POOR ZIMBABWE. One of the richest countries in Africa, it is now in economic freefall. Closely interwoven with this is the political crisis pitting the government of President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Mugabe is so unpopular that he would probably lose the presidential election scheduled for March if it was fairly run. To prevent this happening ZANU-PF is ramming through security measures that drastically restrict civil liberties. Last week General Vitalis Zvinavashe hinted that the military would not accept Mugabe's defeat.
'The highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectives of the liberation,' he said. 'Any change to reverse the gains of this revolution will not be supported.' As Zvinavashe implies, the roots of this conflict go back to the struggle to liberate Zimbabwe from the white settler regime that ruled the country till 1980. Foreign minister Stan Mudenge blamed the 'colonial albatross' of Britain for the European Union's threat to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe.
But for New Labour ministers like Clare Short, the Zimbabwean crisis is typical of post-colonial Africa, where corrupt and autocratic regimes fail to practise 'good governance'. 'Bad governance' mainly means flouting free market policies. The remedy includes neo-liberal 'reforms'-privatisation and public spending cuts. But this supposed cure is the real disease.
The Zimbabwean tragedy stems in large part from the Mugabe regime's excessive respect for the market in the past. ZANU-PF came to power in 1980 on the basis of a compromise. The black majority were allowed to exercise political power so long as control of the private economy was left in the hands of the white minority, and Western and South African multinational corporations.
It's true that ZANU-PF used the state's considerable economic power, built up under the old white regime, to enrich its leaders. But this didn't worry foreign or local capitalists so long as they were left free to profit from the labour of ordinary Zimbabweans.
The turning point came in the early 1990s. Zimbabwe's growing foreign debt drove the regime to the International Monetary Fund. A standard neo-liberal package was imposed. Food subsidies were slashed, and import tariffs that protected Zimbabwean industries from foreign competition were cut just as the much stronger South African economy returned to the world market.
Unemployment soared, and the gap between rich and poor grew. The effects of the programme fuelled a growing popular rebellion against the Mugabe regime that reached its climax in a wave of strikes and riots in 1997-8. The MDC, formed in 1999 with strong trade union support, ran ZANU-PF a close second in the parliamentary elections of June 2000.
This threat to Mugabe stimulated the rediscovery of his anti-colonial past. He formed an alliance with a previously hostile pressure group of supposed veterans of the guerrilla war, and unleashed them on the white farms. After this attempt to exploit peasant land-hunger, the 'veterans' even started last year to attack employers who were laying workers off.
This was a cynical ploy rather than a genuine shift to the left, as shown by the bill currently going through parliament that restricts the right to strike. Nevertheless, Mugabe has succeeded in putting the MDC on the back foot. Despite his origins as a union leader, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has, with the encouragement of both Western governments and local bosses, adopted a neo-liberal programme that amounts to handing the economy over to the IMF. This means that the MDC is unable to offer a real alternative.
The danger is that Mugabe may be able to win re-election thanks to repressive measures and popular indifference to the outcome. That really would be a tragedy for a country that only a few years ago was witnessing the birth of a democratic and militant workers' movement.