Zimbabwe - Mugabe's "land war" versus the opposition MDC - no choice for the poor

Sep/Oct 2002

In August, on the eve of the Earth Summit in South Africa. the US government decided to announce that Zimbabwe should be added to its list of "pariah states". Bush, unlike other world leaders, was conspicuously absent at this huge jamboree, but he obviously wished to make his presence felt nevertheless. So this small "land-locked" - in more than one sense - African country was singled out as in need of a "regime change". "We do not see President Mugabe as the democratically legitimate leader of the country.(...) The political status quo is unacceptable because the elections were fraudulent", said Walter Kansteiner, the Bush administration's assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, referring to president Mugabe's re-election in March this year.

The British government, as ex-colonial master, had already had Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth over this "unfree and unfair" presidential election. And ever since Mugabe started to take land back from white commercial farmers - and give de facto support to the land invasions by the poor and so-called war veterans - the British government had been siding with the white farmers.

Foreign Office secretary Peter Hain took up the US theme, saying that Mugabe was just like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and former Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic... and should be treated the same. One can only wonder what sort of "treatment" he was referring to - for instance, bombing Harare?

Of course, there is no question of any such thing. The problem for imperialism, beyond the rhetoric on "democracy" and the talk of "pariahs", is how to defuse the potentially explosive situation in Zimbabwe. Above and beyond the "burning" issue of land reform, Zimbabwe is a social and political tinderbox. Positioned as it is in the heart of the economically vital region of Southern Africa, its stability is crucial for imperialist interests.

Despite its poverty, this country has one of the highest literacy levels in Africa - and an organised and educated urban working class that has already proved itself capable of fighting collectively for its interests. And what if this working class came forward with its very own rendering of Mugabe's anti-imperialist posturing? What if this contagion then spread to Zimbabwe's much larger neighbours, such as South Africa or Angola where Western multinationals have huge interests to protect? Hence the recent concern of the imperialist leaders for a country and a regime that they ignored for most of the past two decades.

Champions of democracy?

Bush's condemnation of a "flawed" presidential election in Zimbabwe in March, when Mugabe was re- elected with 56.2% of the vote against 41.2% for his rival from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tvangirai, got the obvious reply from Mugabe. Who was Bush to talk about "flaws" in an election after his own dubious performance in the December 2000 US presidential ballot?

Of course Mugabe was not going to admit that in the 10 weeks prior to the election there was a huge escalation of political violence with 54 reported deaths of political opponents (including 6 MDC polling agents killed afterwards in retribution) as well as 1,100 death threats and 26,000 incidents of assault (according to the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum). In January this year Mugabe had enacted a new law - the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) which allowed the banning of election rallies and made criticism of the president an offence, as well as giving the police and an official youth militia (unemployed youth who had been to government sponsored training camps) a free reign to intimidate supporters of the opposition with road blocks, threats, burnings of dwellings and political offices, etc.

But Blair had announced before the election that it would not be considered "free or fair" if Mugabe won. So, after the poll, a Commonwealth Observers' Group, which had been appointed to assess its fairness, found that the high level of politically motivated violence and intimidation which preceded the presidential poll "did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors". Zimbabwe was duly suspended from the Commonwealth for one year from the 19th March.

All this was quite predictable, but also ironic, given the composition of this Observers' Group. Alongside the Australian prime minister John Howards, two other "experts" in democracy sat on it. One was Nigerian president and former dictator, Obasanjo, whose election in April 1999 was notoriously marred by fraud, and whose army has murdered numerous political opponents since. The other "expert" was the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who took over Mandela's mantle in June 1999, in an election in which 6 million potential voters, or 25% of the electorate, were dropped from the electoral register - mostly from among the poorest layers of the population!

Concern for the free expression of any voter is the last thing on the mind of the Blairs or Bushes of this world, who know very well that fraud and violence are the main devices used by Third World political elites to hang on to power. All the imperialist leaders who today speak about democracy and "good governance" have endorsed brutally bad "governance" and sham elections in countries in their spheres of influence, time and again over the years - and they still do. What about Kenya's president Moi, Kuwait's "royal" dictatorship, or Pakistan's Musharraf? Successive Western governments have helped set up puppet dictatorships when and where they desired, with the aid of military force, assassinations and killings - as has been the case from Panama and Chile to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Bush and Blair could not care less about the legitimacy nor the "democratic" nature of Third World regimes. All they want to ensure is that these regimes guarantee the continued looting of their countries by Western multinationals at the expense of, and against the will of the poor masses. And how can this fit with democracy?

Zimbabwe's land time bomb

Infringing capitalist "property rights", as Mugabe finally and belatedly began doing in Zimbabwe in 1997 - and has now stepped up with his "fast track" land acquisition programme - was something which imperialism was bound to find unacceptable.

Yet Zimbabwe is, together with South Africa and Namibia, one of the few African countries where white farmers have retained a dominant hold on the prime agricultural land.

And 22 years after black majority rule was instigated, the land question has still not been resolved. Even though this was the burning issue, above all else, for the poor majority. It had been central to the struggle for national liberation, ever since white colonial settlers first pushed the Ndebele and Shona people off their ancestral farmland, in the 1880s by force and then through "legal instruments" like the series of Land Acts enforced by the police and the courts. After WW2 the (then) Rhodesian government systematically seized the best farmland for resettlement by white immigrants. Indeed, the majority of today's white farmers in Zimbabwe arrived from either Britain or South Africa in the last half of the 20th century - and some as recently as the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At the time of independence in 1980, over half the total land was owned by white farmers, who comprised just 3% of the population. But over 70% of Zimbabwe's population was constituted by the rural poor, who were mainly confined to the so- called Tribal Trust Lands, which were overpopulated homelands in the driest parts of the country, hardly yielding enough for subsistence. The Zimbabwean population was literally starved of its means of survival. So if there was any question that should have been resolved at the Lancaster House negotiations in 1980, which saw an end to the liberation war, it was the question of the land.

But what happened instead? Britain pledged to fund a gradual resettlement programme for the landless poverty-stricken black peasantry. Other countries were to be approached (the US, West Germany, etc) to participate in a multinational donor effort to assist in land, agricultural and economic development plans. But the de facto condition for this "aid" was the protection of private white-owned property for ten years. And no wonder, given the links that the mostly incredibly vast commercial farms had to British and US business interests - among them of course, the tobacco giants, but also mining conglomerates like Lonrho and Anglo-American/De Beers.

By 1990, only 71,000 black families had been resettled on farms comprising 3.4m hectares of land. Of course, the white landowners had proved unwilling to sell their properties or asked too high a price in compensation. The promised aid for such compensation and for resettlement never materialised in significant amounts. In fact the British government kept finding all kinds of excuses not to pay - via loopholes left in the agreement, but also by making the rules up as it went along. By this stage, 4,500 white farmers, organised in the Commercial Farmers' Union still owned 50% of the productive land, controlled 90% of all agricultural production and exported 40% of the country's goods. Yet one third of their properties were not even being utilised and they were still being granted significant amounts of state aid.

Mugabe's respect for the Lancaster Agreement had meant that little was done to resolve the land question in his first 10 years in power. But not much was done afterwards either. His regime passed one Land Act after another, giving itself a few more powers each time to acquire land compulsorily. However not one of these legalistic measures would have allowed a significant land redistribution because the commercial farmers were always allowed to appeal to the judiciary - which had not been touched very much by Zimbabwe's "liberation" from colonialism and was still dominated by judges friendly to the interests of white farmers...

Neither did Mugabe dare to deny the farmers compensation. Under all his land Acts including that of 1992, by which the government would take over unused land and "second" farms, the white farmers were to be compensated fully. Of course, the state's finances were never adequate to meet such payments and this became the main stumbling block to comprehensive land acquisition - except when it came to taking over farms for political cronies, for which the means were somehow "found".

Mugabe's "land offensive"

By 1997, the very long-suffering poor of Zimbabwe had finally had more than enough. Peasants began to occupy white-owned farmland spontaneously. Veterans of the liberation war who had been living in poverty for years began to demand that they got their due - and some were whipped up by demagogues to form militant gangs. They demonstrated in the main towns, picketed government offices and invaded farms and factories. More importantly, in the same period, the urban working class, that had been most affected by Mugabe's enforcement of the austerity measures demanded by the IMF, was also on its feet, fighting and striking.

Mugabe needed to regain some credit to hang on to power and the ever-burning land question was the most obvious, and apparently in his view, the safest means available. So he made fiery speeches implicitly supporting the farm occupations and announced that 5m more hectares of commercial farm land was now to be requisitioned - without immediate compensation - including 1,503 large-scale farms.

After their initial "outrage" at Mugabe's plan, in 1998, Western governments organised an international donor conference and finally agreed to endorse a watered down version, whereby they would provide aid for compensation of white farmers. After all, it was the idea of anyone taking land without first paying for it, which was the main problem in their eyes. However when it came to putting their money where their mouths were, the "donors" again found new reasons to withhold most of these funds.

So by 2000, Mugabe had still not shifted the majority of the white commercial farmers off the 5m hectares identified for redistribution three years earlier. And the same number as in 1990, ie 4,500 white commercial farmers, were still sitting on over 11m hectares of land. By March 2000 the farm invasions, some led by the so-called war veterans, had begun again, but this time they were more violent - and caused a huge outcry from the farmers concerned, who were again supported by Western (especially British) politicians and their media - even if it was they who had dumped the farmers in this situation in the first place by not delivering on their financial promises.

Then in July 2000, the so-called "fast-track" land acquisition programme was announced. Mugabe insisted he was now going to achieve the 1997 target and make up for lost time - and, no doubt, some of his lost political capital. Adjustments were made to the list of farms to be taken over - with all kinds of additions and deletions, as a result of bargaining and counte-bargaining - so that now 3041 farms measuring 3.5m ha were announced as being at various stages of processing for resettlement.

But throughout the following year the land redistribution programme was more or less deadlocked. White farmers sat tight while "illegal occupiers" - peasants usually led by gangs of war veterans claiming official government sanction, invaded more designated farms. In September 2001, Britain's Jack Straw signed the Commonwealth Abuja Agreement, brokered by Nigeria's president Obasanjo, whereby Mugabe pledged to "end the violent farm occupations" - and if he did, Britain would then make £36m available for compensation payments, through an agency such as the UN. Then the chaos and politicking leading up to the presidential election intervened and predictably, nothing much shifted.

So two years after the launch of the fast-track programme, progress was yet to be made as far as the "legal" side of the land acquisition process went. Under the "fast- track" provisions, 2,900 farmers were served with eviction orders in May this year. They were meant to have ceased farming by 24 June and have left their properties by 8 August. Yet during August, around 300 farmers were arrested for having defied these orders - and most of them were subsequently fined and/or released on bail. The High Court then ruled that some of these orders were invalid (and this was admitted by the government!). In addition, behind the scenes, the Supreme Court has been considering a ruling on the "constitutionality" of the eviction process itself. So now, once more, the whole operation is delayed. The date for the "official" end of the affected farmers' tenure has again been extended to mid- September!

The least that can be said is that, contrary to Western accusations, Mugabe has been very respectful of "rule of law" - far too much so, from the point of view of the landless poor, in any case.

After all, what is the balance sheet? In 22 years, only 3.7m hectares out of the total 15.5m owned by whites at the time of independence has been resettled. The additional land "under process" since 2000 is still "under process"! And this, despite the hugely publicised invasions which have been taking place - which affected around 250-300 properties in all. What is more, although the CFU complains bitterly that they will be left with next to nothing, around 6m hectares are meant to remain in the hands of commercial farmers, or multinational concerns, according to the government's plan.

And here is the twist to the land redistribution tale - illustrated nowhere better than on the 820,000 hectares of Zimbabwean land that is owned by the various companies presided over by the Oppenheimer family (Anglo-American and De Beers and their subsidiaries).

The immense cattle and game ranch measuring 137,000 hectares, known as the DEBSHAN estate (for De Beers- Shangani) was the object of an attempted invasion by thousands of poor peasants in March this year. This estate had already been designated for redistribution in 1997. At the time, Oppenheimer did a deal with Mugabe to get it "delisted" by offering the government a mere US$200,000 "loan" for a resettlement trust and just 40,000 hectares of Oppenheimer-owned land (a bare 5% of their total!) for landless Zimbabweans.

But after the peasant occupiers arrived this year, the government was forced to "do something". In May 2001, Mugabe's vice-president, Msika stepped in and immediately made it clear that "no new settlers will be allowed to come on the estate and upset the situation". And now this land is being used as a kind of "showcase" for how "reasonable" the government is when it negotiates settlements with foreign commercial owners of land.

Of course the Oppenheimers have other huge stakes in Zimbabwe - nickel mining and refining by Nickel Bindura, Zimbabwe Alloys at Gweru which mines and refines ferrochrome, several goldmines, Mazoe iron pyrite. They also own the Hippo Valley Sugar estate which together with just one other large estate provides the bulk of Zimbabwe's sugar.

Mugabe's pussy-footing around the Oppenheimer family is just one more example of his respect for imperialism's rich and powerful. And this stands in stark contrast to his disregard for the interests of hundreds of thousands of farm workers and their families who are being chased off many of the newly-requisitioned farms.

The rise of the discontent

Like the economies of most African countries today, Zimbabwe's economy is in a state of collapse. Its foreign debt stands at US$4.1bn. Inflation has spiralled since 1997 - from 30% to 123%. Unemployment has soared. In the last 12 months alone, 451 companies have closed down. 80% of people are now living below the official poverty line, and on top of all this, AIDS is decimating the population (already in 1999, 1.5m were said to be infected with HIV and 160,000 had been recorded). Staple foods - even with the price controls applied last October - are becoming unaffordable and some items are increasingly scarce. Now, with the worst drought in 20 years affecting Southern Africa, maybe half the population could face starvation unless adequate outside aid is forthcoming. It should be said that this is partly because 70% of corn in Zimbabwe is grown by indigenous farmers, who are the ones most vulnerable to drought since they cannot afford irrigation schemes. Only 30% of Zimbabwe's requirement of this staple food is produced by the commercial farming sector.

Today's situation is the product of a long process of degeneration which started back in the late 1980s. At the time, like in many Third World countries, manufacturing industry was stagnating or was even being dismantled as capital was flowing into financial speculation. The potential to make money out of Zimbabwe's capital market was rated as ahead of Korea, India, or even Singapore by the World Bank in 1989. Rather than seeking to shield the country from financial predators, Mugabe sought to increase the inflow of speculative capital. So concessions were made to the demands of the IMF in return for its "help". This meant a 25% cut in the civil service, the removal of all labour protection, price controls, exchange controls, interest rate controls, import and investment restrictions as well as government subsidies. Privatisation of state companies was the only part of the IMF programme not taken on board at this stage.

This not only failed to reinvigorate the economy as the government had promised, but it actually threw it into a downward spiral, due to falling world prices which affected its income from exports. De-industrialisation ravaged textiles - 64% of output was lost by 1999; in metals there was a 35% decline, in transport equipment, 31% and in clothing 28%.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions reported in 1996 that real wages had fallen by 40% since 1990. Lower wages did not mean more jobs, either. Companies increased the intensity of work rather than employ more workers. In 1993 already, there were bread riots in Harare and these occurred again in 1995. Public sector workers went on strike across the country in 1996, and farm workers in 1997.

Then on 14 November 1997, came Zimbabwe's "Black Friday" when the country was hit by the ripple effect of the financial crisis which had broken out in South-east Asia four months earlier. In just four hours, the Zimbabwe dollar lost 74% of its value. The intervention of the government and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe managed to restore the currency to its former level only by forcing all foreign corporations to transfer their foreign currency accounts into local currency. But this did not prevent foreign investors from fleeing the stock exchange which then crashed at the end of November.

The currency crisis effectively rendered Zimbabwe's interest payments on its foreign debt unpayable. But the prices on the world market of Zimbabwe's raw material exports like gold, tobacco lithium, cotton, flowers and citrus had also begun to plummet even further. These exports in all lost 20-50% of their value between 1997 and 2001. In 1999 Mugabe decided to halt debt service repayments. By the end of 2001 interest arrears stood at US$1.25bn. This did not prevent the IMF from providing further short-term credit last year, but this is just piling up more debts for the future which Zimbabwe cannot afford to service.

The rise of the ZCTU

It was in the run-up to the 1997 crisis that the working class really pushed itself to the forefront of the political scene. While it was public sector workers (who were non- unionised) who led the resistance to Mugabe's austerity measures, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was forced to come out in support of this struggle and break its remaining ties with the ruling party.

The ZCTU dates back to 1981 when it was formed under the auspices of Mugabe's government, by bringing together 52 existing unions according to the principle "one industry, one union". Today it has 38 affiliates with a total membership of 200,000, but excludes public sector workers who are still not permitted to form unions.

With labour deregulation imposed in 1991, the government's relationship with the ZCTU deteriorated in parallel with the deterioration in wages and conditions. Morgan Tvangirai, who had been leader of the ZCTU since 1988 and a member of Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF, attacked the 1991 deregulation programme, saying: "What we are looking for in Zimbabwe is a democratic space. Because what is going to be sacrificed in this programme is democracy. When people go onto the streets, complaining about these things, the state will be forced to use power to quell these riots and in fact one of the ironies is that we are arming our own people - the police and army - to turn against our people... At the end of the day we become the marginalised group, because the government has put itself in a position so that it cannot take a stand against the IMF. The only way to defend against international capital marginalising further indigenous businessman, the worker, the peasant is to have these groups together".

Tvangirai already envisaged a "front" bringing together local businessmen and the working class - i.e. a cross-class alliance - against the government's policies. In 1996 the ZCTU came out with a policy document produced in collaboration with businessmen and academics, promoting a free market and entrepreneurship, as well as shareholding by workers, proposing at the same time the "trimming of the public sector" and the repeal of red tape for business - i.e. what was left of labour regulation!

But by the mid-1990s strikes were a feature of the landscape - culminating in 1996 when for two weeks more than two thirds of the civil service (160,000 workers) paralysed the government. Witnessing the daily demonstrations in Harare, the ZCTU leadership, which had failed so far to incorporate the civil servants into its organisation, saw its opportunity and threatened a general strike in their support. Mugabe caved in and granted the public sector workers' demands. Then in 1997, there were more public sector strikes and 100,000 private sector workers were involved in 251 strikes during the year, extending to commercial farm workers - and real wage increases were won.

The ZCTU organised nation-wide "stay aways" in December 1997, and in March and November 1998. These occurred against a background of rioting over a decision to increase food and gasoline prices. The government responded by setting up the Tripartite Negotiating Forum which initiated collective bargaining, and resulted in the signing of an agreement between employers, the government and the ZCTU which included cuts in workers' taxation as well as price controls. However, despite his government-endorsed role in this bargaining committee, Tvangirai was attacked by Zanu thugs and the ZCTU office was burned down in Bulawayo, the country's second largest town.

The MDC, an alternative voice for the privileged

In January 1999, Tvangirai convened instead a ZCTU-sponsored National Working Peoples' Convention, which then proceeded to criticise the government's policies and "the inability of the economy to address the basic needs of the majority of Zimbabweans; the severe decline in incomes, employment, health food security and well being of people; the unfair burden borne by working women and persistence of gender discrimination in practice; the decline, and in some cases collapse of public services; the lack of progress in resolving land hunger and rural investment needs; the weak growth of industry and marginalisation of the vast majority of the nation's entrepreneurs..."

By September 1999 The ZCTU leaders, Tvangirai and his deputy Sibanda announced the formation of a "labour backed" Movement for Democratic Change" (MDC). But although "labour backed", the MDC was never designed to represent the political interests of the working class. Something that Tvangirai justified very openly: "We are social democrats. The MDC can never be pure, ideologically, because of our broad orientation. Besides, social democracy is a half-way house, a spaghetti mix. In our case the main characteristic is that we are driven by working class interests with the poor having more space to play a role than they do now. But one of the components is an element of participation by business, which is just not able to develop under present conditions."

In so far as the MDC undertook to represent the interests of Zimbabwean "business", it was effectively putting the working class in the tow of Zimbabwe's capitalists and, in fact, imperialism. This was clearly illustrated by the appointment, in February 2000, of Eddie Cross, a bigwig from the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (the country's bosses organisation) as "economic secretary" of the MDC. Cross gave a speech in Harare in March 2000 where he stated among other things that the MDC was against price controls; for the introduction of VAT and also the capping of company taxation and... "We are going to fast track privatisation. All fifty parastatals will be privatised within a two-year time frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatise many of the functions of government. We are going to privatise virtually the entire school delivery system. As you know we have looked at numbers and think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years."

When Tvangirai was asked in September 2000 what his attitude to the demands of international creditors was now, he replied "I still hate the World Bank and IMF, but I hate them like I hate my doctor".

The proposals advocated by the MDC are hardly "new", in fact. They are based entirely on a policy of submission to the requirements of international capital and finance at the expense of the population - indeed, a re-run of the 1991 policy carried out by Mugabe, but this time including, as their programme says : "Public sector reform to privatise parastatals and clean up public sector debt".

So far, however, as a result of Mugabe's increasingly repressive measures to cling onto power, the MDC has been able to capitalise heavily on the population's discontent. In February 2000 Mugabe called a referendum over the rewriting of the constitution which would have allowed the requisition of farmland without compensation, but it would also have allowed Mugabe to remain president for another term.... It was at this point that many of the white farmers publicly came forward in support of the MDC, which effectively mobilised a "no" vote against Mugabe's proposals, so the constitutional rewrite fell. And then when the MDC stood in the June 2000 parliamentary elections, despite the pressure applied by Mugabe's repression against all political opponents, the MDC won 47% of the total vote.

Having been hijacked behind the MDC flag however, the working class has already had to pay for its support for the MDC. It has allowed a wedge to be driven between itself and the rural poor because the MDC appears, as opposed to the ruling Zanu-PF, to have nothing to offer the landless and rural poor.

What is more, no doubt in order to maintain its "respectability", the ZCTU is now hiding behind the Thatcherite anti-union laws passed by Mugabe, to back away from organising working class resistance.

But despite this, stay-aways have still taken place - for instance in May 2001 when a 70% increase in the price of fuel was announced, two-day strikes actually resulted in a retraction of this increase for most workers (workers are given dockets which qualify them for lower prices) as well as the setting of minimum wages in the different industries. Even when it comes to his fight for "democratic change", Tvangirai is clearly reluctant to build on the militancy of the working class. So for instance, in the aftermath of the presidential election, the ZCTU issued a call for a 3-day stay- away against the harassment and beatings experienced by those opposing the regime. Tvangirai cancelled the call, explaining that : "We realised Mugabe was spoiling for a fight, but we didn't want to give it to him. We didn't want to play on his turf. So we didn't organise people to confront their stolen victory... we said "calm down" because if we were to engage in mass protests, mass actions, then I think the whole democratic movement would have been crushed. That's what he was prepared for".

Was this a circumstantial tactical decision, or is, in Tvangirai's view, "mass action" a weapon to be avoided in the overthrow of Mugabe? The latter seems to be the case, since Tvangirai argues that it is the responsibility of the MDC "to find a back door for Mugabe because if we don't he is likely to pull down the whole building with him". But clearly, if the discontented poor have their way, there will be no "back door" for Mugabe - except perhaps one leading to a cell in the capital's jail. Obviously, the price that Tvangirai is prepared to pay for the support of the capitalists, at home and abroad, involves keeping the lid on the struggle and militancy of the poor masses.

The Zimbabwean poor have nothing to gain from a party which puts them in the tow of their exploiters. They will not rid society of corruption and poverty by replacing Mugabe with opportunists like Tvangirai and his gang of "entrepreneurs" who plan to float the country's assets on the world market. For this, they will need a party which represents their class interests, opposes all forms of capitalist exploitation and is not afraid to mobilise their collective strength to achieve social change.

8 September 2002