Zimbabwe: The struggle enters a new stage

Munyaradzi Gwisai of the ISOZ at the World at a Crossroads conference. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

By Munyaradzi Gwisai

[Read or download the May 2009 issue of the ISOZ's newspaper, Socialist Worker, at the end of this article.]

May 6, 2009 -- The formation of the government of national unity (GNU) in Zimbabwe between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in February 2009 was the logical outcome of the agreement made between them in the middle of last year. The final negotiations had stalled as Mugabe tried to manipulate the details to exact maximum concessions from the MDC.

However, by January 2009, 1 billion per cent inflation and a worthless Zimbabwean dollar meant that people could not buy anything. Basic social services had ceased to function and popular unrest was reaching breaking point. Mass action, which had been in a lull for five years, started to become a real possibility again. Rank and file soldiers had rioted in downtown Harare and members of the public had joined them. The Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was threatening to call a general strike. The Zimbabwe Business Council issued a dire warning that massive social unrest was looming. Given the threat of revolt from below, Mugabe had few options when MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai issued an ultimatum to him to finalise the deal or face the consequences of mass action.

Mugabe soon declared that he and Tsvangirai were “now brothers”.

Other factors cemented the rapprochement. When General Zvinashe, who had mobilised the top brass of the armed forces against the MDC in 2002, died the MDC declared him a ``national hero''. In addition, the tragic death of Tsvangirai's wife in a car accident in March also helped cement relations. Mugabe offered his personal solidarity and Tsvangirai neutralised people's natural suspicions when he stated that there had been no ill intent behind the accident.

The political elites are so serious about making this deal work that they recently held an all-expenses-paid three-day retreat at a luxury resort in Victoria Falls.

ZANU-PF still in charge

ZANU-PF is the senior partner in the GNU. As executive president and as commander in chief of armed forces, Mugabe retains control over the key security ministries of defence and intelligence. Being head of the government, he also appoints ministers, ambassadors and the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Given this level of influence, if the deal collapses he might be able to crawl out with out losing too much.

Tsvangirai is prime minister and MDC ministers are mostly placed in charge of social services departments, those areas which have to deal with the social consequences of Zimbabwe's economic collapse, especially education and health. While the MDC won control over the finance ministry, the Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono, a Mugabe loyalist, kept his job. Mugabe objected to the MDC's nominee for deputy agriculture minister, Roy Bennett, who is the MDC treasurer and number three in the party. Mugabe had him jailed for months and still says that he is “not swearing in a Rhodesian”.

Most critically, as the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe had long warned, the elitist GNU has adopted a neoliberal economic framework, called the Short-Term Emergency Recovery Program (STERP). This is the most extreme free-market economic program adopted by the country’s elites since independence in 1980, going beyond the one adopted by Mugabe in the 1990s. The new program aims to totally open up the economy to the market, with most state-owned companies slated for privatisation in the next six months.

The Zimbabwe dollar has been dropped in favour of the South African rand and the US dollar. Price controls and subsidies have been removed so bills for water, electricity, education, health, housing, transport and farming inputs have all shot up. The country’s main university remains closed because, out of its 10,000 students (or “clients” as the university vice-chancellor now calls them), only 68 have managed to pay the more than US$500 required. The city authorities in Harare have been forced to cut rates increases by half but people still are failing to pay. The bosses themselves calculate that an average family needs at least US$250 a month just to survive, yet most workers earn less than US$100 with the 94% unemployed having even less. Thus supermarkets may now be filled with goods, but without foreign currency you can’t to buy them.

For the elites, the middle class and a few workers with access to US dollars or rands conditions have improved, but for the majority it is a real struggle. But not so for the bosses, capitalists and politicians. It was recently disclosed that all the new ministers, including from the MDC, have each received two top-of-the-range luxury vehicles. The first act of the new finance minister, the MDC’s secretary general Tendai Biti, was to remove all the special levies that had been placed on businesses by the Reserve Bank. Biti says he will now rely on donor funding to fund health, education and so forth, but this has not yet been forthcoming from sceptical Western governments.

The MDC supports the arrangement to the extent of preaching unity and going all out to demoralise and neutralise anger from below. Even though the MDC’s position in the state is subordinate, it still gives its leaders an opportunity to accumulate personal wealth through their new positions in the state apparatus, including through the impending privatisation program. Many are also exhausted from the long struggle against the dictator and are happy for this ceasefire, which benefits them but not the masses.

A variety of factors came together to create the new political situation. Mugabe's claim to hold a popular mandate vanished when he lost the 2008 election to Tsvangirai by 43% to 47%, his first admitted defeat. The MDC also made inroads into two key rural ZANU-PF strongholds. This prompted Mugabe and his cronies to realise the benefits of a deal which would legitimise their control over the state, protect their ill-gained wealth and avoid the fate which befell Charles Taylor in Liberia and Solobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

Illusions in MDC

The ISO in Zimbabwe had long considered that an accord between the MDC and ZANU-PF was just a matter of time. This was especially so after the MDC right wing and bourgeois elements cemented their control over the party and froze out socialist politics in 2002. Sections of the elite, such as newspaper owner and Mugabe critic Trevor Ncube, had even argued for a negotiated settlement based on a neoliberal program as early as 2003.

The deal met little opposition as eight years of severe economic crisis and massive brutal attacks by the dictatorship had left the organised labour movement, the militant social movements and the socialist left battered, marginalised and exhausted. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis resulted in many activists and trade unionists leaving the country to as a means of survival, while many organisations teetered on the brink of collapse for lack of funds. All this massively weakened the ideological and organisational autonomy and strength of the working class, leaving the field open to the right-wingers.

Indeed the right within the opposition movement was strengthened as it benefited from the Western donor money which flowed to the MDC and its civil society allies. Right-wing civil society leaders were able to pay activists to support their projects. This process, what we call the “commodification of resistance”, makes it harder to mobilise independently of the non-government organisations (NGOs) and it even affected our own organisation, as some comrades demanded that the ISOZ significantly dilute its politics and activities and align more closely with the right-wing MDC, in order to access such money. In the resulting split, which occurred earlier this year, we lost up to 25% of our membership to the so-called “New ISO”, which is firmly embedded in the right-wing civic groups and MDC.

However, the ISOZ remains independent and continues to rally against the elitist GNU, especially its neoliberal policies and its elitist constitutional reform process which is meant to buttress the neoliberal economic policies. But we realise that now is not a good time to take on Tsvangirai directly. Socialists have to find ways to engage with the many workers and ordinary people who support Tsvangira and have illusions in the MDC. Workers and the urban poor support the MDC, despite its limitations, as a way of overcoming the democratic defects of the Mugabe regime. People assume that things will get better, but we believe things will get worse.

Within the next two years there is likely to be growing anger around issues like the availability and cost of water, electricity, education, health care, food, transport, housing, farm inputs and low wages. We aim to build on the community, workers’ and students’ campaigns as part of broader anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist movement. Already residents’ associations have called for boycott of paying city tariffs (rates) in Harare and Bulawayo, while teachers are on the verge of another crippling strike to demand higher wages.

On May Day, ZCTU president Lovemore Matombo gave a warning to Tsvangirai that the ZCTU will mobilise workers in the streets if the new government fails to provide a living wage of US$450 a month, stop the privatisation of state companies and adopt a people-driven constitutional process.

The question of a people-driven process to draft a new constitution will be an important campaign of engagement. We hope to build a radical united front to oppose the new neoliberal constitutional framework the new regime is likely to try to impose.

We aim to build on the resulting community campaigns as part of broader anti-imperialist movement. Unless there is a revolutionary consciousness reflected in a class-minded organisations then the middle-class elements who relate to the organisations of the rural and urban poor will come to dominate them and be the conduits for their ideological neutralisation. The civil-society conservatives have no real arguments or real alternatives to neoliberalism, and ultimately support private property as the hegemonic model.

The GNU will last as long as working people in urban and rural areas support their respective leaders and hold onto the illusion of change. How long Tsvingirai can command his level of support also depends on external events.

We have already seen what happened in Kenya, where a major African economy nearly imploded. The global recession is likely to make such meltdowns more probable. In South Africa, the xenophobia against migrants displayed in the townships reflects the serious failure of neoliberalism to provide jobs and basic human services. The removal of South African President Thabo Mbeki last year following the ANC Congress at Polokwane reflects a certain radicalisation. Mbeki had become a liability to the ANC as he was too obviously in league with the tiny layer of super rich blacks. The ANC with Jacob Zuma in power is likely to continue with Mbeki's project but with a left face.

It was this left shift which provided the space for South African trade unionists to express crucial solidarity with Zimbabwe in opposition to their own government. When the Durban dock workers refused to unload an arms shipment for Mugabe, and dockers in Mozambique and Angola supported their stand, it was a major attack on Mugabe's hegemony. This action put pressure on Mbeki to broker a solution in Zimbabwe. However, Mbeki did this in a way which advanced interests of the black bourgeoisie in South Africa and the Zimbabwean political elites.

Black capital, as represented by Mbeki's mediation, supports the GNU. However, US and British capital is concerned that the ZANU-PF bourgeoisie have too much control. The ZANU-PF has passed a law, for example, which allows for 51% control by local Zimbabwean capital of important national resources such as the platinum mines. The US and British ruling classes are also concerned about the continued expropriation of white agricultural capitalists and ZANU-PF's claim that compensation for expropriated land should be paid by the former colonial power, Britain. This would be a precedent for South Africa and other countries regionally.

The international bourgeoisie are not happy with this and are not convinced that the GNU is durable. They would prefer to see Mugabe and all his policies go with him and for this reason US and Britain have extended sanctions for one more year. Moreover, because of the arrogance he has displayed, they want to totally defeat Mugabe, humiliate him and send the message to any future would-be radical bourgeois nationalist radical leaders that opposing Western imperialism is futile. So the West is still withholding crucial economic support and maintaining sanctions in place, thereby imperilling the future of the GNU.

Land reform

The GNU's politics are extreme free market and they will run up against the opposition of the labour movement and urban/rural poor in the context of the likely failure of the new round of neoliberalism centred on STERP, and attempts to reverse the land reform program.

Significant sections of peasantry did benefit from the land reform. This process started in 1997 as a spontaneous movement which included urban radicals and peasants and in many was a reaction to the poverty caused by Mugabe's implementation of neoliberal policies from 1990 to 1997. When his popularity fell, and with his political survival at stake, Mugabe abandoned many of these policies and used the land movement as a way to outflank the MDC from the left. Ultimately, it was the MDC's fear of mass action and its adoption of right-wing policies that allowed for Mugabe to rebuild a social base, and divide the urban and rural working classes through the land reform.

However, Mugabe's land reform was no socialist model. It did not balance the interests of the farm workers (the rural proletariat), peasants and the state as a whole. It was more based on establishing new individual farmers rather than cooperatives. While it was primarily the white Rhodesian farmers who were expropriated, the big plantations and the land owned by the multinational corporations were not touched. The black elites also took the most productive and fertile farms for themselves. Nevertheless, up to 10 million hectares were redistributed in the most significant land reform in Africa. Given this background, the GNU is likely to try to resolve the land issue by granting private tenure and the right to sell land. In time, small farmers will be forced to sell their land cheaply to the bourgeoisie, both black and white, and the land reform will be significantly reversed.

Democratic space

The MDC's fear of mass action is ultimately the recognition of the working class as the main agent for change. The opening up of democratic space following the GNU deal will allow the left room to organise and work to reunite the urban and rural poor around issues such as access to affordable water, education, electricity, AIDS/HIV drugs and health care in general, housing, transport and rural development. The political divide that previously made this difficult, especially in relation to MDC-controlled local government structures, is now blurred with the GNU, allowing for greater class-based actions of the poor, regardless of party affiliation.

The GNU deal also creates the possibility for a new constitution and new elections, within 18 months. However, an unwritten part of agreement was that the elites could delay elections for five years. The relaxation in the authoritarian character of the state also means that we can work with broader forces, including trade unions and social movements, to build a movement in support of a democratic constitutional reform.

Within the social movements there is now a left wing which questions neoliberal process, whilst many right-wing civic leaders are being co-opted into the new government structures. The ZCTU will be key. The issue will be whether radicals and left-wing leaders will be able to rally the movement in the militant and anti-neoliberal and autonomous direction that its radical socialist president Lovemore Matombo pointed to at May Day, or whether the centrist and right-wing forces -- including many who hold positions in MDC -- will continue to make the ZCTU subordinate to the MDC and GNU.

The radical forces will have to mobilise and fight together with radical social movements and the left, if this is to happen.

The constitutional reform process offers a major opportunity for this. The conservative NGOs and their MDC elite partners will oppose any attempt to establish a truly people-driven constitution in terms of process and content. They will seek to impose a process they control to ensure that the new constitution does not include radical labour, gender and socio-economic rights for the working people, or subject private property to social control and regulation to benefit of the poor. They want the a process that will simply rubber-stamp the undemocratic and neoliberal draft constitution already agreed to by the political elites, with just a few modifications.

International solidarity

We would like to see a constitution like that recently adopted in Bolivia, one that is anti- neoliberal and which includes social rights. We want to learn from Latin America – from Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador -- where strong alliances and campaigns against neoliberalism and capitalism have been forged.

Ultimately, we look to link up with a revitalised South African, Zimbabwean and Zambian working class. In Zimbabwe, our liberation fight was more nationalist than socialist and this has put limitations on our struggle, especially considering that our socialist tradition was weak.

The South African working class has a richer tradition of left struggles. It brought down apartheid but post-apartheid the leadership was coopted by the middle class. Now, in post-Polokwane South Africa, the revolutionary left organised in groups such as Green Socialist, Democratic Socialist Movement, Keep Left, Platform for Democratic Left and the Coalition Against Xenophobia have shown increased maturity and work together more closely in a process of left regroupment, as well as working with the radicalising masses in the broader working-class movement, including the trade unions and radicals in the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

We are members of the International Socialist Tendency and from our own experiences fighting neoliberal capitalism and dictatorship in Zimbabwe, we are more than strong supporters of left regroupment and are convinced that unless the revolutionary movement is big and accommodating enough we will not be able to take on the forces arrayed against us, or engage with the possibilities now opening before us in the face of the biggest economic crisis of capitalism for more than seventy years.

[Munyaradzi Gwisai is a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation Zimbabwe. He was a featured guest at the April 10-12, 2009, World at a Crossroads conference in Sydney, Australia -- organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective and Resistance. This article is based on a talk presented at the conference.]

Read or download Socialist Worker, Zimbabwe, May 2009 edition

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