social revolt culminated in Red Tuesday on 9 December 1997, when over a million people joined an anti-government stay-away general strike.

With the umbilical cord between the ZCTU and Zanu-PF broken, a political vacuum opened up. The question was posed of the need for a political vehicle for the discontent of the working class. Driven forward by the workers, ZCTU set into motion the process of the formation of a political party: the Movement for Democratic Change is the product of that process.

top     The character of the opposition

THE MOST LIKELY outcome of a general election will be a defeat for Zanu-PF. This is indicated not only by Mugabe's defeat in the February referendum, but also by the disarray in Zanu-PF's ranks. A number of senior party members are breaking away to stand as independent candidates. It is also clear that the attempt to intimidate the opposition has failed. The Zimbabwe Standard (9 April) reports that war veterans who set out to disrupt a 6,000-strong MDC rally ended up joining the rally instead after being disarmed.


Unfortunately, however, the MDC leadership has executed a right turn at an astonishing speed. Zimbabwean capitalists and white farmers have joined the MDC, with Eddie Cross, a white millionaire, occupying the position of chief economic adviser. The right-wing US think tank - the Freedom Foundation - is reported to have donated US$1 million to the MDC. The leadership boasts that they have 'successfully sold [their] economic policies to key international donors such as the World Bank , the European Union and the IMF'. These institutions have promised to release to a government which meets their approval the part of the standby credit facility of US$193 million approved last August but suspended after the government failed to stick to agreed macro-economic targets.

The MDC has adopted the very same neo-liberal policies that have brought the Zimbabwean economy to its knees and devastated the lives of the masses. They oppose the land invasions, favouring instead an 'orderly' resolution of the land question. But they have not spelled out what exactly that means. On the basis of such a programme, the MDC will be incapable of solving any of the fundamental problems of the masses. The MDC, a product of the struggle of the working class, has been hijacked by pro-capitalist elements with the full acquiescence of the MDC leadership. The working class needs a political party with a socialist programme or else not a single problem of the Zimbabwean masses will be solved.

Mugabe has ruthlessly exploited the impression that the MDC leadership is in the pockets of the white farmers and British imperialism. But this has not arrested the decline in his own political authority. Whilst not many will shed any tears for the white commercial farmers who continue to exploit their farm labourers and whose control of the land is resented by the peasants, the methods of the war veterans have alienated the peasants and the farm labourers.


The land invasions are not an expression of a peasant uprising or part of a comprehensive land reform programme. It is a desperate, improvised attempt by Mugabe to cash-in on the concessions he made to the war veterans, to shore up his dwindling base of support in an attempt to avoid defeat in the coming elections. If Mugabe was serious about social transformation he would use state power to carry out a thoroughgoing restitution of land to the peasants and landless labourers. But clearly this is not his plan. He has embarked on an opportunist manoeuvre to dupe the masses with left-wing gestures to conceal a fundamentally anti-working class, pro-capitalist programme.

Socialists would be in favour of confiscating land and redistributing it to the peasants. But this must be done within the context of a comprehensive land reform programme. It would require the nationalisation not only of the big commercial farms, but also the commanding heights of the economy to provide the resources necessary to develop viable agricultural production throughout the countryside. The economy would have to be run on a planned basis, under the democratic control and management of the working class. It would be part of the process of the socialist transformation of society under a workers' government supported by the peasantry.

Such a revolution, however, could not be accomplished isolated within Zimbabwean borders - it would require the support of the workers and peasants throughout Southern Africa, especially in South Africa. Only on an international basis will the problems of the Zimbabwean workers and peasants be solved.


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