Leonard Chiwoniso Mhute and Liv Shange Moyo, ISA

On April 18, 1980, Zimbabwe formally won its freedom from white minority rule. The forty years since have been defined not by freedom, but by compromise with big business and imperialism, limited reforms, zigzagging between subservience and crude populism, economic collapse, by Gukurahundi, bloody repression, corruption and stolen elections. It is high time for a socialist chimurenga.

After fifteen years of civil war between the forces of Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) on the one hand, and the brutal “whites-only” regime of Ian Smith, elections were held in March 1980. The vote was a landslide for Robert Mugabe’s ZANU(PF), putting to shame the attempts by the South African apartheid regime, Britain and the US to boost their puppet candidate Muzorewa using funding and armed thugs. The self-proclaimed “socialist” ZANU(PF), whose forces bore the greatest burden in the liberation war, with tens of thousands of young fighters killed, understandably won the trust of the masses hungry for change.

ZANU (PF) Victory

In its first years, the ZANU(PF) government introduced reforms like free primary education, and free health care for people on low incomes. Small farmers were helped by the state with seed, fertilizer, loans and regulated prices. A wave of strikes pushed the government to increase the minimum wage dramatically.

Despite such steps forward, the relief of peace and high hopes in the future, the limits of the new order — designed to safeguard capitalism — were soon felt.

The economy, one of the most industrialized in Africa, remained dominated by a handful of multinational companies, notably Anglo American Capital and Lonrho, exports of raw materials and tobacco, mined and farmed on stolen land. The worker-farmer majority remained as they had been under the colonial masters: on under-sized communal lands.

The ZANU and ZAPU leaders set out to build “a mixed economy” to “gradually achieve socialism”; led by social-democratic illusions, fueled by nationalist/guerrillaist distrust of the working class, and encouraged by their “Communist” backers in China and Russia.

Instead, they were soon trapped by the simple arithmetic of a neo-colonial trade deficit — essentially the export of raw materials was not sufficient to pay for the import of machinery and manufactured goods — and so state debt increased.

IMF “Reforms”

The economy, recovering from the war, saw a brief boom, but plunged into crisis by 1982, a downturn it never really recovered from. A brief IMF “reform program”, including a wage freeze, the removal of food subsidies and devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar was followed by homegrown attempts to balance welfare and austerity. The protectionist capital controls, which had been retained from the Smith era, were eased to woo foreign capital with the promise of taking home more profits.

The attempt to “mix” the intensified exploitation by multinational corporations with the use of the capitalist state to reform living conditions for the working class and peasant majority soon stumbled. Zimbabwe slipped closer to a classic neo-colonial debt trap. By 1990, state debt was at 48,4% of GDP.

Leaving capitalism and the neo-colonial structure of the economy unchallenged meant that poverty and exploitation persisted for the masses, and that the alleged “Marxist” Mugabe government quickly showed its real nature. The burning need for land reform was not acted upon. Real per capita income did not grow. Workers taking strike action were suppressed using draconian laws inherited from the Smith regime.

Gukurahundi

As the frustrations of workers, the rural poor and aspirant elites grew, so did political tensions. ZANU soon showed it would move towards a one-party-state. The first step was the Gukurahundi genocide, 1983–1987, in which an estimated 20 000 Ndebele civilians were butchered by the Army’s Fifth Brigade in the name of suppressing “dissidents”. This terror pushed the rival party, ZAPU, to dissolve into the “Patriotic Front” of ZANU.

At the same time, real gains were achieved — such as well-functioning education — and health systems. Secondary school enrollment grew almost tenfold in the years 1980–1990. By 1991, life expectancy had risen from 55 to 59 years, along with other health indicators. Maternal mortality was down to 251 per 100 000 births. In 1992 it skyrocketed to 350/100 000, and by 2019 it was 458!

This female body count indicates how the limited reform gains were all but wiped out by the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) which was imposed by the government in 1991–1995.

Economic Structural Adjustment Program

Already in the years 1989–1991, while counter revolution restored capitalism in the Stalinist bloc, the Zimbabwean government had taken a turn to the right with gradual steps to accommodate big business, cutting price and capital controls and social spending. These tentative steps built towards the launch of ESAP’s sweeping counter reforms. ESAP was an attempt to reassert the exploitative reach of global capital over the economy, while retaining government control, and in this way differed from the structural adjustment programs imposed by IMF and World Bank on many neo-colonial countries from the 1970s.

While “homegrown”, ESAP followed the IMF/World Bank structural adjustment model with currency devaluation, deregulation, reducing government expenditure — breaking ground for the unhindered rule of the world market. For example, health and education funding was drastically cut, school fees were imposed and consumer goods subsidies removed.

The results were catastrophic, especially as ESAP coincided with repeated droughts and a new, aggressive trade policy adopted by South Africa. Industrial production slumped, small and local businesses collapsed. Inflation rose sharply to 50%. Real wages fell by 35% in the first year. By 1993, wages were about 25% below 1986 levels, lower than at any time since the 1970s.

Initially stunned by these blows, workers, students and landless people hit back in a wave of struggles. Strikes and riots became a norm in the urban areas, peaking with the mighty general strike of 1997. Strike action forced through wage increases of 36 and 40% for public sector and farm workers respectively.

Zig-Zags

The regime’s response was a zig-zagging mix of concessions and repression. In 1997, while making a Z$4 billion payout to war veterans, there was a police and army clampdown on strikes. Populist diversions, such as the claim that a “white farmer conspiracy” was behind the strikes were accompanied by attempts to accumulate capital by entering the diamond-fueled war in the DRC in 1998.

ZANU-PF ramped up its “radical” rhetoric on the land question, but posturing could not contain the explosion building up. In the wake of ESAP, demands for the redistribution of land had grown, not least from frustrated previous small business owners. The regime launched a campaign for constitutional reform, which would allow land seizures without compensation — and for Mugabe to extend his hold on power.

The combative Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), a leading force in the struggles throughout the 1990s, launched a series of Working People’s Conventions in 1997. Out of this platform a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was formed in 1999. The MDC immediately challenged ZANU-PF for power, with the constitutional question as a major rallying point.

In February 2000, a constitutional referendum was held. The decisive no-vote dealt the regime a huge blow. Immediately afterwards, ZANLA war veterans carried out a wave of invasions of white-owned farms. By 2002, the land invasions were legalized through the Fast-Track Land Reform Program, and nearly all white-owned farms were taken over, often violently. Tens of thousands of farm workers who had worked and lived on these farms were evicted. Vast swathes of land were appropriated by party cronies and bureaucrats from within the regime, using the loot to try and “reboot” the process of capitalist primitive accumulation. While thousands of landless families also received land, they received little if any support to continue agricultural production. Large-scale for-profit agriculture all but collapsed. but instead of a planned effort to produce sustainably for-need, as would be the case in a genuine, worker — and community controlled, socialist land reform, chaos and extreme food shortages followed.

The chaotic land reform program plunged Zimbabwe into new depths of crisis. On top of the sharp drop in food production and export revenues, international financial institutions boycotted the regime for the cardinal sin of attacking private property. With foreign exchange completely dried-up, hyper-inflation developed. At its peak, in November 2008, the daily inflation rate was 98% — the second highest in world history.

The crisis meant a near-complete collapse of what remained of manufacturing, a permanent unemployment rate above 80%, and a mass exodus of people trying to find work outside the country.

New alternative needed

Even in this desperate situation, the masses continued to struggle, turning out impressive votes for the MDC in election after election from the year 2000, despite bloody repression and the pro-capitalist and neo-liberal MDC leadership’s lack of a real alternative to the impasse.

In 2008, despite the state’s vote rigging, kidnapping, torture, detention and murder of opposition activists, the MDC won the first round of the presidential election but backed down in the face of a new level of terror unleashed upon the masses by the military backed regime. The MDC withdrew from the second round, which was again “won” by Mugabe. The regime’s pattern for neutralizing political threats by means of terror followed by co-option was again applied — after the “election”, the battered MDC entered into a government of national unity (GNU).

The GNU and its aftermath put a dead hand on mass struggle for the following eight years, leaving free rein for the regime’s repression. Factional battles within the party and state over how to divide the loot of assets such as farmland and the Marange diamond fields continued. During this period, following the 2009 abandonment of the Zimbabwean dollar, the economy was partially stabilized, but it was in a disastrous state for all but a few.

In 2016, a new wave of struggle began to take root. The spark was the imposition of a near-total ban on imports which outraged informal traders, but tensions had been building for years, not least as a result of increasingly open factional divisions within the state. Starting as online campaigns, #thisflag and #tajamuka/sesijikile inspired mass street protests and stay-aways. The youth especially showed a renewed readiness to take on the regime without exhaustion or fear, despite the state’s murderous clamp-down.

Meeting mass resistance pushed the divided ZANU-PF into an even deeper internal crisis, and in November 2017, a military coup forced Mugabe to resign after 37 years in power. Despite dressing up in the colors of the mass resistance, the post-Mugabe ZANU-PF regime under Emmerson Mnangagwa has an even more murderous authoritarian character. Its backbone is the military-business core of the state, as has been shown in the now routine deployment of soldiers to suppress protests.

The Mnangagwa regime too, itself fraught with division, has been unable to resolve any of the key questions facing the Zimbabwean masses. To get Zimbabwe “open for business”, the government launched IMF-backed austerity which, together with the endemic looting by regime cronies, has left the economy “dead”, to quote Mnangagwa himself. Everything from foreign currency to fuel, chemicals, medicine, food, electricity and water is in short supply. Inflation is estimated to be over 500%.

After a brief respite, the regime has faced incessant discontent. When it hiked fuel prices by 130% in January 2019, a general strike broke out. The strike was suppressed by soldiers, killing and raping dozens and wounding hundreds. Still, strikes soon resumed. Strikes by teachers in 2019 became a permanent feature, in recent months also joined by school students. In September 2019, doctors and other health care workers began a strike, already lasting for a record time and which has not been fully settled. In effect, it is continuing as an official go-slow, in any case, by the time the Coronavirus hit Africa, there were still hardly any medical supplies, let alone water or electricity at hospitals and clinics. In March 2020, the nurses’ union declared a strike demanding not only personal protective equipment but also such basics as water in order to have any chance in battling the pandemic in a country with an alleged total of seven ventilators.

Socialist chimurenga vital

As April 18, the 40th anniversary of “freedom” approaches, the Corona pandemic is set to batter Zimbabwe, and Africa as a whole. in ways still hard to imagine. The country is in the midst of a 21-day lockdown, in the midst of the massive, climate change driven drought, with millions going hungry, and residents in the towns facing months without water. The daily struggle to survive will inevitably dominate for a period. But the masses of Zimbabwe have shown again and again that no matter how brutal the conditions, struggle finds a way to surface.

As protests re-emerge and develop further, the masses must seek an alternative to channel their revolt. A critical step will be the formulation of a program that can inspire, unite and sustain the mass, rolling action necessary to bring the struggle against the regime to its revolutionary socialist conclusion, and the building of a mass party to embody it.

The recent ZCTU initiative to convene Labour Forums across the country could be developed with community and youth forums, to create platforms for discussions needed to take on this task. Zimbabwe’s crisis is also a crisis of revolutionary leadership; in place of truly independent organizations of the working class and poor, there is a vacuum. The MDC has shown again and again it has no way out. It had declared 2020 a year of mass protest — but yet again, they offer an empty program combined with “dialogue”, “power sharing” and a stamp of approval by the imperialist moneylenders as the end goals.

The dead-end of “free” Zimbabwe is the dead-end of capitalism. The various ideological covers for compromise with this sick, divisive, neo-colonial system — Social Democracy, radical nationalism, pan-Africanism, Stalinism and Maoism — as well as its neoliberal and state regulatory versions, have been tried and found wanting. A genuine socialist transformation — founded on organizing democratically to take control over the country’s vast resources, from the tiny elite of cronies and corporates to the dispossessed masses — is the chimurenga to which this generation needs to apply all the rich lessons of past struggles.

Further Reading

“Zimbabwe: ‘Two-Stage Theory’ on Trial”, by Jake Wilson, April 1981

Zimbabwe Perspectives, Marxist Workers’ Tendency, December 1986

Can Capitalism Develop Zimbabwe?, Izwi/Ilizwi, June 1990

“Mugabe Clings to Power”, by Weizmann Hamilton, July 2, 2003

“Mugabe Has Gone but His Regime Remains in Power”, by Weizmann Hamilton and Tinovimbanashe Gwenyaya, November 16, 2017

“Mugabe Dies”, by Leonard Chiwoniso Mhute, September 15, 2019

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