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Leo Zeilig © 2002


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Things aren't terribly happy in Zimbabwe at the moment. President Robert Mugabe has intensified repression in Zimbabwe in the run up to presidential elections. He has persecuted and murdered opposition figures, trade unionists and journalists and unleashed the "war veterans" on the main party of the opposition, the Movement of Democratic Change (MDC). The ruling party, ZANU-PF, mimicking America's war on terrorism has declared that "terrorists" of the state will be executed. The British Government has also been singled out for funding the "MDC terrorists". At the same time the government uses left-wing rhetoric against "foreign imperialists" while calling for "the land seizures" for the poor. The reality behind this language is a regime determined to remain in power.

On an almost daily basis, the Northern press writes about "anarchy" in Zimbabwe, headlines proclaim the Secret plan to evict all whites and Lawless Zimbabwe "sliding into anarchy." (The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 2001 and The Observer 22 April 2001) At the same time Mugabe, who was once happy to implement the policies of the IMF and World Bank, has been transformed into the despised truant of the continent, a "monster" determined to unleash "mob savagery" against law abiding (white) Zimbabweans (The Daily Telegraph 10 August 2001). But practically all of the recent coverage sees the crisis from the point of view of the devastation to white farmers in Zimbabwe, hysterical war veterans or "mobs" rampaging mindlessly through the capital Harare. There's another story to be told. On the left, particularly in pan-Africanist circles, some have seen some truth in Mugabe's self-proclaimed role as the new leader of the fight against imperialism and globalisation. Protestors outside the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa wore tee shirts emblazoned with the words "Mugade is right! Seize the land."

Mugabe's rule has, since 1995, been unable to contain dissent. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged out of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1999 and become the most important force to challenge Mugabe since independence in 1980. The party almost won the parliamentary election in 2000 winning fifty-seven seats despite widespread violence that cost thirty-one lives by the ruling ZANU-PF. The fact that it came close to toppling such a deep-rooted and violent regime after having only existed for sixteen months is an indication of the extent of the changes sweeping Zimbabwean society.

The MDC is, however, an enigma. While it was formed by the leadership of the ZCTU – Morgon Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda - it includes industrialists and white farmers. Eddie Cross, the party's spokesperson on economic matters, is a well-known champion of privatisation and the policies of the IMF and World Bank. The MDC has also received funding from the Tories and when presented with the party's economic programme the World Bank reportedly said "We would have been proud to produce a programme like this, let alone have it handed to us." At the other extreme, the MDC includes the small but well organised left-wing group the International Socialist Organisation (ISO).

What has happened in Zimbabwe in recent years that have lead to these events? What are the roots of the crisis? Why is the question of land so important? And crucially for us, what role have ordinary Zimbabweans played in the struggles that rocked the country in recent years? Let's have a look at the period since independence, focusing on the crucial struggles from 1995, for some answers. As we shall see, it is a murky story of lies, co-optation, and the betrayal of the working class.

Independence and reconciliation

Zimbabwean Independence involved one of the most spectacular, and instant, reconciliations in the history of armed conflict. On the 17 April 1980 in front of an international crowd that included Prince Charles, Robert Gabriel Mugabe reassured the country "If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you." In the immediate aftermath of independence Mugabe asserted that there would be no fundamental transformation of society and despite the change in government white businesses and farmers could rest assured that their living conditions would be guaranteed.

For a few years in the early 1980s the government increased spending on health and education and it picked up considerable support in towns and countryside. Between 1980-90 schools were built across Zimbabwe and primary education enrolment increased in from 1.2 million in 1980 to more than 2.2 million by 1989. In secondary schools, enrolment climbed from only 74,000 to 671,000 in the same period. By the mid 1980s, however, the economy had begun to stagnate. From 1986-87 per capita GDP declined rapidly. Loans from the World Bank, happily and greedily accepted by the government elites caused foreign debt to rise from US$786 million in 1980 to $3 billion in 1990. Having precipitated the crisis, a cabal of neoliberal revolutionaries gathered around Finance and Economics Minster Bernard Chidzero. Supporters of the state capitalist reforms of the early years were marginalized. Thus, under some duress, but not without complicity, the government invited the World Bank in to reorganise the economy.

Structural adjustment

The government introduced the first full Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1991. Following similar - and similarly disastrous - programmes in most of Africa, the World Bank insisted on the trade liberalisation, the removal of import controls and export incentives, deregulation that included changes to what were regarded as "restrictive" labour legislation, and widespread public sector reforms. The effects of these changes were devastating.

The year after the implementation of the Programme saw a per capita GDP fall by 11%. In the period directly affected by the 1991 ESAP between January 1991 and July 1993 more than twenty thousand jobs were lost. By 1993 unemployment had reached a record 1.3 million, with a total population nudging ten million. Tor Skalnes reported twenty five thousand civil service jobs lost by 1995 while "inflation rose and exports declined." The new policies promoted by Washington and the IMF failed to stem, and by all accounts helped to deepen, the recession that continued to grip Zimbabwe.

Out of this turmoil a new militancy was born. By the late 1980s sections of society that had been previously termed "middle class," were radicalised by the fall in living standards. At the same time opposition at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) emerged criticising the right-wing shift in government policy. Most significantly was the rupture of corporatism. The trade union movement, the ZCTU, broke with the old leadership that had followed and supported the government since independence. In the 1988 ZCTU elections, party loyalists were replaced by a new generation of union bosses who were, it seemed, prepared to fight Mugabe. Morgan Tsvangirai – a mineworker and activist – became General Secretary of the ZCTU. The following year he supported students at the University of Zimbabwe and was held for six weeks on suspicion of being a South African spy. The period was crucial for a new generation of militants and trade unionists. As Tendai Biti, a lawyer and activist, argues "It was the first time people criticised the legitimacy of these heroes. It showed you can make noise and not get killed."

While Mugabe's stories about the role he played in the struggle for national liberation had carried some weight in the 1980s now they seemed more like the tales of an old man anxious to divert attention from the failure of that liberation. Most Zimbabweans continued to have only poor access to infertile and barren land, if at all. More often, Zimbabweans found themselves working as landless labourers for white farmers, who were protected by the government from land invasions by angry workers and peasants. Those who had only been children during the struggle for independence were now the new working class, brought up under a black government. They saw through Mugabe's hollow promises, and began to mobilise for change. The trade union bureaucracy even proclaimed during the 1991 May Day rally "Are we going to make 1991 the Year of the World Bank Storm?" and they produced an alternative economic plan, Beyond ESAP, opposing some of the governments IMF sponsored programme. But, in the mealy mouthed rhetoric of Beyond ESAP, and it's reformist tinkerings with capitalism, lay warning signs for those hoping for radicalism from the union leadership.

The upheavals

There was an important anti-police brutality demonstration in 1995, triggered by the murder of several people by Harare police. It marked a turning point for the country. Luke Kasuwanga, who helped to organise the demonstration, recalls how it inspired him:

When I reached home I waited for the news. 8.00 news, the news was read: Harare was burning! You could see fire everywhere. The Minster was interviewed, and we could see that he was sweating; he was saying, "we know the people responsible and we are going to get them. They are going to pay for it." … Why am I saying this? It politicised me. That was the first being in the leading role whilst I was a worker not even having so much confidence.

But it was not until 1996 that Zimbabwean society experienced mass struggle. In August there was the first national government workers strike. Tens of thousands came out on strike against job losses, bad working conditions and government corruption. Although health workers, nurses and doctors, initiated the strike it spread rapidly to other workers, teachers, civil servants and almost every branch of the public sector. It affected every area of the country and crippled the government. As the strike continued it developed more clearly political aims, eventually demanding the reduction in the size of the cabinet.

Trade Unions leaders struggled to keep up with a strike that was being organised by the rank and file. Before long, they forced themselves to the front of the movement and eventually persuaded strikers to accept a government offer. The strike ended in an agreement that included a large increase in wages, the promise of a new labour act, a guarantee that workers would receive bonuses and the recognition of public sector unions. The agreement didn't hold. By November health sector workers were on strike again, staying out until February 1997.

The strike also saw the active intervention of the International Socialist Organisation. For several years the organisation had developed a routine of participation in strikes and ideological debate. Although at the time it had only fifty members they were able to produce leaflets calling for indefinite strikes and had participated in the strikes in Harare and Bulawayo. As well as calling for the election of a strike committee to take the strike forward, they pressed for more militant action, including picketing government buildings. A strike committee was elected and proceeded to direct the movement; flying pickets moved from workplace to workplace arguing with workers to join the movement. Tafadzwa Choto, an ISO activist, recognised the importance of the period, "I think the turning point was the government workers strike in 1996, it really gave confidence to so many workers. Also 1997 was actually a year when the Zimbabwe government witnessed a lot of strikes. So the turning point I can call it the 1996 government workers strike."

The following year saw more demonstrations and strikes than at anytime since independence. Students combined with workers who linked the struggle in the city with the need to distribute land in the countryside. As Tendai Beti, a leading activist at the time remembers, "This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence – you could smell working-class power in the air." The previously marginalized war veterans broke onto the scene, to the shock and disappointment of Mugabe. Rural labourers and peasants invaded commercial farms in various provinces and tried to resist the police who had been sent by the ruling ZANU-PF to evict them and restore "law and order". A radicalised urban working class helped fuel the rural struggle. War Veterans and peasants participated in anti-government demonstrations throughout 1997. The War Veterans, who are for the most part former fighters from the guerrilla war against the Rhodesian state, had been abandoned after independence and by the mid 1990s most of them were unemployed, without pensions or land. Galvanised by the mass upheavals shaking society, they joined demonstrations and started making their own demands. They denounced Mugabe at public forums, including at the annual Heroes Commemoration.

By the end of the year Mugabe was so frightened by the threat poised by the war veterans that he imposed a tax, a War Veterans Levy, which he argued would be used to fund pensions for those who had fought in the war. As a result another strike, a two-day stay-away was called by the ZCTU. Thousands of demonstrators converged on Harare, by the end of the strike the government agreed to remove the proposed tax. The wave of militancy that had started in 1996 continued into 1998. The year started with a "bread riot" led by housewives, provoked by an increase in the cost of basic commodities. The riots quickly combined workers and the unemployed as leaders in the ZCTU tried to dissuade workers from joining the demonstrations.

The ZCTU was not completely wrong-footed. The general secretary, Morgan Tsvangirai, understood the importance of the new wave of militancy. He even called for a general strike without consulting the General Council of the Congress, and was almost removed as a result. Kasuwanga illustrates the way the movement took the lead,

When ZCTU was calling for stay-aways, these stay-aways were called after the housewives and the unemployed were rioting in the townships spreading around Zimbabwe. Even the 1997 Bread demonstrations, which shook the whole of Zimbabwe. It was done by housewives on their own. Even Tsvangirai said he was nothing to do with it. It began spontaneously on its own.

The war veteran leader Chenjerai Hunzvi became a key loyalist to Mugabe during the period, even though his "profile" as a middle class and privileged member of the establishment could not contrast more with the peasants and ex-combatants he now led.
The ZCTU was mindful of events that had led to the removal of Kenneth Kaunda in neighbouring Zambia in the early 1990s. A movement led and organised by the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions that had swept the old regime from power in elections held in 1991. The Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) came to power headed by Frederick Chiluba the General Secretary of the only trade union federation, that had helped to coordinate strikes and demonstrations that undermined the old regime. Already the level of militancy in Zimbabwe had surpassed the mass struggles that had transform Zambian politics. Would Zimbabwe follow the same path? What should the ZCTU do?

A working class party?

Between 1996-98 the ZCTU repeatedly sought to lead and direct a mass movement that persistently pre-empted their direction. Rank and file activists, often organising in Labour Forums (where large groups of workers met to discuss politics) rushed ahead of union bureaucrats in organising strikes and demonstrations. From 1998 a recurrent theme of the Labour Forums was the demand for the ZCTU to form a workers party, demands that were repeatedly rejected on the grounds that a union's work should be limited to the "economic" and not the "political". The crisis deepened, as did the urgency of these demands.

Meanwhile Mugabe seemed to be failing everyone. The "international community" who had long regarded him as a reliable partner and Zimbabwe as proof of the efficacy of IMF and World Bank reforms began to ostracise the regime. He caved in too easily to an audacious workers movement that was meant to have been subdued by ten years of World Bank led reforms. Gradually various NGOs, academics, businessmen and lawyers added their voices to the calls for a new opposition. The "demands" now carried a contradiction. On the one hand they came from below, the Labour forums and the streets, that had been involved in mass struggle since 1996. These forces insisted on a reversal of Mugabe's "privatisation and patience." But on the other hand pressure was mounted by the middle class, academics, lawyers and businesses who were threatened by the movement they now sought to co-opt.

Mugabe began to realise that if he were not to go the way of Kenneth Kaunda and Malawi's Hastings Banda – also ejected by popular resistance –he would have to make a semi-retreat from an agenda of IMF reform of which he been an enthusiastic and erstwhile defender. The regime moved quickly and government rhetoric began to lambaste "imperialism" and "Western racism". The emptiness of the rhetoric, rather than pacifying resistance, helped to consolidate middle class and foreign support for a "new party", an opposition to the new opposition of Mugabe.

Land was key to this reorientation. For twenty years the government had failed to make any serious attempts to redistribute land to the black majority starved of it. The government, who had recently ejected "squatters" from occupied white farms, now sanctioned the occupation by squatters of the same farms, in a rearguard populist move. Mugabe began to realise the political potential of "war veterans" and used Hunzvi - "Hitler" as he labelled himself - to win their loyalty. Before long, Mugabe had out-stepped the opposition in his party and won most of the regime behind his new stance. The collapse in values of the Zimbabwean dollar at the end of 1998 was symbolic of what was to come, the isolation and rapid demonisation of the regime by international capital.

The call for a new party was finally answered. In March 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was initially just a "movement", was born through the National Working People's Convention (NWPC). The ZCTU had convened the Convention and invited NGOs, civic groups and resident associations who had been involved in the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA). The NCA was a loose coalition of church groups, lawyers and opposition parties, essentially a group of middle class activists. The Convention was not such a friendly gathering, an attempt was made to exclude leading activists as Timothy Chitambure remembers, "The guys were given special instructions, "You should not allow socialists in." But you know what we did? We are the leading people in locations, so some went under the banner of resident associations, some went under the banner of NCA." The aim for many was to form a labour party committed to defending the interests of the working class, but the tensions between these activists and others were never far from the surface. As Chitambure explains:

So we were saying that, "ZCTU should form a workers party." But they didn't like it they wanted to separate economics from politics. They saw your face and they know that you are in ISO. They asked: "How come you are in here?" and you say, "I am representing Glenfield residents association." Those that did not get in were outside with some leaflets saying: In this convention push this, this and this points.

Until the organisations official launch in September 1999 the party was dominated by trade unionists but quickly a middle class bloc representing local and international business interests began to encroach on the leadership of the party. By the parliamentary elections in June 2000 workers were in the clear minority, making up only 15% of the candidates. Policy too shifted and the party courted western leaders and committed itself in the election manifesto to policies of the "free-market" "privatisation" "direct investment" and land reform that succeeded at being to the right of ZANU-PF, offering limited redistribution to the poor.

The parliamentary vote followed the MDC victory in a referendum on a new constitution proposed by the government. The MDC almost won the Parliamentary elections. For a party less than one and a half years old this was an extraordinary result. The party attracted the core of the urban working class in all of the principle cities, Harare, Bulawayo and Chitungwiza. But the election also marked a decisive shift in policy and symbolised the end of what had seemed to be the inextricable radicalisation of the struggle.
How could the MDC have fallen into the hands of those advocating privatisation and the free market? The answer lies in the weakness of the organised trade union movement. Although the ZCTU had jettisoned the old leadership in the late 1980s, they also abandoned socialism. When the regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia collapsed, so did the ideological signposts for a generation of trade union bureaucrats, activists and leaders. Although the period between 1996-98 showed the power, initiative and creative force of the Zimbabwean working class, the strikes and demonstrations remained ultimately under the control of the trade union bureaucracy. In turn they ensured that "stay aways" would only be used as a means to at most pressurise Mugabe while keeping the interests of the "international community" onboard.

Luke Kasuwanga argues that it was the threat of the mass revolt and revolution that marginalized and frightened the middle class. These tensions forced them to respond to the MDC. As he explains:

The main point I want to make is that we were on the verge of a sort of revolution in Zimbabwe. There was going to be anarchy, whereby revolts were going to be happening anytime, any day. So I think some interested groups, to stop this, said "Why don't you form this NCA and later on the MDC." …Through … the ZCTU calling for that dialogue thing [it] was trying to neutralise the power of workers. Because workers by then were calling a five-day stayaway, the five-day stayaway was the one needed by workers. And Tsvangirai was calling for one day, two days, one day, two days, every Wednesday. It was a form of trying to control workers. If MDC was not formed workers were going to revolt on their own. And the middle classes were scared. Do you know what was happening? People like me, I don't have O levels, I don't have a degree. I was even more influential in my area. Our comrades, those who were putting up the barricades in the street were having more influence. The "middle class" were losing influence because no one could hear them. They couldn't stand and talk to the people rioting because the language was different. But having that dialogue thing, they try to interpret all of those things to us: the rule of law, the IMF, economics, we want foreign currency, we want this and that. They thought that they were talking to the uneducated; you cannot understand this, do this and do this. That is how the struggle was stolen from our hands.

Whether the strikes and mass struggles between 1996-98 amounted to a "revolutionary situation" is debatable. There were never consistent political demands under an independent leadership that could have made the forcible removal of Mugabe more than a question debated among a minority of those active. But Kasuwanga is undoubtedly right that Zimbabwe went through a "sort of revolution."

At each step of the way attempts were made to stifle the independent voice of the movement. The left, including ISO, was continuously obstructed in their attempt to build solidarity, organise Labour Forums, set up tenants associations and participate in strikes and demonstrations that they were central to organising. As we have seen attempts were even made to exclude them from the founding convention of the MDC despite being amongst the first to argue and organise for a workers party founded on the basis of "taxing the rich to fund the poor."


On the brink of war with Afghanistan Tony Blair declared in his 2001 conference speech that the state of Africa was "a scar on the conscience of the world." He called for a new initiative for the continent that would involve a partnership with Africa. On the western side: more aid, less debt and "training to soldiers." On the African side it would involve good government, less tolerance of corruption and the activities "of Mugabe's henchmen in Zimbabwe." This is a sham. The first "initiative" the British state offered Africa was the colonisation of the continent more than one hundred years ago. Since then the British government has profited in every conceivable way from the process of, in the terms of Guyenese scholar Walter Rodney, "how Europe underdeveloped Africa." The current agents of this underdevelopment, to which Tony Blair is an outspoken advocate, are the structural adjustment programmes and loans that helped to fund the genocidal regime in Rwanda and enrich and corrupt governments like Mugabe's while decimating health care that could have acted as a bulwark against the spread of AIDS. Solutions cannot be found in western "initiatives" or any form of re-colonisation but through the struggles of those who have resisted the policies of Blair and Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

As the presidential election approaches it is clear that Mugabe will not tolerate defeat although at the same time he is preparing for it. The government has been arming the state, creating paramilitary forces among sections of the war veterans to be called on to gerrymander victory and, in the unlikely event of defeat, to destabilise the country. If ZANU-PF win, it will be a result of widespread and systematic intimidation and violence.

Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to remove Mugabe in 2000 by extra-parliamentary activity if he refused to go legally. As Choto says "last year Tsvangirai made statements that Mugabe was going to be removed, if he didn't resign he was going to be removed by violence and there was going to be mass action. That never took place, and the reason: the MDC was given advice by European countries not to do so." His international backers were scared about the consequences of letting the djinn of mass protest out of the bottle. But it is this djinn that offers Zimbabwe the way out of the crisis.

Conditions today for this struggle are better then they have ever been. The growth of an anti-globalisation movement is having an impact in the South African anti-privatisation forums and in the general strike in August 2001 and in similar groups organising in Nigeria. It is also touching Zimbabwean students and activists. If the hope that "an other world is possible" can be translated into political and social mobilisation, then Southern Africa can again show the world the way to a better world.




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