Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


Transformation time

Charlie Kimber looks at the developing crisis in Zimbabwe and the role of its opposition
MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai

As the regime of President Mugabe has entered a period of unprecedented crisis, so the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has become central to developments in Zimbabwe. The MDC is the product of three years of sharp class struggles. Since 1995, the acute economic and social hardship has driven more and more workers and peasants into clashes with Mugabe. Unemployment is now 50 percent, wages are low and 90 percent of all deaths are Aids related. Mugabe has also sent 11,000 troops to a wasteful and bloody war in the Congo.

In an effort to please local and multinational capitalists, Mugabe has tried to hold down public sector wages, restrict the right to protest and cut services. This has led to three waves of national strikes and numerous local disputes. In 1998 township rebellions caused chaos and brought part of the country to a standstill. Throughout these battles the trade unions were at the centre of events. Although they did their best to avoid confrontation and were always ready to call off action as soon as possible, the leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions were forced to take a stance. As popular protest grew, workers and peasants demanded that the ZCTU take the initiative to set up a powerful opposition party. The MDC, launched in September last year, is the result of that pressure.

The MDC was immediately enormously popular. It claims to have recruited over one million members in its first five months. The vast majority of these people were workers, peasants, students and the unemployed. As its president Morgan Tsvangirai said at the MDC's inaugural congress in January, 'Don't forget where we come from. Our base is the workers, peasants and the poor--75 percent of the people of Zimbabwe.'

In February the MDC's structures were important in defeating Mugabe's new constitutional proposals, which would have given him almost unlimited powers. The MDC's growth terrified Mugabe and he has unleashed a violent campaign against rank and file MDC activists. But while the poor flooded into the MDC, its leaders were moving sharply rightwards.

They talked about the mass base but they increasingly courted the support of businessmen and multinationals. Many capitalists were unhappy with the increasingly unstable Mugabe regime and were ready to back an opposition--as long as it posed no threat to their ability to make profits.

The MDC's manifesto did promise some reforms and to end the Congo war. But it deliberately fudged the issue of what sort of economic policy it favoured. It said the MDC was for 'privatisation of parastatals' and a cut in state spending. This was all designed to 'restore confidence in the money markets'.

The MDC leaders' move rightwards intensified as Mugabe tried to rebuild support by encouraging occupations of white-owned farms. Now broad sections of the landowners were ready to back the oppostion--and so were more businessmen. The MDC should have responded to Mugabe's support for land seizures with slogans such as 'Take all the big farms for the peasants--including the farms of Mugabe's cronies'. It could have called for the land occupations to be extended, and ruthlessly attacked Mugabe for taking 20 years to begin any sort of land reform. Instead the MDC has called for 'law and order' to be restored and backed the white farmers. Many MDC offices are now full of rich, white volunteers. At MDC rallies, white farmers and businessmen openly march to the front and present fat cheques to the leadership.

As the British government (with former anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain in the lead) backed the white farmers, the MDC also picked up dubious international allies. An anti-Mugabe letter to the British Times newspaper on 13 April was signed by MDC leader Tsvangirai, former Tory ministers Lord Carrington, Geoffrey Howe, Lady Chalker, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind. Also signing were Chester Crocker, the former US assistant secretary of state for Africa and South African politician Tony Leon--who used a bitterly racist anti-crime message in an effort to win votes at the most recent South African election.

It is hard to think what this crew might have to offer the workers and poor of Zimbabwe. Yet the mass base of the MDC still wants what it fought for six months ago. The MDC leaders are aware of this and have imposed candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections in almost all constituencies.

Where elections were allowed, workers and trade unionists won practically all the nominations. In the Highfield area of Harare a member of Socialist Worker's sister organisation won the election to be the MDC candidate. Highfield was famous as a hotbed of nationalist agitation during the years of white minority rule and Mugabe was originally elected as an MP there. 'Workers chose a socialist because they want to see real change which will transform Zimbabwe in the interests of the masses,' says a member of Socialist Worker's sister organisation. 'The MDC leaders may take the organisation one way, but the workers are looking for a quite different direction.'

Such tensions mean that the MDC remains an unstable formation. Those at the top seek deals with capitalists, landowners and international business. Those who provide its base want, as a minimum, jobs, decent welfare services, education for their children and real land reform. For socialists the most urgent task is to set out an alternative to both Mugabe and the MDC leaders. A programme of taxing the rich, taking land and giving it to the peasants, massively boosting welfare and stopping the war in the Congo can offer a distinctively different focus which sections of workers will support.

Zimbabwe has entered a period of highly charged political change. Whatever the tactical shifts socialists have to make, the key is to organise those who want people before profit, and who want to fight for real change.

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