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Mugabe regime cracks down in Zimbabwe

By David Whitehouse | March 23, 2007 | Page 12

JUST AS Zimbabwe's fractured opposition showed signs of a resurgence, the regime of Robert Mugabe has unleashed a brutal crackdown.

On the outskirts of the capital of Harare, security forces broke up preparations for a March 11 prayer meeting of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), shooting one activist to death and savagely beating 50 arrestees.

The MDC's main leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was a special target, receiving blows that apparently cracked his skull. Tsvangirai promised to keep up the fight until Mugabe steps down.

The crackdown continued in the days that followed, with police storming a funeral home and beating attendees at a wake for Gift Tandare, the man who was murdered on March 11.
They seized the body, coffin and all, "to prevent his burial from becoming a focal point for the opposition," according to the London Observer.

Two prominent MDC members injured by the March 11 beatings were rearrested at Harare's airport as they tried to get to South Africa for medical help. And Harare residents told the Observer that police have started to beat those who go out after dark, and to break up gatherings as small as four people. A local political scientist said the crackdown extends to the whole country.

But last weekend, opponents of the regime gathered for demonstrations in Harare and Mutare to protest the murder of Gift and the beatings of Tsvangirai and others who were arrested. According to activists, more protests were lanned this week to demand the immediate release of arrested demonstrators, and access to medical treatment.

"Enough is enough," a Zimbabwean socialist wrote in an e-mail report sent to SW. "Yesterday's demonstrations show that people have had enough of prices that are going up every day and brutality used to solve the crisis. The talk is about the need to fight back."

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MUGABE WAS a hero of the armed struggle that gained victory in 1980 against white minority rulers implanted by British colonialism.

His initial rule in the 1980s was marked by social-welfare measures, financed by reserves of platinum, gold and diamonds--along with corn and tobacco exports from large farms that were still owned by whites. An educational campaign lifted literacy to its current 90 percent.

But even the first years were marked by mass violence, as Mugabe sent a hardened army brigade--trained by North Korea--to kill 20,000 members of the Ndebele tribe, which formed the base of his main political rival, Joshua Nkomo.

When the economy stagnated in the 1990s, Mugabe leaned even more heavily on the security forces, and he turned to free-market measures that have vastly enlarged the gap between rich and poor. Today's rich are mostly those well connected to the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF).

For everybody else, Zimbabwe has become one of the world's most difficult places to live. The economy has shrunk by half since 1990, and unemployment has climbed to an estimated 80 percent. The inflation rate recently passed 1,700 percent, and one-fifth of the population aged 16 to 49 is infected with HIV.

Food is now scarce, and chronic fuel shortages have created breakdowns in transportion, industry and agriculture. The farm crisis also stems from a populist phase in the beginning of the decade when Mugabe distributed white-owned land to Black political favorites--who lacked capital, farming experience or both. On top of that, there has been a drought this year--forcing the government to cut payrolls to fund corn imports.

Economic crisis and political repression have driven one-quarter of Zimbabwe's 13 million people to flee to neighboring countries, mostly South Africa. Many who remain survive on remittances from exiled family members.

This year's resistance began with strikes by teachers, nurses and doctors whose pay hasn't kept up with inflation. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) plans a national strike in April.

Another factor in the re-emergence of the MDC has been the mending of factional divisions that have plagued the group since late 2005.

Arthur Mutambara, who leads the smaller faction, belongs to Zimbabwe's majority Shona tribe, but his base is among the minority Ndebele. Tsvangirai, a former head of the ZCTU, has a more mixed base of support, including stronger support from workers.

The two united this year after signs that leading figures within ZANU-PF want to help push Mugabe out. At a party congress last December, delegates thwarted Mugabe's proposal to extend his rule for two years after his term expires in 2008.

The ZANU-PF heavyweights, including a former army chief, are stung by international sanctions against the businesses they control--as well as embarrassing bans on travel to the U.S. and Europe. They and their friends in business would like to maintain ZANU-PF rule without the liabilities that Mugabe brings them, including restricted access to foreign capital.

Mugabe still has a base among the army's top officers, the secret police and the party youth--all of whom are well paid. But his support in the lower ranks of the army and police has faded as inflation eats up their paychecks.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), rank-and-file security forces say they wish that MDC protests were bigger--since they'd like to have political cover to mutiny or desert.

But the MDC is still weak compared to its early years. In 2002, Tsvangirai nearly defeated Mugabe in a presidential race despite official fraud and violence.

After years of retreat--and subject to horrific violence--the MDC's leaders may be tempted to help ZANU-PF pull off a "palace coup" against Mugabe, maybe by pooling parliamentary votes against Mugabe's schemes to stay in power. The ICG says that MDC leaders are already in discussions with ZANU-PF "dissidents" about a transitional post-Mugabe government in which the MDC would likely act as junior partner.

Workers can provide the pressure in the streets and workplaces to bring Mugabe down in the coming months. But they need to organize as an independent force in order to have real influence over the shape that Zimbabwe takes when Mugabe is gone.

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