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Political Reawakening in Zimbabwe

Patrick Bond teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management in Johannesburg and is the author of Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development and Underdevelopment (Trenton: Africa World Press, 1998).

In Zimbabwe, is a post-nationalist politics propelled by progressive currents finally on the horizon? Has fatigue associated with the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union’s (ZANU’s) malgovernance and economic mistakes finally reached a breaking point? If so, do these developments reflect a general dynamic in the broader social struggle against the globalized, neoliberal form international capitalism now takes? Will a new labor party emerge as the organizational basis for popular aspirations?

Since 1996, a fusillade of optimistic moments in the country’s biggest cities (Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare), and in disparate rural sites of protest, have signalled that poor and working people are poised for a period of mass democratic struggle. It is paradoxical, perhaps, how far ZANU has fallen from popular grace, for this strategic southern African nation’s independence was, of course, greeted as a major breakthrough against apartheid and imperialism (in 1980). But its subsequent record is one of economic decline and entrenched inequality, save for some health and education programs and patronage-based petit-bourgeoisification (via the 1980s Africanization and expansion of an already top-heavy colonial state apparatus). Today, however, Zimbabwe is witnessing a forthright contestation of politics and economics from below. But is the conjuncture potentially—and uniquely for Africa—both post-nationalist and post-neoliberal?

President Robert Mugabe, after all, has hunkered down in an extremely defensive mode, replete with the fierce tools of repression he inherited from white Rhodesia (supplemented during the early 1990s by U.S. military cooperation) and his own brand of opposition-bashing, in which radical rhetoric (regular, paranoid accusations of counterrevolution, and even a promise in late 1998 to resurrect “socialism”) features but no longer confuses quite so much. A 1998 year-end editorial in the liberal Zimbabwe Independent put it simply: “Thankfully, nobody believes this nonsense anymore.”

In the context of highly-centralized political power with a deeply divided ruling party, the current opening for the left may only be sustained if the balance of forces shifts more decisively in the months leading to the February 2000 general election. Such a breakthrough would reflect both the international and domestic contradictions of financial-speculative-commercial capital and, subjectively, the maturing social comprehension of the people of Zimbabwe, who recognize the opportunity to claim a different trajectory for development.

Central to the social critique emerging now is the fallout from the touted 1990s Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), overlaid with demands for good government. Designed in 1990, in large part by the World Bank, ESAP was supposed to quickly deregulate and indebt an economy seen as overprotected and inefficient. Economic disaster has characterized most of the period since 1991, as all ESAP’s targets for growth and development were missed by huge margins, in spite of ZANU’s adherence to the program. The failure of export-led growth and liberalization, according to the Washington Consensus, was reflected in Zimbabwe’s mid-1997 debut in the Swiss-based World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report at fifty-second out of fifty-five countries.

But social indicators paint an even more pessimistic picture. In 1995, at least one-third of Zimbabwe’s twelve million people were unable to afford a basic food basket (60 percent of average household expenditure), shelter (another 25 percent), minimal clothing, education, health care, and transport. The top 10 percent of Zimbabweans consume (a conservatively estimated) 34 percent of all goods and services, compared to the bottom decile’s 3 percent, putting the country in the same league as Brazil, South Africa, and Guatemala, in terms of unequal distribution of wealth. Unemployment has soared in recent years, with mass retrenchments and joblessness for hundreds of thousands of high school graduates during the structural adjustment era. Land hunger grows, as oft-repeated redistribution promises fall away or are hijacked by the well-connected. Matters have deteriorated significantly since late 1997, with an estimated 60 percent of the population now below the poverty line.

Zimbabwe has also suffered a decisive reversal of the few positive trends in living standards accomplished during the 1980s. In that decade, the country witnessed a drop in infant mortality (from 86 to 49 deaths per 1,000 live births), increases in the immunization rate (from 25 percent to 80 percent) and life expectancy (from 56 to 62 years), and the doubling of primary school enrollment. Certainly the AIDS pandemic—nearly one-quarter of adults are HIV-positive—is to blame for much of the health crisis but, since the early 1980s, so are cuts in health spending and increased cost-recovery for patients. Worsening crime statistics are also revealing. As ESAP was introduced (during the period 1989-1993), the number of reported house or car break-ins soared from 43,274 to 65,392 (up 51 percent), incidents of stock theft doubled from 6,765 to 13,776 (105 percent), and robbery also doubled, from 5,842 to 11,564 cases (98 percent). After ratcheting up, crime statistics stabilized, but increased again in 1998.

This article makes the case that a potent cocktail of dashed hopes is now, finally, evoking a new consciousness and opening up new options for social resistance. These hopes were crushed by the interlocking causes of social desperation (since the early 1990s), ruling-party political degeneracy (since the early 1980s) and a classical capitalist crisis (dating back to the mid-1970s, but most severe since late 1997). To support this claim, I provide an overview of core structural factors throughout Zimbabwe’s history that parallel today’s turmoil. Over a period of decades, the political choices of the white ruling elite (during economic downturns) prepared the terrain for important changes in social structure and accumulation strategies. We may now be at a similar point, because the socio-economic distortions that have haunted Zimbabwean rulers in the past two decades can be traced, at a superficial level, to both an exhausted post-Independence nationalist project and the neoliberal disaster and, at a deeper level, to the limits of semi-peripheral, uneven capitalist development.

Something different is needed, but what? Given the unfavorable balance of forces, perhaps a resurrection of previous technical solutions would help. Historically, such solutions were invoked by white bureaucrats and entailed the suppression of financial-speculative accumulation, and a reorientation from exports of raw materials into glutted world markets, toward better-balanced systems of locally manufactured production aimed at domestic consumption. This time, however (for the first time), they should place basic developmental needs at the core of the economic strategy.

Neoliberalism is untenable everywhere, yet current trends in Zimbabwe remain ambiguous, as we see when we consider political processes that have, over the past couple of years, escalated the socio-economic struggle to new heights. In the process, a measure of confidence on the part of Zimbabwe’s oppressed classes has been restored, and with it, a louder rumble of grassroots activity. But observers must caution against overestimating the political opportunity. Like many places, Zimbabwe demonstrates the multifaceted, often contradictory, way in which political resistance to global and local neoliberalism is now unfolding.

A Legacy of Uneven Development

Ninety years of colonial development and underdevelopment in what was known as Southern Rhodesia (1890-1965), then Rhodesia (1965-1979), were interrupted regularly by capitalist crises and intensified uneven development. Excessive capital-intensive investment during the 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, and 1970s could not be sustained. Profit rates dropped precipitously, followed by an upsurge of speculative activity. These intervals generated such clear flashpoints, often in the form of financial upheavals followed by changes in both development strategy and the ruling party, that we must consider their political lessons for late 1990s progressive strategies and tactics.

(Far greater social stability characterized Zimbabwe prior to settler-colonial capitalism. Before 1890, various tributary societies and states prospered, including an empire whose sixteenth-century “Great Zimbabwe” fortress and city, with an estimated population of 20,000 workers, threw up artifacts suggesting trade as far afield as some Islamic societies and even China. According to Arnold Sibanda of the University of Zimbabwe, by the late nineteenth century the dispersed Shona peoples and—in the southeastern part of what would become Zimbabwe—the strong Ndebele state together had established a distinctive petty commodity mode of production, in part through the influence of Portuguese merchants.)

After the initial large-scale settler invasion (the 1890 Pioneer Column from South Africa), financial capital from London flowed into Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company (which had been granted occupation and governance rights by the Queen, following an unfair deal with a local African leader) and into other exploration companies anxious for a share of speculative land and mining profits. Oxford historian Ian Phimister contends that this period’s increasing geopolitical turbulence (illustrated by the Scramble for Africa, a sectioning of the continent that took place at a Berlin negotiating table in 1885) emanated from “capitalism’s uneven development during the last third of the nineteenth century, particularly the City of London’s crucial role in mediating the development of a world economic system.”

During the mid-1890s, the first Ndebele and Shona uprisings were crushed. Through brutal means like land expropriation, taxes, and debt peonage, the colonists began forcing African peasants off their land. Those who remained, especially women, were charged with the systematic unpaid reproduction of an emerging workforce, by caring for children and youth, nursing sick workers, and taking care of retired workers. Elsewhere, such costs were being built into the wage-bill or social wage (state schools, health services, and pensions), but in colonial Rhodesia, the agro-mineral economy gained a low-cost, largely migrant, unskilled proletariat at an extremely low price. This initial basis for racist capitalist superexploitation was cemented when the new colony’s financial bubble burst in 1898. In contrast to the increasing investment that characterized the Johannesburg gold complex (Rhodes’ model for his colony to the north), the British South Africa Company’s mining-finance road to riches had now disappeared. Given the large investments sunk in land and telegraph development, the speculative crash required a shift toward a more permanent, inwardly oriented economic approach that built the colony more steadily, with less reliance on gold extraction and more on Rhodesia’s class, race, and gender apartheid.

Yet, a quarter century later, a tendency toward capitalist crisis emerged once again. The next interval of overinvestment, crisis of profitability, and speculative crash occurred from 1923, shortly after Britain granted the white settlers a limited form of self-government. Agricultural overproduction reached untenable levels by 1928, and the colony suffered a deep, dramatic economic downturn that was initially exacerbated by the onset of global crisis and lasted until 1931. In 1933, the young state came into its own as a vehicle for white populism, after an election pitted lower-class settlers (family farmers, low-level management, shopkeepers, artisans, some civil servants, and even white workers) against local elites linked to British capital. With the populists victorious, public works and state investment burgeoned. The manufacturing sector matured rapidly, thanks to the Great Depression and a wartime lull in international trade and investment finance, giving an infant local bourgeoisie space to grow. Formal apartheid-type social control was legislated in most areas of urban black workplace and residential life, and black trade unionism and political initiatives were squashed. Although the colony’s gold exports were an important safety net, it was again through a turn inward, to meeting local (albeit racially circumscribed) needs, that economic recovery occurred rapidly.

After the Second World War, with the economy still growing well, international financial capital (in the form of the World Bank and many London and New York commercial and investment banks) flowed readily into Southern Rhodesia. But the regional economy of Central Africa overheated, due to excessive, capital-intensive investment and building speculation during the late 1950s, and then cooled too rapidly, in the wake of local financial collapses and a copper market crash that ruined the economy of neighboring Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Unprecedented state intervention in the colony’s financial system was required, preparing the ground for state-capitalist planning.

Angry at foreign financiers, fearing winds of change (i.e., British decolonization of Africa), and nervous about the African nationalist mobilization that was currently underway, the white electorate’s proto-fascist turn, in 1962, saw the ascent of a new Rhodesian Front government headed by Ian Smith. After imposing much tougher exchange controls in 1963, the government responded to pressure for racial reform by declaring an illegal “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” in November 1965. International sanctions followed, but with the state intervening extensively through central planning and strategic investments, rapid rejigging of production to import-substituting industry, support from South Africa and Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, a default on Rhodesia’s foreign debt, and (especially) prohibitions on capital outflow, one of the world’s fastest growth rates (9.5 percent annually, from 1966-1974) resulted.

But by the mid-1970s, there was once again too much investment in manufacturing, relative to the size of the local market (given that black workers still earned terribly low wages and a peak settler population of only 250,000 existed). Crisis conditions again emerged and, a quarter century later, the economy is still characterized in part by old machinery, excess capacity, and monopolistic control of local markets.

If white capital suffered throughout from uneven development and periodic crisis tendencies, so did black resistance. The only time black workers openly revolted was the 1948 general strike. (However, as Phimister, Brian Raftopoulos, and Lloyd Sachikonye have shown in their recent book Keep on Knocking, there were many other, more subtle modes of resistance prior to Independence.) Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of emergent trade unions were detained by the repressive Rhodesian security apparatus. The black petit-bourgeoisie was systematically stifled, usually through classical colonial racial constraints, restrictions on commercial activities, and unworkable informal financial markets. By the early 1960s, the key black professional elites (lawyers, doctors, teachers, and intellectuals, who often led African nationalist parties) of both the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) and ZANU (a more militant breakaway, which came to be dominated by Shona-speakers and hence gained an ethnic identity) saw no alternatives but radicalism and armed struggle. Within a decade, their peasant-based guerrilla war began having an impact, and white fears mounted as Marxist-Leninist rhetoric drew nearer. (ZANU was supported by China, and ZAPU by the USSR.) The two Patriotic Front liberation movements were countered by the Rhodesian army’s intensified violence, which was primarily responsible for the war’s 40,000 civilian deaths during the 1970s.

After South Africa withdrew explicit military support to Smith in 1976 (as Henry Kissinger attempted to amend the region’s geopolitics slightly), half the white population fled the country. Economic depression cut production by 40 percent between 1976 and 1979. The Rhodesians finally surrendered at the 1979 Lancaster House peace talks in London, yet ZANU-ZAPU’s indecisive military victory, as well as nationalist infighting leading up to negotiations, left various kinds of residual economic and political power in white hands. White Rhodesians and the West were stunned at how much black voter support Mugabe garnered in the April 1980 election (62 percent, with ZAPU getting 24 percent, and the collaborating black party just 8 percent, with turnout at 95 percent). Similarly, black voters were surprised by how immediately Mugabe was willing to compromise with white-owned capital in the name of racial reconciliation.

ZANU’s Rule

Politically, the state and the ruling ZANU party became indistinguishable, as a lower-middle class was built quickly through the bureaucracy, and corruption and patronage systems emerged parallel to the growth of a comprador faction. As Mugabe described the latter group in 1989: “There exists among the membership of … ZANU a minority, but very powerful bourgeois group which champions the cause of international finance and national private capital, whose interests thus stand opposed to the development and growth of a socialist and egalitarian society in Zimbabwe.”

But Mugabe had set the terms and conditions of such behavior, according to one leading U.S. banker quoted in the early 1980s, who said, “The management of the more sophisticated large companies, i.e., TA Holdings, Lonrho, and Anglo American, seem to be impressed by and satisfied with Mugabe’s management and the increased level of understanding in government of commercial considerations … I feel it is a political pattern that Mugabe give radical, anti-business speeches before government makes major pro-business decisions or announcements.” A left-wing ZANU member of parliament, Lazarus Nzareybani, concluded in 1989, “The socialist agenda has been adjourned indefinitely. You don’t talk about socialism in a party that is led by people who own large tracts of land and employ a lot of cheap labor. When the freedom fighters were fighting in the bush they were fighting not to disturb the system but to dismantle it. And what are we seeing now? Leaders are busy implementing those things which we were fighting against.”

Meanwhile, ethnic dominance of the state by the Shona generated resentment by minority Ndebeles, and the army’s ruthless containment of a brief armed uprising amongst a few dozen Ndebele-speaking people included the massacre of an estimated 5,000 civilians during the mid-1980s. (Mugabe and most ZANU leaders are Shona.) Ethnic tensions simmered, but a 1987 unity pact between the two parties set the stage for a de facto one-party state. Mugabe’s subsequent efforts to codify this in law were beaten back not only by human rights advocates and various tiny, right-leaning political parties (there have been no left-wing political party contenders to date), but also by international opinion, at a time when Mugabe sought more access to global financial markets. That access was one part of the Faustian deal that Mugabe came to regret. Internally, the power of financial institutions (controlled in part by head offices in London) and their media allies grew enormously. This growth reflected the stagnation of manufacturing, and a shift of capital flow into financial and speculative arenas (especially commercial real estate and the local stock market). By the late 1980s, Zimbabwe was overwhelmed by phenomena such as the rise of a new bureaucratic-financial elite within and around the Finance Ministry and Reserve Bank; unprecedented property and stock market speculation; an increasingly desperate search for external markets due to local stagnation; creeping but often definitive policy influence by IMF, World Bank, and USAID missions; and very high levels of foreign debt (which, in 1987, required 35 percent of export earnings to service), followed by diminishing capacity to control the contours of the economy from the vantage point of the nation-state. The early 1990s witnessed domestic financial markets imploding, as international financial interests gained dominance in the local economy and successfully removed trade and financial restrictions. This sunk Zimbabwe into a profound economic depression. Droughts in 1992 and 15 exacerbated the situation. Even more debilitating was Zimbabwe’s sustained deindustrialization—a 40 percent crash in the volume of manufacturing output from 1991 to 1995, and a similar decline in workers’ real standard of living, which reflected the half-baked character of neoliberal economic policy.

Economic Crisis, Social Turmoil

In the wake of 8 percent GDP growth in 1996 and 3 percent in 1997 (a surface-level recovery reflecting just how far the economy had fallen over the previous five years), the dangers of Zimbabwe’s quite advanced financial liberalization were again starkly unveiled. In one day (November 14, 1997, known as Black Friday), the Zimbabwe dollar fell by 75 percent over a few hours, requiring a temporary central bank bailout and reassertion of currency controls merely to raise the exchange rate to half its previous value. Interest rates were pushed up by 6 percent in the course of the next month. Indeed, the Treasury Bill rate soared from 16 percent in April 1997 to 26 percent by October, and then 32 percent in December, and was raised again to 35 percent in August 1998. Inflation rose from levels below 15 percent in September 1997 to above 45 percent eighteen months later, with far higher price increases recorded for food. The stock market’s industrial index, already off by 9 percent from peak August 1997 levels, crashed by a total of 56 percent in nominal terms, and far more in real terms, over the course of the subsequent year. More than 30,000 jobs were lost through retrenchments during 1998, as economic growth barely cleared 1 percent (and was destined to shrink in 1999).

Two political events in October 1997 attract the most blame from orthodox commentators, notwithstanding evidence of earlier rot. First, bucking strident advice and monetary arm-twisting from international financial institutions, Mugabe silenced nearly 50,000 liberation war veterans who challenged his legitimacy by granting them Z$50,000 each (US$2,800 at the time), plus a pension of Z$2,000 per month. The ex-combatants were successful essentially because their 1997 demonstrations in Harare caused the ZANU government acute embarrassment. After the payout, however, intense popular resentment against the war vets emerged, as sales taxes (and, initially, an income tax and petrol tax increase) were imposed to help cover the costs.

Second, Mugabe suddenly announced that, at long last, the government would begin implementing the 1993 Land Designation Act. (1,500 mainly white-owned farms were identified for redistribution.) Even though only partial compensation was promised, covering buildings and infrastructure rather than inflated land value, this raised once again the likelihood of fiscal convulsion. The damage to the commercial agricultural sector and related industries would be heightened by the reality (based on past experience) that the recipients of the farms would include wealthy politicians ahead of land-starved peasants; this idea was conceded by the Agriculture Minister in a radio broadcast. This patronage route was important, as other state-based options for embourgeoisement were closing. The ZANU regime again apparently was not serious about thorough-going redistribution, which would require vastly greater resources, support structures, and administrative staff than were budgeted and planned (not to mention a shift in class power— away from the emergent bureaucratic bourgeoisie and the residually potent white farming elite). The ambitious land designation exercise was not, in any case, successfully brought to fruition, for the World Bank, the IMF, the British government, and other groups sided with white farmers and effectively vetoed any forced sales in early 1998. Throughout 1998, Mugabe continued to posture as if redistribution would go forward but, in early 1999, the IMF forced him to concede that any land taken would be paid for up front. With less than $4 million available in his budget for land reform, the final nail was put in the coffin.

ZANU was being pulled in one direction by foreign funder prerogatives. Yet just as important was the pressure in another direction: first from the trade union movement and then from much of the rest of Zimbabwean society which, in late 1997, reawakened from a deep post-Independence slumber. One indication of the apathy was the decline in electoral participation, from 90 percent of potential voters in 1985 to 57 percent in 1990, and below 50 percent in 1995. But even the unions had sent ambiguous signals. During the mid-1990s, nearly nine out every ten union members polled viewed ESAP negatively. However, noted Sachikonye at the time, “much of the workers’ understanding and critique of ESAP relate more to its effects rather than its rationale and objectives,” and so when organized resistance did briefly emerge (such as a banned but ill-attended anti-ESAP demonstration on May Day 1992), its “amorphousness and porousness to state manipulation proved a weak basis for sustainability.” Holding the fragile, fractured Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) together required some strategic and rhetorical concessions. From 1994, ZCTU general secretary Morgan Tsvangirai (a left-leaning former mineworker) and president Gibson Sibanda (a traditionalist from the railroad workers) pursued a corporatist “tripartism”—government-labor-business deals, along the lines of late-apartheid South Africa—and even began to describe ESAP as “necessary but insufficient” in an attempt to find a common discourse with the government.

But notwithstanding a terribly weak legacy of union organizing and advocacy under a malevolently paternalistic post-Independence Ministry of Labor, the ambitions of better mobilized unions were by no means snuffed. In 1994, industrial action was revived by postal and telecommunications workers, Air Zimbabwe engineers (on strike for four days), bank employees (six days), construction workers (four days), and physicians (which led to the firing of all junior doctors from the public health service). Then, as nearly two years of economic rebound followed the 1991-1995 downturn, workers tested their muscles en masse.

With inflation still above 20 percent and public sector wage offers in the low single digits, unprecedented civil service militancy emerged, signalling the great gap between rulers and subjects. For nearly a fortnight in mid-1996, a strike of more than two-thirds of the civil service (160,000 workers) paralyzed the government. Daily demonstrations in downtown Harare attracted the support of trade union leadership, who had struggled unsuccessfully for several years to incorporate the civil servants’ organization into the trade union movement. Sibanda and Tsvangirai threatened a general strike in solidarity with the civil service, and public sector workers refused to compromise on wage demands and protection for strike leaders. Just back from a honeymoon after a lavish wedding to his (thirty-five years younger) secretary, Mugabe revealed his lack of comprehension of civil service grievances. Workers reacted by ratcheting up the pressure, and government quickly folded to their demands. Following this example, 100,000 private sector workers were involved in strike action in mid-1997, even extending to poorly-organized agricultural plantations. Again real wage increases were finally won, the hard way.

Intensified Political Conflict

These labor victories meant that when the series of economic catastrophes began in late 1997, the ZCTU easily stepped in to assume national oppositional leadership. Well-organized general strikes and demonstrations in December 1997 and March and November 1998 won nearly universal worker support, and were punctuated by a minor rebellion within the ruling party at a December 1997 conference and, via a few leading renegades, throughout 1998. In the township communities, days of rioting over food and gasoline price hikes left several people dead at the hands of the police in both January and October 1998. Similar “IMF Riots” had occurred in 1993 and 1995, but were far smaller and more rapidly extinguished. Emblematic of the growing conflict, Tsvangirai was badly beaten by ZANU-supporting thugs (probably war veterans) after the first stunningly successful national strike. A few months later the second most important ZCTU office, in Bulawayo, was razed by arsonists. While not yet paramilitary in character, the defense of Mugabe’s regime was getting serious.

ZANU leaders, meanwhile, attempted to put out various fires within the party, as confidence in Mugabe’s leadership plummeted and the elderly leader refused to anoint a successor. By the April 1998 gathering of the ZANU Youth League, air force leader Josiah Tungimirai told Mugabe, “Your excellency, the party is in crisis and only a fool can say otherwise.” A key provincial leader, Dzikamai Mavhaire, openly revolted, receiving at least procedural support for his critique from ZANU’s parliamentary leader. But the geographically and ethnically fragmented nature of the party has required a strong-arm leader simply to serve as glue, which is one reason Mugabe has resisted appointing a successor and gives the appearance of being prepared to run for president again in 2000.

The declining economy made political crisis management all the more difficult. In August 1998, Zimbabwe was subjected again to intensive currency speculation and raiding of foreign reserves which, over an eight-week period, cut another 60 percent off the Zimbabwe dollar’s value. On-again, off-again funding lines from the IMF contributed to virtually unprecedented nervousness among the bourgeoisie. When a $53 million IMF loan was finally approved in early 1999, after months of delay, the conditions attached were considered by financiers to be so onerous that the currency dropped more than 4 percent the day the deal was announced. Reacting to the political challenges, Mugabe repeatedly overstretched. In August 1998, he formally gazetted a regulation that established virtually all industrial activities as “essential services,” hence rendering strikes illegal. Though he temporarily backed down from this unconstitutional position as political outrage rapidly materialized, he imposed another dubious ban on strikes a few months later that the ZCTU took to the courts. In September 1998, without consulting even his politburo, much less parliament (again unconstitutionally and with virtually no popular or business support), Mugabe sent thousands of army troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in defense of discredited leader Lawrence Kabila, who was under attack by Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels. By year’s end, dozens had returned in body bags, amid reports of Zimbabwean troop participation in the Congolese army’s blatant violations of human rights. Mugabe’s intervention was seen as a crucial, if temporary, crutch to Kabila’s rule, particularly during 1998 when Kabila refused to meet the rebels for peace talks. The rationale for the intervention, joined by the Angolan and Namibian armies but rebuffed by South Africa, was widely understood to include ruling party economic interests. Military disquiet was palpable, although rumors of an attempted coup in January 1999 were very likely an exaggeration.

Amidst these events, other rancorous political background noise rose inexorably. Ongoing and increasingly vociferous demands came from an indigenous business lobby still shut out of white-controlled markets and financial institutions. Although they were regularly cleared off by authorities, land-starved peasants and farmworkers invaded a few white-owned commercial farms during 1998, egged on by the uproar over the land designation exercise. In February 1998, university students inspired by their Indonesian counterparts also took to the streets, prematurely predicting a Suharto-type endgame for Mugabe. More general popular alienation from government intensified with each new revelation of political and civil service corruption; rigged official tenders (e.g., construction of a new Harare airport); shady and incongruous international investment partnerships (especially with Malaysian firms); and conspicuous consumption by political elites (e.g., continued import of German luxury cars and the extravagant presidential wedding). There was also the danger of socio-cultural delegitimization of the devout Catholic Mugabe, for example, who sired two children out of wedlock during the 1980s, or former president Canaan Banana who, in late 1998, was accused of sodomizing and raping members of his security staff and soccer team and temporarily fled the country in disgrace. (Mugabe evidently covered matters up during Banana’s early 1980s tenure in the then-ceremonial presidential post.)

In one emblematic scandal, Roger Boka, a vocal black-empowerment entrepreneur with close ties to Mugabe, brought down his own large merchant bank and a massive debt-laden tobacco processing-based empire when he faced bankruptcy in the wake of the 1997-1998 interest rate hikes. After resorting to selling $50 million in counterfeit government bonds to other naive bankers, he eventually skipped the country. (Until the very end of Boka’s antics, Mugabe searched for a bailout mechanism.)

With Zimbabwe at its most politicized level in two decades, occasional but quite vicious police clampdowns have not deterred public dissent. Intimidation may increase however; in early 1999, the somewhat corrupt army joined the fray, with the transparently illegal detention and torture of two journalists and a publisher who reported the alleged coup attempt, followed by the arrest of four others (including noted ex-ZANU intellectual Ibbo Mandaza) on grounds of malicious reporting about the DRC war. This led to a dramatic confrontation between Mugabe and the highest level of the judiciary, with Mugabe resorting to race-baiting his opposition as agents of British imperialism (based on the judiciary’s mild-mannered letter of rebuke after the army violated a court injunction to release the journalists).

The opposition press continues to harangue government (mainly from a liberal business perspective, but two popular monthly magazines carry left-populist sentiments); a gay rights movement has emerged despite Mugabe’s energetic, internationally-renowned homophobia; a small Trotskyist group (of the International Socialist tendency) has been sufficiently aggressive to attract ZANU’s condemnation; the 1980s atrocities against Ndebele peasants are being constructively publicized by human rights groups; and electoral challenges remain possible, with the emergence of independent, mainly petit-bourgeois candidates (who, in late 1998, founded a minor oppositional party around ex-ZANU firebrand Margaret Dongo), and with a widely supported human rights campaign to amend the country’s constitution, which could evolve into a left-leaning political party.

In sum, a cross-class alliance composed of organized labor, the constrained petit-bourgeoisie, church-based critics, students, some sympathetic business liberals, and various other activists has emerged around issues of accountability and abuse of public funds. This coalition fuels a growing sentiment that after two decades in power, Mugabe and ZANU could quite possibly be voted down in the 2000 general election. An uneasy blend of divergent ideologies might coalesce to (at least) threaten such a feat, though most likely without an ideology sufficiently influenced by a broader, deeper constituency of workers and the poor. Nor would it have much prospect of either denting the state-owned broadcast and daily press monopoly’s hackish support for Mugabe or breaking the apparent lock ZANU enjoys on traditional rural loyalties.

Thus, at first blush, Zimbabwe’s great potential for progressive mass social mobilization remains far off. Instead, as recently as 1997, Sachikonye still discerned “possibilities of a social contract based on a corporatist arrangement” between the trade unions, the government, and business, in this remark by Tsvangirai: “The social contract would involve the three parties reaching a consensus where workers agree to restrain wage demands on the one hand and employers agree to control price increases for commodities, invest surpluses to create more jobs and train workers on the other. For Government, you would expect them to cut spending.” But when the IMF vetoed price controls during the January 1999 negotiations, the government set up a tripartite forum whereby businesses would simply provide notice of increases.

Prospects for political reconciliation with ZANU (or any of its diverse wings) appeared to evaporate entirely on March 1, 1999, when Tsvangirai and Sibanda announced that their joint congress with lead civil society organizations had decided to forego corporatism and instead, later in the year, establish a “political formation” led by labor. However, because of the strength of corporatist influences and the power of petit-bourgeois civil society allies, fears are often expressed that as a potential president, Tsvangirai (who, a decade ago, was an organic Marxist-influenced intellectual) would imitate Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. Zimbabwe’s northern neighbor witnessed the displacement of a long-term authoritarian nationalist (Kenneth Kaunda, who served for twenty-seven years) by an alleged democrat (Chiluba, the former chief Zambian labor leader who, in a 1991 election, was backed by big business). The experience is instructive, partly because Tsvangirai is well aware of the danger and firmly denies he would follow Chiluba’s trajectory. In the wake of promises to liberalize both politics and economics, Chiluba’s unpopular and ineffectual structural adjustment policies destroyed three-quarters of the country’s million formal-sector jobs during the 1990s, and led to deep disaffection, a botched coup attempt, and a harsh political clampdown.

But while a dangerous slide may well lie immediately ahead in Zimbabwe, this is not predetermined, and the politicization of the masses as the economic crisis deepens could conceivably halt and reverse the corporatist momentum. Tsvangirai himself condemned the government’s national tripartite Economic Summit in January 1998 as a “circus,” for it was evidently a public relations exercise. Indeed political fluidity is the only constant, and was certainly evident in Mugabe’s dramatic 1997-1998 zig-zagging with respect to the pension payout, land designation, imposition of price controls on staple goods (cornmeal, milk, bread, and flour), and ideological recommitment to the pursuit of a traditional third-world (but, today, contentless) “socialism.” Government partially conceded to the ZCTU on the despised retail taxes, but not on the 65 percent price hike of gasoline (which doubled commuter transport prices overnight) or more general reforms. Echoing a popular point of view, Tsvangirai complained in November 1998, “If we are able to subsidize a war, then necessarily we might subsidize fuel.” When the January 1999 IMF mission probed the war costs, Mugabe announced that Kabila’s government and Angola were compensating Zimbabwe, requiring no extra budgetary spending, a statement not widely believed.

Prospects for Progressives

Oppositional activists with left-popular inclinations (numbering, perhaps, more than 10,000 members of unions, NGOs, community organizations, student groups, churches, the feminist community, and human rights associations) now face very difficult but urgent challenges. On one hand, they will intensify the confrontations with the government, but on the other they will need to counter more actively the liberal business lobby’s drumbeat advocacy of ending price controls, cutting government spending as a matter of principle, and quickening privatization. The potential divisions may have been too stark to face during the fragile gathering of oppositional forces prior to 1998, but the months leading up to the 2000 elections must clarify the future programmatic approach, in order to generate more working-class momentum and shake loose peasant loyalties.

The potential workers’ party would get an enormous boost from allied progressive social forces who currently constitute the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which Tsvangirai chairs. The NCA aims to rewrite the Lancaster House constitution in a manner that evokes a genuine national debate transcending liberal democratic political principles, to incorporate socio-economic rights (to housing, water, public health, and a good environment). Supported by human rights activist Reginald Matchaba-Hove and with intellectual support from Raftopoulos, lawyer Tendai Biti and other leftists, the NCA is at least home to the next generation of post-nationalist leaders.

Judging by how deprived most Zimbabweans are (at a time when luxury goods still proliferate), such a popular front could make enormous headway into mass consciousness by moving from easy, common-denominator political sentiments (like disgust with Mugabe) to a left discourse. Invoking social justice, women’s equality, ecological values, worker and community control, and satisfaction of basic needs for all could distinguish the progressive forces from the discredited ZANU and from various oppositional political parties of the center and right, which offer nothing more than warmed-over devotion to a Washington Consensus economic policy that has so dramatically fallen into international disrepute. An alternative development strategy aimed at decommodifying essential goods and services (housing, water, sanitation, electricity, food, clothing, healthcare, and schooling) is by no means impossible to conceptualize or realize, even in a country like Zimbabwe with roughly $500 per capita annual income. Resources would need to be redistributed fairly and linkages between economic sectors actively developed (as was planned by the state, for the benefit of white settlers, in the wake of similar economic crises during the 1900s, 1930s and 1960s).

But the international context is indeed important to reflect upon, after the most recent arc of crises that have crashed currencies, stock markets, and standards of living in Mexico (end of 1994), Brazil (1995), South Africa (1996), Eastern Europe (early 1997), Southeast Asia (late 1997), South Korea (early 1998), Russia and South Africa again (mid-1998), and Brazil again in early 1999. In this context, Zimbabwe’s next stage of progressive political protest could very well follow the loose model adopted by, among others, neighboring South African civil society forces in the last years of anti-apartheid struggle (and, indeed, still today); South Korea’s militant trade unionists; the Filipino extra-parliamentary left; Indonesian and Thai activists; a new network of Indian social movements; the Brazilian landless movement; the Zapatistas; and other movements with advanced popular struggles for economic justice. These movements are mainly characterized by their demands for deepening democratization flowing from grassroots and shop-floor experiences, and for the resolution of material grievances generated by uneven socio-economic development in their particular national and local settings. Common to most is an ability to simultaneously mobilize locally on a mass basis, and deepen their constituencies’ critical global consciousness.

Such a model is indeed a welcome prospect at a time when prospects for reassertion of national sovereign controls over capital flows (a la Malaysia), for resisting further liberalization (China and India), and for questioning many national elites’ allegiances to Washington are emerging internationally as a result of the world economic crisis. Even where their governments remain repressive and conservative (like Zimbabwe or Malaysia), much of the third-world progressive community is using this opportunity to question more vigorously the merits of insertion into capitalist financial globalization; it is not only Pat Buchanan’s and Ralph Nader’s very different social forces that campaign today to defund the IMF, but a myriad of labor and social movements across the globe with first-hand experience. (The AFL-CIO, in contrast, inexplicably supported more IMF funds in 1998.)

On the other hand, a desire exists amongst some NGO internationalists to deepen and expand the past two decades of sporadic reforms of the World Bank along gender, environmental, community participation, and transparency lines. Utopian is one way to describe this effort, given how difficult it is to win concessions which cut against the grain of the market—even with reformist World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz advancing his own peculiar critique of structural adjustment and George Soros begging for an international regulatory authority.

The current global crisis has thus generated a debate amongst progressives over the merits of “smashing” versus “reforming” the embryonic world state (the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, United Nations). For countries like Zimbabwe (either under Mugabe or a future democrat), suffering the fallout of the 1990s economic disaster, the case becomes ever stronger for the kind of regionalist perspective and “delinking” that Samir Amin (among others) has advocated regularly. With a weaker international financial system potentially on the horizon comes a greater chance of effecting a more favorable national balance of forces and of constructing a progressive bloc that would ultimately take and transform (or, at the very least, provide formidable opposition to) state power. Decommodifying development and controlling capital would logically follow.

Zimbabwe offers the particular political problem of a waning conservative-populist leader who often makes leftish critiques of the IMF and World Bank while his government follows their advice fairly slavishly. It is in the sea-change from mass lethargy to activism against the political ruling class, as against the option of tempting but fruitless corporatism, that Zimbabwe’s labor and social movement leaders could still establish a more radical alliance of popular interests.

The left opening represents possibilities for a progressive politics based on increasingly militant activism and a basic-needs development program far clearer than the confused state-“socialism” of the 1980s. No longer innocent of nationalist corruptions or international neoliberal traps, the progressive forces are just at the stage of establishing the character of their program, and enjoy a good prospect of winning the 2000 elections if they campaign confidently. If a radical program does not emerge, the apparent alternatives for Zimbabwe’s electorate are the status quo or an alliance dominated by the disaffected black petit-bourgeoisie and white business-based liberals, repeating Zambia’s disastrous example. This choice should be easier as Zimbabwe’s political reawakening proceeds.

1999, Volume 50, Issue 11 (April)
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