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Mugabe bid to outflank opposition

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Issue 1702


Mugabe bid to outflank opposition

By Alex Callinicos

ZIMBABWE FACES its most important election this weekend since the country became independent in April 1980. To judge by the coverage of Zimbabwean politics by the British media, the central issue is the plight of a few thousand white farmers.

The struggle over the land is indeed one of the main issues in the history of modern Zimbabwe. White settlers seized the best land for themselves when they conquered the country for Britain in the 1890s. A system of racist legislation very similar to apartheid in South Africa entrenched their monopoly. The white settler regime under Ian Smith declared independence in 1965 when Britain demanded moderate reforms to improve the position of the black majority.

This provoked a long running guerilla war in which some 30,000 people died. The fighters of ZANU-PF, led by Robert Mugabe, won support from the peasants. Desperate attempts by Smith, backed by the British, to rig the independence elections of February 1980 failed to prevent a landslide victory by ZANU-PF. Mugabe had campaigned on a programme to improve the plight of the black majority.

Once in office, however, he retreated from these promises. Political power was now in black hands, but local white capitalists and multinational corporations were left in control of the economy.

Mugabe forgot about land redistribution for nearly 20 years. The 1990s saw Zimbabwe sink into deeper and deeper economic crisis. Free market “reforms” demanded by the International Monetary Fund have had a devastating effect.

Unemployment today is estimated at 55 percent, while inflation is running at 74 percent. AIDS has cut a dreadful swathe through the young in particular. The angry popular reaction has focused on the notoriously corrupt ZANU-PF regime. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, is widely hated for her extravagance at public expense.

A series of mass strikes has made the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions (ZCTU) the main challenger to Mugabe. ZCTU general secretary Morgan Tsvangirai is now leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In February Mugabe lost a referendum he had called to approve a new constitution designed to increase his powers. He launched the campaign of invasions of white-owned farms in response.

The farm invasions have been mounted by a group claiming to be veterans of the guerilla war, though most of them seem to be unemployed youths from nearby townships.

Mugabe seems to have two aims. First, by making the land the central political issue he is trying to win back popular support by appearing to be carrying on the struggle for liberation against white rule. Secondly, the veterans’ violence is mainly directed, not at white landowners, but at black farm workers and peasants. Mugabe hopes to win the elections by terrorising the rural population.

We will soon see whether this strategy has worked. People in the towns detest the ruling party. Last weekend 20,000 people turned out to an MDC rally at Harare’s Rufaro stadium, while ZANU-PF could only muster 5,000 when Mugabe spoke in Highfield, the biggest township in Harare.

Mugabe can succeed only through massive intimidation and ballot rigging. But even if the MDC does manage, despite this, to win the election, it does not represent a solution to Zimbabwe’s problems.

Tsvangirai has built a coalition that cuts across the lines of both class and race-from white bosses and farmers, through middle class human rights activists, to the trade unionists of the ZCTU. He has also promised to implement an IMF dictated emergency programme.

When I met Tsvangirai a couple of years ago I reminded him of what happened in Zambia in the early 1990s. A trade union leader called Chiluba was swept to office by a popular revolt against the corrupt Kaunda regime, only soon to force through “free market” reforms by dictatorial means.

Tsvangirai said he didn’t want to see this happen in Zimbabwe, but he doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of Zambia. For all that, the best outcome this weekend would be an MDC victory. But Zimbabwean workers should be ready to fight, whoever wins.

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