If leaders of a little African country stand up with confidence to imperialist aggression, especially from the US and Britain, that would ordinarily strike any fair observer as extremely compelling, especially when the nightmare of racist colonialism is still be to exorcised and when whites hold a disproportionate share of economic power, and when state rulers appear serious about changing those factors.
But that country needs a second glance. What may seem to some a progressive and brave government is upon closer examination a tyranny whose leader repeatedly acts against grassroots and shopfloor social solidarity, and notwithstanding rhetoric about land redistribution, is ultimately very hostile to its own society’s poor and working people, women, youth, elderly and ill.
‘Progress in Zimbabwe’ was the title of a four-day Bulawayo conference last week, gathering mainly academics but also leading civil society strategists. It was organised by University of Johannesburg political economist David Moore and by Showers Mawowa of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) School of Development Studies and Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development.
Said Moore, “For many analysts, the end of progress is signified in the political projects of Robert Mugabe and Zanu(PF) – not to mention the Government of National Unity”. It’s been two years since South Africa’s outgoing president Thabo Mbeki negotiated dysfunctional power-sharing between Mugabe’s junta and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Just before the deal took effect in early 2009, the local currency collapsed entirely, and is no longer used. On the upside, that move ended hyperinflation and empty shop shelves. The tiny elite is happier, as is the World Bank (not yet lending, but carefully looking over the state’s shoulder). Yet without any ability to earn hard currency, what’s a peasant or the unemployed (90 percent of the workforce) to do?
A related problem: monetary policy is now set in Washington and Pretoria, since the US$ and South African Rand are now Zimbabwe’s core currencies. The Reserve Bank cannot stimulate the sickly economy, because its governor, Gideon Gono, gave Zimbabwe ‘monetary gonorrhea’, a corrupting disease transmitted from his overworked printing press to the economy as a whole.
A $2 billion bill for Gono’s leftover local debt is being negotiated, and another $5+ billion in foreign debt remains unpayable. Progressives writing the National People’s Convention Charter in February 2008 demanded a debt audit before any World Bank and IMF loans are serviced, and as happened similarly in Ecuador in December 2008, “the right of the people of Zimbabwe to refuse repayment of any odious debt accrued by a dictatorial government.”
Politically, progress against Mugabe’s dictatorship is terribly fragile, as the army is now being deployed in many hotly-contested peri-urban and rural areas. Since paramilitary violence forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the mid-2008 run-off presidential election (after winning the first round – but, claimed Mugabe’s vote-counters, with less than 50%), a constitutional rewrite outreach process has provided space for 4000 meetings in recent weeks.
Many were marred by intimidation. Worse, a mid-2011 election announced by Mugabe promises a return to bad habits: outright violence, including murder, ending in poll thievery. The most likely scenario, according to leading commentator John Makumbe? “The MDC will win and Zanu(PF) will again refuse to concede power”. So back they will go into the cul-de-sac of renewed power-sharing talks.
Hence the conference was devoted mainly to recording regress not progress, given Zimbabwe’s deep plunge. History needed reviewing, for after all, the most banal measure of progress, that of the economics profession, is per person Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the point it began declining may surprise.
Per capita GDP didn’t begin its slide in February 2000 when President Robert Mugabe lost his first election (a constitutional referendum) and unleashed the war veterans on white farmers. Nor was it on November 1997’s Black Friday, when the Zimbabwe dollar lost 74% of its value in four hours, a world record. Nor was it when the Washington-sponsored structural adjustment program began in 1991, nor when Independence in 1980 meant the small economy’s rearticulation with hostile global capitalism after fifteen years of sanctions.
If one thinks of progress in this conventional way, as GDP per person, then Zimbabwe began shrinking in 1974, as indeed was the case in most of Africa, as the world slowdown hit the poorest continent hardest, at a time most African leaders had succumbed to neocolonialism. In Zimbabwe, overproduction of luxury goods, machinery and steel for a limited market left the economy with huge excess capacity at a time of shrinking confidence in Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesian Front regime. After liberation was won in 1980, the economy then recovered some of the lost ground in a growth spurt from 1984 to 1990.
Income in 1990 was much better distributed then than under Smith’s white rule – or than under Mugabe’s kleptocracy after it became avaricious in the mid-1990s. A small black middle class had emerged mainly through the expansion of Zimbabwe’s civil service, though the World Bank successfully insisted that it shrink by 25% during the 1990s.
Sorting out the politico-ideological confusion in historical context requires, according to Sheffield-based Zimbabwean Ian Phimister, a ‘distinct paradigm of radical historiography’. But Muchaparara Musemwa lamented that their discipline still lacks cohesion and purpose. Phimister recommended the new book Becoming Zimbabwe – featuring work by Alois Mlambo, Brian Raftopoulos and younger historians – which treats contemporary degeneration in historical context.
By all accounts, a central challenge in an era of Mugabe’s state-sponsored ‘Patriotic History’ – a mirror image of Rhodesia’s racist settler history – is recovery of the liberation tradition from damage done even before Independence in 1980, a task aided by the coming publication of Wilf Mhanda’s autobiography. Mhanda’s leadership of the Zimbabwe People’s Army offered an alternative liberatory trajectory, one Mugabe violently suppressed two years before signing the Lancaster House compromise deal that maintained the repressive state and white-biased property relations entirely intact.
Mugabe’s overarching need, it seems, is control of the telling of history – as a way to remind his subjects there was once a time when Zanu(PF) was indeed a popular force, like fish swimming in the sea of the people. Regurgitation of that memory is what motivates the ‘Talk Left, Walk Right’ project of crony nationalist capitalism, which Mugabe and so many other post-colonial despots adopted, as Frantz Fanon predicted in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth.
Today the main legacy of this struggle is ‘securocrat’ control of the state. Remarked Joshua Mpofu, “Talking about political parties is like chewing gravel. Military culture never died, and a lot of public institutions are headed by brigadiers and generals.”
Another memory is of a time when indigenous Zimbabweans controlled their land. According to Blessing Karumbidza, whose recent UKZN doctorate describes post-Independence land experiences, there will be “a truly restructured and dynamic farming sector IF and only if the support mechanisms and institutional regimes necessary for land and agricultural rationalization are put in place.”
That’s not happening, insists University of Zimbabwe (UZ) geographer Esther Chigumira: “Bifurcated land ownership continues, not by race but by class, favouring elites who are politically connected.” Those nationalists, recalled former war veteran and now UZ sociologist Wilbert Sadomba, emerged from internecine liberation movement feuds, and “hijacked that revolution, in connivance with international capital. We war vets are opposed to both Zanu(PF) elites and MDC elites. We see neither being able to take the country forward.”
Added leading liberation-era intellectual Ibbo Mandaza, “There was a Zanu(PF) that we were part of, the liberation movement, and then there was Mugabe’s Zanu(PF), which is very different. Mugabe is essentially rightwing, notwithstanding the anti-imperialist rhetoric.” As for his own role, Mandaza confessed, “We helped in many respects dress up an essentially rightwing regime in leftist clothing.”
Raftopoulos agreed: “This discourse threw off many African scholars, most importantly in the Mamdani debate” – referring to the great Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani’s 2008 London Review of Books defense of Mugabe. The two most prominent scholars who are supportive of land redistribution, Mamdani and Sam Moyo, were invited but could not attend. In their place, Ben Cousins from the University of the Western Cape promoted the post-2000 land reform’s “changing structures of ownership and new agrarian structure,” concluding, “The positives probably outweigh the negatives.”
In the main A1 land programme, he said, “About a third of the new farmers are succeeding, a third getting by, and a third getting out.” The negatives in Cousins’ list include “the collapse of Large Scale Commercial Farms which contributed to wide-scale economic decline; the motor force of land reform was the Zanu(PF) power grab; the decline of the rule of law; violence.” Added Zimbabwean human rights advocate Elinor Sisulu, “food security, environment, HIV-AIDS, and the gender and class dimensions.”
No matter how Zimbabwe needed to end white domination of good farms before 2000, an overall judgment on the land invasions (which sporadically continue because 10 percent of 4000 white farmers hung on by hook or by crook), will wait long-term evidence. The spate of new research by those associated with Moyo and Cousins does show a few selective sites of success, especially in Masvingo Province near the ancient Great Zimbabwe empire’s capital, but critics argue this is not a typical region.
But opposition policies came in for equally harsh critique. “In the 1990s the motivation for the MDC was the struggle for social and economic justice – and that’s the crucial unique character of the MDC’s origins,” said Hopewell Gumbo of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development. “But the trend to neoliberalism within the MDC means we will not see progress. We need to look for new alliances and new formations. “
But the terrain is uneven, for Harare-based urban civic organizer Mike Davies pointed out the profusion of petit-bourgeois suit-and-tie professionals amongst the capital’s NGO cadre: “They acquire a self-preserving aspect perhaps more concerned with continuation than function. They became more remote from their members, even elitist, losing their accountability, more concerned with meeting donor aspirations and requirements than serving the needs of their members.”
According to Davies, “opportunistic elements make every effort to preserve their positions, often at some cost to their member organisations and undermining their stated goals. In my opinion, we failed to identify and contain these elements as well as the vehicles that carry them. As a result, the super-NGOs captured the voices of civics and domesticated them for the consumption of an increasingly externalised audience of international donors and Zimbabweans in the diaspora.”
How, then, can progress emerge against both a sell-out to the Washington Consensus (by either or both of the leading parties) and Mugabe’s fake populist language and violence-prone delivery, short of awaiting his death – but then inevitably a new Zanu(PF) power struggle (between the Mujuru and Mnangagwa factions) that could be even more disruptive?
An answer came from the leading trade unionist present, Kumbirai Kudenga: “In terms of mass action, we need people without fear. If you’re not used to going to the ground, it’s hard. Mass action is for people who are used to the ground.”
She even provided a new vehicle: “We have a Democratic United Front for the workers, especially for mass action. What we need is support. Can you take down our email: firstname.lastname@example.org That is if you are serious, we are there to act.”
For the rest of us, according to Raftopoulos, a renewed “international labour solidarity discourse is one of the best antidotes to Mugabe’s rhetoric”, especially the ‘exemplary solidarity’ shown in April 2008 when in Durban, transport workers refused to unload three million bullets destined for Mugabe’s army from the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang.
Even if the conference was way too top-heavy with talking heads and NGOers, all agreed that a new surge of such solidarity will be needed next year, when regress again trumps progress in Zimbabwe.
(Patrick Bond is on sabbatical from the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, based at UCal-Berkeley Department of Geography. His books include Uneven Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s Plunge.)