Zimbabwe’s Election: Who’s Right, Who’s Left?

Patrick Bond 

(Mutare, Zimbabwe)


Saturday and Sunday, Zimbabweans cast their vote for members of parliament in

the most important election here since the country’s first democratic poll, in

1980. It won’t be a truly democratic, free-and-fair poll, thanks to intimidation

and the likelihood of vote-rigging. A trade union-based party, the Movement for

Democratic Change (MDC), emerged last September to challenge the ruling Zimbabwe

African National Union (Patriotic Front). Political confusion quickly followed,

with a ZANU(PF) backlash of anti-white, anti-business and anti-imperialist

rhetoric unprecedented since the liberation struggle.


post-independence history is crucial. The brutal 1964-79 civil war between black

nationalists and 200,000 intransigent Rhodesian whites (and coopted black

allies) left an estimated 40,000 black civilians dead. The decisive stage of the

liberation struggle was launched by ZANU(PF) from Chinese-backed bases in

neighboring Mozambique, using classical guerrilla cell-structures and all-night

ideological training sessions in liberated zones that combined nationalist

mysticism (featuring a 19th century spirit medium’s resistance to the first

white settlers) with 1960s-era, anti-imperialist, revolutionary-marxist



the past few weeks, I have had a chance to retrace some of that revolutionary

legacy, mainly witnessing its debasement in the Eastern Highlands mountains

bordering Mozambique. Over a two-decade period, President Robert Mugabe has

invited upon ZANU(PF)–the party he has served since the early 1960s, and led

for nearly 25 years–a profound and quite possibly fatal legitimacy crisis. This

is particularly obvious in an area which once served as the site of most

guerrilla incursions and subsequently became home to many war veterans.


I beheld rural fear as I have never experienced it before: in the eyes of a

terrorized peasantry, in the cowed attitude of farmworkers, and in the besieged

and defeated sentiments of white commercial farmers. The clear culprits, in

village after village, are party bureaucrats, liberation war veterans and the

ZANU(PF) Youth League. Over the past four months, rural Zimbabwe has suffered

more than 6,000 recorded incidents of mainly rural intimidation, including the

deaths of 30 MDC supporters. I visited many sites of ZANU(PF) coercion in the

mountain district, including fire bombings (and two assassinations of MDC

officials), kidnappings, torture and beatings, and destruction of both peasant

and commercial farm crops. For many MDC campaigners, including parliamentary

candidates, this area has been "no-go." There is, here, a striking

similarity to other state-backed, paramilitary civilian-terror operations I have

seen firsthand in Chiapas, Haiti, and apartheid-era South Africa.


main difference here is the anti-colonial rhetoric on the ZANU(PF) tee-shirts

and caps worn proudly by war vets and lumpen protesters. Yet this loyalty

appears to be, at least in part, a function of campaign patronage, especially

cash payments made by the state and ruling party to supporters. A ZANU(PF) youth

activist told me his fee was Z$700 a week (US$15 on the black market), which

represents a small fortune in a rural economy which generates approximately

US$100 per person annually. War vets got a major once-off pension payout in late

1997 (then US$5,200) plus a special monthly sum of US$200. There is, of course,

no doubting the sincerity of many ex-combatants who have indeed been

marginalised during the twenty-year Independence and whose valiant anti-colonial

struggle deserves ongoing reward. Yet the venal politics associated with war vet

leader Chenjerai Hitler Hunzvi (including looting of his own veterans fund)

suggests a more sinister logic behind ZANU(PF)’s rural strategy: a desperate

desire to hold on to power, no matter the costs.


surely, ask many leftists watching the scene play out from afar, isn’t some of

that terror–as directed against white settler farmers who occupy a vast amount

of Zimbabwe’s arable land and who in many cases treat their workers worse than

their farm animals– justifiable? Moreover, is it not the case, as of February,

that the MDC began to receive generous funding by (white) domestic and foreign

capitalists, including white farmers? At that stage, didn’t Zimbabwe’s skewed

land relations and abominable property rights simply drop off the MDC’s campaign

agenda? Wasn’t a representative of big business put in charge of its economics

desk, and wasn’t his first major speech a firm endorsement of the International

Monetary Fund and wholesale privatization for post-election Zimbabwe? And didn’t

the MDC’s civil society allies issue a draft constitution that gave corporations

the same inalienable human rights as ordinary citizens? Hasn’t MDC leader Morgan

Tsvangirai moved decisively from anti-neoliberal rhetoric during the 1990s to

preaching corporatist (big-business, big-government and big-labor) relations and

alliances with big business?


vigorously in the affirmative are prominent Zimbabwean intellectuals Jonathan

Moyo and Ibbo Mandaza, who, over the past year, switched sides from

liberal/radical academic and policy pursuits generally hostile to Mugabe’s

government, to a tough left-nationalist discourse strongly supportive of

ZANU(PF)’s revolutionary legacy. Tsvangirai is a "sellout" to workers,

says Moyo, for reversing his firm anti-World Bank rhetoric simply for apparently

opportunistic purposes.


associated with the MDC and its allies– prominent names include Tendai Biti,

Brian Kagoro and Brian Raftopoulos–maintain that the battle for the heart and

soul of the MDC is not over. Meantime, the only progressive position is

stringent opposition to the regime, on grounds not only that Mugabe’s

"dictatorship" (as Kagoro terms it) has closed the democratic space,

but that its pro-capitalist strategies, especially since 1990, have wrecked

working-class and poor people’s living standards.


most emotive issue, particularly in the pan-Africanist tradition, is land

inequality. The problem is simple: land hunger for millions of Zimbabwean

peasants and small farmers (relegated to the country’s worst soils and driest

regions), alongside vast unutilized arable land on 4,000 white-owned commercial

farms whose products, especially tobacco, are mainly exported. The land question

entails many factors: durable colonial/neocolonial relations and deep-rooted

white racism; a bad deal struck by the liberation movements with the outgoing

Rhodesian regime at the 1979 Lancaster House power-transfer agreement;

subsequently a failed market-oriented land reform (and microcredit) program

overly reliant upon World Bank money and advice; widespread ruling-party

corruption in the land acquisition process; bureaucratic bungling; worsening

agricultural market conditions; rising costs of agricultural inputs; speculative

credit and land price cycles; and growing inequality associated with a

disastrous 1990s structural adjustment program.


gender and generational dimensions of the land question remain extremely

important due to residual aspects of colonial-capitalist labor-power

reproduction. Many functions–child-rearing, medical care for sick workers and

old-age care, without adequate state support–were traditionally farmed out to

rural women instead of being internalized within the capitalist labor markets

(through adequate state-provided schooling, worker healthcare plans and

pensions, none of which were universally available to black Zimbabweans).

Although over time, a net positive remittance of wages flowed from urban workers

to rural kin and there were some improvements in rural social welfare provision,

nevertheless the rural-urban subsidy provided by African women emerged again

during the 1990s via transfers of maize and other staple foods to kin in towns

and cities at a time urban-rural wage remittances declined dramatically due to

structural adjustment.


environmental problems associated with land hunger are terribly important. They

include not just traditional concerns over woodlot deforestation, soil erosion,

watershed siltation, and land exhaustion, but also household environmental

problems such as excessive use of wood and paraffin indoors due to lack of

electricity (with attendant public health problems), poor quality sources of

water and sanitation, and worsening vulnerability to drought and flood.


a central if unstated presumption in left- nationalist discourse is that these

kinds of very durable problems cannot be resolved by mere judicious state

intervention, whether the 1980s World Bank willing-seller, willing-buyer plus

credit plan, or the state land acquisition process proposed during the 1990s but

never implemented. Post-colonial history in Zimbabwe and similar settings

demonstrates that states, ruling parties, bureaucrats, rich farmers and local

power-brokers can and do together resist radical change in rural land, property

and social relations.


local left-nationalists and their allies abroad–including South African pan-Africanists

and other radicals- -thus heartily promote the invasion of more than 1,000

white-owned commercial farms, which began in March 2000 in the immediate

aftermath of the first-ever ruling- party electoral defeat, over a

constitutional referendum widely interpreted as a proxy for Mugabe’s own

popularity. The invasions have at least had the effect of sobering white

farmers, five of whom were killed in the process, and softening their resistance

to land reform. Several conceded to me that they had not given up enough land at

Independence, and that they are now willing to help parcel out chunks of land

they don’t use, and even to persuade selected neighbors who mismanage their

plantations to turn them over for resettlement. The state already has vast

quantities of land once owned by white farmers which it has not had the capacity

to redistribute, and the best land resettlement has been delegitimized by

blatant cronyism and corruption.


the ground, in case after case, the land invasions, assaults and cases of rural

intimidation also reflect long- simmering personal grievances that, in this

tumultuous political context, are reappearing with a vengeance. The integrity of

many land invaders is questionable, in my mind, given that most of the occupied

commercial farms I visited in the mountains bordering Mozambique showed merely

evidence of plots having been staked out, with the bulk of the occupiers having

returned to their homes and small businesses. One former leader of the Zimbabwe

African National Liberation Army, now a progressive dissident with the

"Liberation Platform" group, confirmed that just 2,000 of the roughly

50,000 war vets are involved in the farm occupations, while most other invaders

are drawn from the urban lumpenproletariat. There are impressive numbers of

women occupiers but they have already issued a statement expressing

dissatisfaction at the control of occupied land and the need for women-headed

households to be given at least a quarter of the plots that are subsequently

carved up.


land dispute is only one of many thorny problems fracturing Zimbabwean society.

My gut feel is that none of these are likely to be resolved to anyone’s

satisfaction within the next two years, when Mugabe either stands for

presidential election or anoints a successor. Most likely is a scenario in

which, next week, after votes are counted, the MDC wins a majority of less than

the 63% it requires to control parliament (because Mugabe appoints 30 of the 150

seats). The MDC will then have three choices: establish a collaborative

relationship with Mugabe (especially if with 63%+, it actually gains majority

control after Mugabe’s extra seats are added); learn the ropes as the main

parliamentary opposition and attempt to squash new legislation; and/or engage in

mass action by way of protest against the multiple forms of election abuse.


these are potential outcomes, and each embodies contradictions that will haunt

Zimbabwe for months to come. Opposition leftwing politicians and civil society

activists are generally hunkering down, avoiding the harsh reality that their

preferred party, the MDC, has all the appearances of neighboring Zambia’s

Movement for Multiparty Democracy (a neoliberal party also led by a trade

unionist, but far more hostile to popular pressure than its nationalist

predecessor). The Left may only emerge, holding the manifesto of the 1999

National Working People’s Convention and the insistence that the MDC can again

be a Workers’ Party (its colloquial name), once electoral intimidation recedes

and more durable class conflicts reemerge.


struck me, during days travelling the backroads of the Eastern Highlands,

stopping in at local schools for voter registration, chatting with local tribal

chiefs, human rights activists, politicians, businesspeople, women’s clubs and

church groups, that an unprecedented democratic groundswell has overtaken this

country. That at least is the positive outcome of what otherwise is a messy and

confusing election.


Bond is author of Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development and

Underdevelopment, published in 1998 by Africa World Press, Trenton.)



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