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Zimbabwe: from bloody elections to extra poverty

The old adage that “a hungry man is an angry man” is one that finds echoes in the deteriorating economic situation in Zimbabwe. Indeed, the same dilemma is to some extent threatening the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a whole. The future looks increasingly bleak.

Long faces are a commonplace in the streets in most (if not all) urban areas. Queues for basic commodities are unending. This has given blank cheques to the unscrupulous, profiteering vendors who charge exorbitant prices for scarce commodities such as the staple, maize meal, sugar, cooking oil – to mention just a few. The irony is that Zimbabwe was once a significant regional supplier of agricultural products.

These shortages are human-made rather than natural. Mugabe's fast track land reform programme has offered to the people every kind of hindrance and no encouragement at all. The shambolically executed “re-settlement programme” has seen the displacement of some of the 4000 white commercial farmers by would-be peasant farmers, many with very slight practical experience and little or no equipment. The question is why is this happening now? Why, since coming to power in 1980, had Mugabe done so little to progress the question of “land redistribution” before now?

Under the Lancaster House agreement, land redistribution was to be implemented on the basis of “willing buyer – willing seller” with Britain putting up the money to make this arrangement work. But the formula never really worked. Moreover, many of the existing white farmers are “people who bought farms after independence, encouraged by Mugabe in the 1980s to develop farmland. Mostly, they were local whites who decided to take up farming, or return to it, but some came from South Africa” (CNN.com/world, 16 August, 2001). What little land that was redistributed tended to gravitate into the hands of people like the “relatives of ministers, army generals, permanent secretaries, directors of government departments and local party bosses” (Mail & Guardian, December 14, 1998.) There are reputedly at least 600 commercial farms (exceeding 1000 hectares each) belonging to rich blacks, mostly with links to ZANU-PF.

In the early years of independence, falling commodity prices on the world market – a common predicament faced by many developing countries – led the Zimbabwean government to succumb to IMF pressure to introduce austerity measures. In 1991, an Economic Structural Adjustment Plan (ESAP) effectively “liberalised” the economy by privatising state-owned firms, slashing social spending, and facilitating inflows of foreign capital. However, this only made matters worse. It decimated the manufacturing sector of the economy, destroying over 50,000 jobs. Real wages began to fall and the economy stagnated. In addition to this Zimbabwe's involvement in a protracted war in the Congo imposed a crippling burden on the state.

This was the background against which we saw increasing outbreaks of industrial discontent during the 1990s which led, in due course, to the formation in 1999 of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) whose leader Morgan Tsvangirai was a trade unionist. But protest was not confined to the urban areas; in the rural areas too increasing impatience at the slow pace of land redistribution likewise threatened to undermine support for the regime. Faced with a growing opposition within the country the Mugabe regime then began to increasingly resist IMF pressures to further “reform” the economy which caused the IMF and the World Bank to suspend all further loans to Zimbabwe in 1999.

It was in this context and with the prospect of a presidential election in March 2002 that Zanu-PF began to take up the cause of land redistribution more vigorously. This move was cynically calculated to win support from the rural population (while the threat posed by urban workers was reduced by such Machia-vellian tactics as were outlined in April 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard). Mugabe received plaudits from the rural peasantry with the slogan “Land to the people!” and that was enough to enable him to scrape home with 1.6 million votes compared to Tsvangirai's 1.2 million (if you disregard those among nation's 5.6 million registered voters who were prevented from casting their vote). But having been returned to power, the Mugabe regime has now has to contend with an economy that is largely in ruins.

To make matters worse, there has been a terrible drought. The resettled farmers' efforts were substantially undermined by this event which affected the whole country. Droughts are not uncommon in this part of the world and in the past the government used to have adequate stockpiled reserves – amounting to more than 1 million tonnes of maize – to cover such eventualities. However pressure from the World Bank forced the state to sell off these stockpiles with the result that it now has to import maize from elsewhere at a considerable cost

.The government had received early warnings from concerned bodies in Zimbabwe (and many international bodies as well) about the drought and that their reserves would not suffice as far as the needs of the people were concerned. But because of Zanu-PF's culturally induced paranoia of winning (elections), they, through the minister of Lands, Agriculture and Resettlement, Joseph Made, dismissed these reports as baseless and mere speculations concocted by unscrupulous organisations to defame the credibility of their government.

So all Zimbabweans are now waiting for the masquerading, self-proclaimed “socialist” – Mugabe – to fulfil his promises of land and bread. There is a noticeable difference in outlook, not to say suspicion and even hatred, between rural and urban folk, something that the Mugabe régime has itself fostered. The former tend to support the government because of its promise of more land which they see as the answer to the problem. The generally speaking, better educated urban workers, on the other hand, tend to support the MDC and know all to well that the country is now under sanctions and their “illegitimate” government has no foreign currency to deal with the growing food crisis. They see the lives of Zimbabweans as that of a man submerged in a duck pond up to the lips. The slightest ripple of misfortune will serve to drown him.

The fact of the matter is Mugabe and his counterparts are dangerous men, passionately dedicated to capitalist doctrines and contemptuous of the masses. His regime can offer nothing but more suffering as a precondition of some never-never land of economic salvation. On the other hand, the MDC is itself hardly much of an alternative to recommend, dominated as it is by capitalist interests. Their economics advisor Eddie Cross, a leading member of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) has already talked (before the election) of continuing where Mugabe left off by privatising the top parastatals in the country and getting “government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years” (quoted in P. Bond, Radical Rhetoric and the Working Class during Zimbabwean Nationalism's Dying Day”, JWSR). Hardly something likely to benefit the workers of Zimbabwe.

In the meanwhile, Morgan Tsvangirai has refused to accept an offer of a coalition government. The South African and Nigerian presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo respectively have failed to convince Tsvangirai before the recent Commonwealth troika meeting held in London. This led to the suspension of Zimbabwe from the club for a year. What a mess: from bloody elections to extra poverty.