Robert Mugabe (1924-2019)
Zimbabwe under Mugabe and the need for the Working Masses to struggle for economic and political emancipation
By Chinedu Bosah
When the independence struggle was raging in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly when neighbouring countries like Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) gained independence in 1963, it was a matter of time for Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to gain her independence from the White Minority self-governing British rule. In 1880s, the British colonization of Zimbabwe began through the British South Africa Company owned by Cecil Rhodes. Overtime, there was clash of interest over land that led to revolt by the indigenous people, which was suppressed and this precipitated displacement of the indigenous people from their land in favour of the European colonisers.
Zimbabwe became self-governing under the European settlers in 1923 while still remaining a British colony. Later, fearful that the British would give flag independence, the then white minority leader, Ian Smith, declared independence in 1965 with the support of neighbouring powers, the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the Portuguese colonial powers in Angola and Mozambique. At that time the independence struggle had started gaining ground with ZAPU under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo and ZANU under Robert Mugabe organising resistance with support from Zambia after it won independence in 1975 as well as from Mozambique.
As at 1980 when Robert Mugabe took over power, Zimbabwe economy relied heavily on a large-scale farms owned by white minority side by side impoverished and largely subsistence farming of the vast majority black farmers but the new government strived to change the situation using the state to lead and drive development. To this end, the government adopted what it called the Growth with Equity in 1981. Between 1980 and 1990, Zimbabwe recorded the strongest growth ever in her history with a GDP growth rate of 5.5%. Within this period, life expectancy moved from 55 to 59; children vaccinated increased by 47% with over 500 health centres built largely, which improved access to healthcare; due to free education policy side by side with the expansion of education facilities, child enrolment for primary education increased by over 200% within a year after independence and as at 1990 Zimbabwe recorded universal primary education for all; jobs were created and living standard improved. These remarkable successes in the first decade took place side by side with a destabilizing struggle for power and dominance between Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe which took ethnic colouration with about 20,000 people killed. A truce was reached in 1987 wherein both parties joined into one ZANU-PF while Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo became president and one of two vice presidents respectively.
Despite radical ‘Growth with Equity’ policy launched after independence, whites who are less than 1% still owned 70% of the arable land and Mugabe’s response was to pursue land redistribution on the basis of willing buyer and willing seller, which expectedly failed because the blacks had no money to buy; this alone was a ground for agitation amongst the black majority. The initial response of Mugabe to land shows how he wanted to accommodate the interest of big land owners side by side the interest of the landless peasants which proved impossible.
In the 1990s, the expansion of social infrastructure could not be sustained because of bureaucratic and corrupt control of state companies and Mugabe gradual romance with IMF and private capital leading to neo-liberal and policies austerity measures. The beginning of the 1990s saw a significant right-turn by Mugabe, symbolically the formal references to “Marxism” were dropped. Between 1991 and 1995, Mugabe launched a ruinous neo-liberal Economic Structural Adjustment Programme as dictated by IMF aimed at liberalising the economy. Subsequent market reforms only strived to increase private sector role in production and distribution, led to devaluation of the Zimbabwean Dollar and the economy further contracted with growing debt, poverty and joblessness. Already, in 1997 Mugabe-led government had come under pressure as Zimbabwe has started recording students’ protest and workers’ strikes. Mugabe played a progressive role in the struggle for independence and against colonialism just like many other Africa freedom fighters. But after winning that first leg of battle with the support of the masses, they would not lead the struggle to end capitalist exploitation but rather emerged as the new head of the oppressing ruling class.
The growing poverty in the 1990s came with growing agitation and the government intensified its repression. The trade unions proved incapable to galvanising the working masses to challenge the government and left a lacuna that was temporarily filled by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC was formed out of the People’s Working Convention called in February 1999 by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). While there was pressure at the convention to form a working peoples’ party the ZCTU leadership, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, worked to ensure a multi-class party supporting capitalism eventually emerged. Despite its initial trade union support Morgan and MDC were unable to chart a clear pro-working class alternative to the Mugabe policies or IMF-inspired policies though it garnered some support.
As a matter of fact, Morgan relied mostly on Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups, an historic opposition stronghold against Mugabe instead of mobilizing the whole working masses across ethnic lines through radical policies anchored on socialism, this divisive politics and lack of a clear alternative assisted Mugabe to stabilize despite facing his biggest challenge. It is in this process that Mugabe who has come under immense pressure and his government allowed the militia (war veterans and youth militias) loyal to ruling ZANU-PF to invade white farms and took them over in 2000. He equally paid a large gratuity in the sum of 50,000 Zimbabwean dollars each to about 60,000 war veterans to wade off opposition in 1997 as one of the manoeuvres to enable him stabilize his government. After 20 years of sustained implementation of market reforms and as at 2013, the economy went from bad to worse, the stock market collapsed by one-third, nine commercial banks failed leaving a loss of one billion dollars in depositors funds; domestic and foreign debts had grown to $6 billion and $11 billion respectively as at 2016.
Mugabe violently repressed mass protest in 2008 and many ended in jail or were murdered.
The main reason for the degeneration was that Mugabe and just like the rest strived in vain to find solution to Africa problem from the point of reforming capitalism and make it have ‘human face’ but failed to recognise its limitations in a global exploitative economy. From the onset, these freedom fighters feel that they own the victory against colonialism and consequently dictate the running of society top-down without recognizing the heroic role played by the masses in the struggle and the roles they could have played in the reconstruction of Zimbabwe and other African countries on a sustained basis.
The more the market reforms were implemented, the more the crisis deepened and the beneficiaries were capitalist elite and close allies of Mugabe. Robert Mugabe was ousted from power in 2017 by his own breed of ruling elite lieutenants in a power struggle that ensued between his wife, Grace Mugabe (leading a factional younger ZANU-PF elite known as Generation 40) versus the older ZANU-PF faction led by the current President, Emmerson Mnangagwa known as Lacoste; the old guard of the ZANU-PF and top military wanted power to remain with them and since Mugabe was backing the wife and her faction, he was removed.
Mugabe was like many African leaders of his generation used the state to drive development, setting up state enterprises and organizing Zimbabwe under a very limited form of planned economy. Partly this was based on balancing in the situation where the world was divided between capitalist and non-capitalist economies. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turn towards capitalism in China undermined this. In the period of neo-liberalism and repeated capitalist crisis it became clear that the previous giant strides could not be sustained because the whole economy, rather than being under the democratic control of the working class, was under a self-serving elite control and the big capitalists. The fact that Mugabe died in Singapore is a testament to the healthcare system that was once vibrant in the first 15 years after independence to the extent that foreigners visit Zimbabwe to access quality healthcare has become poor. This is just a signpost of how things have gone awry and there is the need for a working class-led struggle that will liberate Zimbabwe politically and economically along the path of socialism.