ZIMBABWE: Mugabe regime product of failure of nationalist politics



The Western media portray Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe as the worst African dictator since Idi Amin. Mugabe is certainly tyrannical, but he is no freak or accident.

Mugabe's regime is a product of the politics of Zimbabwean nationalism, including, decisively, a struggle between guerrillas and politicians in the 1960s and 1970s.

Land has always been the big issue in Zimbabwean politics. From 1890-1980 Rhodesian whites, outnumbered by blacks 16 to one, controlled half the country, including the most productive agricultural land. Blacks lived in scattered "reserves", areas of poor farming land. To survive, blacks were forced to work for whites for low wages.

In the late 1950s, blacks formed political parties and tried to persuade whites to share power and land. Such petitioning initially won some concessions. But in a white backlash, the Rhodesian Front gained office in 1962, and in 1965 unilaterally declared its independence from Britain.

Some black nationalists still hoped to negotiate a settlement with the Rhodesian Front. Others favoured direct action such as strikes and boycotts. This debate led to a split in the movement. Two parties formed — the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), whose leaders included Robert Mugabe.

Both parties sent cadres to Cuba, China and the USSR for military training. These cadres returned with socialist politics and an understanding of guerrilla war. Their older leaders had neither. They sent fighters into Zimbabwe, hoping to win power through conventional warfare. The Rhodesian army easily contained these incursions.

The guerrillas, having suffered heavy casualties, tried to persuade the political leaders to change tactics. The leaders refused, and a protracted political struggle ensued. This conflict had a mixed outcome.

The guerrillas eventually had their way, and from the early 1970s mass political education preceded, and accompanied, guerrilla warfare. But politicians like Mugabe and Nkomo retained political control of the liberation movement. They weeded out the more radical guerrillas, and ensured that mass political education was nationalist rather than socialist.

This untold story of Zimbabwean politics has some bizarre twists and turns. In 1967, ZAPU guerrillas, having failed to persuade their political leaders to change tactics, arrested most of the party's central committee and asked the Zambian government to arbitrate. The Zambians connived with the ZAPU leadership to disarm the fighters. Forty of the most politically radical guerrillas were given scholarships to Britain, where they sat out the rest of the war.

A similar process occurred in ZANU in the mid-1970s. Guerrillas criticised their political leaders' tactics, rebelled, were outmanoeuvred, disarmed and jailed, and in some instances murdered.

The cadres of the 1960s believed that the liberation struggle had to do more than replace white politicians with black ones. They envisaged a post-independence economic and political system that radically equalised wealth and opportunity. Once these cadres had been purged, their socialist ideas dropped out of the nationalist political discourse.

Political education in both ZANU and ZAPU before the 1980 independence election emphasised racial oppression, and the need to end it by electing Mugabe and Nkomo.

In office, Mugabe entrenched his party in power. He drove Nkomo from the government, and used the army to crush political opposition in Matabeleland, Nkomo's home region. By the end of 1987 Zimbabwe had become a de facto one party state, with Mugabe as executive president.

Mugabe remained unchallenged until a broad alliance of trade unions and business, church, farmers', women's, students and human rights organisations formed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in September 1999.

Despite intimidation and vote rigging, the MDC almost won the parliamentary elections in June 2000. Mugabe responded by increasing repression and implementing long-promised land reform. The resulting reign of terror crippled the economy, disrupted political opposition and laid the ground for Mugabe's election "victory".

What now? There are two certainties. First, Mugabe does not have a mandate. The presidential ballot was crudely rigged. Ballot boxes went missing and reappeared stuffed with ZANU-Patriotic Front votes. Thugs stopped large numbers of MDC supporters from voting. Systematic terror in the two years before the election intimidated voters and prevented the MDC from campaigning effectively.

Second, Mugabe's determination to maintain power has created economic chaos. The MDC, citing Zimbabwean and World Bank statistics, maintains that by 2001 industrial output was lower than in 1979, agricultural output was at its lowest level since the 1992 drought, and mining's share of GDP had fallen by three-quarters. Inflation currently runs at 113%, the unemployment rate is around 60%, 70% of people live in poverty, and three million people have registered for food relief. Zimbabwe requires fundamental economic reconstruction. The country cannot afford more years of politics subordinating economics.

There are three ways of resolving this impasse. First, African leaders could persuade Mugabe to resign, or to share power with the MDC. Second, the Commonwealth could uphold its electoral observers' report, impose sanctions, and bring Mugabe down. The position of African governments and the impotence of the Commonwealth make neither of these solutions likely.

The third possibility is for the Zimbabwean opposition to try to remove Mugabe from office through direct action, including mass strikes organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. This could halt the little remaining economic activity. Public services could not function, and the military would find their resources drying up. At this point the military would either support Mugabe, or tap him on the shoulder.

This third scenario is the only realistic one. As in colonial times, mass action is Zimbabweans' only weapon against tyranny. Whether it is successful, and what happens if it is, remain to be seen.

One unknown in this is the political character of the MDC. The MDC's roots are in popular movements. Its members span the political spectrum, and if it does form government there will be struggles over policy. The primary task of a successor government will be economic reconstruction. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank will pressure Zimbabwe to pursue a market model of economic management. This will test an MDC government's commitment to income redistribution and poverty reduction.

Zimbabwean democrats face enormous challenges. They also have some major resources. Despite the recent economic meltdown, Zimbabwe has a stronger agricultural and industrial base than many African countries. Its literacy rate is 85%. The MDC has great popular support and significant international goodwill. Hopefully, too, the MDC embodies the genuinely altruistic tradition in Zimbabwean nationalism represented by the cadres of the 1960s. Time will tell.

[Griff Foley belonged to the Southern Africa Liberation Centre, the Australian organisation that supported the Zimbabwe liberation movement in the 1970s. He discusses Zimbabwean nationalism more fully in Learning in Social Action (London, Zed Books, 1999).]

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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