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Zimbabwe: On the brink of change, or of a coup?


Here comes the most fascinating election of 2002: Robert Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe through guerrilla war to liberation from Rhodesian colonists in 1980, facing a presidential vote in March where the challenger is Morgan Tsvangirai, who led the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions from 1988-2000.

The confused, radical rhetoric associated with the Zimbabwe African National Union’s (Zanu’s) dying nationalism is contrasted with the confused, good-governance-plus-neoliberal-economics programme of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Hopes that Mugabe’s repressive streak would fade after the June 2000 parliamentary elections, when each side won nearly 50%, proved unfounded. According to a report by Amani Trust, a reputable monitoring group, `27,633 people have fallen victim to human rights violations in Zimbabwe and 20,853 have been forcibly displaced by violence’ between January and October 2001.

State harassment has actually worsened since then:

one day absurd (arresting Tsvangirai for not having a walkie-talkie license), the next comic (labeling any anti-government provocation as `terrorist’ apparently in lip-synch with Bush’s rhetoric), the next tragic (periodic murders of opposition party activists, frame-ups and intensifying paramilitary activity),

the next counterproductive (having the Malawian secret police arrest civil-society visitors to a Southern African Development Community meeting on Zimbabwe’s crisis last week), the next ominous: the announcement on January 9 of military insubordination if Tsvangirai is elected president.

That threat came from a motley junta-in-waiting, led by Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Vitalis Zvinavashe:

“We wish to make it very clear to all Zimbabwean citizens that the security organisations will only stand in support of those political leaders that will pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for which thousands of lives were lost, in pursuit of Zimbabwe’s hard-won independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests.

“To this end, let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation struggle. We will, therefore, not accept, let alone support or salute, anyone with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty, our country and our people.”

Tsvangirai interpreted (accurately, I think):

“If one takes into account the recent spate of repressive laws and the general negative public sentiment towards the ruling party, it would seem Zanu is running out of legitimate ways to perpetuate its misrule. The party itself acknowledged this when it sent the top brass of the military to give some bizarre advance notice of a coup d’etat when they lose.”

Panic was indeed in the air at Zanu’s Harare headquarters. According to a reliable press account, a `confidential Zanu central committee report’ of December 2001 had included `a submission by the party’s security department’ which warned: `Corrupt leaders within the party are seriously endangering and eroding the party’s fortunes in the forthcoming presidential election.’

In a major city, Masvingo, the potential loss of one faction’s support for Mugabe would potentially `cost the party the presidential election.’

A variety of overlapping strategies, combining carrots and sticks, have suddenly came in to play to prevent what would seem to be a certain Mugabe loss in a free, fair poll. To prevent the vote itself being free and fair, voter registration has been limited to those current Zimbabwe residents (i.e., no absentee ballots permitted) who showed proof of residence such as credit accounts, or verifiable letters from their landlords.

Everything possible was done to dissuade urban residents from registering, while Zanu-aligned rural chiefs and headmen were permitted to vouch for `their’ constituents during registration.

Just as important as vote rigging, government vote-buying has begun in earnest. Populist price controls were applied late last year. State patronage was stepped up, from the capital city across the countryside. Urgent work orders were given so as to show the electorate some progress by March.

In December, the Supreme Court reversed earlier rulings so as to support Mugabe’s `fast-track’ (but by all accounts chaotic) land acquisition programme. Mugabe’s ally, chief justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, replaced Anthony Gubbay, a white judge who resigned last year under threats of violence from war veterans responsible for occupying more than 1,000 farms owned by wealthy whites since February 2000.

Mugabe now claims dramatic land reform successes: 250,000 households resettled in recent months, compared to the total of 70,000 families who gained land over the previous two decades.

But although any improvement in access for the landless masses is to be applauded, independent media investigations found these stats to be wildly inflated. Moreover, land minister Joseph Made is maintaining a two-decade old practice by allocating the best farms to top government and Zanu officials.

Likewise, to curry favour with his most vital constituents, Mugabe offered security personnel a 100% pay raise a few weeks ago, the same as the inflation rate; most workers had to settle for increases closer to 50%.

Worse state repression was also threatened when four laws were introduced in parliament earlier this month, aiming to tilt the electoral playing field by barring monitors and banning distribution of leaflets and posters;

to impose absurd new security restrictions, including making it an offense to criticise the president;

to shackle the media by imposing licensing requirements, barring foreign journalists and making it illegal to publish news that would `cause alarm and despondency’;

and to repress labour by denying rights of assembly and the right to strike.

Under these conditions, there is no way that any observer can legitimately call the upcoming presidential election `free and fair.’ Virtually all the minimum conditions were sabotaged by the ruling party months prior to the poll. Virtually all political unrest is catalysed by informal Zanu militias, with MDC members (including members of parliament) as victims, some fatal.

Not only is the threat by Mugabe to make `real war’–uttered at December’s Zanu party congress in Victoria Falls–being taken seriously by his loyal cadres. The political misery of the masses has been amplified by a rash of pre-election shortages: maize, cooking oil, sugar, fertilizer and even milk in some sites.

(Even I, a petit-bourgeois visitor to a mountain-resort area for three weeks over the xmas holidays, sometimes failed to get sugar for my cuppa…)

Are shortages the result of hoarding by mainly white wholesale firms, as Mugabe regularly alleges? Or does scarcity logically follow the widespread imposition of excessively-strict price controls?

To justify their interpretation that controls were not unreasonable, officials point to the consistent availability of cheap bread (whose regulaged price per loaf was lowered from the equivalent of US$0.16 to US$0.13 a few months earlier).

But private-sector suppliers of many other essentials can’t keep up with demand, given the shrunken and in some cases negative profit margins. Zanu isn’t ready to try either nationalisation of these suppliers, or provide sufficient subsidies to cover the gap.

The economy continues to decay, with output down more than 15% over the last two years.

To pay for vital imports such as gasoline and medicines, Mugabe was reduced in late 2001 to emergency band-aid measures, including trade deals with Malaysia, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam, and import finance from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank, Afreximbank, the African Preferential Trade Area Bank and the People’s Republic of China.

Still, he announced in his December 2001 State of the Nation address,

“US$150 million of privatisation proceeds will go towards repayment of the external debt’; in relation to the electricity company Zesa, Zimbabwe allocated scarce foreign exchange to South Africa to cover `supply arrears and service debt, equivalent to US$259.9 million, as well as paying for current power imports.’”

These boasts provide hints about how the ruling party would bust sanctions, were they to become more serious than already exist due to non-payment of foreign debt and the Western donor’s aid boycott.

After the Southern African Development Community’s summit in Malawi last week failed to generate sufficient pro-democracy rhetoric, Tsvangirai angrily told the BBC that he expected far more from Big Brother to the South:

“The threat to undermine the elections by the military, by President Mugabe himself, should actually send shock waves to South Africa and say, under those circumstances, we are going to cut fuel, we are going to cut transport links. Those kind of measures, even if they are implemented at a low level, send the right signals.”

South African deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad quickly dismissed the request to turn his government’s failing `quietly-quietly’ strategy into more concrete solidarity:

“We’ve been working at this for a long time, trying to convince (people), that what is called (for is) quiet diplomacy. Calls for sanctions are misplaced. Effectively sanctions have been applied in Zimbabwe. All foreign aid has been terminated. There is effectively no new development aid. Investment has been frozen and exports from Zimbabwe have been stopped, I think. Sanctions are not the way to go.”

Such condescending `I know better’ tone and content remind me of capitalist-class rhetoric against the African National Congress during the 1980s, when Pahad was a vociferous proponent of anti-apartheid sanctions.

The ANC began its sanctions-campaigning during the 1960s, and Pahad and his comrades always argued that even if black South Africans were hurt in the process, the short-term pain was justified by the long-term gain: removing the illegitimate regime. Is Pahad now merely self-interestedly hypocritical–or could a case be made that Tsvangirai’s call for a more serious targeted-sanctions threat from Pretoria will backfire?

The main reasons Zimbabwean democrats debate this very point are, firstly, Mugabe will use tightened sanctions as a whitewash excuse for his own economic mismanagement; and secondly, while Zanu can retain power especially through its monopoly of military might, sanctions will mainly disrupt the white-owned business sector, which supports the MDC financially, and employs most of its core working-class loyalists.

These points are valid. Yet at some stage in a struggle for political justice, a people must decide what kinds of pressure points they are willing to ask others, acting in solidarity, to impose upon their enemy, even if there are detrimental side-effects. And what they ask of those of us who are able to help, we must respect.

Did Tsvangirai’s call for a serious South African sanctions threat reflect a full-fledged debate amongst Zimbabwean democrats (or even amongst MDC leaders)?

Was the decision arrived at through as much reflection and consensus as is probably required?

Apparently not, yet the need for the MDC to ratchet up the pressure is obvious, especially in the event Mugabe illegitimately clings to power, or Zvinavashe carries out his threatened treason.

The mass of Zimbabweans need all the support that they can get under such circumstances, including sanctions, once popular organisations advocate them in the wake of mass consultations.

But indeed that remains the most important variable, namely, the independent, critical capacity of the progressive movements: labour, residents’ associations, human-rights advocates, left-leaning churches, women’s groups, the National Constitutional Assembly, and many others which attended the National Working People’s Convention three years ago.

After nearly 15 years working in and around the beleaguered Zimbabwean Left, I think the question remains: can enough ordinary people align with progressive civil-society challenges to *both* Zanu’s repression and the MDC’s orthodox economic policies, to make a real difference to their own country’s future?

Or are radical rhetoric and ideological confusion associated with the exhaustion of both African nationalism and Zimbabwe’s capital accumulation cycle, going to close the current window of opportunity for social change?

***

(Bond and Zimbabwean economist Masimba Manyanya are coauthors of the book *Zimbabwe’s Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Struggle for Social Justice,* which will be launched on tours in southern Africa, Europe, the US and Canada during February; details from [email protected]; and more detailed analysis by Bond is available from the July-August 2001 Z Magazine, on line at http://www.zmag.org)

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