Zimbabwe: the road from liberation to dictatorship

Zimbabwe is in the midst of an enormous social and political crisis. Jarvis Ryan details the history of a troubled country

THERE ARE few parallels in history with Zimbabwe’s spectacular decline in recent years. Once one of the richest economies in Africa, the country is now one of the poorest in the world-hostage to the megalomania of President Robert Mugabe, who, even at 84 years of age, will stop at nothing to keep his grip on power.

Zimbabweans have suffered a truly catastrophic drop in living standards. Male life expectancy has fallen from 60 in 1990 to just 37, the lowest in the world. Female life expectancy is even lower at 34. Nearly 20 per cent of its population of 13 millions is infected with HIV/AIDS.

It’s difficult to match this horrible reality with the optimism that accompanied Zimbabwe’s independence less than 30 years ago after a long struggle against European colonialism. Mugabe was elected in 1980 promising to redistribute wealth and take the land from the white settlers.

How did Mugabe the revolutionary leader become the tyrant of today? What needs to happen to end his reign and bring real democracy and improvement for the Zimbabwean people? To answer these questions, we need to understand Mugabe’s liberation movement, Zimbabwe’s colonial past and the deep imprint that has left on the country.

Colonial era

To paraphrase Karl Marx: Zimbabwe’s colonial past hangs over it like a nightmare. British settlers occupied and ruled the country for nearly a century beginning in the 1880s. The racist and unequal society they established laid the foundations for many of the problems faced by Zimbabwean people today.

Zimbabwe was established as a British colony by the imperialist adventurer Cecil Rhodes in 1890. In 1898 the area that today makes up Zambia and Zimbabwe became known as Rhodesia, after its founder.

Thousands of African people were rounded up and forced off their land to make way for British agricultural companies, or forced to work in factories and mines. Africans were denied the right to vote and own land in white areas. Rhodesia was a “colonial settler state” very much like apartheid South Africa-white people were a minority who exploited the black majority.

Zimbabwe is rich in natural resources and by the 1930s Rhodesia was one of the most industrially developed colonies in Africa. But this growth came at a price for the colony’s rulers, who now had to contend with a militant urban working class. In 1948 a huge strike wave hit the two major cities, Harare (then called Salisbury) and Bulawayo, leading to the formation of a national liberation movement.

An African National Congress similar to the one in neighbouring South Africa was set up. Trade unionists were its main source of support, and it was led by Joshua Nkomo, a rail union leader. The ANC was banned by the colonial authorities in 1959, but Nkomo and his supporters responded by forming the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

As surrounding colonies, including Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), won their independence, Rhodesia’s white minority became nervous that Britain would do a deal with the independence movement. In desperation, they unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965 to establish a white-ruled state, led by the ruthless Ian Smith and the white supremacist Rhodesian Front. In an interesting parallel with current events, Nkomo appealed (unsuccessfully) to the British government to intervene.

Radical members of the nationalist movement, including Robert Mugabe, broke with Nkomo to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). While ZAPU was influenced by Moscow, Mugabe and the other leaders of ZANU were heavily influenced by the Stalinist and Maoist ideas that dominated Third World revolutionary movements during this period. They used the rhetoric of socialism, but in reality the independence struggle was to establish a black capitalist regime.

Even though it was a minority, the significant Zimbabwean working class presented the possibility of a genuine fight for socialism. Against Stalin, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky had argued that revolution led by the working class in the colonial countries could both win national liberation and lay the basis for socialism. The early strikes had shown the potential of a working class movement in Zimbabwe. It was to emerge again in the late 1990s in the struggle against Mugabe’s regime.

However, rather than mobilise urban and rural workers in class struggle and a fight for socialism, both Mugabe and Nkomo built guerilla armies. The armies grew to approximately 40,000 fighters by the late 1970s. This strategy eventually forced the white minority into a compromise, but it fell short of a complete victory.

A few years earlier Mugabe had pledged that “none of the white exploiters will be able to keep an acre of their land”. Under the terms of the Lancaster House agreement signed in 1979, blacks gained political power but the property rights of European settlers were left intact.

White owners would be fully compensated for any land reform even though they had forcibly taken the land a century earlier. To assuage the radical nationalists, the British government promised hundreds of millions of pounds towards land reform, in a “gentlemen’s agreement”-but little of these funds materialised.

The compromise also set aside 20 seats for whites in the new parliament, and prevented any changes to the constitution for 10 years. Together, these compromises allowed the rich white community to maintain a large and powerful presence in Zimbabwe.


However, these setbacks seemed minor amid the jubilation of independence. As the leader of a successful revolutionary movement, Mugabe had enormous prestige. He had spent 10 years in a Rhodesian prison before going into exile in 1974. Huge crowds greeted his return in December 1979.

Arthur Mutambara, now an anti-Mugabe leader in Zimbabwe’s parliament, remembers how he then worshipped Mugabe: “He was my hero, I used to idolise him. I was sold to the socialist agenda and Zanu was our party of revolution.”

Mugabe rode to power in Zimbabwe’s first democratic elections in February 1980 on a platform of settling thousands of Africans on white land within three years. He vowed to end the massive inequalities in Zimbabwean society where more than 80 per cent of industrial production was controlled by foreign capital and just 4000 mostly white farmers controlled 70 per cent of the most fertile land.

Meanwhile however, Mugabe was making his peace with the white capitalist class. According to one historian, “Despite its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric the ZANU-PF government tried to preserve the largely white-owned productive structures.”

Mugabe retained much of the repressive apparatus of the old Rhodesian state. As Zimbabwe expert Leo Zeilig points out, “The state continued to suppress dissent–it labelled oppositionists terrorists and massacred ‘enemy’ communities. The recent violence expresses the continuity and escalation of state repression, not its first appearance. The worst examples of this brutality were the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s. The majority of the population were Ndebele speakers who were regarded as supporters of the rival liberation organisation ZAPU, led by Nkomo. It has been estimated that between 1981 and 1988 between 10,000 and 20,000 ‘dissidents’-the normal euphemism for unarmed civilians-were killed.”

The ruthless suppression of Nkomo consolidated Zimbabwe as a one party state ruled by Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The promise of the national liberation movement was being increasingly replaced by a Mugabe dictatorship.

While land reform was ruled out, there were some real gains in the early years of independence. Spending on education doubled between 1979 and 1990, and infant mortality halved between 1980 and 1985.

But the reforms stalled as the economy stagnated in the mid-1980s. Zimbabwe, like many other anti-colonial struggles at the time, had looked to a “state capitalist” model of development pioneered by the Soviet Union under Stalin. But in a new period of deregulated finance, which exposed countries to much higher levels of competition, that model of state-controlled development was in deep crisis. Countries such as Zimbabwe did not have sufficient resources to begin to develop independently of the world market, and significant sections of the economy remained in capitalist hands.

Zimbabwe, like many other poor nations, turned to Western financial agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for help. Foreign debt soared, forcing the government to cut spending on health and education. In 1991, Mugabe and his cronies presided over Zimbabwe’s first Structural Adjustment Program (SAP).

The “reforms” were disastrous. The year after the implementation of the SAP saw an 11 per cent fall in national output. In 1993 unemployment reached a record 1.3 million, of a total population of about 10 million.

Crisis and opposition

The deep crisis fuelled a militant upsurge of struggle against Mugabe’s regime. The Zimbabwean working class returned to centre stage in 1996 with a public sector strike against job cuts, poor conditions and political corruption. Rank and file committees were set up to direct the strike. “You could smell working class power in the air,” remembers Tendai Beti, one of the leading activists at the time. (He is now general secretary of the MDC and charged with treason). The workers galvanised others, including students, small traders and the neglected independence war veterans, to resist the regime,

Mass strikes in late 1997 and the beginning of 1998 involved up to a million workers. Townships exploded in urban uprisings.

In 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was formed out of the union movement which had led the strikes. The Zimbabwean union federation, the ZCTU, was led by Morgan Tsvangirai, a former mine worker.

The mass strikes had rocked the regime; now within months the MDC came very close to defeating Mugabe, winning 57 of 120 contestable seats at the 2000 election.

However, the MDC was, and remains, a contradictory organisation. On the one hand, it is based in the urban working class. Led by Tsvangirai, it was formed with a promise to challenge Mugabe’s cronyism and redistribute wealth from rich to the poor.

On the other hand, it has been increasingly dominated by white businessmen and members of the middle class such as lawyers, academics and directors of non-government organizations eager both to harness its electoral success and to contain the radicalism of its base.

Under their influence the MDC has positioned itself as a broad democratic opposition, committed to electoralism and constitutional change and worse, it now pleads for the “international community” to intervene.

Faced with this challenge from below however, Mugabe re-discovered his anti-imperialism. Overnight, his government became a champion of land reform, orchestrating occupations of white-owned farms supposedly for the benefit of the forgotten war veterans. In reality the confiscated farms were distributed to Mugabe’s crionies. He also partially withdrew from the structural adjustment plan and refused to repay all of Zimbabwe’s debts.

Mugabe re-badged himself,posing as a left-wing warrior against capitalism and imperialism, denouncing “Western racism”. He was able to portray the MDC, whose moderate leadership opposed land redistribution, as lackeys of rich white farmers and the old colonial power, Britain.

Although Mugabe continued with the same policies of repression and austerity, his symbolic and rhetorical shift shored up his support in the rural population. In 2002, Mugabe defeated Tsvangirai in a presidential election dominated by violence, intimidation and widespread vote-rigging.

Since then, Mugabe has held onto power with a combination of repression and economic immiseration. His security services have beaten, jailed and killed many dissidents.

On the economic front, unemployment has risen to 80 per cent and agricultural exports, once the driving force of the economy, have shrunk to nearly zero. Hyperinflation has rendered the Zimbabwean currency virtually worthless. The economic collapse has made it very difficult for workers to take effective action. When they do strike, they face heavy repression.

The MDC hoped that the economic crisis itself would eventually undermine Mugabe. But according to Munyaradzi Gwisai, a Zimbabwean socialist who visited Australia on a speaking tour last year, the Zimbabwean left underestimated Mugabe’s willingness to destroy the economy and isolate himself from international capital in order to cling to power.

Things came to a head in March this year with presidential and parliamentary elections. The MDC won an absolute majority in parliament and what looked like victory in the presidential poll. The electoral commission withheld the results for weeks and eventually announced there would be a run-off contest between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai subsequently withdrew from the rigged ballot and Mugabe was declared the victor of the one horse race.

At the time of writing, it is not clear what the outcome of this latest struggle will be. But there are important lessons that can be drawn from the Zimbabwean experience. The first is that the strategy of the MDC leadership, which has formed a popular front with wealthy white farmers and middle-class elements, has been a disaster. It has given Mugabe breathing space and undermined the efforts of the MDC’s courageous support base.

Secondly, current calls by Tsvangirai and other opposition figures for the West to intervene are both seriously misguided and unrealistic. Why would imperialist powers such as the US and Britain, which have killed thousands of people in a war for oil in Iraq, have any interest in democracy for African people?

Western military intervention to oust Mugabe will not be welcomed by African people, who remember the carnage and suffering wrought by Britain and other colonial powers. But African leaders have not been a solution either. Neighbouring governments like South Africa have helped Mugabe stay in power and have no wish to see a radical democracy emerge on their doorstep.

The final point is that the mass action by Zimbabwean people-especially workers-is the surest way to end Mugabe’s reign of terror. The regime has always been most vulnerable when workers and their allies have engaged in mass action, such as the strikes in 1996-2000. Mugabe is hoping that the combination of economic depression and vicious repression has exhausted the working class and made a popular uprising impossible. Yet despite the terror Mugabe, the Zimbabwean people showed their determination to remove Mugabe in the March elections and he continues to lose support even in areas that were once loyal to him.

The potential for international working class solidarity with the struggle in Zimbabwe can be seen particularly in South Africa. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans are now in South Africa. In April, the South African union federation, Cosatu, banned a shipment of Chinese arms en-route to Zimbabwe. This action forced South African president Thabo Mbeki, until then one of Mugabe’s main supporters among African leaders, to also support the ban.

Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi has “called on workers in Africa and the world over, as well as all progressive citizens of the world, to work towards a total isolation of Mugabe and his government”.

The final word on the way forward goes to Solidarity’s sister group, the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe, which advocates “a regrouped united front of civic society and the opposition to launch a serious and determined program of civil disobedience and mass action.

“Any struggle that fails to do this will be outflanked on its left by this crafty regime, which has shown strong capacity to cynically manipulate the poor’s concerns and demonise the opposition as a stooge of the West. Without such a united front and a pro-poor, pro-working people and anti-capitalist ideology we shall not prevail against this regime.”


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