Zimbabwe: Mugabe clings to power

By brute force, Robert Mugabe’s regime has for the moment survived the longest and most successful stay-away in Zimbabwe’s history. The ‘Final Push’, called by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), did not topple Mugabe, but the brutal suppression revealed the isolation of a regime with no support in the urban areas.

To enforce a court order forbidding the action, all police and army leave was cancelled; the entrances to Harare and Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, blockaded. The two cities were flooded with military detachments, helicopters and 2,500 militiamen.

A march by thousands of Mbare residents was violently dispersed. An eyewitness reports that 4,000 students from the traditionally militant University of Zimbabwe were viciously beaten: "On Tuesday I was shown the bloodied corridors in one student residence, nicknamed Baghdad. One window of a ground floor flat was broken, and only the jagged glass left. The frame and the wall were drenched in blood, as if someone had emptied a bucket. Military police fired tear gas into rooms where students were hiding, igniting a mattress. Struggling to breathe one student broke the shattered plane of glass with his head. His head was repeatedly hit by police wielding batons. Forty-five were admitted to hospital". (Leo Zelig, www.nu.ac.za.cc, 9 June)

The suppression claimed two lives, hundreds of injuries and over 800 arrests. MDC leaders Welshman Ncube and Morgan Tsivangirai, already facing trial under trumped up charges of plotting to assassinate Mugabe, have now been charged with treason.

The events of 2-6 June represent a new stage in the strangulation of democracy. The arming of mainly rural militia to impose ‘political discipline’ on teachers and students, abduction, torture and murder, the bombing of newspaper presses, and manipulation of the judicial system, all show Zimbabwe is drifting towards naked military rule and a possible civil war.

Despite the brutality, the strike held solid. It followed two general strikes called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and other ongoing actions. The slogan ‘Zvakana!’ (Enough) captured the hatred for Mugabe’s regime. Even businesses threatened with the cancellation of licenses defied orders to reopen. Newspapers continued to publish in the face of persecution.

Indicating the weakness of his position, Mugabe insists he is willing to negotiate, even publicly calling on his Zanu-PF party to discuss a successor. This ‘victory’ will at best buy him some time. He has no solution for the catastrophic economic crisis fuelling the seething anger.

In the past three years, gross domestic product has declined by more than 30%, inflation is expected to be well over 300% for 2003, and 73% of Zimbabweans are poor. The so-called ‘land reform’, which benefited Mugabe’s cronies, displaced millions of farm workers and peasants and hit agricultural production. "Seven million (out of 12m) are going hungry", according to the (Johannesburg) Mail & Guardian (30 May-5 June).

Zimbabweans refer to the neo-liberal Economic Structural Adjustment Progamme (ESAP) as ‘Eternal Suffering for African People’. It is not a joke but a living nightmare. Implemented in 1991, ESAP has devastated the economy, reversing all the social gains of the first ten years of independence. The education system lies in ruins, reflected in the massive drop-out rate by school children directly attributed to hunger. The University of Zimbabwe is on the brink of collapse, with lecturers forced to find other jobs to get by.

While 1,500 Zimbabweans flee every day, the country is flooded by speculators and swindlers: "Food shortages are for the poor. For those with the cash, foodstuffs are plenty, from imported whisky and wine to Belgian chocolate and exotic fruit… Banks officially work at the rate of US$1 to Z$55, but out on the streets young men with bulging rucksacks will buy an American dollar for anything from Z$1,300 to Z$1,800. New banks form all the time and the huge profits they turn have given rise to the ostentatious ‘Kompressor class’, named after the [Mercedes] cars they drive". (Mail & Guardian, 2-7 May)

In the past, Western powers were happy doing business with Mugabe. Now, his continued rule has lit a veld fire of mass opposition that could explode into an armed uprising, endangering Western investments in Zimbabwe, as well as their more substantial interests in South Africa.

Mugabe has accused Tsivangirai of being a stooge of imperialism. This gains credibility because of his links with sections of the white farmers, and Zimbabwean and Western big business. The MDC was born out of the magnificent movement against ESAP in the early 1990s and an attempt by the working class to form its own party. Unfortunately, the young working-class movement, without a class-conscious leadership, was powerless to stop the MDC from being subverted by Western and Zimbabwean big business flattery and finance into a neo-liberal reserve team for capitalism.

The MDC is seen as the leadership of the opposition, although the protest action was largely a spontaneous movement from below. Tsivangirai’s failure to lead the movement effectively has led to criticism of the MDC from the ranks for months. Raymond Majongwe, general secretary of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, was scathing on the preparations for mass action: "If people are going to be calling for mass action on cell phones and in the papers, that will not work. The MDC leadership must be prepared to suffer. This is the difference between MDC and Zanu-PF… Mugabe has to be kicked out. You don’t negotiate with him". (Leo Zelig, www.nu.ac.za/ccs, 9 June)

The MDC leaders failed to involve the local civic structures or resident associations central to organising previous, successful stay-aways. They were not involved in the Progressive Teachers’ Union two-week strike over pay in May, the general strike days, or action taken by doctors and electricity technicians. They seem to have expected the masses to confront the biggest military mobilisation since the early 1980s with their bare hands. Although the repression has not reached the scale of the 1983 slaughter of 30,000 of the Ndebele minority in Matabeleland, the masses know this regime’s capabilities. The question of armed self-defence committees was not even on the MDC’s agenda. It seemed to believe that hastily prepared mass action and imperialist support would be enough to bring Mugabe down. The masses struck but stayed at home rather than face a massacre.

A properly prepared movement might not have been deterred by the military mobilisation. The basis for splitting the security forces is present in the situation. As the presidential election results showed despite the rigging, the regime has no support in the urban areas. If the security forces are still holding together, this is because the aims of the mass action were not clear, either in deeds or words: whether the phrase ‘Final Push’ really meant that.

The armed forces are affected by the economic crisis and the mood in the cities: "Most of the time the helicopters cannot fly for lack of fuel. A police unit which raided the University of Zimbabwe stole not only the students’ mobile phones and jackets, but biscuits and bread which they devoured on the spot. ‘They seemed starving. It was amazing’, said one student". (The Guardian, 7 June)

In a revealing display of his attitude towards the masses, Tsivangirai responded to criticism for the failure to topple Mugabe by blaming the masses! "You cannot blame the leadership. Look, the leadership can only do so much, but if the people are afraid to take the risks to claim their freedom, what do you expect the leadership to do?" (Daily News, 9 June)

Tsivangirai is clearly open to talks that could lead to a transitional government. Rumours of divisions in Zanu-PF and speculation about a successor to Mugabe are rife. The way is being paved for a ‘government of national unity’. And the US and Britain are now heavily involved in their own shuttle diplomacy between the MDC and Zanu-PF.

A MDC government could enjoy an initial honeymoon. But its neo-liberal policies will not solve any of the country’s fundamental problems. In time, the masses will come into conflict with it. The task facing the Zimbabwean working class is to establish its own mass party on a socialist programme, build links with the powerful South African proletariat, and fight for a socialist confederation on the subcontinent as a step towards a socialist Africa.

From Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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July 2003