Zimbabwe is a bankrupt country with a population of around twelve million, a quarter of whom are HIV positive, and eighty per cent of whom have been forced below the poverty line by structural adjustment policies. But what happens here matters for far more than the population of Zimbabwe.
Other articles on the zimbabwe.indymedia.org site cover the implications for private property, and the effects of the Zimbabwean election on the Southern African region. Theres a wider lesson to be drawn from the situation here, though. The lesson is this: instability benefits the powerful. It's an example we can see from the Asian financial crisis, the Latin American meltdown, and pork barrel politics in Europe and North America. What makes the Zimbabwean case particularly interesting is its nakedness -- the global politics of power are being played out here with Machiavellian purity.
It is a time when arbitrariness has become an art form. The capricious use of law, systematic militia-based intimidation, wholesale control of state media, random beatings by the military of young women in urban areas for being out after a spurious "curfew": these are just some of the technologies of instability. And they've been largely successful, to the extent that saying hello is a political act. If you hold your hand up, five fingers spread, you identify as a supporter of the Movement for Democractic Change (MDC), whose symbol is the open palm. Conversely, a clenched fist puts you squarely in the ruling ZANU-PF camp. People are scared to talk about politics -- interviewing people is an exercise in interpreting allusion and hidden text.
The state has put a great deal of thought into its tactics. One example: the treason charge levelled against Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, is inspired Machiavellian politics. The information about Tsvangirai's treason -- videos were secretly taped, and inexpertly spliced together, putting a fairly convincing case that he had conspired to kill Robert Mugabe -- was released on national television last week. The television programme cast doubt in the minds of voters, it showed Tsvangirai as a political ingénue, and it managed to draw a great deal of opposition energy into firefighting. Of course, with the evidence in the public domain after he had been charged, it is now sub judice, and cannot be admitted to court. This is irrelevant. The point of this destabilisation is to throw the opposition into confusion.
It is not only the opposition that is confused. It is impossible, perhaps for the first time in Zimbabwe's history, to predict what will happen next. There are too many variables reasonably to take a guess at where we're heading. Will people vote? Will they manage to resist the systematic intimidation enough to vote for the opposition? Will the elections be certified free and fair by international observers? Will Mugabe steal the result? Will he refuse to step down whatever happens? Will the military back Mugabe, or will they remain subject to popular rule? Will people in Harare take to the streets if Mugabe retains power? Will Tsvangirai stay in the country if he loses? Are we heading for another Tiananmen Square? Or another Madagascar? It is a time of flux.
There have been three approaches this, all with historical precedent. The first response - one popular at the time of the Paris Commune - is to party. Everyone from seasoned political activists to the poorest farmers have been cutting loose in a big way. Election fever has been Bacchic. It is a time of heavy drinking and desperate sex. And why not? It's the party at the end of the world, and it's a way of reclaiming fun from state tyranny, a way of reasserting your power over your body when practically every other means has been proscribed.
A second approach, one adopted by many in civil society and the international community, has been systematic information gathering, in an attempt to level out the information asymmetries upon which instability is predicated. The EU, the US, the countries from the Southern African Development Community all have task forces, falling over themselves to get information. The word "Command Centre" has entered popular vocabulary. Information is a valuable commodity.
This works in favour of the powerful, first because it distracts progressive forces from thinking in the longer term. There has been a rolling week-long time-frame of crisis. Ask someone from civil society a question about the future, and the answer is inevitably "the next week will be the most critical". This is, to don an economic hat, a rational response to uncertainty, and evidence of a heavily discounted future. But the headless chicken model of crisis management comes with its own costs. Few have raised concerns about the future beyond next week. "We cant afford to", seems a reasonable response. The costs of not attending to the future, though, are much higher.
Recall, as Machiavelli did, that instability isn't all bad, at least for some. In times of uncertainty, those with more information profit. Take, for instance, the exchange rate. At the moment, the official rate is $55 to US$1. The parallel rate is around $320 to the US dollar. If, for example, you know what the exact exchange rate is going to be after the Zimbabwean dollar floats, you're in the money -- an educated economic guess puts it at around $180, but no-one knows for sure. The setting of the exchange rate will be a political decision, and one to which some in Mugabe's cabinet are already privy. This is a time of rabid speculation, where those with the political power to shape the future profit. As with the IMF in South Asia, so with ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe.
This points to a third approach to dealing with instability. If you've got enough power, you can try to shape the future. ZANU-PF and the MDC are fighting to shape their futures, but the context of this struggle is inescapably international. There's much at stake, and few international capitalists want Mugabe's regime of land appropriation to spread further. One crucial international factor will be the report of the South African observer mission over the elections. Rumour has it that they will endorse the elections as free and fair. Of course, from the outset they've not been. But in indicting the run up to the election, the South African government would also be criticising its own refusal to intervene in the public brutalisation of the Zimbabwean public.
And there are other factors at work. The South African government wants to push its New Partnership for African Development. A Zimbabwe in which the MDC is elected and Mugabe refuses to cede power is not the sort of shadow they want cast over an Africa ready for corporations to enter. It seems they are happy to remain complicit, as are the governments of the North, in fascism.
So what next? Civil society in Zimbabwe is hampered in large part by the absence of a social base from which to organise. In this as in other times of crisis, it will be the people who decide. Many are prepared to take to the streets, particularly in Harare. Many want to wait and see. And all the while, for those in power here and abroad, the money comes flowing in.