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Where is Zimbabwe headed?

March 1, 2002 | Page 8

ERIC RUDER reports on Zimbabwe's deepening political crisis on the eve of the March 9-10 presidential election.

ZIMBABWE'S PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe has intensified repression of political opponents in a desperate attempt to maintain his 22-year grip on power.

In the last couple of months, Mugabe has pushed a series of draconian laws through parliament, banning the foreign press, imposing tight controls on local media and targeting basic rights to free speech and assembly. For example, it is now illegal to "undermine the authority of the president" or to "engender hostility towards him."

Socialists in Zimbabwe appeal for support

SOCIALISTS IN Zimbabwe are appealing for international support. President Robert Mugabe's police attacked a February 15 demonstration of several hundred people as they marched through the capital of Harare, calling for an end to government repression and neoliberal economic policies of austerity. The march was called by the National Constitutional Assembly, a coalition of unions and political groups, including the International Socialist Organization-Zimbabwe (ISO-Z).

Fifteen marchers were arrested and held in prison, where police beat them in their cells. All were later released on bail, but they will appear in court March 4 to be arraigned. Among those arrested was Munyaradze Gwisai, a member of the ISO-Z and a representative in the country's parliament.

Mugabe's thugs have singled out ISO-Z members, beating and arresting them for simply selling their newspaper. A meeting of union officials agreed last week to call for a solidarity stay-away from work next week, when the 15 appear in court.

The ISO-Z has appealed for international support--including desperately needed funds for a defense campaign and continued organizing. readers and the International Socialist Organization in the U.S. have responded generously. At meetings in New York City and Chicago, appeals for donations raised more than $600 at each event.

All told, the ISO-U.S. will send more than $1,500 to help their comrades in Zimbabwe. More is needed, however. And the ISO is organizing protests at Zimbabwe diplomatic offices in New York and Washington, D.C., on March 1. Please support this important struggle for democracy, justice and socialism in Zimbabwe.

Make checks and money orders payable to "ISO," write "Zimbabwe" on the memo line, and send to: ISO, P.O. Box 16085, Chicago, IL 60616.

The chief target of these laws is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a political opposition to Mugabe that emerged out of a period of mass working-class struggle in the late 1990s.

Last week, Mugabe supporters rampaged through the capital of Harare, attacking MDC offices, dragging leading members into the street and beating them, as police looked on. During a visit to a rural area by MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, police shot at his convoy.

In the past two years, more than 100 MDC supporters have been murdered by Mugabe's thugs--and many more have suffered physical assaults.

Last week, the European Union (EU) and the U.S. government thrust themselves into the conflict, freezing the foreign bank accounts of Mugabe and 19 top government officials and imposing travel restrictions on them.

But the U.S. and the EU don't care about democracy. Just two months ago in Zambia, for example, the EU defended obviously crooked election results--because the "winner" is a friend of multinational corporations.

Now, precisely when Mugabe is facing the most significant challenge to his rule since he was elected president in 1980, the sanctions imposed by the EU and U.S. will be used by Mugabe to claim that he is standing up to Western imperialism.

"It is very clear that what we are now dealing with is organized economic terrorism whose aim is clear and is to unseat a legitimately elected government which has decided to defend its national independence and national sovereignty," said Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo.

But this rhetoric conceals the true character of Mugabe's regime.

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IN 1980, the election victory of Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party was the climax of a 20-year guerrilla struggle for democratic rights in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia.

Millions of people celebrated the end of a century of white minority rule. But the Lancaster House negotiations that led to the elections were based on a promise from Mugabe and his fellow guerrillas to maintain "economic stability"--especially by leaving intact the huge farms of white landowners, who had forcibly taken the most fertile land from the native population.

To this day, white farmers--who make up less than 1 percent of the population--control 40 percent of the land overall, and almost all of the productive land.

In coming to power, Mugabe's new government inherited an economy that had been deliberately wrecked by the departing white regime. Still, though limited to what international bankers and companies would tolerate, Mugabe implemented real reforms that improved the lives of ordinary people. Between 1980 and 1985, for example, infant and child deaths dropped by about half.

But a crunch came in the early 1990s, when prices for the country's main export crops collapsed. Zimbabwe was forced to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for loans.

In exchange for loans, the government agreed to big cuts in social spending, privatization of many state-run companies, an end to food subsidies, removal of any barriers to multinational investment in the country and "market determination" of prices and wages.

Just as the program was being implemented, Zimbabwe was hit with its worst drought in living memory. By March 1992, Zimbabwe was exporting grain--and then buying it back at three times the price.

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THIS DECADE-old economic and social crisis remains the backdrop to Zimbabwe's political crisis.

Annual inflation is 100 percent, official unemployment runs at 60 percent, and the country has one of the highest rates of HIV infection of any country in the world. Hunger stalks the countryside.

In stark contrast to this misery, Mugabe's government recently gave a 400 percent pay increase to the army and police. This is no surprise to ordinary Zimbabweans, who have come to view the former freedom fighter and his regime as corrupt and brutally repressive.

In previous elections over the past five years, Mugabe has needed widespread fraud and harassment to keep ZANU-PF and himself in power. If not for the regime's crackdown, the opposition MDC would win power easily.

Yet after emerging out of the union movement a few short years ago, MDC leaders turned their backs on supporters by endorsing the same IMF-inspired austerity policies that pushed Zimbabwe into crisis in the first place.

This gave Mugabe an opening to try to whip up support--as a defender of the rural poor against Western-backed MDC leaders who admit that they will do the IMF's dirty work.

To reinforce this image, Mugabe encouraged a wave of takeovers of white farms by veterans of the liberation war. In reality, Mugabe has promised land reform for more than two decades, but delivered nothing. His support for the occupations now is a cynical ploy.

But the need for land reform is desperate--and tragically, MDC leaders allowed Mugabe to take the initiative by bowing before Western pressure to oppose the takeovers.

Twenty years after the overthrow of white rule, Zimbabweans are still fighting for liberation from hunger, disease and unemployment. In spite of everything, millions of ordinary Zimbabweans will vote this month to get rid of Mugabe.

But the alternative to his corrupt and repressive regime lies not in the MDC leadership and its Western-backed policies--but in the mass struggles that loosened Mugabe's grip in the first place.

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