Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

Patrick Bond finds promise in the possible emergence in Zimbabwe of a new left-oppositional party under the sponsorship of the trade unions and other popular organizations: "What is crucial," Bond writes, "is that the opposition's political orientation is potentially both post-nationalist and post-neoliberal, perhaps for the first time in African history." (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Zimbabwe: A post neoliberal politics
Patrick Bond

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 23



Patrick Bond, an associate professor at Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management, splits time between Johannesburg and Mutare.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the spirited Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) leader, is on the verge of getting a mandate from his several hundred thousand workers to launch a new political party to contest the parliamentary general election next year. He will, at the same time, have to manoeuvre the pot-holed terrain of oppositional civil society politics, no small task. Does this initiative have the potential, nonetheless, to be Africa's first post-nationalist, post-neoliberal opening?

Exit Mugabe?

It is an exciting time to pose the question. For after serving as the country's leader since 1980, the seventy-five year old Robert Mugabe may finally be preparing an exit route from active politics for himself, according to leading political sources cited in the Financial Gazette.

If such reports are true, they suggest Mugabe would remain at State House until the 2002 presidential elections and, more importantly, retain the leadership of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) - known as ZANU PF - until 2004, by which time a successor would have been broken in. However, since Mugabe acts as a kind of superglue in a party that is extremely fractured along regional and ethnic lines, finding a consensus replacement amidst myriad homeboy-feuds in a context of ongoing patronage-based bickering may be impossible once he himself has acquired lame-duck status at a formal ZANU PF congress later this year.

There is no question amongst the vast majority of Zimbabweans that Mugabe must go. Political scientist Masipula Sithole recently reminded his Financial Gazette readers of other African nationalists who have represented a variety of exit options: Mengistu/Mobutu - booted out; Kaunda/Banda - elected out; Nyerere/Mandela - retired gracefully (leaving a handpicked successor) but still influence matters where necessary; Moi -divide and conquer the opposition, and tough out the bad patches.

On a good day, if reports from ZANU PF headquarters are correct, Mugabe can appear as a Nyerere, albeit one who is hanging on just a wee bit too long. However, on a bad day - of which are many - Mugabe's irrational and paranoid leadership style, combined with swirl of patronage politics and the character of the country's divided petit-bourgeois opposition, reminds one more of Kenya's ongoing political rut.

Still, with the economy facing unprecedented inflationary pressures and recession simultaneously, with journalists detained and tortured, and with Zimbabwean troops dying more frequently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (fighting a deeply unpopular war mainly on behalf, it would appear, of political and army leaders' investment interests), the urgency of change has become ever more palpable this year.

Enter Tsvangirai

Thus, in late February, Tsvangirai and ZCTU president Gibson Sibanda attracted 400 representatives of thirty national civic organizations to the "National Working Peoples' Convention" (NWPC) in Harare. The convention was quite vague on questions of political-economic ideology, but resolved to form "a mass political movement for change" which will, said Tsvangirai, "transform into a political party led by an elected, cohesive team whose mandate will be to organize the party and focus on important national issues without being distracted by personality clashes."

But personality clashes are indeed exploding everywhere in Zimbabwe. Given that the 1970s liberation movement was marred terribly by petit-bourgeois infighting and that immature squabbling has continued within the ruling party since then, the lessons for progressive oppositional forces should be evident. Unfortunately, however, distracting echoes of such clashes emerged once again amongst ZANU PF's opponents in the immediate wake of the National Working Peoples' Convention.

It is worth pausing to review the debate amongst such opponents, particularly by placing it in the context of the on-going struggle over the question of constitutional reform. One reason for doing so is that a reformed constitution could lead to delaying the general election (currently scheduled for early in 2000) and possibly even a merger of that poll with the presidential election (due in 2002). More important, however, is the fact that the class character of the constitutional reform debate seems likely to have an on-going impact on the simultaneous attempt to form a new party and political programme that might hope for the support, active and effective, of workers and poor Zimbabweans.

Constitutional conundrums

For most of this century, Zimbabwe has been dominated by messianic, all-powerful rulers - Huggins and Smith in white Rhodesia and Mugabe since - each of whom established excessive concentrations of presidential power and demonstrated impressive capacity for demagogy. Precisely this problem motivated the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) of civil society organizations in 1998.

The NCA aims to throw out the 1979 Lancaster House Constitution and write one more amenable to decentralized power, entrenched political-civil rights, and free elections. Tsvangirai is chair of this initiative, and a cross-section of powerful opposition interests and vocal public intellectuals are NCA members.

But how is this NCA initiative likely to intersect with the more recent emergence of the National Working Peoples' Convention and the possibility of a new political party that springs from it? Or, put differently, how can the leading forces in civil society who are driving both these processes retain mass credibility - which the NCA apparently enjoys - while there emerge, as there must, transparent ambitions to contest political power. (Tsvangirai and Sibanda, for example, have promised to leave their ZCTU positions when a formal labour-backed party emerges.) In this sense, is the move towards the formation of a progressive political party premature?

Laudably, Tsvangirai is moving slowly and carefully, ensuring that he brings along as many of his own structures as possible: March and April witnessed a void of explicit progress on the new party front, for example. Nonetheless, a bruising debate between a half dozen eloquent public intellectuals did break out, leading to some serious splintering of the NCA, partly over questions of process and partly over content.

To take process first, there is emerging concern over the logistics of the NCA campaign to rewrite the constitution, and a question of whether this can be done prior to the 2000 election, not least because of the recently-announced presidential commission of inquiry headed by Minister Eddison Zvobgo. Zvobgo appears anxious to coopt select civil society leaders onto his own advisory group, and hence divide the opposition, draining the NCA of momentum.

In response, the NCA quickly resolved not to have anything to do with Zvobgo's commission, on grounds that it is dominated by ZANU PF and that its findings can be vetoed or amended at will by Mugabe. The dispute led to the mid-April expulsion from the NCA of a conservative journalist, Lupi Mushayakarara, who accepted Zvobgo's invitation shortly after blasting Tsvangirai for his working-class bias.

The Zimbabwe Council of Churches also resigned its NCA membership in April, though Catholic church interests remain firmly in place in part through aggressive human rights defender Michael Auret of the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace (notable for publicizing the government's 1980s mass murder of Ndebele people). Influence from the classically-liberal Legal Resources Foundation (through David Coltart) is also important.

This lineup led Jonathan Moyo - an eclectic public intellectual who left Zimbabwe for the Ford Foundation's Nairobi office in the early 1990s and who is now based at Wits University in Johannesburg - to ask the NCA: "What sort of class interests do you represent? The NCA speaks as if it's unaware of its own class interests."

Civil society ... and politics

Consider Zimbabwe's weak civil society, and in particular the lack of NCA membership from rural organizations and the peasantry, as well as the ranks of 1970s national liberation movement vets (still a force not to be discounted), says Moyo, and it is clear that far more work is required to establish a united citizens' front in advance of giving the appearance of merely being a stalking-horse for some early bid for political power. (Uganda's non-partisan Citizen Coalition for Constitutional Change would be a better model for Zimbabwe, he suggests.)

In this context, Moyo writes scathingly about Tsvangirai's latest, more overt, move (via the NWPC) towards the political arena: "How can people who have been calling for constitutional reform as `civil society' suddenly make a U-turn in favour of forming a political party? While Zimbabwe has been short of all-embracing civil society groups, it has not been short of political parties. Forming political parties under the present circumstances in Zimbabwe is the business of scoundrels whose visions, if they have any, do not transcend the smell of State House, however distant."

Interestingly, however, and notwithstanding his harsh tone, Moyo also concedes in private discussion that "the time is right for a labour-based party, taking advantage of the increasing mess in which the government finds itself." Such are the dilemmas facing would-be progressive politicians in Zimbabwe!

A political party?

It may well be true that such a new party initiative should better have been mounted in the early 1990s, at a time when ZANU PF still claimed the left ground while imposing classical neoliberal economic policies. (At that time, the ZCTU moved instead from a militant stance against structural adjustment, which it took between 1989 and 1992, to a more accommodating one - as witnessed both in its 1996 "Beyond Esap" economic policy document and in its then-unheeded calls for a social contract with big business and big government.)

Now, amidst the welter of confusing debate around attempts to establish a level political playing field through constitutional reform, there is a danger that workers are coming to the party idea too late. How can they seek to clarify and defend both their own self-interests and the vision of a Zimbabwe transformed along social and economic lines to meet the needs of the vast majority of poor Zimbabweans, when the competition, competing petit-bourgeois and even bourgeois voices, will now, no doubt, help pull even Tsvangirai rightwards?

The problem of contradictory class agendas within civil society is a real one, then. Thus, University of Zimbabwe law professor Welshman Ncube acknowledges the need for the NCA to draw aboard more sectors of society, and so, in mid-April the NCA proposed a People's Constitutional Convention to be held in late May. Explained Ncube, "within the NCA we have been acutely conscious of our fallibility ... The insistence of the NCA on an all-stakeholders' conference is premised on the principle or notion that the NCA does not and cannot represent all the stakeholders and hence the need for an all-parties/stake-holders' conference."

Yet this may not be sufficient, Moyo contends, and here is where process problems lead to potential divides over the content of constitutional reform (but also of the mounting of an alternative politics more generally): "A critical assessment of the rhetoric of NCA mouthpieces like David Coltart, John Makumbe (an outspoken UZ political scientist), Mike Auret and Welshman Ncube leaves a clear impression that while they are offended by ZANU PF's fifteen or so amendments to the Lancaster House Constitution, they are silent about the manifest and very serious shortcomings of the Lancaster constitutional framework which entrenched the economic interests of some powerful racial and business groups in this country."

Moyo continues, "Given that the leading groups in the NCA are churches and some hidden business interests with donor support, what kind of rights does the NCA really want to write into the new constitution? If there is any logic to the saying that he who pays the piper names the tune, is the NCA not facing a clear and present danger of being a mindless megaphone in defense of the pursuit and further entrenchment of the interests of narrow-minded church, racial and business groups?"

Specifically, Catholic church ownership of land has not made the bishops particularly forward-thinking about rural social relations. Nor has the NCA been the anticipated site of discussion over more thorough-going socio-economic rights (to housing, healthcare, water, food, and the like, such as those enjoyed on paper, but not yet in practice, in the South African constitution), ideas once propounded by Ncube and the leftist NCA lawyer Tendai Biti, but which have recently been submerged.

The constitutional process debate remains rarefied, therefore, and threatens to divert, even overshadow, fresh political perspectives that would be more sensitive to problems framed by the daily grind of survival that faces the vast majority of Zimbabweans. Are not such perspectives, in any case, a more likely basis for dislodging Mugabe's regime in coming elections, not to mention their potential impact on the broadening of democratic practice through civil society-based, street-level protest?

"People seem to pin all their hopes on a new and democratic constitution as a solution to all the ills bedeviling this country," complains sociologist Rudo Gaidzanwa. "Somehow, this belief in the legal processes has given people relief from having to ponder their pasts and futures. Those people who are members of disadvantaged groups should be suitably wary of legal and judicial processes for these processes have not had much impact in extending justice for women, for ethnic minorities, for small worker plaintiffs in the labour courts and processes, for people with disabilities, etc."

A 21st century programme?

Which raises for all observers the thorniest issue of all: what programmatic way forward? Is it not the case that, with a tough worker-peasant ideology and concrete programme of action, a ZCTU-backed party could answer such a question at the level of mass politics and thus emerge, from the welter of micro-parties that now dance on the right of the political spectrum (not to mention the many and diverse factions within the ruling party itself), as the most formidable opponent ZANU PF and its de facto one-party state has ever faced?

There are, of course, temptations to do otherwise, temptations that also come from other quarters than does the siren-song of undue (if, up to a point, appropriate) preoccupation with the constitution. Should the ZCTU rejoin, for example, the tripartite (and eminently corporatist) National Economic Consultative Forum that it quit at the end of February when it became clear Mugabe would not rescind his late 1998 ban on strikes? For if it does, it basically signs on to the rescinding of price controls, to further trade liberalization, to deepened privatization, to wage restraints, and to a variety of other private sector agenda items, with virtually no chance of putting worker issues on the table from a position of strength.

In recent weeks, the ZCTU has heard extremely inviting noises tempting it to do so (albeit no concrete concessions, such as the lifting of the stayaway ban) from senior government minister Nathan Shamuyarira, Labour Minister Florence Chitauro (who was formerly a ZCTU vice president), and the president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Kumbirayi Katsande. Thus, Katsande was quoted in the Financial Gazette as arguing that "it was crucial that the three parties agreed on a social contract before the end of June this year and before the onset of this year's wage negotiations, which are expected to be some of the toughest the country has experienced."

With inflation now breaching 50% - but with some companies reporting record profits (Barclay's 181% increase in profits during 1998 that were seen as particularly obscene) - Katsande is probably correct to worry, "If we don't have a social contract, I think we create an environment of industrial disharmony such that it becomes difficult to deal with other problems." (Private sector negotiations will probably reflect the success or failure of the state in grappling with a threatened strike of 180,000 civil servants who were promised a 30% increase early this year but didn't get anything close.)

In all of this, the ZCTU leaders' political orientation is now going to be decisive. Will they continue along a path laid out in "Beyond Esap," with its fatal concession that the early 1990s structural adjustment programme - largely responsible for destruction of 40% of Zimbabwe's manufacturing output from 1991 - 95 - was "necessary but insufficient"? Or can the workers' leaders and soon-to-be political party put forward to society a convincing case for "genuine development," as it has been termed?

Perhaps a promising portent in this respect can be found in one the NWPC's main resolutions:

National policies should emphasize the mobilization and organization of national resources to meet people's basic needs for food security, shelter, clean water, health and education. Resources such as land, skills, capital and technology should be distributed equitably ... Land should be redistributed in a manner that is driven by the people through democratic, transparent and gender-sensitive processes, with clear criteria and mechanisms for accountability. The land policy should aim at sustainable agricultural development and rural industrialization to create job opportunities in the rural areas.

Other resolutions covered civil and political rights, and also attacked "the loss of sovereignty foreign debt brings" and called for strong health, education, housing and gender-equity programmes. And yet, at the same time, convention resolutions included neoliberal formulations such as "The nation should be made to compete on the global market in the next millennium" and "State intervention in the market should be aimed at resolving market failures by targeted intervention" - both of which the Harare office of the World Bank would gladly endorse.

Still, this is where the most interesting political debates in Zimbabwe must come to lie: in discussing Zimbabwe's actual experiences of varying development rhetorics and practices since 1980; determining what actually happened (when, where and to whom, and disagregated by gender) at a detailed level; and deciding the way forward.

It won't be easy to sustain such debates amidst oppositional protests that target (correctly but often quite narrowly) the degenerating situation in the sphere of freedom of speech and of association, the rise of corruption, Mugabe's bloody-minded involvement in the D. R. Congo war, and various other urgent problems that confront the Zimbabwe body politic. But the ZCTU leaders' historic opportunity to open an honest public policy discourse over what could indeed be achieved in the way of genuine development and true political liberation is, if seized upon effectively, the only real way forward towards social progress.

- 30 -
Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page