Consider these: first, a report from a Reuters correspondent in Zimbabwe writing on June 4:
“in the midst of the stayaway and the mass action, Zimbabwe strike cripples economy for third day. Police maintain tight security in the capital Harare two days after they used tear gas, clubs and warning shots to disperse thousands of opposition MDC protesters trying to hold marches around the countries.”
The correspondent is in the country and able to establish the scale of these marches. These words ought not to be taken lightly. Now consider the second report, this time published in Newsweek - and all together more extravagant,
“Serious risk lovers can visit Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s country used to be regarded as a model for African economic management, as well as one of the continent’s safest and most stunning safari destinations. For the past three years Mugabe’s desperate efforts to keep in power have skidded the country into chaos, hunger and near civil war ... Lines at filling stations can sometimes last for days - and that’s a mere nuisance by Zimbabwean standards.
“As the collapse of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry has compounded its economic crisis, street crime has worsened. Outside the cities, travelers are advised to avoid driving at night when armed thugs like to set up roadblocks and collect tolls. At the same time, it’s best to steer clear of Mugabe’s security forces; they frequently detain travelers on flimsy charges, suspecting them of being spies or foreign journalists.
“Security forces at a checkpoint recently shot a foreigner who was not carrying proper identity papers. And it’s also best to save your camera for the wildlife. Photographing some official buildings (the President’s house, for example) is a crime punishable by two years in prison. Two Canadians were detained in February because one a commercial photographer was spotted photographing a billboard."
The first quote was cited in the weekly column "Chatterbox", in the state run Herald newspaper (5 July 2003), the second was cited in a column by the arch neo-liberal Eric Bloch in the weekly Independent (27 June 2003).
Let’s start with the first story. “Thousands of opposition protesters.” I scanned the press, made countless phonecalls to friends and contacts around the country and travelled extensively through Harare during the first three days of the stayaway, scouring for exactly such marches. On Friday, the last day of the proposed mass action - the opposition termed it D-Day - I spent most of the day in African Unity Square, the advertised venue for action, waiting for the march that was going to take us to State House. No one came. The only significant action occurred at the University of Zimbabwe, where students rose up on Monday, anticipating similar action across the country, only to be viciously beaten by the army. This was widely reported. I saw the blood stained corridors, smashed doors, and heard the testimony of battered students. I am disconsolate in being able to vouch for this one. Malcolm X wrote that it is easy to mobilise students because they never consider the odds against them. Students are easily sacrificed. But in the cities, no one emerged. And from the townships barely a peep.
Now to the second report. I was taught to believe that too many personal anecdotes are evidence that you are losing the argument, but indulge me here for a moment. I have traveled extensively, at night, out of the cities and into rural areas, and have never come across informal tolls set up by armed thugs. I was detained in Bulawayo for conducting an interview in public. I was arrested, held for three hours, threatened, and eventually informed that the police would be happy to accept a bribe. So bribe I did. Reader, you would have too. It cost me Zim$40,000. But you are wise not to be overly swayed by personal testimony. I haven’t, after all, taken photographs of bill boards and there are plenty of roads and nights on which I have not traveled. So I investigated. Perhaps Zimbabwe really was more like the reports I was reading in the international press. I contacted by same network of friends and contacts dotted throughout Zimbabwe and established that they too had not come across tolls or vaunted rampaging armed gangs. But my scientific instinct still twitching, I dug further. A good friend, who lives in the large township of Mbare in Harare, did report violence and intimidation. This, he told me, comes from a vigilante group set up two years ago called the Chipanganos. The have imposed their terror on the township. His words: “It is difficult and bloody dangerous to move around after dark. If they see you them prepare to be harassed. They claim that they are an anti-crime group and they have had some success, crime has fallen but we are all as scared as hell. Dreadful, but verging on civil war? Nah!”
What is truth?
So how do we find the real picture? On the first point I feel fairly confident that there were no major demonstrations during the MDCs mass action; the only serious attempt was at the university. The reasons were simple. The cities were militarised, with patrols of armed soldiers on street corners and Mugabe’s youth militias patrolling the streets. It was the coming of age for the state’s youth - one Border Gezi youth (named for the late Zanu-PF politician who had spearheaded National Youth Training) interviewed in Chegutu - a government stronghold an hour from the capital – said “we now effectively work for the government. I didn’t travel to Harare for the stayaway but I gave the police names of local youths I knew who were organising meetings here during the stayaway.”
But surely there would be no state large enough to withhold the thousands of opposition protesters reported. There was - according to my very imperfect investigations - a vital subjective factor missing: leadership. After more than two years of prevaricating the MDC made a decision to shift towards jambanja - mass action, which militants had been demanding for years. But stained by the past, all that emerged was a paradox: everyone gave their support to the action (with the strong conviction that it would succeed) but no one wanted to join in. Apart from our students, who gallantly and insanely refused to weigh the odds.
Mugabe’s building blocks
Any demagogue needs a social base to stay in power, and Zanu-PF are no exception. Theirs is a studied totalitarianism. It comprises three elements: the war veterans (funded and radicalised since 1998), the peasantry many who are real recipients of land redistribution, and youth activists (for activists they are, no matter how distasteful).
Youth first: I spoke to an MDC student leader before the mass action – touted as ‘the final push’ (a time when most people seemed to be convinced of its imminent success). I asked what he thought of the threat posed by Mugabe’s patriotic youths. He laughed dismissively, “I don’t think the training of Border Gezi youth is an obstacle. What is 15 000? It is nothing but just a small number. We are looking at a programme [the mass action] which is staged. What we are talking of [is] mass action, we are talking of bringing to town 50 000 people, we are talking of bringing 100,000s, millions of people to town. Therefore I don’t expect 15 000 youths facing the million crowd. I don’t think it will work that way...The point which I want to stress [is that] people are now prepared to face armed solders. So surely if you are prepared to face armed solders the question of youth trained, Border Gezi trainees fall away, because we are even prepared to face bulldozers. We are prepared to face those who are carrying AK and riffles. So the process we have embarked on now is to try and remove the fear that has been stored in people, especially the civilians who are gong to participate because … some still think that the Border Gezi youths are of importance which is not true - they are just our brothers and sisters, probably the failures in life. So we do not think they are going to be obstacles in our struggle.”
It would be mean and cynical to challenge his complacency with hindsight, and I very much wanted to believe him when we spoke. The programme of which he spoke, and the mass action committees of which he told me, had been built not only in colleges across the country but also in the corridors of halls of residence in every college. It’s just that they weren’t that much to speak of. In fact, it seems that they only really functioned as distribution depots for whistles and red cards (football metaphors are constantly used in Zimbabwes political culture - the red cards were to be waved on the march to State House).
It would be lazy, however, not to interrogate the opposition’s complacency. It has a rather long history. In February 2001 the left-wing MDC MP Munyaradzi Gwisai (now expelled from the party together with the International Socialist Organisation) addressed a party leadership seminar. The blame for the party’s current morass, he argued, was the hijacking of the party by the bourgeoisie, the marginalisation of workers, the adoption of neoliberal positions and a cowardly failure physically to confront the Mugabe regime and bosses. Gwisai concluded with the prophetic warning that “It is not only imperative that the party moves much more leftward ... in order to relink to its base…let it be known that there were fraternal critics, who mapped out a strategy that may have enabled the MDC to outflank Mugabe from the left, exposing the regime’s fake anti-imperialism.”
The MDC preferred to take another route by sipping, indeed almost instantly choking on, neo-liberalism. This severely disorientated its grassroots activists. According to the MDC, the solution to Zimbabwe’s problems weren’t to be found endogenously, but from the international community - the bombers of Kabul and Baghdad. When the world was shifting to the left - under the combined influence of the war on terrorism and the anti-capitalist movement - the opposition in Zimbabwe could be seen waiting on the good graces of Tony Blair and George Bush.
I don’t want to seem an apologist for the regime or to understate the crisis. The crisis is horribly real. Zimbabwe is in an unpleasant space. Harare is a permanent queue - for fuel, bank notes, sugar, salt, and mealie meal (the main food staple). Take the case of two groups of people: children and workers. One of the most striking things about a walk around the city are the children. Small and large school children, in their tatty school uniforms, hang around supermarkets and shopping centre - the sort that litter the Avenues, a middle-class area just out of the city centre and rapidly being proletarianised. They clutch sponsor forms in plastic envelops and approach people asking for a contribution towards their school fees. School fees have risen, like everything, beyond the reach of almost everyone. In one school in Harare they increased from $30,000 to $90,000 a term (students at the Great Zimbabwe University are currently involved in a struggle to the death with the administration’s fees hike from $125,000 to $325,000).
The other group is the security guards. They are flood the city’s streets. They comprise the worse paid, most miserable group of workers in Harare. They are paid to guard banks, shopping malls, house and blocks of flats.
They are get paid $47,000 a month but the term ‘paid’ is purely theoretical. With transport from the townships costing as much as $1000 a day, many choose to cycle, if they can afford the hardware. The night shifts in this rotten, cold weather are the worst. The security guard - Tendai - to our block I see hunched up every night, his face covered in a make-shift balaclava. He lives in Highfield (Gwisai’s old constituency) and faced with the rocketing fares, leaves at one or two in the afternoon for his evening shift, which begins at seven. He usually walks it, but sometimes borrows a colleague’s bike. The ZCTU - the main trade union federation - are now demanding a monthly minimum wage of $125,000. With inflation more than 300% even this seems paltry.
The big picture is just as bleak. The main export crop, and bringer of foreign exchange to the Zimbabwean economy, is tobacco. To date, it has brought in 6% of the level of foreign currency it raised last year. The barter agreement that traded Libyan fuel for Zimbabwean beef, tobacco and sugar has been revived. The original one collapsed six months ago because the government found itself unable to keep to its side of the bargain. Although the land reform and good weather have had a huge effect on the agricultural sector, food aid which has been keeping thousands alive is being substantially scaled down, according to the World Food Programme. The WFP estimate that 4 million people will require food aid in the coming 12 months, as opposed to 6 million in the last year.
The economic crisis that has alienated the international community is not due to the thorough-going Marxist policies of in embattled and principled regime. The red star on the Zimbabwean flag is looking decidedly anaemic. The regime lurches backwards and forwards between price controls, subsidies (where they are possible) and government intervention on the one hand and neo-liberal devaluation, privatisation and adjustment. The price controls heralded by the regime as proof of the government’s popular credentials were scrapped almost as quickly as they were rolled out.
The way out?
What are the solutions? Do Zimbabweans have a craven desire for the international community, under Bush’s leadership, to liberate Zimbabwe? The London branch of the MDC wanted to call a recent demonstration The slogans: After Saddam, Mugabe! Regime change in Zimbabwe. The sentiments resound on the streets of Zimbabwe. There is the hope that Bush will deal with the old man since we are unable to. They reflect the despair that grips Zimbabwes opposition movement.
Civil society - the frenetic and self-important world of NGOs and their endless public meetings, community groups and congresses - advertise in the Daily News about preparations for a transitional government. The radical trade unionist Raymond Majongwe is scathing –“That’s nonsense. This are exactly the same people I meet in the same circles, people are already jostling for power. What transition are they talking about? Do they know who Robert Mugabe is? I doubt it. Mugabe has gone out on TV, gone public to say the issue about transition is nonsense. People don't know Mugabe. Mugabe is a person who is ready to die for what he believes in. Mugabe has to be kicked out. You don't negotiate with Mugabe because he knows no negotiations, his history proves the man does not respect any other idea as long as it’s not in line with his.”
Jonathan Moyo - the reviled Minster for Information and Publicity - writing under his nom de plume Nathaniel Manheru - is equally dismissive: “the so-called transitional government ... would be an imposition on the people of Zimbabwe of some agreed acceptable jolly good fellow who would have to be an uncle Tom ... to ensure ... [the] reversal of the gains of the Third Chimurenga [Shona for ‘uprising’).” It is a horrible sensation to be forced to half-agree with these bullies and party bosses, but Moyo has a point.
What does the opposition propose? Consider the following. A western diplomat interviewed in the monthly magazine Parade explained why he saw no end in sight to Zimbabwe’s woes. His prescription was predictable enough: privatisation, adjustment and austerity. Have a listen. “A future government of Zimbabwe may have to summon Herculean might to resurrect the ... economy. It will have to downsize its bureaucracy, reform land reform, secure international financing and devalue the Zimbabwean dollar.” But it gets worse: “Then [the government] will have to wean its population from negative borrowing rates, dirt cheap fuel and donated food.” So it’s clear. Zimbabwean will never again have it so good, lazing around on food handouts and taking trips to seaside on that infuriatingly cheap fuel.
On the land question, the diplomat surpasses himself: “Admittedly, evicting some settlers from farm houses and the surrounding land would be an unpleasant, divisive and risky move ... In another two years new farmers will be more physically and emotionally attached to the land while many white farmers will no longer reside in Zimbabwe. At that point the government will have to live with costly compensation claims hanging over its head.” Our diplomat concludes that even if a new transitional government comes to power it is far from clear that they will have the political will and skill to guide the population through the bruising and tumultuous transition period he describes. So even if the government is replaced, transitioned or reformed, Zimbabweans must prepare to give up the good life, and get ready for a bruising and tumultuous transition period. Where do these people live?
The secession debate was launched a few weeks ago by Mugabe, to discuss in the open who will replace him. Subsequently contenders for the presidency have been paraded on the front cover of the Herald. The main runners seem to be the speaker of parliament Emmerson Mnangagwa and Simba Makoni, the streetwise professional, outspoken in his advocacy of adjustment and privatisation, who fell out with the government last year. The reforms would be the same - who ever wins - and closer to our western diplomat than state socialism. Rumours in Harare are that Mugabe will hold presidential elections during the parliamentary ones scheduled for 2005, handing power over to a trusted successor.
So what are the alternatives? The collapse of the mass action and ‘the final push’ has given the government a temporary advantage. The MDC are spineless and seem unable to pursue the full consequences of jambamja by ditching their commitment to neo-liberalism, and their sycophantic and nonsensical attachment to the international community. But this does not make the opposition redundant, or open the gates to a third force (neither MDC nor Zanu but ...). It does, however, alter the picture. As the crisis deepens there is the real possibility of a final push emerging from the streets: through strikes, riots and demonstrations, when people will finally protest in their thousands. But the subjective factor still demands an answer: how will Zimbabwe’s opposition respond? Can they break from the neo-liberalism that has failed them so disastrously? Frankly, the signs aren’t good.