After Mugabe, what next for Zimbabwe?

The following article is taken from the April 3 issue of the Weekly Worker, paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain:

After the Mugabe era

James Turley asks what MDC rule would mean for Zimbabwe’s workers.

On April 2 the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which had been claiming victory since the polls closed, was finally confirmed as the largest party in Zimbabwe’s March 29 general election.

In a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable, the Zimbabwe election commission - no doubt under orders from president Robert Mugabe - is still refusing at the time of writing to release results for the presidential election, where MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has certainly won most votes. Even if he has not passed the 50% mark, necessitating a run-off, it is clear that the era of the Mugabe regime is over.

Hebson Makuvise, the MDC spokesman in London, claimed that Mugabe will “unleash violence”. The claim is not simply rhetorical - Mugabe has used his control of the security services as a rough instrument in such situations before. However, all the signs are that Mugabe and his cohorts are preparing to exit the scene of their crimes, taking as much booty with them as they can manage.


So would life improve for the masses under a new administration?

The MDC is an organisation with a curious history, and a contradictory character. It is indisputable, for one, that it is the primary political tool of imperialism in the country, and has received ringing endorsements from most of the political establishments of the west. Tsvangirai’s labour roots did not prevent him from visiting the extremely rightwing John Howard, then prime minister of Australia, last August.

It is no less obvious, however, that the social basis for the MDC pre-existed, and is largely independent of, that link. The initiative was launched by the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions, which by the end of the 1990s constituted the primary locus of opposition to Mugabe’s regime. The 1990s had seen Zanu-PF attempt neoliberal ‘reforms’ in what had previously been a strictly nationalist-corporatist regime; wage and price control were transferred to the market, and an attempt was made to reduce the spiralling budget deficit.

The result was not dissimilar to the ‘shock therapy’ privatisations in the ex-Stalinist countries. Short-term exposure to international market pressures caused a large number of enterprises to simply pack up. Unemployment shot up, as did poverty levels. But the budget deficit, the MacGuffin for the whole operation, remained stubbornly high.

The attacks on the working class that these measures necessitated forced the ZCTU, led by Tsvangirai, into an increasingly oppositional stance. In 1999, the MDC was formed, with the unions as by far the largest and most influential constituency, and a largely social democratic programme. Though elements of the local bourgeoisie were involved from the beginning, the evolution of the MDC has seen - particularly after the farm seizures of 2000-01, where wealthy white farmers were expelled in a chaotic land reform programme - a steady increase in the involvement of capitalist elements.

The white farmers, by and large, stayed in the country even after losing their land, turning their resources to other businesses (one, in an ironic development, turned to construction and lent his bulldozers to the government in the infamous slum clearances of 20051), and provided a new (and still relatively wealthy) base for the MDC. It was an unmistakable popular front.

These contradictions came to a head in 2005, with a significant minority splitting over the question of participating in the Senate elections. The introduction of the Senate had been opposed by the MDC; it was part of the 17th amendment to the constitution, which also included undemocratic measures such as restrictions on international travel (which were plainly targeted at Tsvangirai) and on free expression. Tsvangirai called for a boycott of the Senate elections; a breakaway MDC faction led by businessman Arthur Mutambara contested them anyway, gaining five seats out of 50 (a further 16 were appointed, six by Mugabe personally).

Tsvangirai’s political strategy is two-pronged. He is engaged in a long process of overtures to politicians and bourgeois civil society in the imperialist countries, and cultivating allies in powerful regional states. It is this process which is the immediate context of the travel restrictions in the 17th amendment. Parallel to this, he cultivates a mass base in the urban centres of Zimbabwe - predictably enough for a man whose core support originated in the trade unions. Quite apart from routine harassment and repression from the state and paramilitary apparatuses of Zanu-PF, the failure to gain any kind of mass base in the countryside has up to now had the effect of hobbling the MDC’s electoral challenges.

Mugabe’s reputation remained strong among the poor agricultural workers and peasantry, and - despite the international outcry - the farm invasions helped reinforce their support. However, with hyperinflation hitting 100,000% in February, food shortages crippling the country, and poverty and unemployment both at around 80%, it is unsurprising that rural support for the regime plummeted.


Mugabe’s isolation from almost all major forces, at the regional and global level, was a cast-iron guarantee of economic chaos and political repression.

His regime followed the path of almost all revolutionary nationalist states in the ex-colonial world, albeit a decade or so later than most - an initial period of sympathy to leftwing, primarily Stalinist, policies gives way ultimately to the pressure of isolation, internal imperialist meddling or both, resulting in acquiescence to the neoliberal consensus. Mugabe’s vocal hostility to the big powers did not prevent him enforcing IMF measures, though at present Zimbabwe remains expelled from that organisation.

Mugabe’s third-worldist anti-imperialism was always a dead end, however. It ensured the major powers treated him as a pariah and Zimbabwe as a ‘rogue state’. Hit by imperialist sanctions and effectively cut off from the global system of capital, its economy could only spiral into disintegration.

The MDC, however, apart from at its birth (and even then inconsistently) did not attack Mugabe from an anti-capitalist or working class perspective. Its programme is clearly neoliberal, and it is banking on Tsvangirai’s contacts in the west bringing lucrative foreign investment to the country, stabilising the economy in the short term. That will almost certainly mean some improvement in the food situation and probably some alleviation of unemployment. But it will be on capital’s terms and thus will do no more than remove the worse excesses of current conditions. In reality exploitation of the working class will become more efficient, while rural poverty will remain entrenched.

Still, communists in Zimbabwe are faced with the reality that the MDC remains a site of struggle for proletarian politics at the current time. Their intervention must be directed at splitting this popular front along class lines, making every possible step towards the independent political representation of the working class. The - undeniable - fact that the leadership faction is deeply tied up with imperialism makes no difference. In our view the International Socialist Organisation made a serious tactical error when it decided to give up on MDC work in favour of the ‘social movements’.

However, no set of tactics, no programme will be able to ensure the advancement of Zimbabwe’s working class if they are restricted to that country alone. An effective communist movement must aim to take root internationally, attempting to unite its forces across the whole of southern Africa, and particularly in the regional hegemon state of South Africa. Immediately after the election the South African government attempted to broker deals between the MDC and Zanu-PF, although Mugabe’s survival has relied on at least the tacit support of the African National Congress government.

The South African Communist Party, however, has adopted a pro-MDC position. The SACP’s Young Communist League sent a delegation to observe the elections, and issued a statement complaining of constant monitoring by state security forces, along with numerous “absent conditions for free and fair elections”, including the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries and the presence of senior Zanu-PF leaders on the management of the electoral commission. The YCLSA ended its statement with a call to Mugabe to “accept the will of the people”.2

While its allegations are no doubt broadly accurate, the statement is entirely insufficient from a so-called communist organisation. It is so full of liberal platitudes, it is difficult to see why the YCLSA bothered keeping its delegation separate from the other observation missions. This is in keeping with the record of the SACP, some of whose members have enthusiastically introduced neoliberal measures as part of the ANC government, and whose leadership has constantly striven to dampen down working class struggles in the name of social peace and defending the ‘national democratic revolution’.

An authentic communist approach must expose the deep complicity of the bourgeoisies of Zimbabwe and South Africa and the bankruptcy of their political establishments; it must resist imperialist blackmail and work to break the illusions of workers in the MDC leadership, which has bought into that blackmail. Most of all, it must develop a working class programme for the region and the whole of Africa.


1. See A Selby Commercial farmers and the state: interest group politics and land reform in Zimbabwe p326 ( Body.pdf).

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