Since the death of Robert Mugabe last Friday, Western media outlets have been falling over themselves to show their distaste for the former dictator. What is not reported is that, for most of his 37-year rule, Mugabe was the darling of the West. As long as he was faithfully implementing the policies of Western imperialism, they propped up his regime and turned a blind eye to his atrocities. But that is all forgotten today, and Mugabe is portrayed as having mercilessly persecuted his opponents and ruined his country single-handedly.
The stinking hypocrisy of the West
In describing Mugabe, words such as “freedom fighter”, “liberator” and “revolutionary” are liberally used in the Western media as a smear, by interchanging them with words such as “despot”, “autocrat” and “dictator”. But amidst their tirade, they conveniently hide the truth of the West's own role in the Mugabe regime and its atrocities. While they decry the seizures of white-owned farms, they gloss over the bloody atrocities committed by Mugabe to consolidate his rule. In fact, it was the tacit support of the West that emboldened him to rule the country with impunity.
But in 2017, diplomatic cables from the 1980s were leaked to Canada’s Globe and Mail, which showed how Canadian, American and British imperialism swept Mugabe’s massacres in Matabeleland in 1984 to 1987 under the rug. The killing of more than 20,000 Ndebele people by the army’s notorious Fifth Brigade, made up exclusively of soldiers of Shona ethnicity and trained by North Korean officers, was aimed at crushing the core of the social base of Joshua Nkomo, another liberation-era figure whom Mugabe feared could mount a challenge to his rule. The massacres were a crucial moment of consolidating Mugabe’s dictatorship. The operation was called Gukurahundi – "the rain that washes away the chaff” – and was led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the current president.
It became clear very early to Western governments that thousands of people were being killed. Many were burned alive in their huts or publicly executed after being forced to dig their own graves. Canadian teachers and staff at volunteer agencies were among those who witnessed the violence and reported it to the Canadian and US governments. Canada's first High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, Robert McLaren, informed his government. But there was little interest from Ottawa. The reaction from Washington was almost nonexistent.
In a cable sent 7 March 1983, the High Commissioner told his department that a Zimbabwean cabinet minister had informed him that the death toll was "in the many thousands." The diplomat described the violence as a "reign of terror" and recommended Ottawa to protest against the Mugabe government through the channels of the Canadian aid programme, which was channelling millions of dollars to Zimbabwe.
But in a response two days later, the External Affairs Department said the Canadian aid programme in Zimbabwe should not be "put into play." It authorised a statement of “concern” to the Mugabe government, but it suggested that McLaren should refer to the massacres as "civil strife" and "conflict."
It also instructed McLaren to express some sympathy to the Mugabe government about the issues in the Matabeleland region, “since Canada, as a multicultural country, could understand how competing interests might threaten national unity.” It referred to the massacres as a result of “problems posed by dissidents in Matabeleland.”
A few months later, the government of Pierre Trudeau invited Mugabe to visit Canada, where he was wined and dined without a word being said about these atrocities. Ahead of Mugabe's visit, the Canadian High Commission prepared a briefing note for Ottawa, which made no mention of the Matabeleland massacres, except for a brief reference to “tensions and strife” and “human rights” issues. After the visit, an analysis by External Affairs concluded that the visit was successful because Canada had avoided any criticisms of the “tensions” in Zimbabwe and had instead expressed its concerns “in an indirect manner.”
Four months later, the Fifth Brigade was sent back into Matabeleland, and a food embargo was imposed to control the population. Canadian diplomatic cables in April 1984 described a pattern of military repression – “beatings, murders and enforced starvation” – to crush the “dissidents”. Another diplomatic cable, sent to Washington by the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe on 11 March, cited sources estimating that about 3,000 people had been killed by that point. But it quoted McLaren as saying he had received only “very broad and soft instructions” from Ottawa on how to express his concerns. Washington itself did not recommend any action to its embassy.
Most of the other Western governments had a similarly mild response and even expressed sympathy towards the government of Mugabe. One British diplomatic cable, for example, said Britain was sympathetic about the “difficulties” that the Mugabe government faced in “handling the dissident problem.” Despite the mounting evidence of atrocities, the British cables emphasised that Britain's main interests in Zimbabwe were economic and strategic: protecting British trade and investment in Zimbabwe, preventing Soviet gains in Africa, and the “need to avoid a mass white exodus.”
This goes to the heart of the matter and explains the real situation: the major powers never cared about “human rights abuses” as long as Mugabe protected their material interests. He got away with the worst atrocities as long as they were directed at the poor and oppressed blacks of Zimbabwe. But once Mugabe turned on the white farmers in order to cling onto power, he became a pariah in the West.
These same Western countries, mainly Britain and the United States, propped up the Zanu-PF regime for decades when it was faithfully carrying out the dictates of the IMF. Where was the moral outrage against human rights abuses when the regime carried out the Gukurahundi massacres? Back then, Mugabe was showered with praise, accolades and honorary doctorates from Western universities. In reality, it was not until Mugabe dropped the brutal Western-imposed IMF structural adjustment programmes, that the West suddenly woke up to his “human rights abuses”.
The myth of the ‘land reformer’
At the same time, and to a certain extent echoing Western media, some people on the left have been perpetuating the myth that Mugabe was a fearless anti-imperialist leader, who single-handedly pushed through the land expropriation process and eventually handed over the land to the masses. The truth is very different. For most of his time in office Mugabe never seriously touched the land question. When he eventually did so, he merely latched onto a process that was initiated by the masses from below, and only because he was on the verge of losing power.
When Mugabe became prime minister in 1980, some 6,000 white farmers owned 15 million hectares of prime land in the country, while about 4.5 million black farmers in communal areas lived on 16 million hectares of the most arid and barren land to which they’d been removed or confined by a century of colonial rule.
This was the fuel that sustained the guerrilla war that eventually led to formal national independence. But upon its victory, the leaders of the national liberation movement signed onto a British-drafted agreement at the titular Lancaster House in 1979. The white settlers eagerly backed the Lancaster House agreement, which called for land transfers on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis, with the British funding the scheme. Another provision of the agreement was that 20 percent of seats in the new House of Assembly were to be reserved for whites, which made up a mere 3 percent of the population. This gave the settler community a veto over any amendment to the Lancaster House terms. Furthermore, the provisions had a time limit of 10 years for land transfers based on the market principle. The deal effectively put the brakes on meaningful land reform and ensured that most economic activity was retained in private hands.
Land transfers during the first decade after independence were so minimal that they actually worsened rather than improved the situation. In the late 1980s, land transfers even declined, dropping from 430,000 hectares per annum during the first half of the decade to 75,000 during the second. The ban on compulsory purchase drove up land prices and encouraged white farmers to sell only the worst land. The resentment from the rural masses began to grow, which resulted in more and more land invasions. In response, Mugabe created local ‘squatter control’ units in 1985, and started evicting ‘squatters’ in droves.
When the 10-year limit of the agreement expired, only about 58,000 of 1 million families had been resettled, and 40 percent of the rural population was still landless. These are hardly the results of a “great land-reformer”. The situation had hardly changed. Prime agricultural land was still primarily concentrated in the hands of a tiny, rich community.
The disastrous consequences of imperialist policies and Mugabe’s zig-zags
When the Lancaster House Agreement’s rules on land transfer expired in 1990, Mugabe immediately implemented an IMF structural adjustment programme, which devastated the economy. These are the real roots of the current crisis, not in the land expropriation of white farmers, which followed later.
Following the structural adjustment programme, peasant production (which had shot up to 45 percent by 1985) declined. The percentage of households living in poverty throughout the country increased by 14 percent in five years. As a result, amongst the rural population, a wave of desperate land invasions of all types of land – from communal areas to state land and white-owned commercial farms – ensued.
The demand for land reform was on the agenda everywhere and it was spearheaded by veterans of the liberation war. At the end of the liberation war in 1980, 20,000 guerrillas had been incorporated into the national army and other state organisations, while 50,000 were left destitute. They found it difficult to survive without land or a job, and often joined land occupations in the countryside. In 1988, these layers formed the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA). Their primary demands were to call for the veterans’ pensions to be paid and for land to be redistributed. They soon gained a membership of 200,000, which were drawn from most sections of Zimbabwean society and from both of the two ethnic groups. Its members came from different layers, employed and unemployed, urban and rural, with positions in different branches of the state and party, and the private sector.
What was significant was that they formed the only alliance that was both independent of Mugabe and Zanu-PF, and could claim to have national support. They were among the first targets of the Structural Adjustment Programme when its effects began to be felt in 1991. The clashes between the movement and the regime intensified. Entire departments and ministries that had been heavily staffed by ex-combatants were disbanded and a series of high-profile confrontations between veterans and government erupted. They organised street demonstrations, they interrupted Mugabe’s Heroes’ Day speech in 1997 and essentially besieged Mugabe in the State House.
The demagogue clinging to power
In 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour government defaulted on British contributions to the fund set up to pay Zimbabwean landowners. This default coincided with demands for land expropriations by the war veterans, who led land occupations at Svosve and Goromonzi, clashing with Mugabe and Zanu-PF. The next year, a wave of co-ordinated land occupations swept across the country, putting enormous pressures on the regime.
Under the immense pressure of the veterans, the occupiers and local movements, as well as sections of the new black elite, Mugabe started changing his tune. Taking on quasi-anti-imperialist rhetoric, he famously told Blair to “keep your Britain” while he would keep “his” Zimbabwe. His relationship with the West began to sour. In 1999, Mugabe decided to revise the constitution drafted at Lancaster House and made two key proposals: one would allow him to stay in power for two more terms and would ensure immunity from prosecution for political and military leaders accused of committing crimes while in office. The other would empower the government to seize land from white farmers without compensation. This was a drastic measure to regain his dwindling popularity. The proposals were put to a referendum in February 2000 and were rejected. This was a turning point, and Mugabe seriously began to demagogically rediscover the land question for fear of losing power.
The disasters of the popular front
At the same time, a threat to his rule came from the urban areas. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in the 1990s spearheaded the national campaign against the structural adjustment programme. The ZCTU had at first been an umbrella body for private sector unions. After independence, workers in the public sector had retained close links to the government. But this began to change when the Structural Adjustment Programme led to public sector job losses, and many African workers – especially veterans – were dismissed.
When government workers came out on strike in 1996, the ZCTU was able to establish a base in the public sector. A general strike in 1997 and the following year rattled Mugabe and his government. Civil servants who had once declared allegiance to the ruling party and the state now began to affiliate to the ZCTU. However, instead of developing a class-based programme, including demands for land expropriation without compensation and aiming to win over the rural masses, it effectively organised a popular front of trade unions and reactionary groups such as churches; civic organisations and NGOs; white farmers and Western governments.
In the months before the 2000 referendum, they formed the Movement for Democratic Change to campaign for a ‘no’ vote. The coalition included millions of workers who were trying to fight back against the Structural Adjustment Programme, as well as capitalists such as Eddie Cross – the MDC Secretary of Economic Affairs and a senior figure in the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, who was a big proponent of privatisation.
The class collaboration of the ZCTU meant that rural masses were won over by the war veterans, who turned them against the urban centres. When Mugabe lost the referendum on amendments to the Lancaster House constitution, the veterans reacted to the defeat by launching land occupations in Masvingo province. This was a godsend for the increasingly unpopular Mugabe, who came under enormous pressure from the war veterans. He decided to cast his lot in with the rural insurgency and promptly announced that there would be no further government evictions from occupied land. He co-opted the war veterans and used them to turn the rural movement against trade unionists and the urban centres. Immediately, land occupations spread to every province of the country. Hundreds of farms were occupied.
The real process of land reform
This process came from below, with the government at every stage trying to catch up with events. Land committees spread all over the country, driving the so-called fast-track land reform. These committees sidelined the old local administrative structures, reporting only to provincial committees, and only later when the government caught up with the process, to the Ministry of local government. The white owners of around 2,900 commercial farms listed for compulsory acquisition and redistribution were given 90 days to move out. Government directives specified that owners of farms marked for redistribution would be compensated for improvements made to the land, but not for the land itself, as this land was stolen from the original owners in the colonial era.
The closing date for ‘fast-track’ land acquisition by the government set for August 2002 was ignored by the land committees, and occupations continued unimpeded until mid-2003. Then, in 2005, the government passed an amendment declaring all agricultural land to be state land. Land was seized from nearly 4,000 white farmers and redistributed. More than 72,000 large farmers received 2.19 million hectares and 127,000 smallholders received 4.23 million hectares. This was the biggest restorative land reform process carried out in the history of Southern Africa.
The tale in the West, that these land reforms are at the heart of the collapse of food production, is completely false. White commercial farmers, who were the target of the land reform, focused on export crops, whereas communal farmers were the major source of food security. The production of tobacco, up until then the main source of foreign exchange, is concentrated in large-scale commercial farms. Maize and cotton are peasant crops and have not really been directly affected by land reform, but have suffered badly from prolonged drought. Maize production was down by 90 percent between 2000 and 2003 because of the drought. In contrast, the production of crops grown mainly by the large capitalist plantations (like tea, sugar and coffee) has remained steady.
The role of sanctions
Apart from the drought, the real reason for the decline in production and the subsequent collapse in the economy is Western sanctions. Once ‘fast-track’ land reform began, hitting western economic interests particularly hard, the Western donor community shut down operations in Zimbabwe.
In 2001, the US Congress passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery bill (sponsored among others by Hillary Clinton) and it became law in December that year. Part of the act was a formal injunction on US officials in international financial institutions to “oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe”. In autumn 2001, the IMF declared Zimbabwe “ineligible to use the general resources of the IMF”, and removed it from the list of countries that could borrow from its Poverty and Growth Facility. In 2002, it issued a formal declaration of non-co-operation with Zimbabwe and suspended all technical assistance.
These sanctions mainly affected the lives of ordinary people. The country’s foreign exchange reserves had declined from 830 million dollars, representing three months’ import cover in 1996, to less than one month’s cover by 2006. Total foreign payments arrears increased from 109 million dollars at the end of 1999, to 2.5 billion dollars at the end of 2006. Foreign direct investment had shrunk from 444.3 million dollars in 1998 to 50 million dollars in 2006. Donor support, even to sectors vital to popular welfare, such as health and education, was at an all-time low. Danish support for the health sector, which stood at 29.7 million dollars in 2000, was suspended. Swedish support for education was also suspended. The US issued travel warnings and blocked food aid.
The crippling sanctions imposed by the West, (for human rights abuses by Mugabe’s regime that had only just become apparent) only exacerbated the suffering of the masses. In August 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment Act (Zidera), which extended these sanctions. The sanctions devastated the economy, pushing unemployment to about 85 percent.
Mugabe turned up the anti-imperialist rhetoric by accusing the MDC of being agents of Blair and Bush. He used the sanctions to cement his hold on power. In the 2002 elections, the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, sent two judges to be monitors in the Zimbabwe presidential elections. The elections were characterised by violence and intimidation perpetrated by the ZANU-PF youth wing. More than 100 people were killed in the process, mostly supporters of the opposition. The judges concluded that the elections “cannot be considered free and fair”, but Mbeki did not release their report. The contents were only revealed in 2014, after the Mail and Guardian newspapers won a protracted court case.
In the 2008 presidential elections, Tsvangirai received 48 percent to Mugabe’s 43 percent. The runoff was supposed to take place 21 days later, but Mugabe unleashed the war veterans to conduct an extremely violent campaign against the MDC. More than 10,000 people were injured in the ensuing violence, 86 were murdered and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Mugabe ordered a shipment of weapons from China, which Mbeki was quite happy to deliver through the South African port city of Durban. But the ship could not be off-loaded in Durban because South African dock workers went on a wildcat strike and refused to handle the cargo. The ship eventually had to return to China with the weapons onboard.
Mbeki then brokered a deal with Tsvangirai and Mugabe to form a national unity government. The experience of this betrayal split the MDC into three different factions. Today, it is in an even worse situation than ZANU-PF; and thanks to Mbeki, Mugabe remained in power.
In November 2017, Mugabe was eventually removed in a military coup following a mass movement on the ground, which tore up the fragile unity of the regime. But nothing has been solved. The regime is still in deep crisis and the economy is utterly devastated as a result of the capitalist policies Mugabe implemented and the zig-zags he resorted to.
Mugabe was neither a socialist nor a revolutionary. He manoeuvred his way through the ranks of the liberation movement through backstabbing and sidelining more-capable people. He was an imperialist stooge, who later turned against his masters in order to cling to power and protect his selfish interests. His policies ruined the country. Unable to develop Zimbabwe, his death in a hospital in Singapore is a symbolic testament to his life.
Meanwhile, the masses of Zimbabwe, who are bearing the brunt of these ruinous policies, are preparing for a decisive showdown with Mugabe’s regime. Zimbabwe is marching inexorably on the road to revolution. The recent social explosions are only a sign of things to come. The regime is hanging by a thread. Having lost its mass base, and unable to offer any concessions, it now solely relies on brute force to stay in power.
The situation confronting the masses today is the direct result of the liberation movement, which stopped short of overthrowing capitalism in Zimbabwe. The only way out of this impasse is to finish the job and implement a socialist programme for the collectivisation of the land under the control of the rural workers and peasants, and to expropriate the industries in the urban areas.