frontline 7

Zimbabwe: for democracy and socialism

Dave Hemson has for several decades been involved in building the workers movement in Africa. Forced into exile in 1975 he returned to South Africa in 1990. In 1985 while working to build the workers movement in Zimbabwe he was arrested and deported. He is now a researcher focusing on the conditions of the rural poor and working to rebuild the National Dock Labour Scheme to end casualisation in South Africa's docks. In this article he looks at the implications of the fraudulent elections on the opposition, the "Movement for Democratic Change" and asks what role the working class will play in fighting the slide towards economic catastrophe or civil war.

More than any other recent election in Africa the Zimbabwean election (9-11 March) has been debated within the international labour movement. The re-election of Robert Mugabe has aroused opposition from the imperialist powers and support from many African leaders. Workers are asking: what is happening in Zimbabwe to the workers and peasants, who should we be supporting?

The only reason that Blair and Bush are supporting free elections in Zimbabwe is because their interests are involved. There are no free elections in Pakistan and yet the US is pouring money in to support General Pervez Musharraf, it's in their interests. There have been allegations of electoral fraud in Madagascar and Zambia, but these people have nothing to say on this score. Internationally they defend the ownership of land by the rich. Clearly they support the white farmers in Zimbabwe and workers internationally should defend the struggle of workers and peasants. But does this mean that workers should support Mugabe?

Vote rigging

There is increasing evidence that the elections were not only not free and fair, but that there was massive vote rigging. The fact is that there is a big gap (of some 700 000) between the number of votes recorded by the electoral commission and those finally announced. No official can explain where these extra votes came from. When this was published by the daily independent press in Zimbabwe, the editor was arrested. Workers should not be neutral on democratic issues. The workers movement fights for democracy in every country of the world to be able to publicly expose the capitalist parties and to fight for socialism. In the past millions of Africans fought for a vote to be able to free themselves from the colonial yoke. Now the struggle is against leaders who cling on to power and oppress the people.

In Zimbabwe there was a tremendous victory of peasants and workers against colonial and racist rule when Robert Mugabe was elected President in 1980.At that time Mugabe needed only to have lifted a finger and the masses would have taken over the land and brought the big banks and companies under state control. But instead Mugabe propped up capitalism. Still, the people felt that some progress was being made after independence. Education was rapidly expanded, the war ended, and there were possibilities for large scale land reform. One by one the dreams of reform were not realised.

Through his dependence on the capitalist system, Mugabe accepted the World Bank's plan for structural adjustment (SAP) and retreated from serious reform. This alienated the people and he built a one-party dictatorship to stay in power. He eliminated all opposition, worsened ethnic divisions, and ordered brutal repression leading to the deaths of 20 000 Ndebele people at the hands of the security forces in the 1980s.

suppressed strikes

He was hostile to the working class and trade unions and suppressed strikes. Once he suppressed the base for the opposition party, ZAPU, Mugabe then offered the leaders government positions using the slogan of 'national unity'. The leaders accepted. In 1987 the two nationalist parties ZANU(PF)and ZAPU merged and each new minister was given a new Mercedes Benz. The anti-worker policies continued; the economy declined and unemployment rose. Mugabe promised to deal with the land question, but little was spent on developing the land. He kept a close relationship with the British arch reactionary Thatcher who did not carry out her promises to provide sufficient aid to make land reform possible on the basis of 'willing buyer, willing seller'.

Mugabe tried to build capitalist black empowerment through government support and privatisation. ZANU(PF) itself has an empowerment company which passes on rewards for party officials from the business of state. Many of the black companies had crony connections with the party and some engaged in massive defrauding of the state. There was vast property and stock exchange speculation in the 1990s. Roger Boka, the black tobacco auction businessman, who was accused of large-scale fraud, fled the country. Manufacturing, which made Zimbabwe at one time the second most industrialised nation in Africa, fell into decline, from 32% of GDP in1992 to 13% this year.

movement for democratic change

Far from improving on living conditions of the colonial past, the number of those living in poverty had doubled by 2000. As the working class moved into active opposition in general strikes and uprisings in the late 1990s, Mugabe became isolated. None of the tasks of social transformation set out at independence had been realised. The rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999 was based on a revived trade union movement now conscious that the nationalist leaders were incapable of carrying society forward and brought hope particularly to the urban masses. The MDC rapidly grew to a membership of 1.1 million. In this general stirring of society others also moved into action.

In 1997 Mugabe was faced by the 'war veterans' who demanded state pensions and land. Under pressure he made an unofficial alliance with these landless groups formed around individual veterans, gave out generous pensions and revived the land question. Politicians who had little to do with the war also benefited from the handouts; they carved out fortunes for themselves in pensions by claiming long service and injuries, and they were also the first in line for land. The 'war veterans' became the shock troops of the party against the rising opposition.

mass intimidation

Mugabe later intervened in the Congo to prop up the corrupt and dictatorial Kabila regime. The military, political, and government elite became engaged in a frenzy of looting of the mineral and forest products of the Congo, organised by white businessmen. All this was very unpopular and strengthened the opposition.

Mugabe reacted with extreme violence; with the bombing of printing works, assassination of local leaders, and by driving farm workers who were seen to be supporting the opposition from commercial farms. Despite mass intimidation during the 24-25 June 2000 elections the MDC won 57 seats against the ZANU(PF)'s 62, giving evidence of support in rural areas as well as in the towns. But even a decisive victory would not have guaranteed the MDC control of the 150 member parliament. Since 30 members were directly appointed by Mugabe, the MDC needed to win at least 76 of the 120 contested seats to have a majority. Mugabe did not plan to lose power through parliamentary elections.

Problems with MDC have become evident over time. Its leader Morgan Tsvangarai has sought to compromise with the capitalist order, and has not consolidated support in the rural areas by advocating land reform. He has become dependent on big business and white farmer support. The MDC had enormous potential to lead the workers and peasants through a program of radical social demands but its leadership has sought financial support from within the capitalist system. This is not to argue that ZANU(PF) is "progressive", it introduced a Structural Adjustment Plan (GEAR) to Zimbabwe and is leading the people to economic ruin and civil war.

dirty tricks

In the run-up to the March Presidential elections this year there were wholesale kidnappings and torturing of opposition youth, the banning of opposition rallies, and dirty tricks such as the destruction of ID cards necessary to vote. A secret voters roll was put together, polling booths were shifted to the rural areas, and the elections were put in the hands of the military. Thousands of people were prevented from voting in the urban areas after waiting for days.

In the rural areas where there were no observers, ballot boxes were probably stuffed with fake ballots. Mugabe said the opposition would "never, never" win the election and he made sure this would happen. The opposition leaders have been charged with treason. Since the election thousands of MDC supporters have been forced from their homes and are destitute. Wives and daughters of members of the opposition are reportedly now being raped in the camps of the party youth brigades.

Workers have a totally different approach. Marxists support the struggle of the poor and oppressed in every country for freedom. We know that this can only be realised when dictators are overthrown, workers' democracy installed, and the working people united in the struggle for jobs, land and socialism.

enriching the elite

President Mbeki has another strategy. He has acted on behalf of the Commonwealth, Bush and Blair, in expelling Zimbabwe and is now, with Nigeria, attempting to build a government of national unity. This appears to be one way to save the country from civil war, but like the Government of National Unity of 1987 will end up enriching the elite on the smashed base of the opposition.

Building a democratic opposition would have to start a new. Living conditions are declining dramatically. The AIDS pandemic is causing immense suffering and the people are impoverished. While top politicians are marking out the farms they want and driving off white farmers, there has been a 60% drop in agricultural output and hundreds of thousands facing starvation. The importation of maize has become a major burden on the limited foreign exchange available. With the currency worthless, South African companies are buying up banks and other companies in the economic chaos and the country could revert to its past semi-colonial status with South Africa.

Mugabe cannot lead the third Chimurenga (war) for democracy, land, and jobs. Zimbabwean workers face the task of restoring the democratic opposition to the foundations of the labour movement and together with the farm workers and peasants resolving the land issue.


ZANU(PF) is the main nationalist party in Zimbabwe and an amalgam of ZANU and ZAPU (based on the majority Shona and minority Ndebele speaking people respectively). The two parties came to constitute ZANU (PF) in 1987 after years of antagonism and internal repression.

Robert Mugabe is highly educated nationalist who came to head ZANU which then existed as a guerilla army in the late 1970s, opponents to his rule were imprisoned. At the Lancaster House agreement Mugabe's role was critical in securing an end to the long running guerrilla war and the compromises which followed. Independence was secured from Britain on 18 April 1980.