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Southern Africa Report Archive

Patrick Bond interviews Morgan Tsvangirai leader of Zimbabwe's MDC and Robert Mugabe's presumptive successor. Bond's findings are now rather more sobering than his last writing on Zimbabwe in SAR (Vol 14 No 3, May 1999) as he now documents the extent to which neo-liberal emphases have indeed found their way deep into the fabric of the MDC's alternative politics. (jbv)

vol 15 no 3

A new Zimbabwe? Tsvangirai interviewed
Patrick Bond

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 3, May 2000
Page 4



Patrick Bond is author of a 1998 book Uneven Zimbabwe : A Study of Finance, Development and Underdevelopment, published by Africa World Press.

Chinja Maitiro! (Change in the way things are done!)

Guqula Izenzo! (ditto, in Ndebele)

Maitiro Chinga! (The way things are done must change!)

Chihurumende Bzisa! (Government - sweep it away!)

Hezcoko? Bwa! (We are coming? There we are!)

Unotya Here? Aiwa! (Are you afraid? No!)

Change is urgently needed. The country is bedeviled by a fuel shortage that has dragged on for weeks. Its army is overcommitted in a hopeless war, faraway in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zimbabweans grieve lost family and friends in the midst of an horrific AIDS pandemic. The economy suffers unprecedented price inflation and soaring interest rates, and is losing businesses and shedding jobs at a rapid rate. Income inequality has risen to amongst the world's worst levels, especially with respect to control of good farming land. Rife with corruption, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) government led by Robert Mugabe has finally reached death-throes stage. The country's 12 million people appear restless and often furious.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the celebrated trade union leader who presides over the MDC, is on the verge of winning a majority of seats in the national parliamentary election scheduled for May (electoral roll chaos has already caused one delay, however). A February referendum on a new constitution promoted by President Robert Mugabe revealed both impressive mobilisation of MDC supporters (who voted 55 - 45 percent against government proposals) and an apathetic turnout from peasants who normally champion the ruling ZANU party.

It was Mugabe's first electoral defeat ever. The next presidential election is in 2002, but although Mugabe, 76, recently announced he won't stand again, there is no obvious successor in the wings of his fractious, crisis-ridden party.

Former mineworker Tsvangirai, 48, claims this puts the MDC in a unique position, for nowhere in Africa has a post-nationalist political movement capable of taking power been so well grounded in working-class and allied civic organisations.

Tsvangirai visited Johannesburg in early March to seek the blessing of the huge Zimbabwean expatriate community here. In two well-attended meetings he also eased the fears of South African business elites, who through the conservative Business Day newspaper recently condemned the new movement as "unproven." In fact, Tsvangirai took South Africa by storm, appearing across a diverse spectrum of print and broadcast media in his role as a modern, moderate reformer, capable of restoring "investor confidence."

Given the fluidity of Zimbabwean politics, the apparent president-in-waiting argues the need to quickly build a broad coalition, drawing support from far beyond the union movement he has headed since 1989. In what direction will that lead the MDC?

The ideological tightrope

Some fear that by bringing Zimbabwean, South African and international capital on board - in advisory positions (including a top Confederation of Zimbabwe Industry dealmaker, Eddie Cross), but also as donors - Tsvangirai will repeat the wretched experience of Zambia. There, trade unionist Frederick Chiluba won the 1991 election against veteran nationalist Kenneth Kaunda with a multi-class alliance, and quickly applied neo-liberal economic policy with even worse results than his predecessor.

Zimbabwe's only two other significant opposition movements line up far right of the MDC: a collection of octogenarian 1960s - 70s nationalists - Ndabaningi Sithole, Abel Muzorewa and even the white Rhodesian rebel Ian Smith, back from political retirement - launched a "United Democratic Front" in February, and the Democratic Party of charismatic former ZANU activist - now self-described liberal - Margaret Dongo (one of just three non-ZANU members of parliament) whose supporters are quickly shifting to the MDC.

In part because the MDC is the first political party over the past two decades with a chance of upsetting ZANU's hold on power, this is a crucial time for defining the ideological struggles within the struggle. For Mugabe, the MDC's popularity has occasioned a renewed round of bashing a few thousand white farmers and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a performance Tsvangirai - accurately - derides as hollow political posturing.

Recall that two decades ago, Zimbabwe's independence from 200,000 white, settler-colonial Rhodesians was won after a brutal war (with 40,000 black casualties) waged by guerrillas and a mass support base of peasants. Mugabe and his on-off-on ally Joshua Nkomo (who died in 1999) established an ideology of national unity with "socialist" overtones. But over the years ZANU's status quo development strategy failed to raise living standards, aside from a few initial rural clinics and schools and the growth of a 200,000-strong lower middle-class state bureaucracy.

Then the adoption of a structural adjustment programme authored by the IMF and World Bank during the 1990s, compounded by two severe droughts, set the country on a raw and often chaotic capitalist road. Zimbabwe became disastrously dependent upon Bank and Fund debt as well as cookie-cutter neo-liberal policy advice. From 1991, living standards plummeted and the deindustrialization of a once-strong manufacturing sector caused huge job cuts and a rash of expensive imports (mainly from South Africa).

The lost decade

As leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Tsvangirai predicted to me in a 1991 Southern Africa Report interview, "What is going to be sacrificed in this [structural adjustment] programme is democracy. When people go to the streets, complaining about these things, the state will be forced to use power to quell these riots."

Tsvangirai spent the 1990s defending against repeated state attacks, deepening his organization and engagement on key socio-economic issues, and taking the union movement along a zig-zag strategic path. He began with classically leftist opposition to structural adjustment from 1989 - 92. When that was rebuffed by brute state force (he spent two weeks in jail in 1989 simply for defending student protests and a peaceful 1992 protest against structural adjustment was broken up and organisers arrested), Tsvangirai shifted into conciliatory gear.

In a 1996 alternative economic plan issued by the unions, he argued that government's free-market economic programme was "necessary but insufficient." From 1992 - 97 Tsvangirai sought tripartite bargaining forums (with big government and big business). This also proved fruitless, so when a deep economic crisis began in late 1997 and was amplified by Mugabe's political gaffes, the ZCTU offered a logical base for a more sustained attack on political power.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's middle-class public intelligentsia - which in Zambia had helped shift Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy from political liberalism to economic neo-liberalism - began to self-destruct. One reflection was the ease with which, in the course of debate over constitutional reform in 1999, Mugabe picked off several key academic opponents who were once left-leaning critics, and turned them into ZANU boosters. Thus over the past two years the MDC came together as the "Workers' Party," still its colloquial name.

What are the weaknesses of the MDC project? The prime electoral challenge will be overcoming rural generational loyalties to Mugabe, liberation-movement memories, and patriarchal/ethnic traditions. Moreover, to simply get permission from white farmers for access to two million farmworkers on 3,000 large plantations, for example, pressure will emerge for the MDC to soft-peddle redistributive land demands. Likewise, the movement has a desperate need for business contributions to fund a national electoral campaign.

What degree of ideological flexibility is, therefore, required to add peasant votes and capitalist bucks to the MDC's core union and social movement networks? Given the party's lack of skilled politicians and its relatively short, undeveloped programme, Tsvangirai's ability to invoke a "social democratic" line follows largely from his own enormous personal influence.

Tsvangirai speaks

In a Johannesburg interview, I began by asking how the MDC's modern industrial workers and urban community activists can persuade the rural folk to abandon nationalism. MT: The strategy hinges around the constituency organization in the grassroots, so we're making sure the leadership constantly gets out to the rural areas, and ensuring that when we build policy forums, it is with the rural problems in mind. The working people provide the MDC base but the linkages to rural people are crucial. You must remember that 40 percent of wages used to end up in rural areas, through remittances and migration. What with the economic crisis, those resources are no longer there. Rural people have come to realize this, and now demand change.

PB: Are rural conditions so desperate as to undermine liberation movement loyalty?

MT: In many ways, we are moving from the nationalist paradigm to politics grounded in civic society and social movements. It's like the role and influence that in South Africa, the labour movement and civil society organisations had over the African National Congress in the early 1990s. MDC politics are not nationalist inspired, because they focus more on empowerment and participation of the people. ZANU's nationalist thinking has always been top-down, centralised, always trapped in a time warp. Nationalism was an end in itself instead of a means to an end. One of ZANU's constant claims is that everyone in Zimbabwe owes the nationalist movement our freedom. It's therefore also become a nationalism based on patronage and cronyism.

PB: What, then, is the MDC ideology?

MT: We are social democrats. The MDC can never be pure, ideologically, because of our broad orientation. Besides, social democracy is a half-way house, a spaghetti mix. In our case, the main characteristic is that we are driven by working class interests, with the poor having more space to play a role than they do now. But one of the components is an element of participation by business, which is just not able to develop under present conditions.

PB: Is this reflected in a particular development strategy?

MT: Development must be genuine, defined by people themselves. We know that export-led growth is not a panacea. And we place a high priority on meeting basic needs. How could we not, with 75% of the population live below poverty? So our development strategy will highlight land, health, education and the like.

PB: How do you answer the concern that with such a multi-class project you might end up like the Zambian Movement for Multiparty Democracy?

MT: I think Chiluba did not come on board with any ideology at all. But the main lesson there is that if the workers are not careful, they may give up their initiative over the party. That means that even though we need to build coalitions, the structure of MDC has to be, and is, participatory, with far more control from the base than normal parties.

PB: What lies immediately ahead in building this party and contesting the April election?

MT: I expect that we'll win a majority in parliament. Then, of course we need to redefine a political path in a context where Mugabe is president until 2002. Unless his party says he must go earlier, that is. There are two options. One is to seek a confrontation, for example, over whether Mugabe has a moral right to appoint 30 members of parliament in addition to those ZANU wins. Confrontation might be counterproductive. The other option is cohabitation, which may be necessary until 2002 if we are going to avoid martial law and rule by decree.

PB: Mugabe is one of the most intolerant rulers in the world today. Will he let the MDC win control of parliament? Will the election be free and fair?

MT: We should take stock of the fact that he accepted his defeat in the constitutional referendum humbly. I hope he maintains that attitude. Otherwise, social instability is a danger. Therefore, getting election monitors across the country is crucial, and international support is needed here.

PB: The armed forces are another factor, given how much the leaders are committed to the Congo war and the spoils they receive there.

MT: Obviously the armed forces are anxious about the situation, but they too are fed up with Mugabe.

PB: The immediate crisis points are around petrol shortages and other manifestations of fiscal crisis.

MT: I am confident that the energy situation can be managed. Sasol (the SA state oil company) is supplying a lifeline.

PB: Does Zimbabwe need a financial lifeline from the IMF and World Bank?

MT: They have put us into a serious debt trap. We may have to negotiate with the IMF to get out of that. What is important, down the line, is for Zimbabwe to work itself out of the IMF and World Bank's grip. In the short term, we have to distinguish between financial support that serves Mugabe, versus that which serves the country.

PB: What kind of support is the MDC after?

MT: Solidarity. Zimbabwe is in a transitional phase, becoming a more progressive, more democratic society. The international community, especially the progressive world, can facilitate with ideas and resources. A free and fair election requires monitors. Zimbabwe cannot afford to go back now, to the possibility of a fascist state.

Indeed, fascism sometimes seems not far off in Zimbabwe. Intimidation of the MDC is readily condoned by Mugabe, and had the effect in May of compelling many white farmers and their labourers to retract support from the MDC and give donations to ZANU. (This turn of events made the MDC yet more dependent upon donations from urban white business elites.) The mid-June parliamentary election may yet transpire, but it is unclear whether free campaigning conditions will restore grassroots MDC members' confidence and leftward momentum, especially given the influence of Eddie Cross and his allies.

[The Movement for Democratic Change website is www.mdc.co.zw/ or alternatively www.in2zw.com/mdc/]

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Printable Version

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