Zimbabwe: The failure of 20 years of capitalism

The Western imperialists were very quick to brand the recent elections in Zimbabwe undemocratic, but there is no shortage of undemocratic and rigged elections in the African continent. Jordi Martorell takes a timely look at the history of the country since independence in 1980; its relations with the IMF, and why the imperialists have switched their support from Zanu-PF to the MDC. He says the main lesson to be drawn from the history of Zimbabwe in the last 20 years is precisely that genuine national liberation cannot be achieved simply by winning formal independence and democratic rights, but only by the overthrow of the capitalist system itself. Capitalism has sufficiently proven its inability all over Africa to solve any of the problems facing the masses. It is time for a socialist alternative, based on the democratic planning of the continent's vast resources by the workers and peasants themselves.

On Wednesday, March 13, election officials finally announced the results of the Zimbabwean elections. With about 3.1 million of the nation's 5.6 million registered voters casting ballots, officials said, Mugabe won more than 1.6 million votes to Tsvangirai's 1.2 million.

Western governments were quick to denounce the elections as undemocratic. In Washington, Bush said that the US "did not recognise the outcome of the election because we think it is flawed." He added: "We are dealing with our friends to figure out how to deal with this flawed election." The British government, as usual, followed quickly the line set on the other side of the Atlantic. British foreign secretary Jack Straw said: "For months the government of Zimbabwe has conducted a systematic campaign of violence and intimidation, designed to achieve an outcome - power at all costs."

But one has to take this "moral outrage" at the anti-democratic methods of the government in Zimbabwe with a pinch of salt. After all, what qualifies George W. Bush to speak of "flawed elections" when his own election was - let us put it this way - less than a "free and clear" process? The Western democracies have a long history of defending dictators all over the world, and the African continent is no exception. In their recent worldwide crusade against terror, the West's allies are, amongst others, the military dictatorship of Musharraf in Pakistan and the semi-feudal dictatorship of the sheiks in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. In reality, the Western powers are not interested in democracy. Their position towards a regime is only determined by whether this regime accepts the diktats of imperialism and makes it safe for multinational corporations to exploit the country's natural and human resources. Thus the Iraqi regime is supported when it is fighting against Iran and then becomes the world's main "rogue state" once it steps out of the script written in Washington.

There is no shortage of undemocratic and rigged elections in the African continent, the most recent ones in Zambia and Madagascar. Have we heard of them in the Western media? Hardly at all. Have there been any grand-sounding statements from Bush and Blair? None. Have these governments been threatened with economic and other sanctions? Not as far as we know.

With Mugabe it is the same story. As long as he was carrying out the Structural Adjustment Plans imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, he was OK. As soon as he starts to threaten the interests of the handful of white farmers which dominate the country's rich agriculture and resist the implementation of IMF plans, then he becomes public enemy number one.

The roots of the land problem

Mugabe came to power in 1980 at the end of a protracted liberation struggle. However, this did not take place in the form of a revolutionary take-over, but rather a negotiated settlement between the guerrillas and the white elite which had been ruling the country. The Lancaster House agreements left the main issue of the revolutionary struggle in Zimbabwe, the question of the land, unresolved.

Thus, 70 percent of agricultural land remained firmly in the hands of some 4,000 large-scale capitalist farms, most of the them owned by white farmers, whilst millions of poor peasants barely survive on the remaining land, mostly in dry, unproductive regions.

The Lancaster House agreements only contemplated land redistribution on the basis of "willing buyer -­ willing seller" and Britain was supposed to provide money for this arrangement to work. That formula never worked and the very little land that was redistributed ended up in the hands of the Zanu-PF leaders.

Despite the coming to power of the guerrillas, the fundamental structure of the economy remained untouched, and the leadership of the liberation movement simply became incorporated into the state apparatus. After introducing some important reforms in the first few years, particularly in the fields of education and health care, the realities of capitalism sank in.

Falling commodity prices internationally had a negative impact on the Zimbabwean economy. As early as 1985 the IMF was putting pressure on the government to carry out "austerity" programs, including massive cuts in education spending and ending food subsidies. Mugabe went along with all the plans of the IMF and, since he remained firmly committed to capitalism despite the "socialist" rhetoric of the regime in the first few years, he could not do otherwise.

"Structural Adjustment"

In 1991, Mugabe's government introduced an Economic Structural Adjustment Plan (ESAP) which was on the same lines as the plans imposed by the IMF all over the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It basically "liberalised" the country's economy, cutting social spending, privatising publicly-owned companies and above all "opening up" the economy to foreign capital. The results were catastrophic. The lowering of tariff barriers had a devastating effect on the country's economy with dozens of factories having to close down, destroying more than 50,000 jobs. Manufacturing output fell from 32% of GDP in 1992 to a mere 14.5%; real wages went down, inflation went up and economic growth stagnated.

Workers in the cities were already becoming alienated from the Zanu-PF government to the point where the leadership of the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions refused to endorse Zanu-PF in the 1990 elections. ESAP only deepened the discontent which finally exploded in 1996 with a very militant two week-long strike by government workers, which ended up winning important concessions from the government.

This strike opened the floodgates for a massive movement of all sections of society against the economic policies that the government was applying following the IMF "advice". In 1997 there were a record number of strikes involving more than 1 million workers. This included general strikes in February and December. The ZCTU leaders, amongst them Morgan Tsvangirai, now the opposition candidate of the MDC, were afraid of the dimensions the movement was taking and decided to call off the action in December. In early 1998 again there was a movement of strikes and food riots.

Discontent with the Zanu-PF government was not limited to the workers in urban areas, but also spread to the land-hungry peasants who were still waiting for land redistribution more than 15 years after the end of the liberation war. Landless peasants (many of them war veterans) started to demonstrate and occupied some farms. This movement even led to the formation of an opposition, left-leaning, organisation of war veterans called the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform.

The country's economy went into free fall and the Zimbabwean dollar devalued by more than 80%. The IMF and the World Bank, not satisfied with the "success" of ESAP in destroying the country's economy, went on to demand more cuts, more privatisation and an end to food subsidies (their usual recipe which has already caused "IMF-riots" all over the world).

This was too much for Mugabe. Even from a capitalist point of view, he could no longer follow the IMF "advice" for fear of losing his position. The government increasingly refused to implement the plans of the IMF and at the end of 1999 both the IMF and the World Bank suspended their loans. Mugabe, in order to save his own skin started to use the issue of the land demagogically, to win support and deactivate the movement of the war veterans, despite the fact that in nearly 20 years of government he had not done anything to solve the land problem.

Pressure from below forced the ZCTU leaders, amongst them Tsvangirai, to call a National Workers' Convention in 1999 and to launch a party based on the trade unions, the Movement for Democratic Change, in September of that year. However, from the beginning there were contradictory forces at play within the MDC. The workers wanted an independent political voice in order to fight against neoliberal policies. But other forces involved in the formation of the MDC, from middle-class organisations, the Church, NGOs and so on, only wanted to fight for "democracy" in an abstract way. The leaders of the ZCTU had already compromised with ESAP before and they did not offer a clear alternative to the capitalist policies of the Mugabe government.

The model for these layers, which became the leadership of the MDC, was the Movement for Multiparty Democracy in Zambia. The MMD also came out of the trade unions and had at its head former trade union leader Chiluba. But as soon as the MMD came to power it started implementing exactly the same pro-capitalist policies of the defeated Kaunda government.

Also, the white farmers seeing their interests being threatened by the increasingly radical speeches of the government regarding the land question (which would eventually led to a movement of farm occupations), saw the MDC as the only political tool they could use to defeat Mugabe. Very soon they started to fund and support the MDC and more importantly played a decisive role in determining the MDC's economic policies.

Eddie Cross, a leading member of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) became the MDC's economic advisor. His clearly stated policies were those of increasing the speed of the privatisation policies and following faithfully all the IMF proposals. He even declared that if the MDC took power "all fifty parastatals will be privatised within a two-year frame." Not satisfied with that he further added that they would "privatise virtually the entire school delivery system" and would "get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years." (quoted in P. Bond, "Radical Rhetoric and the Working Class during Zimbabwean Nationalism's Dying Days", JWSR).

In the run-up to the June 2000 elections the movement of land occupations, promoted by the government increased, with more than 1,000 of the country's 4,500 capitalist farms being occupied by a mixture of landless peasants, war veterans and even urban poor. It was at this point that Mugabe became an international pariah in the eyes of the imperialist powers, particularly Britain. They complained about violence against white farmers (having previously been silent on the face of widespread repression against workers during the 1997-98 strike movement) and opposed what they called "fast-track land reform". They conveniently forgot that the origins of the problem were precisely the fast-track land grab which took place in the 1890s when the white colonialists took the land from the people, ruthlessly suppressing any resistance.

The domination of the MDC by capitalist elements, including the commercial farmers which are the country's largest employers, completely cut it off from the movement of the landless peasants. The MDC programme on the land question was basically the programme of the commercial farmers, calling for the creation of a "commission to study the issue of land ownership"!

Attempts by the only socialist member of parliament who managed to get elected on the MDC ticket, Munyaradzi Gwisai, to put forward a radical programme of land reform, were met with fierce opposition and threats of expulsion by the MDC leadership.

The presidential election

It is against this background that the presidential elections of March 2002 have taken place. On the one hand it is clear that wide layers of the workers and the masses in the urban areas oppose Mugabe because they are against the capitalist policies he has been implementing for 20 years. But at the same time they mostly support the MDC, a party which is dominated by capitalists (despite having a trade unionist at its head) and which would apply the same policies with renewed vigour if it were to come to power. In fact, the consistent refusal of the MDC leaders to mobilise the workers has already diminished their electoral support in working-class areas and must be taken into account as a factor in this election.

On the other hand, Mugabe has fought this election campaign on the issues of land, national sovereignty and anti-imperialism. On this basis he has been able to mobilise support, particularly in the countryside and amongst the older generation which participated in the liberation struggle. His call for a "third Chimurenga" (liberation struggle), the first being the resistance against colonialism in the 1890s, and the second being the guerrilla struggle in the 1970s, was one of the main features of his election campaign.

This anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist rhetoric of Mugabe was combined with a widespread campaign of intimidation, violence and trickery against the opposition in order to make sure he won the election. A key issue was the massive reduction of polling booths in the urban areas (where most MDC support comes from) and an increase in the rural areas (where most support for Zanu-PF can be found). In the main cities, people had to queue for hours in order to vote, and many thousands were turned away, even after voting was extended to a third day, without having been able to vote.

Many feel quite rightly that the election has been stolen by Mugabe. Anger ran quite high in Harare and Bulawayo, the two main urban centres and MDC strongholds. However, the MDC "leaders" offered no leadership. A report described how the MDC rank-and-file members had been cut loose by the leadership. Gugu Moyo, the coordinator of the Southern Region of the MDC said that "the leadership have abandoned everything. They are waiting for the result. Seems a bit naïve to me." An MDC voter in a Harare township was quoted as saying: "We need Tsvangirai to tell Mugabe he cannot steal this election. The soldiers have guns so we cannot fight him, but we can make sure he cannot rule us. We must strike, we must march, we mush show that we are not goats."

But instead of offering any leadership, once the official results had already been announced, MDC candidate Tsvangirai said that the onus was on "the people" to lead the way! "We seek no confrontation with the state because that is what they want. But the people themselves have to decide what action to take," he said.

The key question is that the capitalist leadership of the MDC is too afraid to decisively mobilise the power of the working class. Strong criticism of the MDC leaders could already be heard in the recent labour forum meetings. If they were to come to power on the back of a mass movement of the workers their policies would led them very rapidly to a clash with the workers. On the other hand their capitalist, pro-commercial farmer programme cannot but alienate the masses of the rural poor who inevitably rally around the promise of land.

The way forward

Imperialism will now try to reassert its domination. The US and Britain seem to favour a tough line with sanctions and direct pressure. The South African government seems to have taken the line of dealing with Mugabe to try to convince him to set up some sort of government of national unity.

But the main factor in the future developments in Zimbabwe will be the economic crisis. Inflation is now running at 112%, 60 to 70% of the population live under the poverty line, 25% of the country's population is HIV positive, life expectancy has dropped to 37 years, interest rates run at 70% and millions of people face starvation for lack of even the basic maize-meal.

In these conditions it would not be surprising that if Mugabe manages to hold on to power he would move in the direction of a further clash with imperialism. He has already talked not only of land reform, but also of price controls and the nationalisation of private companies which are deemed to be "sabotaging the economy". In the past he has used radical rhetoric to maintain support and then has done deals with the IMF. But under the present conditions of the economy it is difficult to see how he can reach a deal with imperialism again. New concessions to the West would certainly mean his downfall.

Other African countries are already facing the same dilemma. Their capitalist governments fear that if they continue to follow the policies of international capital they will provoke revolution. Recently the right-wing Nigerian government sent an IMF team back to Washington; refusing to sign a deal with them.

Obviously, it is clear to socialists that state intervention in the economy on the basis of capitalism cannot solve the problem. The domination of the world market (where Zimbabwe sells most of its agricultural products) is now even greater than at any time in the last 20 years. Any attempt to develop a national-based form of capitalism would be crushed by imperialism with economic or even military means.

The way forward for working people and poor peasants in Zimbabwe is a clear anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist programme which can address the pressing problems of the workers in the cities and the land-hungry in the countryside. Such a program would call for the repudiation of the foreign debt, the expropriation of the banks and big companies, the renationalisation of privatised parastatals and the confiscation with no compensation of the very profitable commercial farms which should be run on a collective basis by the peasants and farm labourers with economic backing from the state.

Only if the workers and peasants take over the resources of the country, both the land and the industry, can they start to fulfil their most pressing needs. This would finish the tasks that the second Chimurenga in the 1970s left unsolved and would be the beginning of a genuine liberation. Before the liberation movement merely took over political power; a new revolution is needed which will take over economic power as well. A successful workers' and peasants' revolution in Zimbabwe could not succeed if it remained isolated within the land-locked borders of the country. The country's economy is very integrated with that of its powerful neighbour South Africa. But a break with capitalism in Zimbabwe would provide a massive inspiration for workers and peasants in the rest of Southern Africa facing similar problems of land reform, imperialist domination and capitalist economic crisis.

The main lesson to be drawn from the history of Zimbabwe in the last 20 years is precisely that genuine national liberation cannot be achieved simply by winning independence and democratic rights, but must be accompanied by the overthrow of the capitalist system on which imperialist domination is based. This is a lesson which applies not only to Zimbabwe, but to the whole of the African continent and the former colonial countries around the world.

Capitalism has sufficiently proven its inability to solve any of the problems facing the masses in Africa. It is time for a socialist alternative, based on the democratic planning of the continent's vast resources by the workers and peasants themselves.