Zimbabwe - The working class' resistance to Mugabe's regime

Oct/Nov 1996

Two decades or so ago, Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia as it was still called at the time) used to be the subject of regular coverage and headlines in the British media, as the last of Britain's colonies in Africa to go through the process of decolonisation.

In the 1960s, the British bourgeoisie withdrew from its African colonies, handing over political power to regimes led by tested representatives of the local bourgeoisies whose loyalty to the interests of London shareholders could be relied on. By the mid-1960s, the transition to independence had been completed successfully in every former African British colonies - except for one, Rhodesia. In 1965, in reaction to the decolonisation process, a white-supremacist regime under the leadership of Ian Smith took political power on behalf of the tiny minority of white settlers who made up about 3% of the population, and issued its famous unilateral declaration of independence, or UDI as it was referred to at the time.

Officially, Smith's homegrown brand of apartheid was the target of international economic sanctions, involving dozens of British warships and 24,000 British soldiers just to control the Mozambique coast through which Smith could have received supplies. But in practice his regime enjoyed powerful behind-the-scenes support, including that of Harold Wilson's Labour government who allowed the British state-owned company BP to supply Rhodesia with the petrol it desperately needed. Meanwhile, over the first ten years of Smith's regime, the total accumulated investment by Western multinationals held in Rhodesia increased by 38%, while manufacturing production - which was mostly controlled by the same multinationals - increased by 94%. Some sanctions!

In the end Smith was unable to contain the insurgency of the African nationalist guerillas and a political settlement was forced on him by the imperialist powers. In 1979, Thatcher presided over what came to be known as the Lancaster House agreement and, the following year, over the handover of power to a compromise government dominated by the largest nationalist guerilla force, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Under the leadership of ZANU's strong man, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's "road to socialism" was then declared "open".

After this, Zimbabwe mostly disappeared from the horizon - at least that of the British media. But not that of British capital - which still retains the lion's share of the spoils from the very profitable capitalist plunder of the country. Indeed, with a territory 50% larger than that of Britain, a population of just over 11m people and huge natural resources, Zimbabwe is the second largest manufacturing economy, next to South Africa, in sub-Saharan Africa.

But Zimbabwe is also, today, one of the few African countries in which the social and economic fabric is still resisting, although less and less so, the destructive effect that imperialist plunder has had throughout the continent over the past decade. This resistance owes nothing to the alleged "socialism" of Mugabe's regime, which has proved to be, like so many others, a mere front for the parasitic exploitation of the country by the emerging African bourgeoisie. Probably more than anything else, this resistance reflects the determination of the country's working class which has waged an almost continuous fight against the profiteers and their sham "socialism" ever since 1980.

The first civil service strike ever, and a success

he latest development in this struggle went almost totally unnoticed by the British media. At the end of August this year, Zimbabwe's civil service workers staged their first general strike ever. For 16 days, the country's entire administration, the hospitals, airports, cemeteries, etc.. were completely paralysed.

Apart from its practical impact, the social weight of this strike was considerable, involving over 150,000 strikers across the country - for a strike to carry a similar weight in Britain relative to the population, it would have to have involved nearly one million workers! What is more, from beginning to end the strike was illegal, since under Mugabe's Labour Relations Act, it is practically impossible to strike within the law, particularly in the civil and public services, or any so-called "essential services" for that matter. And although the strikers did not achieve the total victory they were hoping for, they did force Mugabe's regime into a hasty and humiliating retreat.

What seems to have triggered the strike was the announcement by the government that wages in the civil service were to be increased by only 6 to 9%. Inflation in Zimbabwe has been running at over 25% a year ever since 1991, with a peak of 42% in 1992. Over the past years civil service wages have been a convenient target for savings on government expenditure, to the point where, today, with an average £60/month, civil servants earn just over a third of the wages earned by their opposite numbers in comparable private sector jobs. This announcement, coming after many unfulfilled promises, including one made last year of a 60% wage increase staggered over three years, turned out to be the last straw.

The initial reaction of anger came, on 19 August, when workers at Harare's general hospital walked out immediately after the announcement. Thereafter, within a day or so, the strike spread like wildfire across the country.

Whether this was the result of a coordinated effort by activists or not, we do not know. But in any case, the union machineries - particularly the bureaucratic machinery of the dominant Zimbabwe Council of Trade Unions (ZCTU) - seem to have had nothing to do with initiating the strike nor with spreading it. And their subsequent attitude has ranged from lukewarm support at first to outright sabotage by the end.

In fact, under Mugabe's restrictive labour legislation, civil service workers have been prevented from forming or joining national unions since the beginning of the 1990s. The only organisations they can join legally are professional associations which have no bargaining rights and very limited representation rights. This situation has been a long- standing handicap for civil service workers who were thus deprived of any mechanism to coordinate their demands and fights. Ironically, the recent strike has led government officials to complain about the "unruliness" of the strikers and regret the lack of a "responsible" apparatus capable of representing and more importantly, controlling the strikers! Already a number of embryonic unregistered unions are trying to step into the vacuum, with some saying quite openly to the government that they are prepared to bring some order into the civil service. Paradoxical as it may seem, the government may well end up granting civil service workers some kind of trade union rights in the hope of preventing any recurrence of such a strike in the future!

The initial response of the government to the strikers was summarised by a statement made to the press by Mugabe himself, in the early days of the strike: "We don't take kindly to illegal strikes. Already the civil service is too large and this might be the opportunity for us to reduce it". This cynical statement was immediately followed by an ultimatum issued to the strikers on TV by the labour minister Florence Chitauro, saying that all workers not returning to work by 23 August would automatically be sacked. And under Mugabe's brand of "socialism", this is not an empty threat. Such practices against strikers, which go back all the way to Smith's days, have been standard practice under Mugabe for a long time.

By that time, however, the strikers had already settled into their dispute. In the capital, Harare, thousands of them were meeting every day in downtown Africa Unity Square, to discuss the strike. The initial heavy harassment of the strikers by the police having failed to stop them from gathering, the government had given up, rather than risk having such large numbers starting one of the sudden riots which are common these days in Harare. Such daily meetings, which were taking place in all the large towns, must have given the strikers a sense of their strength and reinforced their determination. Besides, by then they had a common objective - a 60% wage rise, i.e. the immediate implementation of the promise made by the government in 1995 - although this was immediately reformulated by the spokesmen of the civil service associations to be an increase of between 30 and 60%, allegedly in order to "leave them some space for bargaining".

In any case, the government's threats were met with anger and contempt. On 23 August, the strike was as solid as before, while the government was sending out some 7,000 sacking notices. To no avail. On the contrary, feelings were beginning to rise even more, and not just among the strikers themselves. Attempts by the government at accusing the civil service workers of "selfishness", of counterposing their alleged "laziness" to the hardworking rural farmhands, etc.. seemed to be backfiring, attracting an increasing flow of condemnation against the "fat cats" in government and in the ZANU hierarchy. The discontent was so vocal throughout the country that even the heavily ZANU-dominated parliament felt it necessary to pass a motion voicing its sympathy for the poor conditions in the civil service. And the ZCTU leadership, apparently worried by the way the situation was developing, felt obliged to threaten Mugabe with a general strike call should he refuse to open "constructive negotiations". The strike was increasingly taking the appearance of an open challenge to Mugabe's regime - something which Mugabe himself must have been especially worried about, given the abysmal 31% turnout he had achieved in the March presidential election.

Suddenly, on 30th August, the government made a U-turn. Chitauro came back on TV, this time to say that it had all been a "terrible misunderstanding", that after checking her files she had indeed found that the strikers were due for an additional increase of 20% for 1996, and that this was going to be added immediately to the figure originally announced. At Harare's Africa Unity Square, the strikers were quick to point out that this still left out the 20% that should have been awarded the previous year. But, not only that, to the Civil Service Associations and ZCTU spokesmen who were advising them to return to work, they retorted with anger that there had been no mention of the sackings and that everyone would return to work together or no-one.

Not only was the strike carrying on, but the strikers were now talking about giving it an entirely new profile. Thus one of the proposals which won unanimous support in one of Harare's daily mass meetings was that the strikers should take over the presses of the ZCTU monthly, "The Worker", and turn it into their own daily paper.

Faced with the still growing momentum of the strike, it took just another four days before the government backed down, withdrawing the sacking notices issued and pledging on TV that there would be no victimisation. But, added Chitauro, this was on condition that the strikers returned to work the next day, 4 September. But even that was a failure. The mass meetings were held on that day just as before. Union and association leaders, by then desperate to get the strikers back to work, were booed and the meetings decided to make a point of returning to work a day late, to stress that they were not bowing to yet more blackmail.

Thus ended the first civil service strike ever in Zimbabwe. The way in which the strikers finally decided to return to work seems to indicate that there was still a certain will to fight among them. So does the fact that the ZCTU only managed to get the strikers to end the strike by issuing an ultimatum to the government, threatening a general strike should it fail to open negotiations on a 7-point claim - which includes a 40-hour week and the extension to the civil service of all the labour laws currently applicable to the private sector - by September 27. Whether the ZCTU bureaucrats will deliver is another question. But then, haven't workers found a way to do without them?

Mugabe's compromise with imperialism

Mugabe's anti-working class stance is nothing new. Back in the days of the guerilla war against Smith's regime, the fact that Mugabe used a "socialist" language never concealed his narrow nationalist outlook. Having chosen to seek support from the Chinese regime, the kind of "socialism" advocated by Beijing fitted his aims perfectly in that it was aimed at mobilising the support of the masses to build a national state and economy capable of ensuring a privileged position for the country's middle-class. This had nothing to do, of course, with the socialist programme.

But once Mugabe came to power, in 1980, the radicalism suggested by his socialist rhetoric disappeared instantly when the full implications of the Lancaster House agreement became clear.

In the non-racial election which followed, in February 1980, Mugabe's ZANU won a sweeping victory, with 62% of the vote on a 94% turnout. ZANU secured 57 seats against 20 to its rival, Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), out of the total 80 seats. But next to these 80 new African MPs were also 20 white politicians who had been elected on a whites-only register. Among them was Ian Smith himself and many of his closest associates, all of whom had been directly involved in the massacres and torture of the previous seven-year war against the insurgent guerilla forces. A few days later, when the composition of Mugabe's first government became known, the finance minister turned out to be David Smith (who already had held this post under the racialist regime) while the minister of agriculture was Dennis Norman, the leader of the rich white farmers' organisation! In 1987, Mugabe ended these constitutional allowances to the white minority, but.. in his own way, replacing the MPs elected on a whites-only register with MPs appointed by Mugabe himself!

Behind the black faces in the new government and parliament, the same state machinery remained in place, the same vested interests and the same exploiters. Mugabe's alleged "radicalism" had come down to trading the interests of the poor masses who had provided him with soldiers and supplies for years and had been tortured or killed for this, for a post of prime minister for himself and a host of well-paid positions in the government machinery for the nationalist hierarchy.

Thus, under the agreement, the central core of the country's army was to remain Smith's racist army. The guerilla soldiers who had been ordered to attend 14 assembly points scattered across the country before the election, were meant to be integrated eventually into the army. In fact, even this was never entirely implemented and the most radical elements were carefully filtered out. On the other hand, what was not officially part of the agreement but was nevertheless implemented by Mugabe, was the initial appointment as army supremo of General Peter Walls, who had led the Rhodesian army in counte-insurgency, and then, after a few months, Commander Alexander Maclean, one of Walls' close collaborators during the war. As to the police, very little changed in its ranks - not even the emergency powers it had held since 1964, which allowed it to detain anyone without charge for up to 30 days!

As to what would happen to capitalist property, particularly that held by the white bourgeoisie and western multinationals, Mugabe spelt out his intentions within hours of the election result, in his "victory speech" on the radio: "We recognise that the economic structure is based on capitalism and that whatever ideas we have must build on that. We are not going to interfere with private property, whether it be farms or (..) the mining sector or the industrial sector. The modifications can only take place in a gradual way." This was in fact just a summary of the relevant section of the Lancaster House agreement which dealt with the delicate question of business property under the revealing heading "Freedom of deprivation of property". This provided that for ten years, the property of business owners would be entirely safe and that, subsequently, any takeover of private businesses, compulsory or otherwise, would have to be fully compensated. There was no question of Mugabe implementing the fiery pledge he had made, only two years before, that his first act once in power would be to nationalise all foreign banks. If, in the following years, the size of the state-controlled sector increased, it was mostly either through state investments to create new industries or through acquiring shares in existing companies in order to secure their continuing operations (for instance many of the country's coal mines would have been otherwise closed down because they were too small to be considered profitable). But even this did not necessarily mean a loss of control by the multinationals.

To all intents and purposes, while the form of the multinationals' control did change slightly, it has remained as tight as ever up to the present day. The country's banking system, for instance, remains dominated by the two British banks, Standard Chartered and Barclays. Most of the mining sector may be under the control of the state, either through majority shareholding or through state-owned companies. But, for instance, the country's largest mining company, the state-controlled Wankie Colliery, is still managed by its largest minority shareholder and previous owner, the South-African giant Anglo-American. Overall, while the multinationals no longer control the mines themselves in terms of ownership, four of them (Anglo-American, Union Carbide, RTZ and Lonrho) retain almost total control of all mineral processing operations in Zimbabwe.

The British conglomerate Lonrho provides the most blatant example of this situation. The group, whose full name is "London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company", remained solely confined to Zimbabwe from the day it was set up in 1909 until 1961. For this reason it was a symbol of Britain's colonial domination and, as such, it was for a long time one of Mugabe's favorite targets. Today, however, its empire in the country includes mining, car and truck distribution, bus assembly, construction, sugar estates, farming, textile manufacturing, urban real estate, etc..

More or less the same happened in the field of land ownership. In 1978, Mugabe had pledged to "nationalise all land starting with the 400,000 ha owned by foreign-based companies like Lonrho". Yet, under the Lancaster House agreement, the same conditions were placed on land as on business property. It stated that every square inch of land would have to be bought from its white owner and delineated 1.1m ha of white-owned land to resettle 18,000 African families. But it had no plans for the resettlement of the hundreds of thousands who had been herded into Smith's so-called "protected villages" to prevent them from providing support to the guerilla forces. It had no plans either to provide the millions of starving farmers barely surviving on the sterile "Tribal Lands" with better lands to toil.

Over the years, Mugabe's regime made repeated promises to buy more commercial farm land for the resettlement of landless peasants. Yet, since 1980, only a total 60,000 families have been resettled on 3m ha, while 4,500 commercial farms (mostly white or foreign-owned) cover 12m ha, or 70% of all fertile land. True, in 1990, the government did pass a law allowing the state to force the sale of nearly half of the land which is still white-owned at prices set by ministries. But so far, nothing has come out of this law, except a few scandals in which high- ranking members of ZANU's hierarchy, including a few ministers, were caught red-handed using this law to buy a commercial farm for themselves at cutdown prices.

The nationalists turn against the working class

In the days of the struggle against Britain or against Smith, ZANU existed mostly in the rural regions close to the country's borders and in Mozambique. This was partly due to necessity but mostly due to a political choice and a strong distrust for any kind of mass movement. Only in 1977 did ZANU make its first attempt at establishing a political presence in urban areas, with the setting up of the ZCTU as an umbrella union federation, but without any real unions underneath. Its primary aim in doing this was to canvass political support away from its main rival, ZAPU, which had had a high profile among the trade unions for a long time. N'Komo, ZAPU's leader, was himself a former leading trade union figure in the railways and ZAPU was closely linked to one of the four existing non-racial union confederations, the National Trade Union Congress. But even then, the new ZCTU was primarily used to try and attract individual union officials rather than actually establishing an influence among the working class by building up existing unions or launching new ones.

ZANU's 1980 election manifesto pledged in no uncertain terms to introduce "freedom of speech, assembly, association, procession, demonstration and strike action". Yet, once in power, Mugabe did nothing to repeal the hated Industrial Conciliation Act (ICA) which tied the workers and their unions up in a web of compulsory arbitration procedures which was so intricate that it made it almost impossible to strike without committing a criminal offence.

But ZANU's popularity among the poorest layers of the population, including in the working class, was based on people's hope that they would be allowed and even encouraged, to settle past accounts with all those who had been involved with Smith's regime, particularly the bosses. And hardly a week after Mugabe's election, a large wave of industrial strikes broke out, starting from the suburbs of Harare and spreading almost immediately to the rest of the country. The strikers' demands were overwhelmingly for higher wages and against racist management. In most cases, they ignored the existing unions, which they did not trust due to their acceptance of the ICA procedures in the past. Instead, they elected their own workers' committees to present their demands, usually not to the bosses but to ZANU itself. During the first few weeks, the illusions in ZANU's commitment to the poor was such that strikes were often ended just by having a ZANU or government official pledging to examine the strikers' demands in front of a mass meeting.

Within a month of this industrial unrest, Mugabe decided to try and stop the strike wave by means other than mere conciliation. In March, the army and the police were sent against strikers at the Wankie Colliery and the Hippo-Valley sugar estate, both owned by Anglo-American. Strikers were arrested under the provisions of the ICA and jailed. By the beginning of May, several strikers were shot by armed guards at a large RTZ-owned mine, without the government doing anything. Then, for the first time, Mugabe allowed a return to the old methods of the Smith era - the sacking of 1,000 strikers at the British-owned Swift Transport Company. At the same time, the government issued a statement condemning all large-scale strike action on the grounds that a developing country like Zimbabwe "just could not afford it". The same statement, however, announced the government's intention to introduce a minimum wage, which came into force two months later, in July (but although this was initially an improvement for low-paid workers, it soon became the state's favourite instrument to keep wages down). Soon after, the official radio began a propaganda offensive, accusing strikers of being "used by minority cliques to spread chaos in the people's state" (by that time, fighting had restarted between ZANU and ZAPU supporters).

From then onwards, the use of arrests, jailings and police violence against strikes became systematic. But it took the regime another 19 months of systematic repression before the strike wave eventually subsided, following the crushing of a national bus drivers' strike, in March 1982.

In the meantime, the regime set itself the task of creating effective instruments to control the working class. In this Mugabe benefitted from the advice and the funds of a host of American-based "specialist" organisations, in particular that of the African agency of the AFL-CIO.

First the workers' committees which had sprung up during the strike wave were institutionalised through official compulsory guidelines. Their task was to discuss grievances with management (but neither wages nor most issues concerning working conditions), "provide stability and good employee/management relationships and encourage the settlement of differences and disputes by conciliatory means", "promote productivity by generating a stable and good atmosphere within the company", "cooperate with the established trade union in ensuring where applicable that the industrial agreement or the industrial regulations for the industry are observed". In other words, the role of the "official" workers' committees was to be that of auxiliaries of the union machineries whose credit was by then too low to discipline workers.

At the same time, ZANU proceeded to pressurise all existing unions to join its own confederation, ZCTU. The methods used were always bureaucratic and sometimes even violent. The courts, the police and the country's new secret police, the CIO, were often involved in suppressing opposition to the forced mergers. In the end, by and large, this was successful enough for the amalgamation to be completed before becoming part of the law.

Finally the system was formalised in the 1985 Labour Relations Act, designed to replace Smith's ICA which was still in force. The two acts were not actually all that different in that both made disregard for the law a criminal offence, provided for compulsory registration and certification of all unions, instituted compulsory arbitration and complex procedures for dealing with grievances, and made legal strike action nigh impossible. Not only were most of the provisions even more drastic than those of the old ICA, but in addition the LRA gave the government total control over wages, which were to be decided by ministers on a branch-by-branch basis without any provision for union bargaining. Of course, with such an instrument, finalising the monopoly of the ZCTU (and therefore ZANU) over the union movement was a mere formality.

Thus, by 1985 ZANU's programme for the working class had been completed. As formulated by ZANU's paper, "Zimbabwe News", this programme stated that: "The workers and peasants ..must realise that socialism can only be realised through hard work. The raising of their standard of living does not lie in laziness or complacency ... This necessarily leads us to the conclusion that cooperation between the workers and employers in economic activities of the country is essential". While they would not have spoken about "socialism", of course, neither Thatcher nor Ian Smith would have found much to object to in such a statement!

Towards another working class offensive?

In the mid-1980s, international lending bodies acting on behalf of imperialist banks began to step up their pressure on Third World countries. So-called Economic Structural Adjustment Plans, or ESAPs, were brought in by IMF and World Bank advisors in order for states to squeeze out of their economies, and more importantly out of their already impoverished populations, what was needed to keep interest payments flowing into the coffers of Western lenders. In the process, the Third World bourgeoisies learnt a few more tricks to line their own pockets and proved most willing to oblige their Western minders.

Mugabe's regime resisted these pressures somewhat longer than some other African states. Then, in 1989, the state made a sharp turn towards export-oriented industries. Foreign companies were allowed to export a larger part of their profit and exporting companies were awarded subsidies from the state.

But this was only the beginning. 1991 saw the introduction of a brand new ESAP. That year, the Zim dollar was devalued against the US dollar to make investment in Zimbabwe more attractive for foreign companies. State expenditure was cut drastically, resulting in a slowing down of manufacturing production and the first big wave of redundancies.

The deregulation plague began to bite. In 1993, for instance, state regulation of the grain, oilseeds, beef and cotton markets, which dated back to the colonial days and allowed a measure of control over domestic consumption prices, was totally ended, together with state subsidies on many basic foodstuffs, thereby pushing down drastically the standard of living of the poorest layer of the population. But deregulation is a one-sided device designed to benefit the richest. Thus, while Zimbabwe had to remove import controls under the GATT agreements, and allow, for instance, expensive equipment to be imported from Britain by British subsidiaries instead of being bought from the local manufacturing industry, the country's agriculture was dealt a serious blow - from a US decision to limit tobacco imports to 25% of US consumption. That decision, of course, went against GATT, but Harare had certainly no means to challenge it.

New gimmicks to attract foreign investment were also introduced - the Export Processing Zones, for instance, where foreign investors can enjoy a five-year tax holiday and the waiving of most labour legislation. These, in fact, have been resounding failures. On closer inspection, most of the production facilities in these EPZs turn out to have moved from some other part of the country to take advantage, under a different name, of the incentives offered by the state - with the help, of course, of a few bribes to ensure that officials agree to look the other way.

Cuts in state expenditure have had even more serious consequences. The introduction of fees for everything in the health service is depriving a large part of the population of access to treatment - which is a catastrophe in a country which has one of the highest proportion of HIV- positive and AIDS sufferers in Africa. Cuts are also beginning to disrupt vital facilities. In Harare - for instance, the town's main sewage works has ground to a halt for lack of repairs, resulting in raw sewage polluting Lake Chivero, which provides the town with drinking water.

While the sparse local bourgeoisie is enjoying the thrill of playing on the newly-expanded Harare Stock Exchange, the Labour Relations Act has been amended to streamline procedures for hiring and firing employees and to include a quick mechanism for large-scale redundancies. As a result, according to the government's own figures released last June, 200,000 jobs have disappeared since 1991 and unemployment had reached 45% of the workforce. But these official statistics - bad as they sound - are actually gross understaments: already, in 1995, academic sources estimated unemployment to be 50% overall and up to 70% in Harare itself.

In order to cut constraints on businesses to a bare minimum, the government has ended the monopoly position granted to the ZCTU by the law in terms of representation, in addition to banning civil servants from joining trade unions. These measures have resulted in a drifting apart of ZANU and the ZCTU, with the latter officially terminating its traditional links with ZANU. How much of this was also due to internal factional fights within ZANU itself, we do not know, but in any case this has certainly not been translated into a more militant stance on the part of the ZCTU.

While the union bureaucracy has tamely submitted to most of these attacks, they have been met with fierce resistance by workers. Many small-scale isolated strikes have been defeated by simply sacking the workforce. This was the case, for instance, in 1992, when 4,000 workers striking against short-time working were sacked at the Triangle Estate sugar plantation, or, more recently, in May 1995, when Standard Chartered sacked 5,000 bank clerks who were striking for higher allowances. But this has not prevented strike waves from taking place. Between late 1993 to mid-1994, post office and telephone, banks, health and even security guards went on strike. In late 1994, it was the turn of construction workers, who were out again in the summer of 1995, to mention only the largest actions. Partly due to heavy policing and partly to the growth of urban unemployment, riots have become increasingly frequent, like the three-week riot in Harare, in November last year, which was triggered by a combination of protests against unpaid wages in the public sector and the shooting of bystanders by the police.

This year's civil service strike was itself the high point of a series of mobilisations which began in April when ZTUC called for nationwide demonstrations against ESAP, which attracted a huge response, apparently much to the surprise and embarrassment of the union bureaucrats. The demonstrations were very angry and impressed Mugabe enough for his government to proclaim a suspension of all redundancy plans (for how long is another matter). Thereafter a wave of strikes developed, mostly over wages, involving many engineering firms, electricity and municipal workers, etc..

Workers' anger against the paltry wage increases offered this year have been compounded by the scandal triggered by Mugabe's decision to double his own salary following his recent extravagant marriage to his secretary and by the increasingly ostentatious affluence of ZANU top officials. The visible corruption and increasing wealth at the top of the state seems to be defeating the efforts of the ZTUC leaders, among others, to blame ESAP and the IMF as the sole culprits in the increasing hardship experienced by the poorer layers of the population. Certainly during this summer's civil service strikes, the main targets of the strikers were definitely the local privileged layers.

A vital role for the African working class

Today, Africa is effectively sinking into barbarism due to the combined plunder of the world imperialist market and the local bourgeoisies. Whole regions of the continent, from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Zaire, Sudan and Burundi, are sinking deeper and deeper into a permanent state of civil war, fuelled by the extreme impoverishment generated by imperialist plunder. Throughout the continent, large sections of the population are constantly on the run, fleeing the threat of war.

In the countries which have remained unaffected, or least unaffected by the civil war plague, so far at least, such as Zimbabwe, the few social services operated by the states are being dismantled to make way for savings on state expenditure. The limited basic industries, owned by these states, which often make up the backbone of the local economy, are being auctioned off at derisory prices to multinationals or dismantled as a result of restructuring exercises of the kind we know all too well here. In the meantime, ESAPs have become the main vehicle for the rapaciousness of the local bourgeoisies, who are only too happy to make up for their own impotence by stepping up the scale of their theft under the cover of the demands imposed by the world market.

Due to these combined factors, the total wealth of Africa is constantly shrinking, both in relative and absolute terms. And its population is sinking deeper and deeper into deprivation, often into starvation and always into despair. New potential ethnic-based powderkegs are thus being created, including in countries which were relatively prosperous only a decade or two ago (at least in African terms), which could easily be set alight at some point in the future, to satisfy the ambitions of some local politician turned warlord.

The nationalists who used to stand boldly against the old colonial powers in the days of decolonisation, have long since proved themselves politically bankrupt. They have all, one way or another and sooner or later, joined the tiny club of profiteers who bleed the populations dry. Today's remaining nationalist currents appear tame and spineless by comparison, with only a few exceptions like South Africa. But the political vacuum left by the powerful nationalist movements of the 60s and 70s, has still to be filled.

It is this role that the African working classes could play in the coming period, by fighting for a proletarian programme. Such a programme would aim at uniting the African proletariat into one single class, across the divisions of the artificial states and borders inherited from the old colonial powers. It would aim at integrating its struggle into that of the world proletariat, joining ranks with the working class of the imperialist countries against the common exploiters, the imperialist bourgeoisies. Finally, it would aim at reorganising the African economy as a whole on a socialist basis, by ending the private ownership of the means of production, as an integral part of a world planned socialist economy.

The activists fighting for such a programme are few and far between anywhere in the world, and in Africa too. But the dynamism, militancy and collective strength demonstrated by the African working class in countries like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, etc. could provide such activists with an incredibly powerful lever to win credit for a proletarian programme in a comparatively short period of time. The intertwining of the African populations, due to the combination of artificial borders and forced economic and political migrations, would help this programme to spread across the continent like wildfire. Such a programme would, in any case, be the only realistic chance for the poor masses of Africa to stop today's catastrophic slide into barbarism.