The ZANU-PF government of President Robert Mugabe has its origins in the liberation struggle against the white supremacist Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. How did a government that emerged from a mass struggle for liberation degenerate into the dictatorship that exists today?
Towards the end of 1975, a movement of young radicals organised in the Zimbabwe People's Army (ZIPA) took charge of Zimbabwe's liberation war. ZIPA's fusion of inclusive politics, transformational vision and military aggression dealt crippling blows to the racist state.
However, a faction of conservative nationalists led by Mugabe managed to wrest control of the liberation movement for themselves.
The ZIPA cadre emerged from the wave of young people who, experiencing oppression and discrimination in Rhodesia, became liberation fighters in early 1970s, volunteering for respective military wings of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).
By 1975, key nationalist leaders, including Mugabe, had become entangled in factional rivalry and fruitless peace talks with the regime. The young recruits who would shortly form ZIPA sought to reinvigorate the struggle as the war stalled.
A group of ZANU officers based at training camps in Tanzania consulted widely among the liberation forces, also seeking unity with ZAPU — the long-standing rival organisation from which ZANU had split in 1963. ZAPU agreed and in November 1975 ZIPA was formed with a combined high command composed of equal numbers from both ZAPU and ZANU.
ZIPA's aims went beyond winning formal democracy, to the revolutionary transformation of Rhodesia's social and economic relations. The old-guard nationalists, by contrast, regarded armed struggle as a means to apply pressure for external intervention to end white minority rule.
ZIPA established Wampoa College for its fighters to help institute its vision and ran Marxist-inspired courses. It educated its cadre against the sexual abuse of women and sought to win the support of the peasantry through persuasion rather than coercion.
By January 1976, the entire eastern border of Rhodesia became a war zone as the guerillas launched coordinated and well-planned attacks. Smith's regime reeled under the offensive.
By July 1976, Rhodesia "was beginning to lose the war", noted Ken Flower, head of intelligence under Smith and later Mugabe. Repression was intensified, with "psychopathic" (in Flower's words) counter-insurgency units being deployed.
Concerned about the growing influence of the young Marxists in Zimbabwe, then US secretary for state Henry Kissinger sought to resume negotiations with a round of talks in Geneva in October 1976. Kissinger's proposals centered around a supposed timetable for a transition to black majority rule, with the intention that the talks would provide an opportunity to sideline or eliminate the radicals.
ZIPA opposed the negotiations. On numerous occasions, Smith had used talks to exploit divisions in the nationalists' ranks.
ZIPA leaders were also wary of the old leadership. When pressed to nominate the political leader with whom they most closely identified, in a decision that was to have fateful consequences, they nominated Mugabe.
In his struggle to depose the ZANU president Ndanbiginini Sithole, Mugabe was careful to identify with the guerillas. The ZIPA leaders thought that, although they did not support Mugabe, they could work with him. Nonetheless, the ZIPA commanders issued a statement declaring: "None of the Zimbabwe delegations there represents ZIPA."
Wilfred Mhanda, a central ZIPA leader and like many of his generation heavily influenced by the '60s world youth radicalisation, explained in an interview with the author that, while the older generation was motivated by a desire to force negotiations that would usher in "one man one vote", the ZIPA comrades were "fighting for the total transformation of the Zimbabwean society".
Britain was anxious that the ZIPA commanders attend Geneva, and thus be away from their troops. Recent research has revealed that Britain offered an interest-free loan of £15 million to Mozambique's government, which was supporting the liberation strugle, to ensure that the "'young men' controlling Mugabe attended Geneva".
Heavily dependent on access to supply lines and infiltration routes through Mozambique, the ZIPA leadership had little choice but to attend.
In Geneva, ZIPA unsuccessfully tried to unite the various nationalist delegations. They sought, and failed, to create a united front against Smith and demand that the racists unconditionally surrender power. The talks adjourned indefinitely just before Christmas 1976.
The ZIPA leaders were sidelined into undertaking solidarity duties in Europe, while Mugabe rushed back to Mozambique. In January 1977, with the Mozambique government's support, he started to impose control.
The radio and print media were taken over, Wampoa closed and ZIPA officers arrested. Returning from Europe, Mhanda and ZIPA leaders who refused to be co-opted joined their comrades in prison. Until at least August 1977, there were mass denunciations, torture and beatings. Three hundred ZIPA fighters were executed.
With ZANLA's most experienced commanders out of action, Smith launched another devastating attack on the camps in Mozambique.
After the radicals were suppressed, the old leaders maintained, and even stepped up, ZIPA's left discourse.
Mugabe 'lays the line'
In August 1977, Mugabe felt strong enough to call a special ZANU congress and have himself appointed party president. In his congress speech, later published as Comrade Mugabe Lays the Line, Mugabe made it clear that henceforth the "given leadership" was in control. Party documents were now embellished with the slogan "Forward with Comrade President Robert Mugabe".
The preoccupation with "dissidents" meant that there was inadequate ideological and military training. Sexual abuse became common and even pro-ZANU historians mention the "rampant raping" carried out by senior commanders. During 1977 to 1979 some observers expressed concerns that the deterioration of the guerillas' behaviour in certain areas could cause a "collapse of rural support".
Smith took advantage of the disunity of the nationalists and cut a deal with the conservative wing of the nationalists, led by Sithole, to establish the puppet state of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe under nominal black majority rule. The pact prolonged white domination by two more bloody years.
However, the weight of popular discontent, international presssure and ZANU and ZAPU's military pressure eventually forced Smith, on behalf of the tiny white minority, to return to the negotiating table.
In December 1979, at the Lancaster House talks in Britain, Smith finally surrendered. In the subsequent elections, ZANU won a majority. While the end of white political domination was achieved, the radical transformation as conceived by ZIPA certainly wasn't.
While ZANU formally adopted "Marxism-Leninism-Mao TseTung thought" at its 1977 Chimoio Congress, this left talk "was ultimately a disguise for classically authoritarian nationalism", according to a 1998 book by Patrick Bond, Uneven Zimbabwe.
This orientation can be traced back to the intellectual formation of many members of the '50s and '60s generation of nationalists, including Mugabe. At the time, the vast mass of the people was restricted to the rural areas and had little access to education.
A significant number of the first nationalists were educated at church and colonial schools, which had been designed to create a tiny educated layer who would "lead" the black masses on behalf of the white minority.
Despite its numerical strength, at least half a million by 1948, the organised working class did not play a central role in the later stages of the liberation struggle. As a result, there was no significant social counterweight to the educated intellectuals who came to dominate the leadership of the struggle.
Disunity and rivalry was common among the middle-class nationalists. Opposition to white rule was one of the few things that they had in common, and even that was negotiable for some.
Lacking a complete military victory, the nationalists made significant and arguably generous concessions during the Lancaster House negotiations. Responsibility was accepted for paying the foreign debt the Smith regime had accumulated buying arms in contravention of UN sanctions.
After independence, rather than being dismantled and transformed, the white state was merely taken over as it was. The first government included former supporters of Smith, who helped apply many of the same economic policies.
One of their first acts was to demobilise the ZANU committees and support groups, which had helped the party organise the rural population. The new government suppressed a spontaneous strike wave unleashed by an increasingly confident working class.
A paternalistic and authoritarian state kept the popular classes in their place. Significant spending on education and health in the early years of the government was matched by corporatist trade union structures. The cities were also kept under control and thousands of urban dwellers and squatters were regularly evicted from black townships.
In the rural areas land reform was forever promised but not delivered, while rural wages were kept low to subsidise cheap food, and therefore lower wages, for the cities.
By 1987, firmly in control, Mugabe changed the constitution and appointed himself executive president.
With an increasing orientation to international capital, the country slipped further into corruption and debt. Nonetheless, ZANU continued to pretend that it sought "to establish a socialist society in Zimbabwe on the guidance of Marxist-Leninist principles".
According to historian David Moore's 1990 The Contradictory Construction of Hegemony in Zimbabwe, the radicals had "hoped that full electoral freedom would enable them to mount a radical challenge to Mugabe's empty nationalism". However, the practice of political repression, established with the suppression of ZIPA, was too well entrenched to make this a possibility.
Mugabe had proven to be apt in suppressing the threat from the left and employing its language "to practice the worst of Third World socialism — and then the worst of Third World neo-liberalism", according to Mhanda — his cronies enriching themselves with the "privileges ... that white exploiters had enjoyed".
Even before the end of the first decade of independence, the first steps towards a political break between the people and the ZANU elite were developing. Once again it was young people who began to challenge the dominant system of inequality and repression and open up a new phase in Zimbabwe's still unresolved struggle for national liberation.
[Stephen O'Brien is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia. A much longer version of this article appears at http://links.org.au.]