On July 30, Zimbabwe held its first election in decades in which Robert Mugabe was not on the ballot. This event should cause socialists to look back at what happened in that country and learn some lessons.
Somewhat inaccessible to the European slave traders, the peoples of what is now Zimbabwe were not directly affected by the European slave trade. However, an Arab slave trade did develop in the seventh century and it was horrific. The men were typically castrated and 60% of them bled to death as a result. The women were primarily sold as sex slaves.
However, it does not seem that this trade was as extensive as the European slave trade, because it did not prevent highly sophisticated societies from developing.
Around the 10th century, the Shona people developed trade with Arab merchants and participated in trade routes that stretched as far as Persia and China. At the center of these routes was the Zimbabwean Plateau where they built the Great Zimbabwe empire, whose remains still stand today. (See right) It seems their society was evolving from pre class, collective land ownership towards a class society based on individual land ownership. The invasion of the Ndebele people drove that process further ahead.
When the British arrived, in the mid 19th century, they put an end to the Arab slave trade, in order to establish their own form of slavery – wage slavery. As one study put it, “Although the British didn’t technically enslave the native Zimbabweans the wages they paid them for all the dangerous and hard labour they made them do could be compared to similar conditions slaves elsewhere worked in.”
The British colonizers carved out a country which they called Rhodesia, named after the British colonialist, Cecil Rhodes. They built a system essentially the same as the apartheid system in South Africa. In 1965, seeking to make permanent the Rhodesian version of apartheid, its ruler Ian Smith declared independence. A 15 year guerrilla war developed in resistance. There were two main guerrilla groups: ZAPU, which was aligned primarily with the Soviet Union and was more based on the Ndebele people and the Chinese aligned ZANU, based on the Shona who were and are the majority, and led by Robert Mugabe.
While Mugabe used the Cold War anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric, in reality he had no plan to overthrow capitalism. And, as a guerrilla leader, he was not based on the working class, which was not organized to control him or the rest of the ZANU leadership.
While the regime was originally a coalition regime of both ZANU and ZAPU, such a coalition based on capitalism could not survive. Sure enough, from 1983-4, ZANU conducted a purge against its ally/rival, ZAPU. This took the form of a genocidal campaign against the Ndebele people, conducted by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade. The campaign was known as Gukurahundi, which is a Shona term for the spring rains that sweep away the dry season chaff. It is estimated that between 20,000 to 80,000 Ndebele men, women and children were killed.
The British knew about this slaughter but they either kept their mouths shut or mildly protested. These protests caused Mugabe to somewhat reign in the genocide, at least to the extent that it was not so blatant and that it was difficult to blame him personally. As an article in the Guardian puts it, “The western response to violence against black countrymen in the 1980s was a pale shadow of the reaction to attacks on white farmers in 2000. Many Ndebele remain bitter about this inconsistency.” Which brings us to the land question.
As in many parts of Africa, the question of distribution of land is linked with racism and with Zimbabwe’s colonial past. By the mid-1980s, although whites composed just 0.6% of the population, they held 70% of the most fertile land in Zimbabwe.When Mugabe first came to power, a deal was reached with the British that there would be no forced confiscation of land. Rather, there wold be a voluntary redistribution based on “willing seller, willing buyer”. The British agreed to put up some of the money for the purchase of white-owned farms. Under Tony Blair, however, they reneged on this agreement. This was exacerbated by the corruption of the Mugabe regime, which had been using some of the money for its own political purposes rather than for land redistribution.
In the 1990s, Mugabe initiated a forced redistribution of the land. Some white farmers and their families were killed, and this was used by Western imperialism to trumpet its outrage at this violation of the holy of holies: respect for private property rights. However, since this redistribution was carried out from above, by a corrupt capitalist government, it did not resolve anything. In fact, it made matters worse:
The previous owners were large farmers who employed tens of thousands of black farm workers – a rural proletariat. As a capitalist regime, Mugabe could not simply nationalize these large farms under the management and control of the rural proletariat and plan agricultural production, despite the fact that this would have taken advantage of the economy of scale of large farms. Instead, the farms were either broken up into small landholdings or given to Mugabe’s cronies. An African National Congress study concluded that “Mugabe had given himself 15 farms, while Simon Muzenda received 13. Cabinet ministers held 160 farms among them, sitting ZANU-PF parliamentarians 150, and the 2,500 war veterans only two. Another 4,500 landless peasants were allocated three. The programme also left another 200,000 farmworkers displaced and homeless, with just under 5% receiving compensation in the form of land expropriated from their ousted employers.” Further exacerbating the situation was the fact that the small landholders did not hold clear title to the land, which meant that they could not get financing from the banks.
So the large farms either passed into the hands of political cronies who had no experience and little interest in actually farming or was broken up into small, inefficient farms that could not get financing anyway. The result was that agricultural production collapsed in Zimbabwe, previously known as the breadbasket of southern Africa. This was inevitable under a capitalist regime. A socialist policy would have been to nationalize the large farms and plan agricultural production under the direct control and management of the agricultural workers – and the wider working class – themselves. This would have had to have been coordinated with industrial production and foreign trade.
Western imperialism cried bloody murder about the land confiscation. But they denied any responsibility for the settler-colonial land ownership problem in the first place. As Clare Short of the British Labour government put it, “we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe.” The US government put Zimbabwe on a credit ban.
Together, this had a disastrous effect on the Zimbabwean economy. Agricultural exports collapsed and Zimbabwe became a net food importer. A trade surplus of $322 million in 2001 became an $18 million deficit in 2002 as a result of both the decline in agricultural production and the credit freeze. About 45% of the population became malnourished.
It should also be noted that, as with much of Africa, Zimbabwe has great mineral wealth, including platinum, diamonds and lithium. This means that imperialism has a serious interest in the country.
2017 Coup & 2018 elections
This was the background to the soft coup of the Zimbabwean military in 2017. The coup ousted Mugabe and replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa. It was also the background to the elections this July. The main opponent of Mnangagwa was Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change. The election was relatively close, with Mnangagwa being credited with receiving 50.3% of the vote, just barely enough to avoid a runoff. (There were more than two candidates.) The MDC cried “foul” and held protests after the election count. These protests were violently suppressed by the Mnangagwa government. However, even had Chamisa been allowed to take office, it’s unclear how much real difference it would have made.
Both candidates were campaigning on the basis of trying to modernize Zimbabwe. It’s true that Chamisa does not have the history of corruption and repression that Mnamgagwa has, but what would that have meant in the long run? After all, just consider the evolution of Mugabe himself.
Zimbabwean Labor Movement
There is a history of workers’ struggles in Zimbabwe. In the 1990s, for example, students, unionists and other workers demonstrated against government policies and in 1996 there was a public sector strike over wage issues. And just in the first half of this year alone there have been an outburst of strikes (see here for a list). Nurses, for example, went on strike, resulting in 6,000 of them being fired. After a prolonged struggle they forced the government to rehire them all. Teachers also went on strike. They, too, were threatened with firing, only to have the government back down and grant them a pay increase without firing anybody. In June, workers at the mining explosives firm GML explosives went on strike over unpaid wages.
On July 29, one day before the vote, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), endorsed Chamisa. ZCTU president Peter Mutasa explained that although there were other opposition candidates, “in our view the MDS alliance provides a realistic chance for achieving the change we all want.” Interestingly, a number of unionists also ran for public office.
It is not clear exactly what the class nature of the MDC is. However, it does seem that both of the main candidates have a strategy of trying to “modernize” Zimbabwe by attracting foreign investment. As in much of Africa, Chinese imperialism is playing a large role, and they are the single largest investor in Zimbabwe as well as China being the largest exporter into Zimbabwe. Chamisa has campaigned against the trade deals made by the ZANU government.
The main point, though, is that be it from China, the United States or any other imperialist country, the idea that foreign investment can solve the problems is a failure. That is exactly the road that the African National Congress walked down and that led it to its present state.
From Nicaragua to Zimbabwe, the road of capitalist development has been tried and tried again. It is not working.
Added Note: This article has been criticized on the grounds that it is saying that Zimbabwe could establish a socialist society alone. Nothing of the sort was implied, nor is that possible. On the contrary, ZANU’s failure to have a socialist perspective from the start was directly linked linked to its nationalist perspective. It’s true that a similar perspective was held by the powerful African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, but a truly revolutionary leadership in Zimbabwe could have had a powerful affect on the South African revolution as well as the revolutions in the entire Southern cone of Africa.