By Stephen Gowans
Zimbabwe is in the grips on an economic crisis. Food and electricity shortages plague the country, but because Zimbabwe is singled out in the Western media for special attention, it seems as if its problems are unique, not part of a wider pattern of scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa, but the product of the misguided policies of the Mugabe government. There’s a message in the Western media spin on Zimbabwe: reclaiming land and working to put the economy into hands of nationals leads to economic meltdown. It’s best to leave historical patterns of domination alone, and to adapt to the prevailing balance of power.
In a July 28, 2007 article on the regrettable state of Zimbabwe’s economy, The Washington Post points out that “daily power outages are forcing Zimbabweans to light fires to cook and to heat water.” Wood poachers have stripped nearly 500 acres of conservation woodland.
But what the Post doesn’t point out is that it’s not only Zimbabweans, but people throughout sub-Saharan Africa, who are stripping forests bare to provide heat and cooking fuel. (1)
The reason why is rolling power blackouts. “Perhaps 25 of 44 sub-Saharan nations face crippling electricity shortages.” (2) Drought, climbing oil prices, and the chaos caused by privatization of formerly state-owned power companies have created an “unprecedented” power crisis that not only affects Zimbabwe, but Zambia, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Togo.
Even South Africa was hit by rolling blackouts in January and sporadic power failures continue to bedevil the country.
Yet, as a mark of how the Western media frame their reporting to discredit Zimbabwe, it is in Zimbabwe alone that the electricity shortages are attributed to the policies of the government.
Zimbabwe’s “power, water, health and communications systems are collapsing,” the Post notes, “and there are acute shortages of staple foods and gasoline.” The newspaper points to critics who say economic mismanagement and Harare’s land reform policies are to blame.
But acute food and gasoline shortages are common to neighboring countries. If Zimbabwe is short of gasoline, “Uganda’s gas stations are…short of diesel for vehicles.” (3) If there are shortages of food staples in Zimbabwe, there are close to two dozen other countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are contending with food scarcity, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
Since neighbouring countries have not pursued Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform policies, and have tended to shy away from the economic indigenization policies Harare favors, gasoline, electricity and food shortages can hardly be attributed to policies uniquely pursued by Harare. The aim of the media’s propaganda is clear: to discredit the Mugabe government’s economic independence policies by suggesting they are to blame for the country’s economic difficulties.
Unlike other sub-Saharan countries, Zimbabwe is a target of economic sanctions, which have made the region-wide drought and oil-price-rise-induced crises more acute. The sanctions, imposed by the US and EU, deny Zimbabwe access to international development aid. NGOs, following the Western governments that provide their funding, have also cut off assistance, amplifying the sanctions’ effects.
Are the sanctions justified?
The West’s opposition to Zimbabwe began in the mid-90s, when the Mugabe government failed to undertake pro-foreign investor (often called neo-liberal) economic reforms as quickly as the International Monetary Fund prescribed.
The IMF expected Zimbabwe to pare back government social spending, reduce the size of the civil service, devalue its currency, and move strongly toward an export-oriented economy – measures that would benefit international investors but would increase the hardships Zimbabweans already faced.
The IMF also insisted that Zimbabwe pay full market value for the land it sought to acquire as part of its program to resettle the rural poor – land that had been stripped from indigenous Africans by European settlers.
Zimbabwe had received assurances in 1979 from the Thatcher government that Britain would fund the purchase of land from white settlers, but the Blair government reneged, proposing instead that it lend Zimbabwe money in return for Harare enacting policies to enhance investor confidence (i.e., policies to increase the profits foreign investors could extract from Zimbabwe.) Since this would amount to taking on new debt to buy back what had been stolen in the first place, the offer was refused. Farmland was reclaimed without compensation (except for improvements the European settlers had made.) The expropriated farmers were told to seek compensation from London.
By 1997, Harare was in open revolt. IMF-prescribed programs the government deemed to be injurious to Zimbabweans were rejected and the IMF’s prohibitions on pursuing economically nationalist policies were ignored. Mugabe announced new tariffs to protect domestic businesses from foreign competition and introduced an affirmative action program that differentially benefited domestic firms at the expense of foreign investors. Western governments, ever vigilant about promoting the export and foreign investment interests of their own corporations, saw red.
By 1998, the EU had had enough. Mugabe’s land reform program – and now, the military aid Harare was providing to the young government of Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo – bid that steps be taken to force the independence-minded Mugabe out. Kabila, who the US and Britain were trying to overthrow, was following economically nationalist policies reminiscent of those of Patrice Lumumba, who the West had deposed in a CIA-sponsored coup decades earlier. Washington and London recruited Uganda and Rwanda as proxies to invade the DR Congo, but their plans were frustrated when Zimbabwe intervened militarily on the side of the Kabila government. To counter Mugabe, the EU set out to build civil society — the unions and NGOs — as opposite poles of attraction to Mugabe’s government of national liberation.
Soon, Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Zimbabwe Trades Union Congress, emerged as leader of a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The white commercial farmers abandoned their old party, the Rhodesian Front, and lined up behind their new vehicle, the MDC. With a war chest filled with generous funding from Western governments and corporations, the MDC was to lead the opposition to the Mugabe government from within Zimbabwe.
By 2001, the Sunday Times was urging London to spearhead a worldwide economic boycott of Zimbabwe. “Until decisive action is taken,” the newspaper warned, “the whole region is a high-risk area for investment.” (4)
The same year, the US enacted the US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. The arch-conservative Jesse Helms was a co-sponsor, along with Hilary Clinton. The act obligates US officials to vote against assistance to Zimbabwe at the IMF and World Bank; allows the president to fund groups and individuals working to overthrow the Mugabe government; and makes respect for the rule of law (i.e., reversal of Zimbabwe’s land reform program) a condition of ending sanctions. US Representative Cynthia McKinney asked legislators what law European settlers had respected when they seized the land by force.
Sanctions have one aim: to make the lives of Zimbabweans miserable so they’ll oust Mugabe. The MDC, which supports the sanctions, and is indefatigable in calling for additional punishments, uses the economic hardships sanctions have aggravated to call for Mugabe’s departure.
Mugabe’s program has always been one of independence. As a leader of the guerrilla movement that fought for national liberation, the goal was an end to Rhodesian apartheid. As leader of the government, the goal since the mid 90s has been economic independence; to be secured, first, by reclaiming the land the indigenous population had been dispossessed of by European settlers; and second, by putting the economy in the hands of Zimbabweans as owners, not just employees.
The inevitable consequence of this project has been the backlash of foreign corporations, Western investors and their governments.
While the Western media would have you believe Zimbabweans are champing at the bit to oust Mugabe, the reality is that Mugabe is widely supported, not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout Africa. His credentials as the leader of a national liberation movement have established his reputation, his land reform policies have strengthened his support among the rural poor (who make up the majority of Zimbabweans) and his insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy have made him a rallying point for anti-imperialist sentiment in Africa. As recently as August 2004, Mugabe was voted number three in the New African magazine’s poll of the 100 greatest Africans (behind Nelson Mandela and Ghana Kwame Nkrunah, the first president of post-colonial Ghana.) One of Mugabe’s most vehement critics, Archbishop Pious Ncube, grudgingly acknowledges his popularity. “The United Nations should take (Mugabe) out but that will not happen because Africa supports Mugabe.” (5)
It is fashionable in some circles to profess admiration for Mugabe, as the leader of the armed national liberation struggle, while denouncing Mugabe, the politician. Mugabe once fought for national liberation, it’s said, but as a politician, he simply clings to power for power’s sake. Power has corrupted him.
This is the typical screed against the leaders of all really-existing movements that seek to end the oppression of class or nations. They are invariably accused of demagogy and corruption and of betraying their movement’s goals. The revolution betrayed is the constant theme. The purpose of these accusations is to breed cynicism, disillusionment and ultimately pessimism, passivity and capitulation. It’s all in vain, the detractors say. You’ll simply end up with something worse that you started with. Your movement will be hijacked by authoritarian strongmen who utter leftist-sounding phrases while enriching themselves and their cronies.
The goal Mugabe has pursued, whether in the armed struggle or in government, has never changed: independence. Placing the economy in the hands of Zimbabweans, as Mugabe is working to do now, is just as much – indeed, is even more significantly a part – of national liberation as achieving nominal political independence is. Zimbabweans got their own flag in 1980, their land after 2000, and now are working to secure control of their mines and businesses. To say, then, that Mugabe was true to the goals of national liberation once, but is no longer, reveals either a miscomprehension of the centrality of land reform and indigenization to national liberation, a surrender to the barrage of propaganda against Zimbabwe’s national liberation movement, or an absent commitment to true national liberation.
(1) New York Times, July 29, 2007.
(4) Cited in Rob Gowland, “Zimbabwe: The Struggle for Land, the Struggle for Independence,” November, 2002. http://www.cpa.org.au/booklets/zimbabwe.pdf
(5) Cited in The Sunday Mail, July 28, 2007. http://www.sundaymail.co.zw/index.aspx