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Zimbabwe – What’s at stake in the election?

This article is over 19 years, 10 months old
Zimbabweans will vote for a president on Saturday and Sunday. They face a choice between Robert Mugabe's brutal regime and the Movement for Democratic Change's Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC contains good trade unionists and socialists, but is dominated by businessmen and white landowners.
Issue 1790

Zimbabweans will vote for a president on Saturday and Sunday. They face a choice between Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime and the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC contains good trade unionists and socialists, but is dominated by businessmen and white landowners.

Papers like the Daily Telegraph denounce Mugabe and pretend to care for black Zimbabweans, but their real sympathies lie with Zimbabwe’s white farmers. New Labour ministers condemn Mugabe’s crimes. But they insist on the free market policies that have brought poverty, suffering and repression across Africa.

Certainly Mugabe is a tyrant. He has used violence, imprisonment, torture and murder to hang on to power. But that should not hide the crimes of the rich whites. White settlers stole land from Zimbabwe’s black people by violence and trickery in the 19th century.

They set up a society, which they called Rhodesia, where by the 1960s the white 4 percent of the population had all the rights, all the votes, most of the land and almost all the wealth. This was a society like apartheid South Africa.

From 1965 to 1980 the struggle against white minority rule in Rhodesia was led by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). It was a mass, popular movement against oppression in Zimbabwe. ZANU kept fighting despite intense repression and the murder of many of its activists.

One of ZANU’s leading figures was Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe today. He was in detention from 1964 to 1974. By 1980 the white regime was in crisis and had to sue for peace. Zimbabwe’s black people could at last choose their own government. Millions of people celebrated the end of a century of oppressive rule by a tiny minority of whites.

Robert Mugabe won a landslide victory in the elections, and there was a feeling of great hope. But very little changed fundamentally in the country in the next two decades. After a brief period of reform, Mugabe gave in to the demands of the international bankers.

Today, according to the BBC, ‘About 4,500 white farmers own 11 million hectares of prime agricultural land. About one million blacks own 16 million hectares, often in drought prone regions. Where they do exist side by side, huge, modern mechanised estates are divided by a mere fence from subsistence farmers living in huts.’

As workers and peasants increasingly rebelled against his rule, Mugabe made several cynical manoeuvres to attack the whites. But that should not lead to any sympathy with the white farmers. The key force in Zimbabwe is the working class and the peasants it can pull behind it.

‘The election matters, but it is not the key to the future,’ says Munyaradzi Gwisai, a member of Socialist Worker’s sister group in Zimbabwe, the International Socialist Organisation. He told Socialist Worker, ‘There is a boiling feeling for change among big sections of the working class. We will vote for Tsvangirai because it will mean more space for us to operate. But the main stress is on building up resistance-through stayaways and protest-and by putting pressure on the union leaders. We want to strengthen the anti-capitalist elements in the MDC and build a movement which can fight whoever wins this weekend.’

Mugabe-from a hero to a tyrant

TODAY ROBERT Mugabe is portrayed as a devil by the press in Britain. Much of the media reacted the same way when he was elected president in 1980-the News of the World dubbed him ‘The Black Hitler’. But opinion then shifted.

By the mid-1990s Zimbabwe was the US government’s newest African ‘success story’, as Mugabe put in place economic policies promoted by World Bank and IMF lenders. Zimbabwe’s government even won praise from Tory Margaret Thatcher. 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. Grain supply trebled in what was then termed ‘the Zimbabwean miracle’.

From the mid-1980s, as the economy faltered, the international bankers and capitalists stepped up pressure for market ‘reforms’. Mugabe’s finance minister Bernard Chidzero (who later chaired the IMF/World Bank Development Committee) was convinced that the way forward was to work with the international bankers.

Mugabe agreed and the government borrowed massively. Debt payments shot up, and the IMF then pressured Mugabe to cut education spending and food subsidies. Much worse followed in 1991. The world price of Zimbabwe’s main export crops fell sharply, but Mugabe’s government continued to repay debt.

Michael Camdessus, the IMF’s managing director, flew to Harare to announce that a ‘realistic plan’ had been agreed with the country’s leaders. 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 privatisation, cuts and pro-business policies. Health and education charges soared. Maternal deaths in childbirth rose by 40 percent as women tried to avoid going to hospital because of the cost. The government abolished the minimum wage and average incomes dropped from £389 a year to £279.

Mugabe attacked students who protested, used vicious laws against strikes, and repressed demonstrations. The West applauded Mugabe. But resistance to him grew. The trade union movement, which had been firmly 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. The country’s creditors-mainly the World Bank and the IMF-have kept sucking out more and more of the country’s wealth.

Mugabe is the enemy of Zimbabwe’s workers, peasants and unemployed. But it is deeply hypocritical of governments like Britain to criticise him when the market policies they love have wrecked so many millions of Zimbabwean lives.

Growing desire for real change

There are two main sources of opposition to Mugabe inside Zimbabwe, and confusingly they are both inside the same party. One group is the white farmers, the big industrialists and the people who look to Western business interests.

The other group is workers and peasants who want to break from IMF-style policies and fight for real change. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) includes both groups. It has tried to weld together socialist revolutionaries and capitalist reactionaries, farm workers and their masters, the white rich and their domestic servants.

The MDC is the product of several years of sharp class struggles since 1995. The trade unions were central throughout these battles. Workers and peasants demanded that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (the equivalent of the TUC in Britain) set up an opposition party. Morgan Tsvangirai was the ZCTU general secretary. The MDC was launched in September 1999 and it was immediately enormously popular.

The vast majority of its new members were workers, peasants, students and the unemployed. But its leaders were moving sharply rightwards and increasingly courted the support of businessmen, multinationals and white farmers. The MDC supports privatisation and a cut in state spending. However, workers and peasants will expect much more than this if Morgan Tsvangirai wins the election.

Across the world there is a familiar pattern-the IMF and World Bank demand cuts, and governments use repression to impose these cuts. Then opposition is taken up by movements dominated by people who support the neo-liberal policies that were the problem in the first place.

This is what happened recently in Peru, Ghana and Zambia, and now in Madagascar. The hope is that in the course of the struggles workers and peasants discover their own interests and break free from the leadership of pro-capitalists.

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