Following Zimbabwe’s 31 March general election in which the ruling Zanu-PF party won a "landslide victory," President Robert Mugabe has unleashed armed police against street traders and shanty town dwellers.

Using sledgehammers and bulldozers they demolished thousands of "illegal" homes and kiosks in an Operation Restore Order to "clean-up" Zimbabwe’s cities.

In reality, this was another wave of state repression designed to weaken Mugabe’s political opponents. By forcing hundreds of thousands of potential opposition supporters into the rural areas, where the government controls the food supply, the regime can strengthen its grip on society.

At least 22,000 residents were arrested and the homes and businesses of 200,000 were demolished according to the UN. The "clean-up" also destroyed a school in Hatfield Extension and a drop-in home for disadvantaged children, Batsirai Children’s Centre, which was looking after 100 orphans mainly affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Even ’war veterans’ who acted as Mugabe’s shock troops invading the white-owned commercial farms in 2000 weren’t spared the destruction. At the former Zimbabwe Leaf Tobacco farm in Kambuzma two housing co-operatives were demolished.

A two-day stay-away protest strike called in response to the governments attacks by a ’broad alliance’ of churches and civic groups has proved largely inneffective. Partly because of mass unemployment and police harrassment but also due to the weak, right-wing leadership of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Many Zimbabweans opposed to Mugabe regard these poorly organised protests as token gestures.

Mugabe’s repression is increasing in direct proportion to the deepening economic and social crisis afflicting Zimbabwe.

The economy is in freefall, having contracted by 30% in the last five years. There is also an acute shortage of fuel and food. Tourism and foreign investment is in steep decline and a shortage of foreign exchange has created a shortage of imported components. These factors have led to a migration from the countryside to the towns and an increase in street traders and bartering.

On 19 May the central bank devalued the currency by 32% in a desperate bid to deal with collapsing exports which has led to a massive trade imbalance.

Political crisis

Zimbabwe’s worse political crisis since independence in 1980 goes back to the severe capitalist policies of the 1990s.

In 1990 the government implemented the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank’s ’economic structural adjustment programme’ (ESAP) widely referred to by workers as ’Eternal Suffering for African People’. This lead to a 40% drop in manufacturing output between 1990 and 1995 and a plummeting of living standards.

In 1996 a general strike took place by public servants opposed to an effective wage cut and 25,000 job losses carried out by the government at the behest of the IMF. The following year landless and impoverished veterans of the guerrilla war confronted Mugabe demanding compensation and pensions. A shaken Mugabe agreed to pay several thousand veterans Z$50,000 plus Z$2,000 a month pension.

To pay for this Mugabe resorted to the printing presses, fuelling inflation, and also imposing a massive hike in general sales tax. This further inflamed the protests culminating in ’Red Tuesday’ on 9 December 1997 when over one million joined an anti-government stay-away general strike.

During this period of struggle an increasingly militant working class had forced the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) to break with Zanu-PF. With this link broken a political vacuum opened up, leading to the formation of a political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The MDC mobilised opposition to defeat Mugabe’s constitutional change referendum in February 2000. However, the MDC leadership executed a rapid turn to the right with Zimbabwean capitalists and white farmers joining and a right-wing US ’think-tank’ - the Freedom Foundation - donating $1 million. Consequently, the MDC adopted the same neo-liberal policies which had already devastated the country and Zimbabweans’ living standards.

Faced with defeat in the June 2000 general election Mugabe, after 20 years of faithful service to capitalism, imperialism and white-minority domination, suddenly became a champion of the dispossessed. He mobilised war veterans of the liberation struggle to forcibly seize land from white farmers and invoked the Law and Order Maintenance Act, inherited from Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesia regime, to curb the opposition MDC.

The issue of land ownership is of course a real issue. It was the key social issue during the liberation struggle. But more than 20 years after independence little has changed. According to the Zimbabwe government in 2002 some 4,400 whites owned 32% of the best agricultural land while about one million black peasant families farmed (in drought-prone areas) around 38%.

However, the land invasions weren’t part of a peasant uprising or a comprehensive land reform programme, which would entail the nationalisation not only of the big commercial farms but also the commanding heights of the economy.

Some of the best farms seized were handed over to Mugabe’s cronies in the ruling Zanu-PF. The subsistence farmers given land weren’t provided with tools nor cheap loans for fertilisers and seeds by the government. Now the war veterans who spearheaded the land invasions are being evicted by police.

Critically, throughout the last decade, Zimbabwe’s workers and peasants have been hamstrung in the struggle to defeat Mugabe’s police state by the absence of a socialist party with a revolutionary and internationalist programme. The building of such a force is the key task facing Zimbabwe socialists.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

Committee for a workers' International publications

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