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The labour movement in Zimbabwe: Prospects and challenges for 2017

 

 

By Ashley Fataar

 

January 28, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Pambazuka News — The relatively recent history of Zimbabwe’s working class and its supporters is very rich and provides answers to the challenges for the future. The working class as a whole provided inspiration to the fights against unemployment and oppression. It is worth re-looking that history to provide some answers.

 

The background to the working class revolt beginning in 1995 was a growing economic crisis made worse by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies and the implementation of neo-liberal capitalism. The middle classes and sections of the working class began to stir with nearly a quarter million government workers going on a nationwide strike against poor working conditions and low pay in August 1996.

 

That strike was a watershed that shattered the social partnership between government, employers and labour. The first element was size. The 20,000 striking workers the previous year were dwarfed by more than 235,000 strikers in 1996. The second element was the mass meetings of thousands of workers which radicalised workers, practised democracy, made leaders accountable and became organising platforms.

 

The strike also represented two major new developments. A radical rank-and-file emerged to become the de facto leadership of the movement, drawing up a radical program uniting all workers. This was the strike committee which was elected on the second day of the strike from militants among the strikers. The government was forced to negotiate with the strike committee. For the first time, women were elected into a strike committee and became leaders of the single biggest strike in the country’s history.

 

The elected strike committee and the militant conduct of strikers were tied to the second development - the intervention of a revolutionary socialist group, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), an organisation based on the principles of workers' self-activity as opposed to focusing on union officials. The 1996 strike was its first intervention in a real mass workers' struggle after its role in the December 1995 anti-police brutality protest.

 

The 1996 strike signalled the re-emergence of the working class as the leading agent of political and democratic transformation, just as it showed the critical role of socialist intervention in class struggle.

 

So it is workers’ self-activity that led to a high development of social consciousness amongst the striking workers. Two important ideas that had a strangle-hold of workers’ consciousness before were rejected – that workers could not be their own leaders and that women were not equal to men.

 

Workers’ actions in 1997 inspired landless peasants and students to act. A radicalised urban working class helped to fuel the rural struggle. Workers’ actions led to higher social consciousness amongst peasants and working class women and gave them the social confidence to act.

 

In that year there was an even larger number of strikes and demonstrations - involving more than 1,073,000 workers. Students staged the first ever nationwide demonstrations. For the first time since independence in 1980, landless peasants and veterans of the national liberation war invaded white farms and fought off police who had come to evict them. This laid the basis for the land seizure movement that erupted in 2000 – although it was opportunistically hijacked by Robert Mugabe who for 20 years had resisted seizing the land in the name of “reconciliation”.

 

A section of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ (ZCTU) leadership, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, realised that unless they abandoned their class-collaborationist strategy or social partnership and embraced the revolts, they too would be swept aside by the rising tide. The demand for action was overwhelming. The labour leaders called for a two-day national strike in December 1997 and it became the largest and most successful general strike post-independence. There were large demonstrations supported by a broad range of civic and professional organizations.

 

When the police violently stopped workers from assembling there were riots that left the city centre a ghost town. Running scared, the ZCTU leaders hastily called off the strike, stating that the action would resume in January 1998 when workers returned to work from the annual Christmas holiday. This cancellation reveals the cowardly nature of some trade union leaders in labour movements.

 

But in early January 1998, as the ZCTU leaders prevaricated on calling for action, working class women once again took the lead. In one of Harare's poorest townships they started demonstrating against increases in bread prices by barricading roads, intercepting bread delivery trucks and liberating the bread from the trucks. These riots quickly spread to the unemployed and workers in Harare and other towns.

 

The rise of the middle-class leadership – Formation of the Movement for Democratic Change

 

Following the March 1998 stay-away, workers subsequently endorsed a five-day stay-away to protest the rapidly deteriorating living conditions. These revolts represented a massive class development. As the crisis worsened, the working class grew immensely in militancy and consciousness and forced the reluctant union leadership into action it would rather have avoided.

 

It was not the crisis that resulted in the rising class militancy, but the emergence of young workers who had suffered the most from the neo-liberal agenda through casual and low paying jobs. Inspired by the 1996 strike, such workers enthusiastically supported the ZCTU stay-aways and increasingly coalesced around the workers' committees, turning them into radicalised organisational instruments, not just against the state and the bosses, but also potentially against the reformist leadership of the trade unions.

 

To counter this growing movement, Mugabe opportunistically, but temporarily, back-tracked on the neo-liberal reforms. He faced resistance from capital which de-valued the Zimbabwean dollar and suspended IMF/World Bank loans to the country which in turn accelerated the economic crisis.

 

It was in such conditions that workers began demanding that a labour party be formed to politically take on the Mugabe ZANU-PF regime. The union leadership, however, was opposed to such a party preferring instead a "broad-based party" which they could dominate.

 

In 1999 the ZCTU convened a National Convention that was dominated by the liberal middle-classes. The ISO was barred from attending. But some socialists managed to attend as representatives of township residents associations where they were active and leaders.

 

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was launched as a political party seven months later in September 1999. MDC committees were built in the factories. Meetings were convened in the towns by the ZCTU regions, which had been the engine of the stay-aways, and now acted as the de facto MDC provincial structures - the party was routinely referred to as a "labour party".

 

But in reality, instead of the labour party demanded by worker militants, a popular front movement was set up. At the launch, the class direction became clear. Without involvement of the regional structures, the labour bureaucracy imposed an "interim" national executive drawn largely from the neo-liberal middle classes. The rank-and-file who built the movement were marginalised. The inaugural congress in January 2000 through undemocratic manoeuvres ensured the confirmation of this leadership and adopted a manifesto of IMF policies and a right-wing position on land. By June 2000 the neo-liberal takeover of the party was complete.

 

While the MDC had been propelled nearly into power by the working class, the character of the party by the 2000 elections was patently rabid anti-working class and neo-liberal.

 

How did this happen? The lessons to be learned

 

The relative ease with which a movement was turned into a neo-liberal popular front lay in the weakness of the working class movement - and the lack of a significant socialist movement. While the 1997-98 mass actions had rocked Mugabe and generated the first significant challenge to his rule, they had not developed into an independent rank-and-file movement that could challenge the stranglehold of a reformist labour bureaucracy. It was only pressure from below that forced the bureaucracy to take part in and endorse mass actions. By doing so they gained moral authority in the process.

 

However from March 1998, the labour bureaucracy shifted from strike-based demonstrations to stay-away protests in which workers were told to stay at home. This reduced the militancy and impact of the action, made workers vulnerable to intimidation - and prevented the mass gatherings that had been the basis for pressure on the union bureaucracy, thus reducing its accountability.

 

The bureaucrats argued that militant strikes or stay-aways were no longer useful. Their sudden support for the formation of the MDC should be understood in this context. Instead they also argued for the need of a political party to fight the 2000 elections. These ideas appealed to many workers and this partly accounts for the growth of reformist illusions and the decline of militant struggles in the period 1999-2000.

 

The second key factor in the right-wing takeover lay in the role of the middle-class intelligentsia. The forces of neo-liberalism, cognisant of the revolutionary potential of the emerging struggles, were forced to abandon the old authoritarian forms of domination and assume a more democratic face with which they would be able to intervene and neutralise the rising movement.

 

The groups to whom their cynical rhetoric appealed most were the middle-class intelligentsia who were being radicalised under the impact of the crisis - bourgeois democratic values like rule of law, human rights, and good governance. In the absence of a rival ideological alternative many of these partnered with global neo-liberalist forces. In this regard, the middle-class based National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) played a part in endorsing the MDC, contributing to its formation and hence giving it legitimacy for local and international capital.

 

Neo-liberalism, the MDC and the ISO experience

 

It becomes necessary to explain the experience of organised socialists in the MDC to draw on lessons for future working class projects. Many groups will be confronted by similar questions as the crisis of neo-liberalism grows globally.

 

To have remained outside and criticise a party that represented a rising working-class movement and had a massive following in the class risked being identified with a hated neo-liberal regime and condemning socialists to irrelevance, if not organisational death, from ultra-leftism or sectarianism. On the other hand, entrism risked right-wing liquidationism or splits (as actually happened in the ISO) when the time to end entrism arrived.

 

After internal debate centred on the principles developed by Lenin in "Left-Wing" Communism-An Infantile Disorder, it was resolved to go for entrism based on two interrelated principles. The argument for entrism is based on the non-negotiable principle of absolute freedom of expression to ruthlessly expose the bankruptcy of the ideas and leadership of the party, which socialists did by proposing an alternative anti-neo-liberal "Action Programme," especially on the land question, and producing Socialist Worker (a socialist publication).

 

Secondly, organisational autonomy based on Trotsky's united front principle, where socialists resisted the party leadership's attempts to disband the socialists, but who instead constantly sought to use the party's platforms to relate to and recruit rank-and-file militants. ISO members did this with relative success among MDC party rank-and-file militants and, most critically, by building rank-and-file industrial committees in industrial areas which provided the ISO with its first real roots in the working class. Both these groups subsequently played a critical role in defending socialists from the party leadership who wanted to expel the socialists as a result of their attacks on the increasingly right-wing nature of the party. The central idea was to raise a contradiction between the centrist leaders on one hand and the base on the other and creating real opportunities to grow a revolutionary organisation.

 

In 2002, fearing the radicalising effect of workplace and community mass actions, local and international capitalists placed pressure on the MDC leadership to unilaterally cancel a popular and long-awaited mass action to remove Mugabe.

 

Disillusionment among ordinary members of the MDC, which had developed from the failure of its parliamentary representatives to raise bread-and-butter concerns, crystallised around this decision. This event marked the decisive break of the MDC leadership with its mass base – yet the base continued to have illusions in the leadership.

 

Socialists were unable to stop the ultimate neo-liberal takeover of the MDC fundamentally because they lacked the necessary size and penetration of the working class to offer a sufficient counterweight to local and international neo-liberal forces despite having warned in 2001 of the ideological and strategic crisis of the MDC centred on its massive shift to right-wing neo-liberalism and on the other hand Mugabe's partial economic and ideological retreat from neo-liberalism.

 

The MDC arose from an anti-IMF working-class movement, yet the MDC leadership moved to the right to the alarm of most of its supporters. As the crisis deepened and parliamentary reformism failed to deliver and the masses called for mass action, the MDC leadership dithered and eventually rejected the mass action. Their allies in the trade unions, especially the ZCTU, followed suit, with all militant action frowned on as potentially threatening an election they increasingly believed they would win. So the working classes were massively demobilised and disillusioned as they continued to suffer under a growing crisis.

 

Entrism was not easy, but overall the experience laid the basis for a possible breakthrough to grow into a sizeable socialist organisation with sufficient roots in the working class to be in a much stronger position to fight capitalism.

 

Another key factor in the demise of the movement was the role of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They contaminated activists through funding – shifting attention away from actual struggle and into commodified resistance – paid workshops, scholarships and trips to foreign (mostly European and United States) conferences. History is littered with many such examples with many writers and activists sharing experiences and examples.

 

Prospects and challenges

 

Working-class resistance to the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government went further and deeper than most on the continent, giving rise to a movement that nearly defeated one of the continent's most entrenched and violent ruling classes, forcing it to beat a major retreat from its neo-liberal agenda. Many argue that the electoral routing of the MDC in 2013 sealed its fate.

 

What events take place and processes happen depend on a number of things. Firstly, the trade union movement in Zimbabwe is paralysed. Worsening poverty has afflicted trade union dues. Since the 1990s NGOs and other funders have plied funds into trade unions. These funds are controlled by the union leaderships. As a result, for the most part, they have lost organic contact with union rank-and-file members. As this article is being written, ZCTU leaders are facing court battles of leadership positions whilst ignoring the bread-and-butter issues faced by their members.

 

But that is not to say that workers cannot fight back. The one-day stay-away strike in July last year was, again, inspired by working class actions. Workers at two of the largest corporations, railways and grain, staged strikes of several weeks long – one of which was the longest strike in the country’s history. Inspired by this, socialists intervened in the strike and organised solidarity collections and political education classes. The resilience of workers and socialists is indeed inspiring.

 

The most fundamental question confronting the Zimbabwean working class and socialist movement today is the issue of leadership. Under the pressure of the growing crisis, with socialist intervention, will rank-and-file union activists break through the suffocating grip of the old union bureaucracy? Can the post-independence generation, which is educated, casualised and extremely militant, create its own leadership and mobilise other sections of the oppressed such as the war veterans, peasants, students and unemployed, as it did in 1997-98, joining such struggles with other struggles in the region, critically with those of South Africa? The process has begun in some unions, but at a very slow pace.

 

Events in Zimbabwe assume further importance not only because it is an important capitalist state in Africa, but also by its connection to South Africa, the biggest and most important centre of global capitalism on the continent. Zimbabwe is South Africa's biggest trading partner on the continent, and the two share similar colonial traditions. South Africa has the continent's biggest and historically most militant working class, of whom at least one million are Zimbabwean migrant workers. Revolts in the two most important states in the region could signal immense possibilities for working class struggles in southern and central Africa.

 

The experience of socialists shows the need to construct sizeable socialist organisations sufficiently rooted in the class. To achieve this in the twenty-first century requires a radical reorientation to meet the new challenges we face. Socialists must turn outwards to lead and to learn from the emerging movement, and from amongst their varied experiences. They must leave behind the legacy of sectarian practices based on personality cults, undemocratic structures and practices, and unprincipled splits and expulsions.

 

We must appreciate that a theoretical understanding of the nature of the period and the strategies necessary to relate to it are only the first step on a long journey. Without experience and the willingness to learn from it, even some of the best movements have failed the real test of their times. Given the demise of Stalinism and the great opportunities opened by the global anti-capitalist movement, it would be a terrible crime to continue with old practices that divide and demobilise the international revolutionary movement at a time when its potential has never been greater, nor its task more urgent.

 

The way forward for the working class is to lay the foundations for a new working class movement to continue the struggle against the ZANU-PF regime - a movement that does not replicate the MDC's right-wing ideological bankruptcy but positions itself to the left of ZANU-PF on an anti-capitalist, democratic and internationalist basis.

 

Such a movement has to be built slowly and organically from the struggles of workers and the poor, from the bottom to the top, and anchored around radicalised trade unions and social movements. It cannot be built or decreed from boardrooms or raw anti-Mugabe sentiment.

 

It will be essential that it not only fight for political democracy, but also for the full expropriation of mines, banks, big businesses and big farms now under new black exploiters in order to place these under the democratic control of workers and rural farmers for the benefit of all, as part of a regional and international struggle to smash capitalism and build socialism.

 

Ashley Fataar is a socialist who was formerly resident in Zimbabwe and a member of the International Socialist Organisation there; currently living in South Africa, a member of Keep Left and active in the United Front.

 

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