Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review



In the recent Zimbabwean general election the worker-backed Movement for Democratic Change came close to defeating President Mugabe's party. One of its MPs is socialist Munyaradzi Gwisai. He talked to Peter Alexander
Munyaradzi Gwisai

Congratulations on becoming MP for Highfield. Highfield is an interesting constituency--can you explain why?
It was the cradle of radical black nationalism, a working class suburb where Zanu-PF was formed, and for that reason Mugabe maintained his constituency there for the first two elections, in 1980 and 1985.

How were you politicised?
I grew up in Gweru, which is a small city, in a working class township. I was at high school when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 and in many ways was shaped by those events. Zanu-PF was seen as a socialist party, so we sympathised with it and saw ourselves as socialists. There was the victory, the electrifying atmosphere, seeing ordinary people believing in their capacity to change--that certainly had a profound effect on me. You could say I was an Africanist socialist.

University was where I first started meeting organised left politics. I joined a Stalinist group in the Law faculty, the home for socialist politics at university and nationally. I was in that from the word go, and was there in 1988 when resistance was beginning to crystallise. The students were led by a very radical SRC [Students' Representative Council]. The law students were in the forefront, and I became general secretary of the SRC. There were lots of demonstrations against the government and things began to open up. In 1989 there were more demonstrations, radical leaflets, radical press releases, and then our arrests in October. They closed the university for the first time since independence.

What about your shift from Stalinist politics?
At the end of the 1980s there were already cracks appearing in Stalinism internationally. Then there was Eastern Europe. So I was beginning to search for something else. At the end of 1991 I met a group of former students--Tendai Biti [now MDC spokesperson for land affairs] and so forth--and they invited me to a small study circle. Then I went to New York. I was amazed--so many bookshops dealing with left materials, various socialist groups. I just went to Columbia University to fulfil the minimum requirements--I decided I was just going through the whole lot and ultimately come out with my own assessment. So that's what I did for the 12 months I was in New York. What clinched it for me was the Marxism 93 event in Britain.

In 1989 the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) was already being raised, and the student movement began to oppose it. Today a lot of the movement against Mugabe seems to be about economic issues. What were the key moments?
In the early 1990s there was the emergence of liberal civic society, and also the growth of the trade union movement. Then there was the development of this ideology that 'Esap is alright, but the problem is that there is no consultation with us.' Things were not yet that bad, so people were not sure. I think the first wake-up call was the 1995 riots. Some fellows were caught trying to steal some typewriters, the police shot some innocent people in the streets, and there was an explosion in Harare. The International Socialist Organisation managed to link up with some civic organisations and organise a massive demonstration, which resulted in even graver riots. This clearly manifested a new mood among the workers and urban poor.

There followed another intensification of the class struggle in the country. In 1996 the landmark thing was the government workers' general strike, a spontaneous movement from below which the leaders of the three major unions--the teachers, nurses and public service general workers--were forced to join in. Even when they joined they tried to hold it back, but through the involvement of our organisation (ISO) and a few others we were able to push it for an extra week or so. It succeeded in most of its demands. The victory was a powerful lesson for the rest of the working class. The nurses went on with the strike, and sections of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) leadership began to change. Some were able to recognise that something was happening in the working class. Morgan Tsvangirai was at the forefront of that. He issued a call for a general strike, which was not authorised, and nearly lost his job (the strike was aborted). In 1997 there were strikes all over, including farm workers. There was the first national student revolt, partly around the events in Indonesia. Peasants--the first peasant occupations of farms! Learning from this, the war vets, who had been a marginalised lot, rose up and demanded their gratuities. They came to the State House [Mugabe's residence] and kind of occupied, then they were teargassed. But he gave in to them, so there was this imposition of the tax [to pay for the liberation of war veterans' gratuities], and in December there was the first stayaway [called by the ZCTU] against the levy. This giving in to radical action from below, plus the designation of close to 1,000 farms led to the run on the dollar. I think it was a warning to Mugabe that he had to stay within the realms of Esap.

Why did it take so long to form the MDC? Not only was there this economic decline and resistance, in 1990 the ZCTU refused to support Zanu and in 1991 Chiluba had come to power in Zambia.
This was primarily the weakness of the labour movement. You have a radical national liberation movement, which had attained independence on the basis of guerrilla war, and therefore the role of the working class was secondary at best. In the first five years after 1980 the government did deliver reforms, with minimum wages and a rise in real incomes, and also education and health reforms. By 1990 many of the affiliates of the ZCTU, which had been created by the state, were still very weak, looking to the state to deliver. Tsvangirai was in advance of his own affiliates. It is only after 1992 that trade unions started getting involved in collective bargaining, because before then issues were settled by the state. From then the unions began to grow.

Was it the 1997 strike that provided the confidence to launch a party?
Definitely. On May Day 1998 Socialist Worker was calling for a workers' party, and it was very well received. The leadership was not yet convinced. In the labour forums being held in Harare and Bulawayo a minority of workers would call for a party, and the standard response would be, 'The ZCTU represents all workers from all parties.' But there were the stayaways of 1998--including the five-day stayaway that was stopped--and the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly [NCA], and also the crisis in the economy. It was then that those around Tsvangirai began to think about it. There was the pressure from below, from the workers, but also, and in many ways a consequence of this, from the post-independence professionals, and this gave confidence to Tsvangirai.

Can you say something about the role of the NCA and the middle classes in the MDC?
The NCA was centred around the constitutional question. This brought together the radical students of the late 1980s who were now holding professional jobs--NGO people, lawyers, economists and so forth. There had already been two attempts to form bourgeois parties and these had failed through squabbles. Our suspicion is that the FEF [the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the influential social democratic organisation] and so forth, who funded the NCA, had a strategy for building a viable party by getting people to work together without calling it a political party, and so encouraging little squabbles. I think it was felt that there was a danger of radicalisation of the working class, particularly with 1997, and this is how Morgan was then brought in as the figurehead leader of the NCA (without anybody else from the ZCTU). He lent credibility to the NCA, which was very well funded, run by young professionals with a lot of energy. The NCA played a role in delaying, and ultimately in preventing, the formation of a labour party. It became a real force, the other half of the MDC.

Then in February 1999 there was the Working People's Convention and the decision to form a party?
In mid-1998 workers resolved to go for a massive five-day general strike. ZCTU leaders, particularly Tsvangirai, were opposed, and the state threatened to unleash massive violence. By late 1998 labour leaders were beginning to talk about a party, in many ways as a counter to stayaways. They pushed it as a substitute for direct action. The convention was called, basically by the ZCTU. Workers were very well represented.

The ZCTU created regions in the mid-1990s with all unions in, say, Midlands being in that region. In practice the regions became the most powerful segment of the working class rather than the affiliated union. The delegates came from provinces, mainly drawn from ZCTU activists in the regions. But the leadership--in terms of delivering papers, chairing sessions and writing the manifesto--was dominated by the NCA people, liberal and left-liberal academics from the university, and one or two business people. Already by then Morgan was pushing for what he called a broad-based party, but at the end of the conference Gibson Sibanda [then president of the ZCTU, now vice-president of the MDC] got up and said, 'Now let's be clear--we are forming a workers' party. Is this correct?' There was thunderous applause, but this is not captured in the manifesto. Later the MDC was defined as a movement of 'working people', but this was allowed to include bosses!

We as the ISO had been barred from the convention, despite the fact that we had been the first to call for a party, I suppose mainly because of our paper and our contributions in labour forums where we called for a socialist programme. There was a loose leadership from the convention, with each organisation given one representative. But how do you equate the ZCTU with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyers' Association? This is how middle class control arose. Still, until the official launch of the party in September, the MDC structures were built in the various towns, and these were based on the ZCTU structures. To start with, there were even factory branches. The petty bourgeoisie were non-existent on the ground, especially outside Harare. The entire leadership of the regions was worker-led. The activists who had built the stayaways and demonstrations of 1997 were the ones who were building the regions. When the launch was held it was amazing! The regional leaders were assuming that, on the basis of having built the movement since February, they would be in the national leadership. Then, at the rally, a list of people was just announced. The launch formalised the informal leadership since February.

There was real disillusionment, and there was a danger of us socialists becoming swamped. But we knew the radical workers were with the MDC.

When did white farmers and business people come in?
After the MDC's inaugural congress in January 2000, moving towards the referendum, particularly because of Mugabe's threat to white farms but also because the congress showed the viability of the MDC. There had already been a tacit alliance in the stayaways when many bosses turned a blind eye. But the move from tacit to open collaboration was over the referendum.

What's your opinion of the land invasions?
I think they are a very complex phenomenon. On the one hand there's no doubt they were used by Zanu-PF as a central part of its campaign. But the fact that it did so reflects real land hunger. ZANU has always talked about land but it has done nothing. This time round it had to be seen to have some credibility. I was talking to some workers from Mashonaland Central, where Zanu-PF did very well, who told me that people were staying on farms for four or five months. The people who have taken those farms are ordinary villagers, under the direction of war veterans, and when you joined in you had to do two nights a week to ensure that you kept the place. So there is some expectation from peasants. The farm invasions definitely helped Mugabe give his party a concrete campaign, plus the violence that surrounded it allowed him to break the momentum that the MDC had built. The farm invasions stopped the massive decline of Zanu-PF.

Can you explain how you became the candidate for Highfield?
The ISO has been an active player in working class politics, mainly in Bulawayo and Harare. After we joined the MDC we felt that we would be able to use the campaign--and then possibly, if we won--as a platform for building a revolutionary alternative. I was to run in Harare Central. But there was hostility from party leaders and bourgeois party sympathisers over a socialist running in this constituency, because it includes the central business district. There was massive pressure put on me to leave Harare Central. And at the same time worker leaders in the MDC felt it was better if I ran in Highfield, where it would be easier to defend me.

What lessons have you learned from the election campaign?
It is difficult to be part of such a loose, broad-based alliance. There are a lot of pressures. The problem with the bourgeoisification of this party, the lumpenisation of this party, is the pressure to immediately buy voters, basically, as has been happening in Zanu-PF. As revolutionaries we've mainly been dealing with what you call advanced sections of the working class. Now we have to deal with broader sections of the working class, with different levels of consciousness, and to try to get them to move together. I think it's been a useful experience for us as revolutionaries, learning to deal with those broader layers of the working class.

Clearly there are enormous tensions in the MDC. What are the key issues that will expose those tensions?
Basically its programme is for free market reforms, a programme for the continuation of the Structural Adjustment Programme. And so there's bound to be a contradiction between the fact that the base of the MDC is calling for an improvement in its life and a halt to the attack on the conditions of working people, and the fact that the leadership of the MDC is calling for a programme that will affect them adversely. At this stage the problems have been seen as Zanu-PF corruption and mismanagement, and those who dominate the MDC have been able to build this unity of classes. Clearly the economic crisis is unlikely to abate that seriously, and things look hard and bad. We have presidential elections in 2002. Zanu-PF might in fact want to continue with certain policies, possibly around price controls, land reform and so forth, which the MDC might oppose. All that, I think, is going to raise problems. So the attitude of the MDC parliament to the struggles that are likely to erupt as a result of the general economic crisis, I think, is going to be a powerful factor in the growing alienation of the leaders of the MDC from its base. A workers' leader I spoke to--she's a workers' committee chairperson of a large workforce of 2,000 to 3,000 workers--said, 'You fellows must remember that there's 2002 and, if you forget us, then we'll know what to do.' She raised issues of price controls and wage increases as some of the key issues that have to be immediately addressed.

Are you pleased with the outcome of the election?
Yes and no. No, because only six or so workers made it to parliament. Yes, because it is clear that among workers across the country there's been a movement, a change, a development in consciousness. In the rural areas there is a fairly high MDC penetration. Workers are feeling good. Workers are feeling confident. I think that will greatly assist in the struggles that are going to come.

Gwisai and striking Utopia farm workers

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