Zimbabwe and the strategy of resistance

By Dale T. McKinley

April, 2008 -- The character and content of the past and ongoing political, economic, social/humanitarian and (progressive) organisational crisis in Zimbabwe has received huge amounts of analytical and empirical attention from the broad left in Southern Africa and, to a lesser extent, from the global left. Several books, numerous essays/articles, frequent seminars/workshops and countless blogs and emails have been offered on almost every aspect of the crisis. While these efforts have certainly provided much-needed intellectual stimulation/debate, important information, degrees of organisational impetus and knowledge-generation about the crisis, and have often catalysed practical efforts to assist, and be in solidarity with, progressive forces in Zimbabwe, the Achilles heel of the struggle for a new Zimbabwe -- the strategy and tactics of resistance/opposition -– has, for the most part, been treated as a ``poor cousin'', forever condemned to sit on the margins of the main ``conversation'' and struggle.

It is a serious weakness that is not specific to the Zimbabwean struggle (witness the general strategic and tactical disarray of left forces in South Africa in the early-mid 1990s), but it is one that is located within a very specific Zimbabwean context and which has had an adverse impact on the general trajectory of resistance/opposition struggles in Zimbabwe over the last several years. Thus, the main questions that need to be posed are: what have been the main reasons for such as weakness on the strategic-tactical front that have led the struggle in Zimbabwe to its present day strategic cul-de-sac, and, what needs to be done to change that?

There has never been any meaningful degree of ideological consonance amongst left forces/individual activists in Zimbabwe. For the first decade or so, the institutional existence and political dominance of a ``socialist'' political party in the form of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), engendered a ``civil society'' that was effectively confined to the margins of key political/ideological social debate and contestation. While opposition to the negative effects of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and a subsequent raft of neoliberal policy prescriptions in the early-mid 1990s fostered trade union-based, student and other smaller-scale resistance, eventually leading to the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) and then the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the dominant strategy of this accumulated resistance was bounded within a dominant constitutional and legal framework -– i.e. to seek, through existing societal and state institutions, an expression of growing popular demands for changing the character and content of those institutions. This strategic orientation, and the tactics employed to pursue it (e.g., the formation of a political party to contest representational power through the existing institutional and legal framework) was understandable given the existence of political-social space at the time, the fact that the MDC was the first, meaningful and mass-based political challenge to the post-independence hegemony of ZANU-PF and the subsequent ``victory'' of the nascent opposition forces in the February 2000 constitutional referendum.

Political and legal space closed

However, the ``spaghetti mix'' (as left Zimbabwean activists have called it) of the MDC meant that once Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF had connived to steal the 2000 parliamentary elections, and in the process begin to close down the institutional and legal space for political dissent and opposition, there was no dominant ideological foundation to act as the basis for strategic and tactical re-assessment. As a result, the strategic ``line'' remained the same -– to gear up for contestation of the presidential elections in 2002 and continue the demands for a new constitution, using the MDC as the main driver/vehicle and allied ``civil society'' formations as fellow passengers. Tactically, the main emphasis was on using the available (but fast closing) institutional and legal space to launch strikes and stayaways (by a diminishing number of employed workers and an increasingly survivalist general population), mobilise international opinion and support and embark on a standard electoral campaign to influence and mobilise support amongst the Zimbabwean population. Under such a strategic rubric though, there was little the oppositional forces could do once Mugabe and ZANU-PF began to unleash their war veteran-driven ``land reform program'', youth militias and institutional/legal manipulation as a means of consolidating power (especially in the rural areas) and covering the creeping dictatorship in the cloak of an incomplete ``national democratic revolution''.

It is testimony to the hope placed in such a strategic line of march by a majority of Zimbabweans, that the MDC's presidential candidate -– Morgan Tsvangirai -- only narrowly ``lost'' the 2002 presidential elections. But Mugabe and ZANU-PF were never going to allow ``normal'' politics to frame, and decide, the struggle for institutional (state) and representational power, and when this election was rigged/stolen, the oppositional forces fell further into the quagmire of their own ideological and thus, strategic, contradictions. As one grassroots Zimbabwean left activist put it at the time: ``It is important to reemphasise that the lack of ideological discipline in the civic movement at the moment subjects it to manipulation in many ways. It allows domination by foreign funding. It also paralyses internal discourse to counter ideological offences by enemies. It creates a base for manipulation for individual pursuits. It remains one of the reasons why penetration of the grassroots has been difficult.''[i]

Despite such contradictions, and combined with the intensification of Mugabe/ZANU-PF's post-election closing down of institutional/legal space for ``normal'' opposition politics, there remained a dominant belief amongst oppositional intellectuals and activists/leaders that there was no need to change the strategic framework, although there was one call for ``civil society'' to ``break the bond with the MDC'' and focus on grassroots ``bread and butter'' struggles as the means to build an independent mass base capable of mounting a ``meaningful challenge to the Mugabe dictatorship and neo-liberalism''.[ii]

The continued pursuit, after the 2002 election, by the vast majority of oppositional forces of a strategy of inclusion -– i.e., participation in the institutional and representational framework under a Mugabe-ZANU-PF run state combined with occasional, short-lived and largely ineffective spurts of mass action designed to mobilise domestic and international opinion -– only served to further splinter such forces and catalyse a growing political disillusionment amongst the general populace. In turn, this paved the way for Mugabe/ZANU-PF to not only survive, but to strengthen their hold on state power, provide new avenues of accumulation for the bureaucratic, managerial and military elite, intensify their onslaught against the remaining little institutional and legal space available for ``normal'' democratic politics and manipulate racial and ethnic solidarities both internally and regionally. The few (politically and ideologically) left voices that remained in Zimbabwe recognised this. In a stinging 2004 ``review'', the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe (ISOZ) stated that the opposition had sent ``confusing signals of the way forward and strategy by the leadership to the rank and file ... It was not clear what the decisive grand strategy was -– mass action or talks? Where action was done it was done in a half-hearted, half-organized manner with unrealistic illusions of a one–off big bang action to overthrow Mugabe's dictatorship. This reflected the now overwhelming influence of the party by the cowardly bourgeois and petite bourgeois sections ... who were and still are hostile to serious mass action for fear of revolution.''[iii]

The impact of such confusion was evident in the late 2004 call by the NCA for a boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections, where the stated purpose of the boycott was to pressure the Mugabe government into ``meaningful'' changes to the constitution. The NCA claimed that it would ``employ various strategies and there are a number that we are mulling at the moment ... boycotting the election is just one option. People can disturb the whole purpose by deliberately spoiling ballot papers or just disrupt the whole process so that it does not even take place... but it will be a matter of strategy.''[iv] Not only was strategy becoming confused with tactics, but it was clear that there really was no alternative strategy outside of the now well-worn path of knocking on the door of existent (but now extremely minimalist) institutional and legal space.

Not surprisingly then, the boycott tactic fell apart, the MDC contested the 2005 elections and Mugabe/ZANU-PF (for the third time) rigged and bullied their way to an electoral ``victory''. And once again, the main voices of the opposition cried foul, threatened all sorts of ``people’s power'' mass action to bring Mugabe to his knees and turned even further towards the pillar of regional/international opinion. That none of these tactical ``measures'' effected any meaningful/sustained change in the political and/or socioeconomic status quo -– such change having now become the sole preserve, even if backward, of the ever-intensifying kleptocratic and dictatorial rule of Mugabe/ZANU-PF -- was further confirmation (if ever that was needed) of the strategic cul-de-sac into which the main opposition forces had driven themselves. The subsequent leadership-dominated in-fighting and occurrence of factional violence within the MDC, eventually leading to a split, was nothing more than the logical outcome of such. Even while record amounts of donor funds found their way into the coffers of a plethora of ``oppositional'' NGOs, the repressive toll of a rapacious state combined with a precipitous decline in the social and economic fabric of Zimbabwean society ensured that by 2007, more than a third of the population resided outside Zimbabwe's borders, the average life expectancy had nosedived to the late 30s and inflation was running close to 100,000%.

MDC returns to failed strategy

Such a state of affairs had led another grassroots activist to offer a belated, but crucial, riposte: ``Whilst terms like legitimacy, governance, and constitution are legitimate the ordinary man and woman on the street interprets the crisis more in terms of its socio-economic havoc. Thus we must articulate our agenda in terms of questions of hunger, poverty, wages, availability of ARVs [anti-AIDS medicines], affordable sanitary pads, student grants, water and electricity cut offs, collapse of municipal services, harassment of cross border traders and vendors, food shortages, transport costs, price increases, access to land and so on. This is the language that will resonate with people's day-to-day lives.''[v]

And yet, despite all of this, the MDC (now in two parts) and its ``civil society'' allies returned once again to their chosen strategy. Surely this time, the combination of socioeconomic meltdown, changes to the electoral laws, international outrage, regional pressure and ``mediation'' (despite misgivings about the key role of South African President Thabo Mbeki), factional battles within ZANU-PF as well as the ongoing and increasingly desperate fight for new avenues of accumulation amongst the elites would ``deliver'' victory to the opposition in the 2008 elections (now combining presidential, parliamentary and local government voting)? And sure enough, by the time the election was over, even the sceptics had been caught up in the euphoria of an expected MDC (Tsvangirai) victory ... the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe had finally had their say. The numbers were there for all to see -– ZANU-PF had been defeated in the parliamentary elections and Morgan Tsvangirai had either defeated Mugabe or had garnered enough votes to force a presidential run-off. But as the post-election days have gone by, the reality (for the fourth time) has bitten hard -– the same reality that was not as clear at the very beginning of the opposition’s strategic sojourn -– namely, that Mugabe/ZANU-PF and their allied cronies were never going to allow ``normal'' democratic politics to frame, and decide, the struggle for institutional (state) and representational power. And so it continues.


In a statement issued a few days ago, the MDC said it is time for Zimbabweans to take ``destiny into their own hands''. The MDC is right about that. But then it said that the way in which Zimbabweans should do so is to stay at home until the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission releases the presidential results.[vi] The MDC is are wrong. Calling a stayaway in a situation where little or no organisation/planning has been done and where the vast majority of the population has no formal work is, to put it mildly, seriously misplaced (as the popular response to this call so clearly demonstrated). Further, while there is nothing wrong with rallying regional and international opinion, which the MDC and other opposition forces have been doing since soon after it become obvious that Mugabe/ZANU-PF were not -- once again -- going to allow electoral democracy to deprive them of power, over-reliance on others (especially South Africa) to be the main drivers of change only further serves to effectively de-politicise and de-mobilise the mass of Zimbabweans. Complimentarily, the main message that is coming through -– i.e. for some kind of negotiated ``settlement''/government of ``national unity'' etc. -– can only intensify illusions that an elite deal can ``deliver'' meaningful political and socioeconomic change for the vast majority of Zimbabweans.

The ``story'' of Zimbabwe's last decade is, in all respects, a tragic one despite the immense resilience and courage of ordinary Zimbabweans (wherever they are) and the commitment and bravery of innumerable peasants, workers and other activists from all walks of life. Yet, this tragedy is not immutable. Mugabe/ZANU-PF and all of their hangers-on have been on a downward spiral ever since they abandoned the only basis for democratic legitimacy in a capitalist world -– the political will and socioeconomic well-being of the mass of the workers and the poor. In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in our world even if in widely varying contexts, it has always and forever been impossible to realise and affirm that will through a dominant strategy of institutional and legal inclusion, of placing all the struggle eggs in a basket that is not under the direction of the masses. Inclusion can only have real and lasting meaning when it is those who are excluded who (largely) set the terms. The only serious basis upon which such a possibility can come to the fore is by organising and mobilising a mass counter-power that is not hostage to/bounded by the terms set by those in possession of existent political and socioeconomic power.

As Zimbabwe sits on the edge of a precipice that continues to crumble under the weight of its various architects making, the time is ripe for a (re)making of another sort -- a strategy of well-planned, participatory, inclusive, sustained and combined political and socioeconomically driven mass action (counterpower) to cut the remaining ground from underneath the shaky feet of the oppressors. This has never been, and will never be, an easy strategic option under circumstances in which those with a dominant institutional and coercive power are seemingly willing to ``fight to the death''. Nonetheless, it is ground that is ultimately being held up by that mass. The history of other struggles against dictatorship and capitalist oppression show us that when that ground is shaken, those standing on it begin to teeter and fall and the best possibilities for sidelining the varied forces of oppression and opportunism and for ushering in radical change are presented.

For Zimbabwe, now is not the time for sitting/waiting for a ``big man'' or outside saviour. Now is not the time to simply hope that the oppressors jump off the precipice. Now is not the time for recycling a strategy that takes the initiative and power out of the hands of the masses. Now is not the time for quiet activism. It is time to believe in the power of ordinary people, to inspire and to lead and in doing so, to create the best possibilities for a Zimbabwe where the vast majority are able to ``take destiny into their own hands''.

[Dale McKinley was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He is a long-time political-social activist and independent writer, researcher and lecturer based in Johannesburg. An edited version was carried in a special online edition of Amandla (http://www.amandla.org.za).]


[i] Hopewell Gumbo (2002). Email on Debate List.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] International Socialist Organisation (2004), ``Review''.

[iv] ``NCA to campaign for election boycott'', Daily News Online Edition, August 2, 2004.

[v] Briggs Bomba (2006). Email on Zim-Fight-on-Don’t-Mourn email list.

[vi] Integrated Regional Information Networks (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Electronic news article, 15 April 2008.