Robert Mugabe’s legacy – A Marxist analysis

Robert Mugabe, 1979 (Wikimedia Commons)

The empty seats at the National Sports Stadium in Harare at the official funeral ceremony for Robert Mugabe on 14 September, spoke volumes about the views of the Zimbabwean people. The circumstances of Mugabe’s death symbolically captured the real relations between this alleged hero of the liberation struggle and the masses. His body was brought home for burial from Singapore where he died from cancer, as Zimbabwean doctors are on strike for higher wages in hospitals that no longer have the funds to even stock paracetamol.

In September 2017, when Mugabe’s 37-year reign was ended, Zimbabweans in the diaspora joined citizens at home in celebration, dancing in the streets. The jubilation at Mugabe’s removal was however, tempered with deep scepticism. Mugabe was, after all, deposed by his closest collaborators. A thinly-veiled dictatorship had been put to an end by an equally thinly-veiled coup. Both in relation to economic policy as well as in its authoritarianism, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has not been a break from, but a continuation of Mugabe’s.

With the economy in meltdown, and determined, if as yet uncoordinated resistance, to the onslaught of austerity, Mnangagwa has been using Mugabe’s death in a desperate attempt to restore his regime’s political authority by eulogizing his hated predecessor as a “son of the soil”, who for all his sins, liberated Zimbabwe. The last half of Mugabe’s reign is being presented as at best, an aberration from an otherwise heroic first. At worst, it is being downplayed as justified by the position he was forced into by the betrayals of the West, and Britain, in particular.

In a desperate attempt to shore up his own rapidly eroding credibility at home, SA president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has joined this choir of praise singers, dressed in the ragged costume of “Mugabe the liberator” mythology. Delivering his eulogy at the official funeral in Harare as the toxic clouds of xenophobia were sweeping across SA, Ramaphosa was roundly and deservedly booed. Indignation was roused not so much by his distortions of Mugabe’s historical role but much more for the hypocrisy of singing hymns of Pan African solidarity with a tyrant whose policies had forced millions to flee to South Africa.  Ramaphosa’s ANC government has deflected anger over mass unemployment, poverty and inequality by campaigning against “undocumented” foreigners stealing South African jobs.

Going much further than this orchestrated hypocrisy, former president Thabo Mbeki, after hailing Mugabe as a “great patriot, a defender of Africa’s independence (and) interests”, went on to claim at a memorial service in Durban that he had not met a single person from Zimbabwe that wanted Mugabe deposed! This is in a country where a quarter of the population has fled his disastrous rule.

Mbeki’s eulogy was calculated to elevate the role Mugabe, the Pan Africanist, played in shaping the outcome of the liberation struggle in SA itself. He claimed that Mugabe had delayed land reform in order to ensure the successful conclusion of the coming negotiations in SA. In doing so, Mbeki unintentionally confessed to the collaboration between Zanu(PF) and the ANC in the betrayal of the liberation struggle in both countries.

The significance of Mbeki’s comments lies in the light they shed on the common determination of the political elite throughout southern Africa to re-write history in order to conceal from the masses the reality that, secondary differences aside, they shared a common determination to protect the capitalist system and to turn a blind eye to widespread corruption throughout the subcontinent. For them the purpose of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and South Africa was to assimilate into the capitalist system the class forces both Zanu(PF) and the ANC represent: the aspirant black capitalist class.

Liberation and Mugabe’s role

The real heroes of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle – the chimurenga – which took up arms in 1965, are the 30,000 who made the supreme sacrifice. But heroic as the armed struggle was, it proved incapable of toppling the white minority regime. It was the combination of the 1974 revolution in Portugal and its repercussion in Portugal’s colonial possessions that one year later led to the coming to power of the MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique that was decisive in changing the balance of forces in Southern Africa. The then-Rhodesian Smith regime, now seen as a threat to imperialist interests, was simply treated as small change in imperialist machinations and forced to agree to a negotiated settlement.

And where was Mugabe during this time? Basildon Peta reports: “Admirers of the ‘liberation icon’ may also want to know that [Mugabe’s] role in the liberation struggle was grossly exaggerated. Yes, he did spend about nine years jailed by Smith, a period during which many perished on the struggle front but he got time to improve his education. Upon his release in 1974 he crossed into Mozambique but remained aloof from the actual war front, ably led by Josiah Tongogara and Rhex Nhongo (aka Solomon Mujuru). Mugabe’s former right hand man, Edgar Tekere, used to tell how, until he took the oath of office in 1980, Mugabe had ‘never fired a gun. Nor could he wear a military uniform properly’.  The war lasted only about four (more) years after Mugabe’s release before the 1979 Lancaster House talks ushered in Zimbabwe’s independence.” (Sunday Times – Johannesburg 22/09/2019).

Zanu (PF) and Mugabe, in particular, have been portrayed as Marxist. Yet socialism has only ever appeared sporadically in party politics. Then only in the form of rhetoric calculated, in Bonapartist fashion, to lean on the working class and Zanu rank-and-file against any actual or potential rivals alternating this by striking at the working class.

The capitalists on the ground soon realised that Mugabe’s socialism was mere rhetoric. In their book, Zimbabwe’s Plunge, Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya quote a leading US banker as saying that: “The management of the more sophisticated large companies…seem to be impressed by and satisfied with Mugabe’s management and the increased level of understanding in government of commercial considerations…I felt it is a political pattern that Mugabe gives radical, anti-business speeches before government makes major pro-business decisions or announcements.”

Neither in its programme nor therefore in strategy has Zanu ever stood for the socialist transformation of society nor taken any steps to take control of the commanding heights of the economy. Its strategy was never based on the recognition of the central role of the working class in the liberation struggle. On the contrary, the Zanu leadership saw in the working class an independent force over which it had no control and therefore a potential spanner in the works of their plans for a capitalist negotiated settlement.

Mugabe’s role after liberation

Zimbabwe is a text book example of the bankruptcy of the Stalinist two-stage theory. Predicated on the idea that the struggle for democracy must be separated from that for socialism, it has in practice never achieved a fully-fledged bourgeois democracy or socialism. Instead, the theory has had the effect of perpetuating the economic dictatorship of the capitalist class masked by a fragile, truncated bourgeois “parliamentary democracy”. Mugabe took power armed with the advice of both the former Soviet Union and China. “Do not rush things – take your time…nationalisation would disrupt the economy” (Financial Gazette – Zimbabwe 01/02/85).

As the Marxist Workers Tendency (predecessors of the Marxist Workers Party) warned, within a year of the Zanu-Zapu government’s landslide victory in the first independence elections, “No government can both defend the interests of the capitalists and carry out the demands of the people. That is why the Zanu-Zapu government has been unable, despite its enormous popular support, to solve the land question, to end starvation wages, to provide jobs for the unemployed, or even to abolish white privilege.” (Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No.2 April 1981)

The foreign debt accumulated by the white minority regime would be honoured. More importantly capitalist property ownership, including the two thirds of the economy under foreign control, was protected from nationalisation. This included, critically, land – the central question in the  chimurenga.  To add insult to injury, the new Zimbabwean Army was to be led by the former head of the former Rhodesian armed forces, General Wallis, complete with his own selected officers whose hands were dripping with the blood of the 30,000 who had laid down their lives in the liberation struggle.

Enthused by the Zanu-Zapu government’s victory, the working class embarked, after the elections, on the biggest strike wave since the end of World War II. The working class regarded their action as strengthening the hand of the government; their ‘liberators’’ regarded their action with hostility.

Some reforms were introduced in health, education and a new minimum wage. But under the harsh austerity regime living standards nonetheless stagnated, mass unemployment continued to rise and the economy was in trouble by the middle of the decade. Predictably the anger of the masses soon became evident, followed by a rapid polarisation between the classes. Frustrated peasants occupied vacant land and workers continued to strike. Feeling threatened by these developments, the Mugabe government denounced the occupation of vacant land and tightened labour laws to deal with strikes, with many union militants either dismissed or arrested.

In a campaign that was consciously tribal, Mugabe lashed out at opponents in his own party and, at the same time, rekindled the animosities that had led to the split in the nationalist movement in 1963. Blaming Zapu for the government’s failures and its Ndebele base for collaborating with the West and the apartheid regime, Mugabe deployed the ‘new’ army to Matabeleland North in January 1983 – an occupation calculated to crush Zapu and its support amongst the minority Ndebele. Dubbed the Gukurahundi, the campaign escalated to the barbaric ethnic cleansing of at least 20,000 Ndebele people.

The ANC and Zanu

The ANC has for years propagated the falsehood that it fought in the trenches alongside Zanu. The truth is somewhat different. The ANC was aligned to the Soviet-backed Zapu. Most of the fighting was in fact carried out by Zanu in the east. Advised by his Soviet backers, Zapu leader, the millionaire businessman ,Joshua Nkomo, received military aid in the form of weapons of conventional war like tanks. The Zapu strategy was to await an opportune moment to return as a victorious army, “ready to govern”.

The ANC fought with Zanu, not in the trenches of the liberation struggle, but only after Zanu had taken power. If Mbeki’s claim that Mugabe delayed land reform to aid the successful conclusion of the negotiations in SA is true, it means that the ANC and Zanu actively colluded in the betrayal first of the Zimbabwean masses and later those in SA. The Lancaster house Agreement was, in hindsight, a dress rehearsal for Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) where SA’s negotiated settlement was concluded. For this, Mugabe was to be rewarded with an honorary knighthood by his beloved Queen of England in 1994; Mandela with the Nobel Peace prize.

Both had the same objective – the preservation of the capitalist economic foundations upon which white minority rule had rested clearing the way for the fulfilment of the aspirations of the black capitalist class. In the final analysis, the Lancaster House agreement was a mere piece of paper. It could have been torn up by the mobilisation of the masses on a programme for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy; industry in the cities and the commercial farms in the countryside. In the cities, this would have required the mobilisation of the working class to extend workers’ control and management over industry; in the countryside, the 350,000-strong black farm workers, combining the collectivisation of the big commercial farms with a programme of distribution of land for small famers.

Land Reform

Under the pressure of a growing movement taking direct action and occupying white-owned farms, and in an attempt to control the process, Mugabe’s introduced his so-called “fast track” land programme, in 2000. This was not part of a comprehensive strategy to change the ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. Rather, the central strategic calculation of Mugabe’s farm expropriation was to shore up the regime’s dramatic decline in electoral support in the cities by cultivating support in the countryside.  At the same time, this was done to strengthen his hold over an increasingly fractured Zanu (PF), through the largesse of bestowing some of the best land on the political elite.

The limit of the capitalist straightjacket Mugabe’s land reform is trapped in is being more and more revealed.

The Zimbabwe Independent (02/08/2019), reports that tobacco farming, the mainstay of the agricultural economy, is now dominated by small scale farmers and rural households.  Yields per hectare have trebled. Such has been the turn-around in tobacco production that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) has used tobacco output as collateral in securing loans from the Pan African Bank. But the improvements in the tobacco industry are now coming up against the contradictions of the government’s land expropriation policy. There was no parallel expropriation of industry, and commercial and financial capital. This side of the economy remains firmly in the hands of the capitalist class and foreign SA-dominated multinationals. The gains of these small farmers are under threat. The small tobacco farmers are being squeezed by the RBZ, which retains 50% of their export earnings. There is not much left to reinvest. Likewise, big business simply brushed aside Mugabe’s feeble attempts at “indigenization”.


Throughout these developments, the ANC remained steadfast in its support for Mugabe and the Zanu (PF) regime.  When a massive strike wave in the 1990s against the effects of the Mugabe’s government culminated in the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in 1999, out of the trade union movement, the ANC’s support intensified. Fearing that the working class in SA would be inspired by these development and create pressure on the leadership on the SA Congress of Trade Unions to break from the class collaborationist Tripartite Alliance with the SA Communist Party, the ANC echoed Mugabe’s denunciations of the MDC as puppets of the West.

The MDC had serious shortcomings and answered the Mugabe regime’s capitalist policies with their own even worse neo-liberal capitalist programme. Despite this, the masses turned towards the MDC on the electoral plane, giving it 57 out of the 120 seats in parliament in the 2000 elections. This posed the possibility that Zanu could be ousted from office, for the first time. In the 2002 presidential elections, the Mugabe regime, determined to hold onto power, engaged in open vote rigging, intimidation and voter fraud. The army generals declared they would not recognise an MDC administration.

So brazen was the manipulation, then SA president Mbeki was compelled to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry. Its report contradicted the findings of SADC election observers that the election had been “free and fair”. Mbeki suppressed the report as did Zuma until he was forced to publish through a court order.

Not even Mugabe’s 2005 ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ – the clearance of squatters and informal traders from the streets of Harare, to take revenge on the urban dwellers who had voted against Zanu (PF) – forced a change in ANC policy. It left nearly a million people homeless. The ANC government has played a critical role in propping up a government which enabled Mugabe, his family and his inner circle, to steal billions, defy election results, curtail free speech and had opponents arrested, tortured or disappeared.

Mass workers’ party

Under Mnangagwa, there has been no respite for the masses. The economy is in recession and likely to contract by at least 5.2% in the current fiscal year — the first contraction since 2009, when Zimbabwe was forced to abandon its currency due to hyperinflation.

The September 2019 statistics are a complete vindication of the deep distrust with which the masses viewed their “saviour”, Mnangagwa. Unemployment stands at 95%, inflation at 558%, and the cost of basic services are up by 400%. Zimbabweans are beginning to hoard basic commodities as prices go up on an hourly basis against the background of a continuous deterioration of the recently re-introduced Zimbabwean Dollar and US Dollar exchange rate.

The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee estimates that 4.1 million people (42% of the rural population) were food insecure during the period from January to March 2017. Unfortunately the MDC has broken into rival pro-capitalist factions, not a single one offering any way forward. Workers and young people must take the lead in building a socialist mass party uniting workers, small farmers and the poor.









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October 2019