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Clinging to power in Zimbabwe

THOUGH A PRESIDENTIAL election, victory for Morgan Tsvangirai, the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), would effectively mean the defeat of the Zanu-PF government. Defeat for Robert Mugabe would be the end of an era and a regime hated by the overwhelming majority of the Zimbabwean population.

The Zimbabwean constitution empowers the president to nominate at least ten members of parliament, which would enable the MDC to become the majority party. There is then far more at stake than the fate of Robert Mugabe, the ageing and increasingly tyrannical former hero of the national liberation war against white minority rule and colonialism. Mugabe’s cronies in the political elite, who have benefited from his corrupt patronage, fear for their future.

This partially explains why Mugabe’s position within his own party appears to be more secure now than it was before the last elections, as the ruling elite avoids public displays of division. In the run-up to the May 2000 general elections such had been the level of revolt against the regime that cracks had begun to appear in Mugabe’s personal authority within Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front). And as recently as the Zanu-PF congress last year, "the army, police, intelligence organisation and air force brass urged Mugabe to quit and appoint a successor to enhance Zanu-PF’s chances in the election". (Sunday Independent, 30 December 2001)

In January, however, army commander, Vitalis Zvinavashe, issued a thinly-veiled threat of a military coup in the event of a MDC victory: "Let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. We will, therefore, not accept, let alone support or salute anyone, with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty, our country and our people". (Tsvangirai is a former mineworker who became general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988 when the trade unions severed their political ties with Zanu-PF. He did not participate in the war for national liberation which ended in 1979.)

A generalised revolt against the Zanu-PF government was developing prior to the parliamentary elections, involving wide sections of society – students, the working class and middle class in the cities, and the rural masses. Mugabe contained a highly embarrassing revolt by ‘war veterans’ by conceding improved pensions, supplemented by a generous ex-gratia payment. But his decision to fund these concessions by an increase in the general sales tax triggered the biggest general strike in Zimbabwe’s history. During the elections, a number of Zanu-PF candidates broke away to stand as independent candidates. The police commissioner defied a presidential order to rescind anti-corruption measures and in a referendum on the constitution Mugabe suffered an unprecedented and humiliating defeat.

Although the MDC failed to oust Zanu-PF, it won 57 of the 120 seats. This was a huge achievement for an opposition party less than two years old standing in elections for the first time. Mugabe’s support was reduced to the rural areas as the MDC took virtually all the urban seats.

Remarkable as the MDC’s vote was, however, its failure to oust Zanu-PF when the regime had its back to the wall enabled Mugabe to survive and use his presidential powers to enhance his prospects in the presidential elections.

After this scare, Mugabe is leaving nothing to chance. In what amounts to a creeping coup d’état, he has systematically manipulated the law and the electoral process to ensure a return to power. Above all, he has cynically used the burning injustice of the unresolved land question to conceal his real programme, which is to hold onto power at all costs.

He has introduced a raft of draconian laws effectively stripping the opposition of its electoral rights and threatening democratic rights in general. This has been reinforced with brutal state force. Where MDC rallies are permitted participants are frequently intimidated, assaulted and even murdered. Thousands of people have been effectively disenfranchised through the confiscation of identity documents. More than 100 MDC supporters have been killed, at least 20,000 displaced and over 8,000 assaulted. Journalists critical of the government have been harassed, detained and tortured, newspaper offices petrol bombed and printing presses destroyed. In the name of ridding Zimbabwe of the last vestiges of colonialism, Mugabe has forced a number of judges to resign, replacing them with his cronies. Severe restrictions have been imposed on foreign and local election observers.

Under these circumstances to argue, as South Africa’s ANC government does, that it is still an open question as to whether the election will be ‘free and fair’ is disingenuous, to say the least. It cannot be judged by what transpires on polling day alone. The position of the ANC, however, led by Thabo Mbeki, is that the election has to be declared ‘sufficiently’ free and fair. Despite the fact that there are no fundamental differences between the ANC and MDC – both are adherents of neo-liberalism and ingratiate themselves with imperialism – the fact that the MDC was a product of the revolt against the party of national liberation explains the ANC’s antagonism towards it. The ANC does not want to legitimise the development of a mass opposition in South Africa, especially from Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), or deal with the spillover effects of a potential civil war.

Mugabe’s draconian measures confirm the authoritarian and anti-democratic traditions which characterised Zanu-PF as a national liberation movement. Despite its radical Marxist rhetoric, and notwithstanding the reforms of the early years, Zanu-PF’s programme in government has been consistently capitalist. After being elevated into office on a wave of popular support after the defeat of Ian Smith’s British-backed rule, the Mugabe regime suppressed strikes by armed force. Opposition to the government by the minority Ndebele population in the south was bloodily suppressed by the notorious North Korean trained 5th Brigade at a cost of over 20,000 lives. The socialist transformation of society through a workers’ led revolution was never on the Zanu-PF agenda.

Despite this, the conditions under which Mugabe has begun to turn back the tide of opposition were partially prepared by the conduct of the MDC itself. Although a product of the popular rebellion, the speed with which the MDC converted to neo-liberalism is little short of astonishing. The fact that the MDC is backed by big business and white farmers at home and imperialism and its institutions – the IMF and World Bank – abroad, has undermined its support amongst the masses in Zimbabwe and throughout southern Africa. Undoubtedly, the brutality of the ‘war veterans’ was a critical factor in determining the vote in the countryside. However, the fact that white farmers, who continue to oppress and exploit farm labourers, supported the MDC, also contributed to undermining its rural vote.

In a determined bid for bourgeois respectability, the MDC has refrained from mobilising mass action against the regime. Instead, it has turned to the ‘international community’ to exert pressure on Mugabe. This has enabled him to present the political survival of his regime as a struggle against foreign interference in defence of white minority business and farming interests, and to denounce the MDC as agents of imperialism.

Mugabe attempted to increase social spending, price controls and forcible land seizures after the general election, issued condemnations of privatisation and even made vague mutterings about a ‘return’ to socialism. He shows no inclination, however, of abandoning the fundamental course of the economic policy on which the twenty-two years of Zanu-PF rule has been based. The masses in Zimbabwe are faced with a choice between the rock of the MDC and the hard place of Zanu-PF.

Since the May 2000 elections the economic situation has deteriorated even further. Simba Makoni, the technocrat appointed as finance minister, predicted the economy would contract by ‘only’ 2.8% in 2001. In fact, it contracted by an estimated 7.3% and is expected to shrink a further 5.3% in 2002. Poverty levels have shot up, with over three-quarters of Zimbabweans living below the poverty line. Foreign investment has dried up, exports have fallen, and inflation (now at 117%) reached the point where Zimbabwe’s economy was considered hyperinflationary. (Star Business Report, 2 November 2001)

Makoni’s privatisation programme failed miserably. Instead of the projected revenue of Z$22bn (US$367m), the proceeds from privatisation were a paltry Z$5bn (US$83m). It also placed basic services even further beyond the reach of the mass of the population as costs escalated astronomically. Arrears on Zimbabwe’s foreign debt rose to US$682m, with debt servicing consuming 48% of the budget. Little wonder that Makoni resigned.

The regime’s chaotic land redistribution programme has aggravated the catastrophic social crisis. There has been a dramatic decline in agricultural production forcing the government to appeal to foreign donors for emergency food aid.

The imperialist powers’ approach to the crisis is soaked in hypocrisy. They were quite happy to do business with Mugabe for as long as he was able to maintain stability. Once the masses had moved into action, however, imperialism decided that Mugabe had reached his sell-by date. As the struggle prepared the way for the development of a political opposition, imperialism moved in rapidly to steer the MDC in a direction that would guarantee their interests. Millions of US dollars, overseas trips and audiences with the representatives of the major capitalist powers ensured that imperialism’s newly-adopted alternative political management has the ‘right’ policies.

European Union (EU) assurances that it has no quarrel with the Zimbabwean people, and that so-called ‘smart sanctions’ are directed exclusively against Mugabe and his inner circle, are cynical ploys to portray EU action as that of solidarity with the long-suffering masses. Yet the EU’s quarrel is precisely with the masses and their rejection of the capitalist policies imposed by the Mugabe regime.

The MDC’s programme proposes to speed up the very policies which have been such a spectacular failure. It wants to carry out an even more savage assault on living standards, aiming to put in place within the first 100 days in office plans for handing over education, health and parastatals (state-owned organisations) to the private sector.

Mbeki has floated the idea of a government coalition between the MDC and Zanu-PF. Such is the depth of political hostility that such an outcome is not being considered by either party, at this stage. However, a stalemate in the elections or a narrow victory for either party and the possibility of civil conflict may increase the pressure exerted by South Africa and the EU on Tsvangirai and Mugabe to reach a compromise. Therefore, a Zimbabwean national unity government cannot be completely ruled out. But in the unlikely event of this occurring, such a government would be incapable of solving any of the country’s problems.

Socialists must, of course, defend the right of Zimbabweans to elect a government of their choice, in an atmosphere free of intimidation and violence, with the right of self-defence against Zanu-PF militias.

The Zimbabwean working class has no alterative but to start the process of building a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme from scratch. Such a party would address the land question through the nationalisation of the big farms and a massive land redistribution progamme implemented in consultation with peasants and rural workers. Such a programme would be based on the expropriation of the capitalist class in the cities and the introduction of a planned economy under the democratic control and management of the working class. Only a workers’ government supported by the peasantry can solve the problems facing Zimbabwe. Such a government would have to appeal to the working class in South Africa to prevent any possibility of foreign intervention and to access the resources of the most developed economy on the African continent.

Weizmann Hamilton,

Democratic Socialist Movement (South Africa)


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