Mugabe's desperate throw - The land question and the Zimbabwean revolution

All the world media have turned their attention to Zimbabwe in recent months since landless peasants started occupying white-owned big commercial farms. The press has unleashed a hysterical campaign against those land occupations which they depict as illegal and violent. They completely ignore the responsibility of capitalism and imperialism for robbing the land of the black peasants and pushing them into utter poverty. How do the white settlers dare to say those lands are theirs! When they robbed the lands of the blacks peasants they used all the violent means of repression possible.

All the world media have turned their attention to Zimbabwe in recent months since landless peasants, unemployed youth and veterans of the war of independence started occupying white-owned big commercial farms. The British press in particular supporting the position of the right wing Labour Government has unleashed a hysterical campaign against those land occupations which they depict as illegal and violent. If we have to believe them Zimbabwe would be at the brink of anarchy. The deaths of white farmers is the occasion for presenting the movement of the rural poor as completely dominated by "the mob". They completely ignore the responsibility of capitalism and imperialism for robbing the land of the black peasants and pushing them into utter poverty. How do the white settlers dare to say those lands are theirs! When they robbed the lands of the blacks peasants they used all the violent means of repression possible to oppose legitimate reappropriation by the masses. The action of the land hungry peasants is completely justified.

The same media have been largely silent about the growing working class opposition movement against the IMF inspired policies of the government since the mid 90's. Especially the 1996-1998 upsurge in workers militancy and strikes have not been reported. No Western government cared when the leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Tsvangirai was brutally beaten up by government thugs and sent to prison and when its headquarters were set on fire. There was complete media silence at that time. Mugabe has been the "best although not tame president" imaginable for imperialism in the last 20 years. Now they have started to have doubts about him.

Now that 50 to 60,000 of those rural poor are occupying some 1000 farms out of a total of 4500, they present it as a gross racist prejudice by jealous and revengeful blacks against hard working white families and whose actions are wrecking the already weak economy.

The Zimbabwean President, Mugabe, and his government are actively supporting the seizure of land by those rural poor. The Western Governments, the British labour government in particular, are hypocritically condemning those "illegal" farm occupations and are asking President Mugabe to uphold the "rule of law". The Attorney General of Zimbabwe declared that the police would not intervene out of fear of sparking a civil war in the country. Now a constitutional amendment has been voted by the parliament authorising the government to seize white-owned land.

These land seizures do not represent a spontaneous movement. In reality they are well organised and orchestrated by people very near to the regime. They are part of a political scheme designed by President Mugabe and his team to divert attention at a moment when his support amongst the population is waning, the working class and also the rural opposition is growing and the crucial elections are nearing. These elections could see the ruling party, ZANU-PF, for the first facing defeat. Originally scheduled for April they have been postponed to an unknown date. This is part of an attempt to gain time to build up a new base of support to enable Mugabe to cling to power.

In a classical bonapartist way, Mugabe in order to stay in power is cynically playing off one sector of the population against the other. This has been his policy since the beginning of independence 20 years ago. Having accepted capitalism as the base for the economy and the state in 1980 in the famous Lancaster House Agreements, Mugabe has been balancing between the different contending class forces in Zimbabwe.

At the beginning of the 80's, faced this time with a real spontaneous movement of landless peasants, and fearing for his survival, Mugabe has been obliged to use the threat of expropriation of white owned land, even without compensation if increased aid from the West is not forthcoming. He also has cynically played on the frustration amongst the war veterans and their unsatisfied need for land, and is using them against the urban workers who did not take part in the war of independence. When nurses, again in the 80's, went on strike for better wages Mugabe threatened to send them "to the bush" to give them a taste of what sacrifice really means.

Frustration of rural poor

The acute frustration amongst the rural poor is the direct result of the compromise with capitalism at the time of independence in April 1980. The two guerrilla movements operating in Zimbabwe, ZANU and ZAPU, had drawn large support amongst the peasantry and the youth. The "hunger for land" was a big driving force for the independence movement. Indeed their struggle in the 70's for black majority rule was not only understood as a fight against racist oppression but also for social liberation. This was reflected in the "socialist" stance of the leaders of ZANU and ZAPU.

The Lancaster House Agreement signed by those same leaders left the capitalist political (state) and economic (large-scale white land-owning and industrial production for profit) structures intact. The promise of redistribution of land by the guerrilla leaders, who depended on the support of the peasants took the form of "willing buyer-willing seller". A special clause in the Agreement included a 10 year guarantee against all forms of expropriation. Britain at that time agreed to provide funds to purchase land from the white farmers.

Since then only 50,000 families have been given land bought by the government. 4500 white farmers own 11 million hectares of Zimbabwe's prime agricultural land. 1,2 million black agricultural workers work on those, lands. About 1 million blacks own 16 million hectares, often in drought prone regions. These contradictions are fuelling the frustrations of the rural masses. Huge modern, mechanised estates are divided by a mere fence from the subsistence farmers living in mud huts.

This is a situation inherited from colonialism. In the 30's the "Land Apportionment Act" gave 45% of the country's land surface to white commercial farmers and in the 70's those lands, the best agricultural lands, were the property of not more than 6000 farmers. 45% of the other land was occupied by 600,000 black subsistence farming communities. The remaining 10% was reserved for national parks.

The development of agriculture since independence has been characterised by the continuation of export oriented cultivation of tobacco, cotton and maize. They represent approximately 40% of all exports. A part of the former black subsistence agriculture has also been integrated in the growing of export crops with the help of parastatal institutions that increased their production. However, only 20% of those peasants have really benefited from this development, leaving the vast majority in utter poverty. At least 600 commercial farms (more than 1000 hectares) are now also the property of rich blacks, most of whom are part of, or linked to the ruling party.

This last one is part of a wider process of fusion of the former guerrilla leaders with the state and part of the industrial and agricultural capitalist class. Despite this, the regime succeeded in giving some important reforms during the first ten years of independence thanks to the highest growth rates in Africa during the second half of the eighties. This was especially the case in education and health care. For instance education absorbed between 16 and 22% of the state budget during the first ten years and primary education has been made compulsory and free. Rural schools and hospitals were built for the first time ever. Child mortality decreased from 130 per thousand births to 65 in the period 1978 to 1989. This was the basis for the allegiance to Mugabe, especially of the rural masses.

IMF structural adjustment

As the economy stagnated in 1990 the government turned to the IMF and the World Bank and adopted structural adjustment plans. This has put Zimbabwe on a chaotic road downwards. Gross domestic product which had been growing at over 4% a year increased only by 1% in 1991, the first year of the structural adjustment. Industrial production which had been rising nearly 6% per year fell back to 2%.

The IMF plans have precipitated a food crisis. Zimbabwe had always been a surplus maize producer with stockpiles of more than 1 million tonnes to tide the country over drought years. But now it has to import maize because the World Bank forced the government to sell its stockpiles to make profit.

In 5 years the IMF has destroyed 40% of Zimbabwe's once formidable industrial output. Zimbabwe used to be the 4th most industrialised nation in African (after South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt). The living standards of workers fell by almost half and the achievements in primary health care and education have been reversed.

The impact of HIV is exacerbating the social crisis. More than 1 million people have died from AIDS in the last decade and AIDS deaths now run at 1600 per week. Agriculture officials estimated the loss of labour power due to HIV had caused a drop in the output of maize of 61%, cotton f 47% and vegetables of 49%.

This situation has been combined with growing scandals of corruption and self enrichment by formerly "socialist" leaders. It is no accident that in 1994 for instance a popular play performed in the capital describes the scene of the arrest of an MP by peasants who accuse him of "preaching socialism during the day and defending capitalism at night". Another Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, tells in his book, "Petals of blood", of those independence leaders chanting at home "Harambee! We occupy the highest functions now". Corruption, frustration at deepening poverty (60% of the 12 millions inhabitants of Zimbabwe now live below the poverty line), unemployment at 50% and inflation at 70% has weakened Mugabe's popular support. Faced with mounting social discontent Mugabe has also tried to attack democratic rights and civil liberties. Despite this Mugabe still won the elections of 1996 but 70% of the population abstained or supported the boycott of the opposition.

The very unpopular military intervention (some 10.000 soldiers of the Zimbabwean army are involved) in the Democratic Republic of Congo is accentuating this process of dissatisfaction especially when people see he returning body bags. This intervention is costing US$1 million a day.

Organised popular opposition is mounting. Human rights groups, urban action groups and women's defence associations have been formed. Land starved peasants have been invading commercial farmlands. Dissatisfied war veterans have even taken to the streets. More importantly the trade union movement has been revitalised.

Movement for Democratic Change

Last year the ZCTU, the national trade union movement, has established a new political formation. It raised the hopes of the workers in particular. It is called the Movement for Democratic Change. The leaders declare themselves to be social democrats and look for political guidance to Blair and the right wing leadership of the Labour Party, but most of the working class and poor supporters see it as more to the left than what it actually is. Subsequent developments is betraying those hopes. The MDC is respecting the boundaries of capitalism and the remedies of the IMF (faced with the latest plans of this institution its leaders declared them "necessary but insufficient") .

The MDC's manifesto does in fact commit the party to "social democracy", but it has no clear program for jobs, land distribution, free education and primary health care. It does not reject privatisation and has agreed to the IMF structural adjustment plans. Big business, nationally and internationally, and the white farmers are already gathering around that party and promising it support. The touchstone for all political formation in Zimbabwe is the burning land question. By refusing to support the expropriation of the white settlers they openly side with imperialism. They are following the same path as the Zambian trade union leader, Chiluba in the beginnings of the 90 's. This mass workers' leader defeated the discredited president Kaunda surfing on a wave of discontent and a desire for fundamental change. Nurtured by capital he rapidly became their tool and continued with the same old policies.

In February of this year a referendum on constitutional reform (giving more power to the president) was defeated. It was the first time the ruling ZANU-PF party had lost an election in 20 years. It reflected the growing capacity of mobilisation of the opposition MDC, in particular in the cities. More importantly it indicated a strong mood of apathy amongst the traditional rural base of Mugabe. The loyalties of the rural masses and the war veterans appear to have been strained too much.

The government inspired land seizures have the aim of rebuilding those loyalties and keeping Mugabe and his cronies in power. But he is playing with fire. Giving the impression to the impatient landless peasants, and the rural masses in general, that finally after 20 years of independence a massive land distribution is in sight may push them to move independently of Mugabe's power game. Therefore the peasant should set up independent peasant committees of action to expand the land seizures under their own control and leadership.

The South African government is also worried by this dangerous game. In South Africa the land question is also a burning and unsolved question. The events in Zimbabwe could encourage the peasants in South Africa and other African countries to follow the example of their northern brothers and sisters.

Mugabe can only succeed in his high risk political game of poker if he is not challenged by a consistent working class socialist political leadership. Such a leadership would support the expropriation of the land of the white settlers (also of the rich black farmers who got control of land big land estates thanks to their links with Mugabe ) and the distribution of the land to the black peasants. It would also advocate the setting up of voluntary collective farms on the basis of the nationalisation of the land, the agricultural and manufacturing industry under workers control and management.

Such a policy would finally put Zimbabwe and the whole of Southern Africa on the track of breaking with capitalism and imperialism and starting the socialist transformation of society.