SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
MUGABE UNDER SIEGE:
ENDING THE PLUNDER?
BY IDEN WETHERELL
Iden Wetherell is assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a national weekly.
Food riots that convulsed Zimbabwe's capital Harare in late January reflected the growing desperation of a social underclass marginalized in a mismanaged economy and denied political openings to express their discontent. Downtown Harare resembled a war zone as thousands took to the streets protesting against rising prices, looting stores and bringing business to a halt for nearly a week from January 19 - 22.
While the violent mass action focused on a 21% rise in the cost of the staple maize meal - subsequently withdrawn - it was at the same time a powerful expression of popular dissatisfaction with President Robert Mugabe's 18-year rule which has seen a privileged elite benefit from its iron grip on power at the expense of the urban poor.
The protests, which soon spread to other centres, were only contained when the government called in the army.
Things looked very different a year ago. The economy was experiencing solid growth with a booming stock exchange and robust agricultural output after good rains. Investors were showing a strong interest in the country's potential, and despite missed fiscal targets the government appeared concerned to get the burgeoning budget deficit down.
Things fall apart
Then it all fell apart as President Robert Mugabe dealt a double blow to output in moves that were so ill-judged they had economists gasping for breath. Firstly, he decided in August to award veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war large gratuities - Z$50,000 each plus monthly pensions of Z$2,000 - without any apparent thought as to where the money was going to come from. Then hard on the heels of that announcement came the decision in November to seize half the country's commercial farms.
The reaction was entirely predictable. The Zimbabwe dollar collapsed in a frenzy of speculation - by up to 70% against the US dollar on "Black Friday," November 14 - and investors fled the Harare stock exchange in droves. It was an unmitigated economic disaster compounding a growing impression of inept fiscal management.
But the damage didn't stop there. In order to fulfil Mugabe's promise to war veterans - who had embarrassed the president on a number of public occasions with their noisy protests which they had taken to the gates of State House - the government introduced swingeing new taxes and levies to raise the estimated Z$4.5 billion required. Sales tax was hiked from 15% to 17.5%, new duties slapped on fuel and a 5% levy imposed on all taxpayers and companies.
The government displayed the same arbitrary and clumsy approach in its handling of land redistribution - widely regarded as a necessary reform requiring sensitive handling given its possible impact on an agriculture-based economy. Ignoring assurances that only under-utilized farms would be taken, the ruling Zanu-PF party's acquisition teams were clearly unable to resist the temptation to designate some of the country's most productive estates among the over 1 400 farms earmarked for acquisition.
With appeals to the courts expressly precluded by constitutional amendments in 1993, Mugabe's government clearly hoped the initial storm of protest emanating from the farming community, many of whom had at one stroke been deprived of their livelihoods, would soon die down. After all, here was a privileged sector of society that, despite its record of productivity, was irretrievably tarnished by its association with the colonial past - "Britain's children" Mugabe called them when inviting the British government to pay the compensation he declined to offer himself.
His government would not pay a cent for the land, only improvements on it, he vowed in defiance of clear requirements for compensation provided in his government's own Land Acquisition Act of 1992 and the constitution.
While the government had anticipated the opposition of the white farming community to its land policy, it had not calculated on the reaction of its own constituency to the arbitrary tax imposts. Having got away with a variety of levies in the past, most notably the Tobacco Levy on the country's most profitable export earner and a Development Levy on taxpayers, all gobbled up by recurrent expenditure, clearly the government had thought it could ride out the storm that followed.
It miscalculated. First, normally supine members of parliament rejected the measures when they were submitted for approval, and then, to Mugabe's chagrin, delegates to a special Zanu-PF congress in early December publicly repudiated the levy. "Hatidi (we don't want it)," they chorused when Mugabe put the proposal to them.
But that wasn't the end of the matter. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, recovering from a lengthy malaise which had seen wildcat strikes overtake institutional responses to steadily eroding incomes, had already summoned its members to a nationwide protest on December 9. ZCTU leaders were unimpressed by Zanu-PF's stand which they felt the government could easily circumvent. They wanted to ensure that Mugabe got the message the country was sending out loud and clear - no more taxes!
Despite warnings from police commissioner Augustine Chihuri that the demonstrations were "unnecessary" because Zanu-PF had decided against the war veterans levy, hundreds of thousands of workers gathered in centres across the country as all business ground to a halt.
Apart from the violence that ensued in Harare when police illegally tried to break up the demonstrations by attacking groups of workers, the day of protest was peaceful in other towns and a major success for the ZCTU which found itself for the first time occupying the national high ground. One protester who spoke to journalists summarized the mood: "Mugabe is trying to please his ruling clique for their own ends, not for the benefit of the nation as a whole," he said cheered on by his friends. "Mugabe has no support among the real people so he is going to buy the war veterans' support at the expense of the working people. The central committee is a clique which suppresses the masses."
A poster carried by a group of people put it another way: "Don't blame the whites for your failures," it said.
The government's response was to blame the workers for starting the violence in Harare, a claim unsupported by evidence which clearly showed police units laying into workers with teargas and batons. Equally insidiously, the Orwellian Ministry of Information disseminated a story that white farmers and businessmen, embittered by land designation, had engineered the strike by ferrying workers into the towns.
This was greeted with universal derision and marked a turning point of sorts. The official line handed down to state media and news agencies was no longer able to secure any credible purchase on the public mind.
But the government, for all its bluster, had got the message. With the exception of the sales tax hike, the new taxes were withdrawn and ways found to raise the funds needed by speeding up the sale of state assets. The government's response to January's food riots has been to set up a cabinet task force to recommend ways of dealing with "profiteering." This completely ignores the role of state borrowing and spending in stoking inflation. Nor does it recognize the contribution of state monopolies which have led the way in increasing prices, most notably the Grain Marketing Board which supplies grain to millers.
More manipulatively, the Minister of Information, Chen Chimutengwende, who so impressed Mugabe by his denunciation of "animal lovers" opposed to the culling of elephants at last year's CITES conference, has merely trotted out the familiar line that white farmers and industrialists were once again behind the disturbances.
Church and civil society groups immediately put out a strong joint statement laying responsibility for the food riots at the door of government's fiscal mismanagement - stated to have forced up the cost of living for the majority to intolerable levels - and condemning attempts by ministers to find scapegoats for their own failures.
While the mood in the townships remains volatile, Mugabe still finds himself in a fix on the land question. Firstly, the Blair government in Britain proved unexpectedly firm in declining to accept responsibility for its colonial legacy while making the point that confiscation of productive farms, when state land already acquired lay idle, would do nothing to improve the condition of Zimbabwe's poor.
Further, it was pointed out, the Zimbabwean government could expect no assistance with rural resettlement until it agreed on fair and transparent measures which addressed productivity and poverty alleviation. Mugabe's policy of ad hoc seizures and redistribution to political allies had met its Waterloo, it seemed.
Thus, a meeting with European Union commissioner Joao de Deus Pinheiro in Brussels in January did persuade Mugabe to take up an offer he had earlier rejected from the Conservative government in Britain for a donor's conference on land reform. But far endorsing Zimbabwe's arbitrary and opaque land acquisition policy, the conference was clearly be one in which donors will be able to examine Zimbabwe's proposals and set conditions under which aid would be made available.
Mugabe has been reminded in all this that his current programme contravened solemn undertakings his own government had only recently made to international investors regarding the protection of assets. Whatever the historical justification for land redistribution, few investors were likely to be enticed to a country where the head of state and his associates were the chief pillagers of private property.
Minister of Finance Herbert Murerwa has now given written undertakings to both the World Bank and the EU that the government's land programme will not jeopardize agricultural production. Furthermore, the government has undertaken to abide by Zimbabwe's constitution and laws in proceeding with land reform.
This in effect means land reform will now proceed on a more orderly basis and in close cooperation with affected parties including donors. It also means compensation for land taken. Mugabe admitted as much speaking to business people at a National Economic Consultative Forum on January 22. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund has moved towards resuming the balance-of-payments support it suspended in 1995 when Mugabe's government repeatedly failed to meet economic reform targets because it persisted in spending money on its own upkeep rather than on national development.
Gross distortions in the pattern of public expenditure which underlie the country's poor economic performance have by no means been eliminated. In large part they explain the latest eruption of violence. But despite the recent acquisition of yet another fleet of new Mercedes Benzes for the ministerial car pool there are signs that the government is responding to growing pressure for it to spend less money on itself.
In its assurances to the EU, a major donor, the government has said that its latest package of measures to cover the costs of payments to war veterans will not result in any reductions in planned expenditure in the social services or any increase in charges for the provision of public health and education.
* * *
Beyond this there is now a palpable sense that a government and party long accustomed to regarding the country as a prize of war to be plundered at will is beginning to discover the hard way the meaning of accountable governance. In part this is evidenced - as argued above - in an increased vulnerability to donor pressure. But recent events have also seen a further strengthening of the country's fledgling civil society. In particular, Zimbabwean workers and the seething lumpen proletariat in the townships have learnt that the power of the people pays: the government surrendered to civil service strikers in 1996; to a whole variety of protesters last year, including war veterans and trade unionists; and now to mass action on prices.
In short, even if the latest protests may not be quite the turning point some observers are reporting, there is, palpably, a growing resistance to Mugabe's hitherto unassailable grip on power. Will the recent bout of civil unrest prove to have sent a timely reminder to a government still locked in the ideology of a one-party state that, unless adequate constitutional mechanisms are devised to allow political pluralism and popular protest to find expression, the street and not parliament seems likely to remain the central forum of public discourse?
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.