Zimbabwe: imperialism, hypocrisy and fake nationalism

Issue: 119

Leo Zeilig

One striking feature of Zimbabwe’s crisis has been the vocal support of the British and US governments for “democratic change”. In April, George Bush’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, undertook a whirlwind “democracy tour” to support Zimbabwe’s opposition. Global media outlets seemed to be counselling the opposition to organise a mass uprising in defence of the results, while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank promised to provide funds to an opposition-led government. Gordon Brown, who has, for years, been part of a government deporting Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) activists back to Zimbabwe, added his voice to calls for election results to be respected.

By contrast, South African president Thabo Mbeki divided his own African National Congress by standing beside Robert Mugabe’s regime and declaring that there was “no crisis in Zimbabwe”. The violence perpetrated by Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party, once it registered the scale of its defeat in March’s elections, was proclaimed to be in the name of anti-imperialism and independence. So on 18 April, the anniversary of independence, Mugabe called on Zimbabweans “to maintain utmost vigilance in the face of vicious British machinations and the machinations of our other detractors, who are allies of Britain”.1 By the middle of May at least 22 people had been killed, thousands made homeless and scores of activists beaten.2

Faced with the hypocrisy of Western governments, many have believed Zanu-PF’s claim to be defending the country’s sovereignty against imperialism. For others, the regime is the incarnation of evil, personified by the president. Amazon lists seven biographies of Mugabe written in the past six years; each promises to get to the “man behind the monster”.3 Neither of these explanations helps us understand what is happening in Zimbabwe.

The country’s crisis is tied inextricably to the nature of global power. As Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean activists and academic, has explained:

On the one hand there is a global superpower, espousing liberal democratic values, but policing a global economic agenda producing widespread global improverishment; on the other hand this system of global inequalities is breeding an authoritarian nationalism in countries like Zimbabwe.4

It is vital that socialists steer a path between the authoritarian nationalism of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Western imperialism that is seeking to pull Zimbabwe back into its orbit.

South Africa, SADC and the West

South Africa’s President Mbeki has been an important, if malevolent, factor in the crisis. His government has deported thousands of Zimbabweans. Those who remain, living in desperate poverty, are demonised by politicians and the media, and face violent attacks.5 Mbeki has sought to shield Zanu-PF from regional and international criticism, and refused to engage with the opposition.

Following a violent assault on the leadership of the opposition MDC on 11 March 2007 and a wave of repression across the country, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) launched a new initiative for a mediated solution to the Zimbabwean crisis. Mbeki was the official facilitator of this process. At emergency SADC meetings in April this year the regional organisation showed its true colours by congratulating “the SADC facilitator, President Mbeki…for the role they had played in helping to contribute to the successful holding of elections [in Zimbabwe]”.6 Still, the negotiations had certain important consequences for the elections. Parliamentary seats were increased from 120 to 210 and the results from individual polling stations were posted outside the station.

Many commentators argue that Mbeki’s support for Mugabe has been driven by his solidarity for another national liberation movement, but his principal motivations are quite different. Mbeki sees the crisis in Zimbabwe as a lever Western powers can use to reassert themselves over a former colony to the detriment of South Africa’s companies, which are already active in Zimbabwe, and its political influence.

Zimbabwe is a hive for regional and international capital. No sector illustrates this more than minerals. The country is home to the second greatest platinum reserves in the world—a centre of activity for the South African mining giant Impala. There are new mines developing in the Midlands province, and the London-based mining company Rio Tinto extracts diamonds among other minerals. But the development of this sector has been hindered by the economic crisis. Rio Tinto has seen the quantity of diamonds mined drop from 240,000 carats in 2006 to 145,000 in 2007. The company blames the erratic power supply and has recently started to import power directly from Mozambique. The mining corporations are desperate to see stability in Zimbabwe to secure their investments from both the possibility of nationalisation (recently threatened by Mugabe) and the current economic chaos.7

A new Zimbabwean government might be less dependent on Mbeki’s patronage, but South African companies would still benefit from a post-Mugabe settlement. Undoubtedly a new MDC-led government could see the intervention of the British and American governments, quickly followed by the IMF and the World Bank. This would certainly not signal the end of hardship for millions of Zimbabweans, though it would temporarily alleviate the crisis and open political debate for activists and their organisations.

The election

The election on 29 March 2008 seemed to open the way to a new future in Zimbabwe. Several days before the election some could see that the tables had turned on Mugabe and Zanu-PF. One opposition candidate wrote the day before the poll, “Everyone now seems to be happy to say to me ‘Mugabe must go’, which last elections everyone felt, but no one dared to say.” The opposition MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was going to make massive gains. Even before votes had been cast it was clear that “support is huge and varied. From everything I have seen…the MDC (Tsvangirai) is massively popular. The Mugabe Zanu-PF is massively unpopular”.8

However, even with the changes to the elections following the SADC mediation, few believed that an MDC victory was possible. Zanu-PF had turned Zimbabwe into a very uneven playing field. New repressive legislation was introduced in 2007 and Zimbabwe’s Socialist Worker commented in February this year that “the entire state machinery, including the media, is being mobilised to ensure a Zanu-PF victory… War veterans and chiefs will ensure that rural areas…remain no-go areas for the opposition. Thousands of rural families are receiving ploughs, carts, harrows”.9

Despite all this, parliamentary elections gave Tsvangirai’s MDC 99 seats compared to Zanu-PF’s 97; a breakaway faction of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara won ten seats and the former Zanu-PF minister Simba Makoni’s organisation won eight. This gave the combined opposition a majority in the 210-seat parliament.10 On 2 May the electoral commission was finally forced to concede that Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe in the presidential poll, even if, it claimed, he had not broken through the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.11 But these results conceal a far more remarkable truth.

There was an electoral revolution in rural areas. Ruling party strongholds, held since the first multiracial elections in 1980, fell for the first time to the opposition. While Tsvangirai’s MDC won most of their seats in urban areas, the party also triumphed in the previously Zanu-PF provinces of Manicaland and Masvingo. Mutambara, who broke with Tsvangirai, was routed by Tsvangarai’s MDC in the urban constituency of Zeneza in Harare. Welshman Ncube and Gibson Sibanda, respectively Mutambara’s secretary general and vice-president, were also defeated in the urban consistencies they contested in the southern city of Bulawayo.

Unlike in previous elections, there was no widespread campaign of violence and the MDC operated in a degree of openness. Rural areas had also been politicised by the crisis. Policies pursued by Zanu-PF backfired dramatically. The urban slum clearances of 2005, known as Operation Murambatsvina, had driven out informal traders and market stalls, often run by workers retrenched in the recent crisis who formed the backbone of MDC support. This helped create a rural class that campaigned for and supported the MDC in the countryside. New areas opened up to the opposition.

In the past the regime was able to shore up support with its land redistribution programme; now this was no longer possible. People who had been given plots of land lacked the resources to cultivate them, while the ruling party’s big supporters benefited from handouts. Willias Mudzimure, an MDC MP, explained that in rural areas Mugabe’s “pro-poor” bribes and “anti-imperialism” fell on deaf ears:

Mugabe’s land reform has been a catastrophe, so he couldn’t talk about that. Moreover, when he tried to win votes by giving out tractors and farm implements these just went to the fat-cats who now have the land… So he fell back into talking about the 1970s war against Ian Smith. This meant nothing at all to young people.

Mugabe then attempted to blame the British, but again no one was fooled:

People would say, ‘You’ve said that before but what are you doing about it?’ They were in no mood for more excuses.12

When the parliamentary results were announced the shock was palpable across the country. When the regime recovered, it refused to allow results from the presidential poll to be released. First, the government relocated the electoral commission office to a secret place; then, absurdly, the regime accused the commission of manipulating results in favour of the MDC. The ruling party even demanded a run-off for the presidential elections before the results of the first round were known. As Nelson Chamisa, a spokesperson for the MDC, explained, this was the equivalent of a student requesting a re-mark of an examination when the results had not been announced.13

Zimbabwe’s ruling class was more divided then at any time in recent years. However, once Zanu-PF had recovered from the surprise defeat, repression against the opposition quickened. Many of the political forces that the government had developed to defend the regime were resuscitated. War veterans—a category of ex-fighters in the 1970s guerrilla war, though frequently with few actual former combatants—were used to make high-profile seizures of some of the remaining white farms. But the worst attacks were not carried out against the dwindling class of white landowners—MDC activists and supporters were the main targets. Zanu-PF youth were also used in the wave of repression.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project reported beatings and torture against suspected opposition supporters in Mashonaland East and Mashonaland West, previously ruling party strongholds. “Bases of torture” were established in one constituency. Elsewhere war veterans drew up “lists of MDC activists who are then systematically targeted for abuse”.14 In Mashonaland West one MDC election agent and three activists were forced in flee into the mountains after receiving threats of violence. Members of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights recorded 157 cases of injury from organised violence and torture between the election on 29 March and 14 April, a fraction of the actual level. Violence increased again in the following weeks. The UN reported at the end of April that politically motivated arson had destroyed almost 300 homes. Both electoral commission and MDC polling officers were arrested.15 The opposition reported that at least ten of their supporters had been killed.16 The political space that had opened temporarily during the election campaign in March was shut down.

The MDC’s response

The MDC had added up the results posted outside polling stations and declared itself victor of both the parliamentary and presidential vote. According to the party’s own calculations, Tsvangirai won 50.3 percent in the presidential poll compared to Mugabe’s 43.8 percent. This was enough to avoid a second round run-off. Tsvangirai and his secretary general, Tendai Beti, gave dozens of interviews to the international media declaring that the MDC was now the constitutionally elected government. But still the party advised caution. Tsvangirai urged “people to remain calm…we would rather caution against opportunistic reaction…at the end of the day they should wait…until the results are known”.17 If decisive leadership was needed then the “people” would be sorely disappointed.

The MDC contested the results in the high court, which rejected the opposition’s bid to compel the release of the presidential election results. The MDC delegation to the extraordinary SADC summit of heads of state, called to discuss the Zimbabwe crisis, was also frustrated. The cautious MDC strategy also infected their call for a stayaway (a one-day general strike) on 15 April, which was issued with scant regard to grassroots mobilisation and organisation. The stayaway was news internationally but not in Zimbabwe. MDC supporters in the capital, Harare, were reported on the BBC as saying they “did not even know about this stayaway”.18

As the regime tightened repression the MDC called for international intervention: “Outsiders should come and intervene to try to persuade this regime it has no legitimacy”.19 The window, when action could have been escalated, had now been closed. Zanu-PF unleashed its repressive apparatus in a bid to hang on to power.

The role of the military

There was a moment when Zanu-PF seemed to have accepted defeat. According to Tsvangirai, the day after the elections the ruling party sent an emissary to see him. The emissary explained that they had been trying to persuade Mugabe to go. “Mugabe has accepted,” Tsvangirai was told. “Now the question is how you can accommodate us.” But the hawks in the military refused to accept a transfer of power.20

Zimbabwe’s military has played a vital role in the country since independence. In the recent crisis leading military figures have maintained an iron grip on power. The six commanders of the security services—chiefs of the defence force, the army, the air force, the commissioners of police and prison services, and the head of the national intelligence organisation—are members of the joint operational command (JOC) and are widely recognised as the prime movers behind Mugabe’s throne.

Take two figures from the JOC. Air Marshal Perence Shiri commanded the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade in the 1980s, which stands accused of the massacre of 20,000 so-called “terrorists” in Matabeleland. The defence force chief, Constantine Chiwenga, has been a major player in recent repression, rolling out youth militias, soldiers and war veterans to terrorise opposition supporters after the last election. Chiwenga has also enriched himself on the recent economic collapse, amassing a personal fortune and ensuring that his wife secures defence force supply contracts.

After the elections Mugabe offers less to the heads of the military. Previously he had been able to guarantee a degree of political support in the country. The elections showed that this has substantially evaporated. While Mugabe no longer ensures political cohesion, the JOC still have their guns. Mugabe now leads a divided ruling party and has been humbled in front of his commanders. Jonathan Moyo, a former Zanu-PF loyalist, explained on 29 April that the generals “can see that the political ship is sinking…because it no longer has a captain”.21

Economic meltdown

Zimbabwe was once regarded as an exception in a continent of so-called failed states and bad governance. But since the late 1990s Zimbabwe’s economy has been in free fall. From 2000 to 2005 the economy contracted by more than 40 percent. Today GDP per capita is estimated to be the same as it was in 1953. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world, soaring to 165,000 percent in February. There are regular shortages of basic goods, from food to fuel. At the beginning of 2007 the IMF calculated that 80 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe stated in September 2007 that the people needed a minimum of Z$22 million a month to survive, far above the income of most Zimbabweans. Schools have collapsed, major hospitals suffer from basic shortages and unemployment is estimated at about 80 percent.22

While much of the economic crisis has been triggered by the land seizures, this explanation, favoured by the media commentators and IMF economists, gives only a fraction of the picture. Zimbabwe has been squeezed by the implementation of direct and indirect sanctions by Western countries. An international legislative structure has forced the pace of this strangulation; this has included the US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which immediately cut access to international credit for the state and Zimbabwean companies. The reduction in aid and investment means that the country is now the recipient of less than $10 for every HIV-infected person, compared to the regional average of $100. As international funds have dried up the state has been largely incapacitated, with welfare provision now, often in the form of food aid, being provided by international agencies and NGOs.23

In the face of the economic collapse, the regime has been unable to sustain its attempts to capture support through a limited programme of reforms. Early this decade Zanu-PF introduced price controls on basic commodities but was forced to suspend them as massive shortages hit most shops. Since then the regime has swung wildly backwards and forwards between price controls and leaving the market to decide. Though land reform in Zimbabwe was celebrated across much of Africa as a historical retribution for colonial inequality, this was also a failure. In 2002 Zanu-PF stated that it intended to seize 8.5 million hectares of land before the presidential elections that year, the majority of land owned by white farmers. They succeeded in doing this only by 2003, as the pace of land seizures and occupations came to an end.24 Although the regime could provoke high-profile land seizures, most of the large farms went to the fat-cats. Even for those Zimbabweans who were granted small parcels of the seized land, the regime did not have the resources to provide them with the training and equipment so that they could profitably cultivate their holdings.

Caught in a global economic vice, the regime resorted to what it had always done. Land and business contracts were distributed to cronies while Mugabe mouthed platitudes about “foreign powers”. Zanu-PF relied increasingly on violence, as each reform was snatched back under pressure from the economic crisis. The regime’s authoritarian neoliberalism has continued unabated, albeit chaotically, for years. For the past four years Zimbabwe’s reserve bank governor Gideon Gono has pursued a haphazard programme of cuts in subsidies, privatisation and debt repayment.25

But even the regime’s capacity to maintain its repression has suffered in the economic meltdown. Though politicians and security chiefs have remained insulated from hardship, with access to foreign currency and subsidised fuel, ordinary forces have not. While there is a statutory requirement to provide food rations to defence personnel, agricultural collapse has restricted the state’s ability to do this. Soldiers lack new uniforms and the police are unable to carry out their routine patrols because of the lack of transport.

Zimbabweans have managed to survive hyperinflation largely through remittances from those who have managed to flee. The International Organisation for Migration reported in 2007 that approximately 3.4 million Zimbabweans have left the country since 2000. Most eke out an existence in the informal sector across the border in South Africa, but hundreds of thousands live in Britain. Some 74 percent of these Zimbabweans send money back home. These remittances come in direct transfers, through Western Union type cash-transfer companies. But more innovative methods have developed in recent years using websites and text messaging to turn cash into a tank of petrol, medication or a sack of mealie-meal (the staple food). One study in 2008 claimed that half of all households received overseas payments to pay for essential goods. Those households that did not were unable to cope.26

Zimbabwe’s intifada

Zimbabwe’s biennio rosso of 1996-8 saw a two-year revolt by students and workers. Strikes by nurses, teachers, civil servants and builders rippled across the country. In January 1998 housewives orchestrated a “bread riot” that became an uprising of the poor living in Harare’s township.

The protests, strikes and campaigns were often explicitly against the government’s programmes of structural adjustment. The first of these was introduced in 1991 as the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), and was sponsored and advocated by the World Bank and IMF. The second, nicknamed ESAP II, was introduced in 1996. Factories closed, workers were laid off, and state funding to the national university and students was slashed.

Inspired by the largely urban movement the rural poor, veterans of the war for independence, started to invade white-owned farms. Initially the regime evicted the “squatters” and arrested the movement’s leaders. In June 1998 the University of Zimbabwe in Harare was closed for five months and students started to demand that the opposition forces be organised into a national political party—a workers’ party. Students organised protests, marching with workers. The revolt in Indonesia in 1998 against Suharto inspired those protesting in the streets.

These years of popular mobilisation and political debate were described by one activist as a “sort of revolution”. Eventually the revolt gave way to the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change in September 1999. The new party was formed by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. At this point the MDC was resolutely pro-poor, formed by the working class and for them. As Job Sikhala, a founding member, explained, “It was basically a party of the poor with a few middle class”.27 For many of those who had been involved in the exuberant protests that had rocked Zimbabwe, and who saw a parallel between the revolution in Indonesia and the protests in Zimbabwe, the new party would bring about a radical—and even socialist—transformation.

As the opposition movement grew, Zanu-PF started to worry. From being a government lauded by Western leaders, its leader dined by the queen, the regime made a “left turn” in an attempt to outflank the new party. War veterans, excluded for years from the independence settlement, were encouraged to invade white farms and were famously paid off through the War Veteran Levy in 1997. Now Mugabe talked of the third Chimerenga (anti-colonial uprising) and boasted about correcting a historical wrong by redistributing the land to the poor. Outside Zimbabwe thousands believed his claims and saw him as a genuine pan-Africanist. Inside the country the regime continued to arrest and torture workers and students.

Other political forces began to flock to the MDC. It was now seen by respectable NGOs, some white farmers and the middle classes as a force that could appease foreign interests and replace Zanu-PF with a government that respected property rights and business interests. So, under the influence of these groups, the MDC did not attack the hypocrisy of the regime but instead allied itself to those whose farms had been seized and who saw a continuation of structural adjustment as the solution to Zimbabwe’s woes.

Zanu-PF strikes back

Zanu-PF’s hallmark is violence. There has always been a remarkable degree of continuity, with pre- and post-election violence since independence in Zimbabwe. This violence, often justified as legitimate punishment against those audacious enough to vote for the opposition, has also frequently been instigated by a politicised Zanu-PF youth movement.28

The period from February 2000, when the government lost a vote on a new constitution, and the first elections contested by the MDC in June that year was marked by a rapid escalation of violence. The MDC almost won the election in 2000, gaining 57 seats against a backdrop of escalating violence. The regime maintained its pressure on the opposition in subsequent years. Along with the regime’s politicisation of the war veterans it launched the National Youth Service (NYS). In 2001 the first NYS camp was opened, named after the government minister who initiated the training, Border Gezi. One graduate described the courses as “a combination of things but mainly Marxism, socialism and business management”.29 This expressed Zanu-PF’s schizophrenic mix of state capitalism and neoliberalism, set against a background of economic crisis. By 2006 the NYS had opened eight training centres. In the first five years of the NYS more than 40,000 youths had completed training programmes.30

By 2003 the regime seemed to have gained the upper hand. Zanu-PF increasingly sold itself internationally and at home as the true inheritors of the liberation movement. The MDC, by contrast, seemed cowed and unable to mount a serious resistance, either politically or on the streets. One decisive moment was in June 2003. The so-called “final push” on 2 June was launched by the MDC and meant to turn the tables on the regime with a week-long stayaway and a march on Mugabe’s State House. No serious efforts were made to mobilise the available forces, leaving only students in Harare to organise a protest that was violently crushed. The week gave the MDC neither its international media coup nor mass action. The government scored another victory against the opposition and emerged stronger.

Zimbabwean activism began to suffer from “donor syndrome”, as foreign funded NGOs increasingly filled the political vacuum that had been left by the failure of the opposition and the collapse in the economy. Zimbabwean-based organisations saw a massive inflow of funds. This distorted grassroots activism, leading to what has been described as the “commodification of resistance” as mobilisation is increasingly “paid for” from NGO funds.31

In parliamentary elections in 2005, also widely believed to have been rigged, the MDC lost 16 seats to Zanu-PF, which secured the necessary two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally change the constitution. Though the opposition had faced years of violent intimidation, the MDC was also by this stage hopelessly divided by a regime that had succeeded in outmanoeuvring it. The MDC became a contested space, with voices and groups criticising the direction of the leadership.

Munyaradzi Gwisai, a Zimbabwean socialist who was at one time inside the MDC, drew attention to the mistakes being made by the party’s leadership, criticising the “hijacking of the party by the bourgeoisie, marginalisation of workers, adoption of neoliberal positions and cowardly failure to physically confront the Mugabe regime and bosses. It is…-imperative that the party moves much more leftward…in order to realign to its base”.32 But it was not only socialists who criticised the opposition. In 2003 one loyal MP, Job Sikhala, explained how the party core had become “really fat and thick…it is almost a party of the rich. You cannot look at a person who was with you during the foundation of the MDC as the person who is there now”.33 The disarray in the MDC eventually led to the party splitting in 2005, with one faction now being led by Arthur Mutambara, who had been an important student activist in the late 1980s and returned to Zimbabwe after an academic career in the US.34

Although important efforts were made to mount opposition to the ruling party after 2003, increasingly these did not come from the MDC. New organisations attempted to fill the vacuum. Women of Zimbabwe Arise is an activist organisation that led some of the most important protests in recent years, often on issues of violence against women. The Zimbabwe Social Forum, formed in 2002, became an alternative space for political discussion and a forum that attempted to group together those who sought to resist the regime. These organisations never became alternatives to the MDC, or attracted mass support; rather they can be seen as occupying a space that emerged only after the real movements of workers and students that had led to the formation of the MDC at the end of the last century were in retreat.

Contradictions of the MDC

The MDC has long been a curious paradox. As the election results proved, the party maintained, and has even increased, mass support among poor and working class Zimbabweans in conditions of astonishing hardship. But the MDC has also flirted with the organisations of imperialism and has been avowedly neoliberal in its policies. The party is advised by the International Republican Institute and Cato Institute. In April international media reported that an MDC government would immediately access $2 billion each year in “aid and development”, which Patrick Bond describes as “top-heavy with foreign debt and chock-full of conditions”.35

The party emerged out of the great upheavals that shook the country in the late 1990s. These protests were themselves a product of the failures of independence and the government’s implementation of two structural adjustment programmes.

But these protest movements took place in the aftermath of the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia, and with them the ideological moorings for a generation of trade union bureaucrats and activists. To many it seemed that the set of ideas that championed economic adjustment and so-called democratisation—the Washington Consensus—had triumphed.

Paradoxically the continent was exploding in protests. Across Africa in the early 1990s protest movements developed at an astonishing speed. While there had been approximately 20 annual incidents of political unrest in the 1980s, in 1991 there were 86 protest movements across 30 countries. Between 1990 and 1994 a total of 35 regimes had been overthrown by protest movements, often led by opposition coalitions with a trade union leadership. In many cases free elections were held for the first time in a generation.36

As in Zimbabwe, protests and new political parties were born out of anger at structural adjustment programmes. By the early 1990s this economic devastation had left Africans consuming 25 percent less, and their governments spending a much smaller amount on education and social services than at any time since independence.37

However, the emerging opposition movements lacked a political alternative to structural adjustment. They often used the word “change” as their slogan—it became the rallying cry in Zimbabwe and Senegal (“chinja” and “sopi” respectively). But once the new movements became new governments, economic adjustment resumed. Many of those who had been active in the movements that swept the continent became disillusioned as governments that had emerged from the “transition” committed themselves to IMF and World Bank programmes.

The MDC is an expression of the revolt against structural adjustment programmes carried out by Zanu-PF. It was formed directly by the labour movement and supported by students who appealed openly to the trade union bureaucracy for a party to confront Zanu-PF. The MDC’s core support came from the urban working class in the main cities of Harare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo. But the MDC also attracted a middle class group representing local and international business interests, who quickly gathered round the leadership of the party. As early as the parliamentary elections in 2000 workers made up only 15 percent of candidates.

Why did the party become politically dominated by groups of the middle class that gathered in its ranks? Some of the answer lies in the weakness of an alternative vision that could have argued inside the new party against the reorientation towards neoliberalism. Socialists were active in the MDC, as they were in similar organisations in other countries across the continent, but their voices were marginal. Though the mass struggles of 1996-8 showed the potential power of the working class, the protests, strikes and movements remained controlled by the trade union bureaucracy.

The MDC was an important step forward. After all, here was an organisation that was the product of the mass struggles of the Zimbabwean working class. Although the party, now openly “Brownite” in its politics, has travelled a long way from its founding purpose, it is still the crucial repository of the hopes of millions of Zimbabweans battered by the crisis. In fact the party’s support base has actually grown substantially in recent years. This article has suggested that there are two important factors that have contributed to this. The first is the mass expulsions following the “slum clearances” in 2005, uprooting MDC supporters to rural areas and swelling the party’s rural constituency. Second, the assault on the MDC leadership of 11 March 2007 meant that they again became the symbol of resistance to Zanu-PF.

But we should not minimise the problems the MDC has posed for activists in Zimbabwe. In the early years of this century the MDC seemed unwilling to take on Mugabe. The organisation has been characterised by confusing vacillations, calling mass action then retreating from it, seeking to align itself with right wing policies and accepting shoddy compromises with the regime. In the political space that was left, new forces played a temporary role. These groups often sought to substitute themselves for the failures of the MDC and even replace the organisation entirely. In February a national People’s Convention was held in Harare with over 3,000 delegates. Some saw the initiative as a first step in building an alternative to the MDC in a “united and democratic front of all movements of the commons”.38

But despite the compromises and vacillations the MDC rose again. It proved impossible to appeal for another “united front”, purer and less compromised, when millions were looking in increasing numbers to the MDC as the only alternative capable of removing Zanu-PF. Radical forces in Zimbabwe must relate to and organise with the MDC, but this does not mean quiet acquiescence to the politics of the organisation. A vocal and powerful radical minority in Zimbabwe has impressively kept alive the hope for genuine political transformation in the face of state repression and a disorientated opposition. This minority needs to work to recruit MDC activists to its ideas and organisations, while bringing pressure to bear on the party’s leadership.

The election results expressed clearly the role the MDC has always played: both expressing and holding back mass struggles against the Mugabe regime. The party continues to act as a beacon to the poor.

The MDC is not an instrument of Western imperialism, even if it is funded by groups that are sympathetic to that power. But we can confidently predict that there will be attempts by Washington and London to co-opt it, should it come to power. The MDC is not a homogenous and wholly neoliberal organisation. The party’s very contradictions make it porous and responsive to both struggle and critical debate. This presents socialists with potentially exciting possibilities.39 Though real transformation will not come with an MDC government, the political alternative that the MDC momentarily became in 1999 can only be built within the mass ranks of MDC supporters and voters.


A run-off presidential election had been promised, against a background of increased repressions and rumours of deals and coups, as this journal went to press. Defeat of Mugabe and Zanu-PF would be reason for great celebration, not only by those who have suffered so much at the hands of the regime, but also by activists and socialists across the world. The political space created by a new government would give radical forces new opportunities to resist the encroachment of Western governments, international corporations and the IMF and World Bank. This political alternative, already with important advocates in Zimbabwe, must be based on the extraordinary power of the region’s working class.

On 16 April news spread around the world of the arrival of a Chinese cargo ship, the An Yue Jiang, owned by China’s state shipping company, in the major container port in Durban, South Africa. The ship included three million rounds of ammunition and 1,500 rockets bound for Zimbabwe, two days drive from the port. The South African government explained to the world that there was nothing they could do: this was a legal transfer of cargo that had already been paid for by a neighbouring sovereign state. The problem was that the sovereign state of Zimbabwe was busy stealing an election and crushing the opposition. The South Africa Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) refused to be browbeaten by claims of legality. The union refused to unload the ship, while Satawu truckers said that they would not transport the cargo by road. The ship was paralysed in “outer anchorage” in “off-port limits”.40 Within a few days trade unions with members in ports near Zimbabwe followed suit: Mozambique and Namibia also refused to unload the weapons. The ship was forced to sail to Angola, where dock workers “maintained a watch” to ensure that the 77 tons of weapons were not unloaded.41

Socialists argued that Zimbabwe’s opposition had to turn away from the sham talks led by South Africa’s President Mbeki. These yielded nothing but a breathing space for the regime in Harare. The solidarity shown by the trade union movement in Southern Africa tantalises us with the prospect of an alternative in the mass action of the regional working class. These are not abstract dreams, but real and pressing possibilities. If socialists were able to forge a link between these ideas and the Southern African working class, both the Mugabe dictatorship, and the agenda of structural adjustment and neoliberalism across the region could be flushed away. But this politics needs to be organised, argued and built for. In Zimbabwe this must take place among those who have voted massively for the MDC.


1: “Mugabe Attacks Opposition And UK”, BBC News, 18 April 2008.

2: “Zimbabwe Violence Reaches Crisis Levels”, Amnesty International, 16 May 2008.

3: The most recent biography is Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe: The Man Behind the Monster.

4: Cited in Kibble, 2003.

5: In May 2008 there were attacks against “foreigners” in some of South Africa’s poorest townships.

6: “2008 First Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government”, SADC communique, 13 April 2008. Negotiations in the run-up to the elections did see the MDC accept the principle of a “transitional government”, which would include an honourable departure for Mugabe and power sharing with members of Zanu-PF.

7: “Output At Rio Tinto Zimbabwe Diamond Mine Down Forty Percent”, Reuters, 27 February 2008.

8: Michael Laban, “Zim Fight On”, 28 March 2008.

9: “Crisis In Zimbabwe: No To Fake Elections! Jambanja Ndizvo!”, Socialist Worker (Zimbabwe), February 2008.

10: The combined opposition also triumphed in the senate elections, where Tsvangirai’s MDC won 24 seats, Zanu-PF 30 and Mutambara’s faction of the MDC six.

11: The official results gave Tsvangirai 47.9 percent of the popular vote and Mugabe 43.2 percent.

12: Cited in Johnson, 2008.

13: “Velvet-glove Inaction Will Have Dire Results”, Sunday Independent (South Africa), 13 April 2008.

14: “Zimbabwe Behind New Wave Of Human Rights Abuses”, Human Rights Watch, 30 April 2008.

15: “UN Experts Concerned About Deteriorating Human Rights Situation In Zimbabwe”, United Nations Office at Geneva, 29 April 2008.

16: “Zimbabwe Police Raid Opposition Elections Office”, Associated Press, 25 April 2008.

17: “Hot Seat Interview”, SW Radio Africa transcript, 11 April 2008.

18: “Zimbabwe Opposition Strike Fails”, BBC News, 15 April 2008.

19: “Hot Seat Interview”, SW Radio Africa transcript, 11 April 2008.

20: “Outrage And Consequence In The Twilight Of A Tyrant”, Business Day (South Africa), 30 April 2008.

21: “Consistency Is The Virtue Of A Donkey”, City Press (South Africa), 26 April 2008.

22: Chagonda, 2007.

23: “Only Mass Mobilisation Can Defeat The Dictatorship And Stop A Neoliberal Elitist Deal”, Socialist Worker (Zimbabwe), April-May 2008.

24: Zeilig, 2007, p299.

25: He made a large payment to the IMF in 2005 and recently repayed some of the country’s loan to the African Development Bank. “Zimbabwe Settles $700 ADB Loan”, Business Daily (South Africa), 17 May 2008.

26: Bracking and Sachikonye, 2008.

27: Interview, Harare, 31 July 2003.

28: Kriger, 2005, p2.

29: Interview, Chegutu, 10-12 June 2003.

30: Shumba, 2006, p1.

31: Interview, Bulawayo, 22 May 2003.

32: Cited in Zeilig, 2007, p160.

33: Interview, Harare, 31 July 2003.

34: Readers of International Socialism will also be interested to note that Mutambara was briefly in Britain and considered himself a fellow traveller of the Socialist Workers Party, speaking at the Marxism event in the early 1990s and attending Oxford meetings of the party. An important layer of the current leaders of the MDC, especially many ex-students, have their roots in the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe. This includes secretary general Tendai Beti and spokesperson Nelson Chamisa.

35: Bond, 2008.

36: Seddon and Zeilig, 2005, p14.

37: See the Africa Research Bulletin, volume 37, number 9.

38: “Crisis In Zimbabwe: No To Fake Elections! Jambanja Ndizvo!”, Socialist Worker (Zimbabwe), February 2008.

39: One recent and graphic example of this was the invitation the International Socialists Organisation received to train MDC activists in the party’s cadre school!

40: “Union Refuses To Unload Arms Ship”, Sapa, 17 April 2008.

41: “Arms Ship Leaves Angola”, iafrica.com, 7 May 2008.


Bond, Patrick, 2008, “Vultures Circle Zimbabwe”, Counterpunch, 5-6 April 2008, www.counterpunch.org/bond04052008.html

Bracking, Sarah, and Lloyd Sachikonya, 2008, “Remittances, Poverty Reduction and Informalisation in Zimbabwe 2005-6: A Political Economy of Dispossession?”, Brooks World Poverty Institute (University of Manchester).

Chagonda, Tapiwa, 2007, “The Response of the Working Class in Harare to the Economic Crisis, 1997-2007”, University of Johannesburg, department of sociology, seminar series, www.uj.ac.za/2007series/tabid/5994/Default.aspx

Johnson, R W, 2008, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, London Review of Books, 8 May 2008,

Kriger, Norma, 2005, “Zanu-PF Strategies in the General Elections, 1980-2000: Discourse and Coercion”, African Affairs, volume 104, number 414.

Seddon, David, and Leo Zeilig, 2005, “Class and Protest in Africa: New Waves”, Review of African Political Economy, volume 31, number 103.

Shumba, R, 2006, “Constructing a Social Identity: The National Youth Service of Zimbabwe”, MA dissertation, University of Johannesburg.

Zeilig, Leo, 2007, Revolt and Protest: Student Politics and Activism in subSaharan Africa (Tauris).