ZIMBABWE: Australian Democrats back white privilege, IMF austerity in Zimbabwe

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Democrats back white privilege, IMF austerity in Zimbabwe

On April 4, Australian Democrat senator for Western Australia Andrew Murray successfully moved a notice of motion asking the Senate to "support the British government's strongly expressed concerns" about the "serious economic difficulties" in Zimbabwe and the occupation of predominantly white-owned, large commercial plantations by supporters of President Robert Mugabe.

On April 10, Murray again pressed the Australian government to support criticisms of the Zimbabwean regime by the governments of Britain, the European Union and the United States and asked whether it "will assist in the preservation of the commercial agricultural sector, restoration of the rule of law and fair elections" in Zimbabwe.

The Democrats' foreign affairs spokesperson Vikki Bourne also stated: "I concur with [Coalition leader in the Senate Robert] Hill's statement that, whilst the issue of land ownership is sensitive, we don't believe in any way that it justifies the illegal occupation of farms, or confiscation without compensation. In this matter I urge the Zimbabwean government to enforce and obey the rule of law."

With these statements, the Australian Democrats — a party that likes to paint itself as "progressive", anti-racist and left-leaning — firmly placed itself on the side of white privilege and Western neo-colonialism in Zimbabwe.

Like the British government, the Australian Democrats kept mum as Zimbabwe's labour, pro-democracy, student and war veteran movements fought Mugabe's semi-dictatorial rule and austerity policies over the past several years. Only when the interests of the tiny minority of wealthy white owners of large plantations and agribusiness corporations — and indirectly British and South African banks — who dominate the Zimbabwean economy, appeared to be at risk did the Democrats react.

British 'concerns'

What exactly are "the British government's strongly expressed concerns" about Zimbabwe? Writing in the February 17 South African Business Day, Britain's minister of state responsible for Africa Peter Hain explained: "It has been especially painful to see the same people who led the freedom struggle allow their beautiful country to descend into economic chaos, its great natural potential squandered ... For years, dreadful economic mismanagement has been propelling the country into crisis ...

"The UK, other donors and the international financial institutions stand ready to help ... turn the economy around and help Zimbabwe. Its government must, however, understand that we will do so only if there is a real commitment to sound economic policies of modernisation and privatisation of bloated, inefficient state-owned enterprises.

"Zimbabwe needs to work with the international community in a spirit of political cooperation rather than against us in a paranoic isolation ... The new constitution the president recommended was equally flawed. Instead of being a new start, it rested on a spurious obligation on the UK to pay compensation for land confiscated from white farmers ...

"The message to Mugabe is clear: abandon the policies that have led to crisis. Embrace the practices and principles that are bringing success to much of Africa."

Mugabe and the Zimbabwe government certainly deserve to criticised — but for reasons opposite to those outlined by Hain and the Australian Democrats.

Land redistribution

Rather than being condemned for initiating what the Western media labels a "land grab", Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party merits a pasting for its 20-year failure to initiate a radical land redistribution and to mobilise landless Zimbabweans to carry it out.

The land question is the most explosive issue in Zimbabwe. In 1890, the British imperialist conquistador Cecil Rhodes invaded what is now Zimbabwe with a gang of white mercenaries. The best land was stolen from the African people and divided among the invaders.

Land continued to be taken when Rhodesia was set up as a British settler-colony; the brutal white minority regime of Ian Smith fought to the end to maintain this. Throughout the 1970s, Zimbabweans fought a fierce war of liberation to regain their land and their right to rule their own country.

In negotiations prior to Britain's recognition of Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, London insisted that it would fund land redistribution only if the new government promised to obtain the rich white farmers' land on a "willing seller-willing buyer" basis.

Mugabe agreed and a clause was inserted into Zimbabwe's constitution to prevent the seizure of land without compensation. This made radical land redistribution impossible. In 1982, Mugabe promised to resettle 162,000 black families within three years. The promise was not kept.

Since 1990, virtually no land has be redistributed to the landless — that is, unless the "landless" happen to be ZANU-PF bureaucrats or MPs, cabinet ministers, army officers, Mugabe relatives or business cronies.

'Rule of law'

Contrary to the bleatings of the Australian Democrats, until a Zimbabwean government is prepared to disregard the "rule of law" in relation to land ownership, and restore the land to those from whom it was forcibly seized by white settlers, even if that requires confiscation without compensation, there will never be social and economic justice in Zimbabwe.

And it is not Mugabe's recent reticence to abide by International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity directives that should attract opprobrium, but his regime's long willingness to impose the harsh economic dictates of imperialism on the Zimbabwean people.

In 1990s, Mugabe adopted a structural adjustment program authored by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Zimbabwe became disastrously dependent upon World Bank and IMF loans and policy advice. From 1991, living standards plummeted and Zimbabwe's once-strong manufacturing sector rapidly decayed, causing huge job losses. Zimbabwe's impressive primary health care and educational achievements of the previous decade were reversed.

Mugabe, ever the astute populist, has cynically manipulated the desperate land hunger of Zimbabwe's 70% rural population to bolster rural support and head off potential opposition from the left.

Typically — and usually immediately before elections and important ZANU-PF gatherings or when trade union or student unrest in the cities looms — Mugabe promises sweeping confiscations of white-owned plantations, and rails against the privileges of the white minority and its links with the former colonial-settler regime.

Western governments and, more recently, the IMF and World Bank also feature heavily in Mugabe's demagogic "anti-imperialism".

But once the threat to his power has passed, Mugabe has always privately made peace with his white capitalist partners, the Western powers and their financial institutions.

Discontent

However, the effectiveness of these antics began to wane by the late 1990s. Zimbabweans, increasingly impatient for the fruits of liberation promised in 1980, had begun to get wise to Mugabe's ritual breast-beating. They resented the fact that the main beneficiaries of "liberation" were a tight circle of elites, wealthy commercial farmers and capitalists — mostly white, but with a growing number of black "entrepreneurs" who have benefited from Mugabe's and ZANU-PF's patronage.

In August 1997, veterans of the liberation war, led by the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans' Association, launched a militant campaign to demand long-promised pensions and to protest the looting of their pension fund by high-ranking government and party officials. Veterans targeted Mugabe directly, disrupting the president's speech at the usually solemn Heroes' Day ceremony on August 11.

Fearing the liberation fighters' movement might galvanise the dissatisfaction of the Zimbabwean people, Mugabe agreed to pay each a pension of about US$170 a month and a one-off payment of $4000. The total pay-out amounted to Z$4 billion (US$215 million).

Mugabe also announced that 5 million hectares of land would be nationalised and redistributed to war veterans and black families. He declared that no compensation would be paid to the mainly white farmers affected, in defiance of the constitution. (The plan was quietly dropped three months later after Western governments, the IMF and Zimbabwean big business objected.)

The IMF let it be known that US$200-250 million in pending loans would be withheld if the veterans' pay-out led to an increase in the budget deficit.

Mugabe's attempts to shift the cost to the workers and poor in the cities provoked a general strike on December 9, 1997, called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), that was the largest in the country's history.

On January 19, 1998, a massive spontaneous three-day rebellion erupted in the poor suburbs of the capital, Harare, after the price of corn flour was increased. Shocked at the response of the poor, the government quickly cancelled the increase. On March 3 and 4, Zimbabwe was again brought to standstill by a ZCTU-called general strike.

Movement for Democratic Change

Out of these mass urban struggles, as well as that of democracy activists to curb Mugabe's sweeping powers, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change emerged in late 1999.

The potential of this new party, backed by the ZCTU and led by ZCTU leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda, was demonstrated in February when — despite government intimidation, poll irregularities and a black-out of their campaign by the state-owned media — the MDC was able to defeat a constitutional referendum that would have entrenched Mugabe's repressive powers.

An amendment to allow confiscation of land without compensation was a crude last-minute addition by Mugabe to attempt to win the support of rural Zimbabweans and to paint the MDC as puppets of the white farmers and the British government. It fooled few — urban Zimbabweans voted no in large numbers and very few rural Zimbabweans bothered to vote.

It is Mugabe's fear of the MDC's potential to defeat ZANU-PF at parliamentary elections in May or June that explains the wave of government-sanctioned invasions of up to 1000 commercial farms, Mugabe's race-baiting and his "anti-imperialist" confrontation with Britain. Frightened by the failure of ZANU-PF to mobilise its traditional rural support base during the February, it has been forced to take desperate measures to convince rural Zimbabweans that it has not abandoned the goals of the liberation struggle.

The Western capitalist powers have never been comfortable with the Mugabe regime's origins in the victory of a mass liberation struggle and with its penchant for anti-imperialist rhetorical threats to maintain power. Despite abiding by the West's dictates, Mugabe's efforts to create an indigenous Zimbabwean capitalist class has sometimes brought him into conflict with imperialism.

There is also a real fear in Britain — echoed by the Australian Democrats — that Mugabe's latest attempt to manipulate the land question may go further than he intends, unleashing a genuine land reform movement that could threaten Western economic interests, not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout southern Africa.

But until now, there has not been a viable political force that could oust ZANU-PF. It seems that the West believes that the MDC's pragmatic "social democratic" leadership will not pose any greater risk to its interests than Mugabe.

BY NORM DIXON