Socialist Worker

How bankers and bosses crushed black workers' hopes

Issue No. 1694

Western governments' hypocrisy over Zimbabwe

How bankers and bosses crushed black workers' hopes

By Charlie Kimber

POLITICIANS AND the media say that president Robert Mugabe is the man who has wrecked Zimbabwe. Yet for a long period of his rule these same people praised him for his "realistic" economic policies and for his move away from left wing rhetoric. He was admired for implementing the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher said of Mugabe in 1985, "He is a man who can be relied upon to provide stability and economic growth." But it is precisely this capitalist programme which has brought Zimbabwe to its knees. The international bankers, the corporations and the governments that support them have caused far more damage than Mugabe. Twenty years ago this month Zimbabwe became a country where the black people, who made up 95 percent of the population, could at last choose their own government.

Millions of people celebrated the end of a century of the white minority's oppressive rule. The new president, Robert Mugabe, won a landslide victory in the elections. But Mugabe's government inherited an economy which had been deliberately wrecked by the departing white regime.

The cattle herd was a third of its previous size, thousands of miles of road were useless and more than two thirds of schools had been closed for seven years. Mugabe offered reforms, although they were limited to what international bankers and companies would stand.

The first effect of black rule was a big improvement in ordinary people's lives. Between 1980 and 1985 infant and child deaths fell by about a half. Spending on education per head more than doubled between 1979 and 1990. Spending on primary education almost trebled.

The manufacturing sector grew by over 30 percent in the 1980s. There was very little land reform because of the compromises in the deal that ended whites-only rule. But quite small measures, such as bringing African farmers into a marketing board and increasing storage facilities, had a dramatic effect. Overall grain supply trebled between 1980 and 1985. A drought in 1982 was dealt with through an income tax on richer farmers, a corporation tax on business and free food distribution to people on low wages.

THROUGHOUT THIS period the white farmers watched with suspicion and hoarded their privileges. They were treated with great, often excessive, leniency. None of them were called to account for their crimes under the racist regime, none of them lost an acre of their land, and none of them were forced to pay compensation for what they had stolen.

They responded by blocking initiatives to settle black people on unused white land, and by continuing to back the Rhodesian Front party of former racist leader Ian Smith (left). From the mid-1980s the international bankers and capitalists were urging Mugabe to change policy. They wanted to see a sharp shift to market reforms and an end to all talk of socialism.

The crunch came in 1991. Unemployment had reached nearly half of the workforce. There were now 300,000 school students leaving to compete for just 10,000 new jobs. The world price of Zimbabwe's main export crops, tobacco and cotton, also fell sharply.

At the same time, Mugabe's government insisted on repaying debt as part of the strategy of compromise with international financiers. The inevitable consequence was a war on Zimbabwe's poor, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank. Michael Camdessus,then managing director of the IMF, flew to Harare to stand with the country's leaders and announce that a "realistic plan" had now been agreed.

ESAP, the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, was born. For many Zimbabweans ESAP was soon renamed Eternal Suffering for African People. Mugabe's government agreed to big cuts in social spending, privatisation of many state firms, an end to food subsidies, a removal of any barriers to multinationals entering the country, and "market determination" of prices and wages. Just as the programme was implemented, Zimbabwe faced its worst drought in living memory. The free market policies of the IMF and the Zimbabwean government caused the economic and social crisis of the 1990s.

Those free market policies made it much harder to deal with the drought so its effects were far harsher than they should have been. ESAP pushed up food prices, and the drought pushed them up even further. ESAP also increased transport costs which again raised food costs. The programme meant Zimbabwe had to meet contracts to export grain at the same time as it was importing maize.

By March 1992 Zimbabwe was exporting grain which then had to be bought back at three times the price. Ordinary Zimbabweans faced a 43 percent rise in education fees, and health costs to patients went up 40 percent. The number of mothers dying in childbirth also rose by 40 percent as women tried to avoid going to hospital because of the cost.

The minimum wage was swept away on the grounds that the market now had to determine everything. Average incomes dropped from �389 a year to �279. All the gains of the early years of independence were wiped out by a few years of ESAP. The poverty and the cuts in clinics and health education all helped accelerate the spread of AIDS-today 25 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive.

NOT EVERYONE in Zimbabwe suffered equally. The Economic Structural Adjustment Programme made the class differences sharper. Sam Levy's, Harare's prestigious shopping mall, offered a new range of imported foods such as caviar and lobster while millions of ordinary people suffered on the edge of malnutrition. Big companies like Barclays, Lonrho, and Anglo-American celebrated how easy it was to make money and take it out of the country.

A small elite of Zimbabweans, black and white, also profited. Today Zimbabwe's richest 10 percent consume 34 percent of all goods while the bottom 10 percent consume just 3 percent. Such policies led to resistance by workers, peasants and students. But Mugabe decided to confront the suffering people who had put their trust in him rather than taking on the local bosses, the multinationals and the IMF. As early as 1992 massive student protests broke out against a huge rise in tuition fees.

Over 10,000 students were expelled from the University of Zimbabwe and the demonstrations were harshly repressed. Mugabe's elite forces also fired on a protest by women, children and students demanding better conditions in the gold mines region east of Harare. Mugabe's actions were applauded by the West. US troops were sent on military manoeuvres in Zimbabwe just after the gold field massacre. In 1995 the IMF and Western bankers met in Paris and gave Mugabe a larger figure than even he had anticipated to encourage still more "liberalisation". But none of this could stem the crisis-or the gathering opposition. The trade union movement, which had been tied to the ruling party, began to break away under pressure from below.

In December 1997 and January 1998 around one million workers joined "stayaways" against tax increases. Health workers, civil servants, transport workers and many others held successful strikes in their own industries. At the same time many townships exploded in urban uprisings. The IMF's prescription has wrecked Zimbabwe. To add to the damage the country's creditors-mainly the World Bank and the IMF-have sucked out more and more of its wealth.

In 1985, five years after independence, Zimbabwe spent 1.2 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on debt interest and repayments. Today debt takes over 10 percent of the GNP while education receives 8.5 percent. Mugabe is not the friend of Zimbabwe's workers, peasants and the unemployed. But it is deeply hypocritical of governments like Britain to criticise him when the market policies they pushed have wrecked so many lives. Robert Mugabe's failure is to have backed off from fighting the rich and then aping the luxury lifestyle, lack of democracy, and militarism of those who now denounce him.


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Sat 29 Apr 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1694
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