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Patrick Bond presents an overview of the political and economic forces driving protests in Zimbabwe. In this article, he asks a fundamental question: Is Zimbabwe’s economic catastrophe driven by a political crisis or have structural adjustments prompted economic failure, lowering standards of living and ultimately inciting a political crisis? (dkc)

vol 13 no 2

Mugabe under siege: Behind the protests
Patrick Bond

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
Page 19



Patrick Bond is Assistant Director of the Public and Development Management Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand. (This text, providing a background to Iden Wetherell's preceding account of the most recent protests in Zimbabwe, has been adapted by the author from the preface of his forthcoming book, Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development and Underdevelopment [Africa World Press and University of Zimbabwe Press].)

In the waning weeks of 1997, Zimbabwe's citizens suffered an economic nightmare punctuated by terrifying financial meltdowns. Surface-level symptoms included a spectacular crash of the currency (55% for the year as a whole, but 75% in a few hours on "Black Friday" - 14 November - requiring a temporary central bank bail-out); dramatic increases in interest rates (6% within one month); a plummeting stock market (down 46% by the end of the year from peak August 1997 levels); renewed inflation, especially for food; and unprecedented fiscal stress.

Ironically, last year's financial calamities occurred at the tail end of a long-awaited economic revival (more than 8% GDP rise in 1996 and 3% in 1997). Yet that brief upturn on Zimbabwe's roller-coaster business cycle mainly reflected how extraordinarily far, on the one hand, the economy had plunged during the first Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (a 40% drop in the volume of manufacturing output from 1991 - 95, for instance), and, on the other hand, how mired Zimbabwe was in a long-term capitalist crisis dating to the mid1970s. Not even the relatively high fixed capital investments of the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the stagnant, misnomered "socialist" era immediately after Independence, could undergird a financial superstructure that loomed speculatively out of control. Thus the 1997 financial and currency turbulence set the stage for a long and potentially quite deep slump in the real economy.

Orthodox economic commentators were universally despondent. For them, the roots of Zimbabwe's late 1990s socio-economic crisis were to be found nearly entirely in the political sphere. Bucking strident advice and monetary arm-twisting from international financial institutions, President Mugabe had, after all, sustained his controversial October 1997 decisions to pay off a challenge from thousands of liberation war veterans - who received Z$50,000 each (plus a Z$2,000 per month pension) - and at long last to begin implementing the 1993 Land Designation Act (1,500 mainly white-owned farms were identified for initial redistribution).

The pensions were transferred to the bank accounts of 50,000 combatants in late December, following justified hand-wringing about how the deal was to be financed. There were approximately 60,000 combatants from the ZANU and ZAPU armies, of whom fewer than 36,000 were given demobilization pay of Z$2,420 in 1983. With high-profile exceptions, such as cabinet ministers and other high-ranking officials whose dubious disability claims plundered government's limited pre1997 allocations, most veterans were needy povo. They were successful essentially because their 1997 demonstrations in Harare caused the ZANU government acute embarrassment. After the payout, however, intense popular resentment emerged given that a sales tax (and indeed initially an income tax and petrol tax increase) was imposed to partially cover the costs.

As for the white farms, the plan was that there would be only partial compensation, but again this raised the likelihood of fiscal convulsion. The damage to the commercial agricultural sector (and related industries) would be heightened by the fact - as conceded by the Agriculture Minister in a subsequent radio broadcast - that the recipients of the farms would be wealthy politicians not land-starved peasants. Patronage was the point, at a time other routes were closing. Government was once again apparently not serious about thorough-going redistribution, which would require vastly greater resources, support structures and administrative staff than were budgeted and planned, not to mention a shift in class power away from the emergent bureaucratic bourgeoisie. Nor was it likely that the ambitious designation exercise could be successfully brought to fruition even on its own terms; more feasible would be case-by-case compromises with only the most indebted designees agreeing to depart. The IMF and World Bank effectively vetoed the land grab in January, as part of the conditionality on two new bailout loans.

Political unrest

At the same time, rancorous political background noise rose inexorably. There were vociferous demands from an indigenous business lobby still often shut out of white-controlled markets and financial institutions. Organized labour became increasingly militant, both in the public sector (where in mid1996, 160,000 employees walked out and a general strike was contemplated) and around private sector wage struggles (in mid1997, 100,000 workers were involved in strike action, even extending to poorly-organized agricultural plantations). Autonomous, shopfloor-based actions outran the ability of national union bureaucrats to control or direct the membership, and the corporatist strategy mistakenly pursued during the mid1990s by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) quickly became irrelevant.

More general popular alienation from government intensified during the late 1990s, as civil service corruption was repeatedly unveiled, as officials continued to rig tenders (e.g., construction of a new Harare airport), as shady and incongruous international investment partnerships (especially with Malaysian firms) were arranged, and as the political elites enjoyed conspicuous consumption (e.g., the extravagant presidential wedding) though not without the danger of socio-cultural delegitimization (e.g., of former president Canaan Banana, accused of serial sodomy and rape). Occasional but vicious police clampdowns did not, as of late 1997, deter growing public dissent. The opposition press continued to harangue government, the early 1980s Matabeleland atrocities were constructively publicized by human rights groups, and there were inklings of electoral challenges in the emergence of independent (mainly petty-bourgeois) candidates and in a widely-supported human-rights campaign to amend the country's constitution.

By year-end 1997, an anti-government stayaway and several large urban protests on "Red Tuesday," 9 December, were joined by more than a million people [a pattern that continued into 1998, as documented in the preceding article in this issue by Iden Wetherell - the editors]. A cross-class alliance of organized labour, the constrained petty bourgeoisie, sympathetic employers and various other activists had emerged around issues of accountability and abuse of public funds, fuelling a growing sentiment that after two decades in power, Mugabe and his ZANU party could potentially be voted down in the next (2000) general election. Indeed, it had begun to appear that an uneasy blend of divergent ideologies might possibly coalesce to at least threaten such a feat - though it would unlikely be sufficiently influenced by ZCTU advocacy on behalf of its broader constituency of workers and the poor, and bedeviled by the apparent lock ZANU enjoyed on rural loyalties. Would such a coalition replay neighbouring Zambia's early 1990s conversion from stagnant authoritarian populism to some initial steps towards the deepening of democratization (albeit with the attendant danger that this might ultimately to joined, as in Zambia - or, for that matter, as in post-apartheid South Africa - to even more rapid neoliberal economic decay)?

Assessing the conjuncture

There were two opposing ways of looking at the conjuncture. Mugabe's land "reform" and veteran payoff manoeuvres surprised this author and many others who had watched ZANU drift steadily into market-oriented ways of running the government and the economy. Were these reflections of the leader's capriciousness and desire to divide-and-conquer his subjects by addressing the needs of discrete constituencies? Or did they, in contrast, represent the political last-kicks of an economic horse that could no longer perform even mundane functions? In short, did the political crisis set the stage for economic catastrophe, or was the sustained economic failure associated with the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme and, indeed, nearly a quarter-century of falling living standards the underlying cause of the political crisis? (Or was it something of both?)

Political fluidity was certainly evident in the dramatic backlash against Mugabe's two very non-neoliberal turns, reflected in the international and local investor panic in November 1997, the December street protests, and the unprecedented rejection of tax increases (to pay for the war vets pensions) by delegates to a major ZANU conference and by parliamentarians in-between. But perhaps of deeper significance here was the overall global economic trend during the mid- and late1990s. From Mexico (1994) to Brazil (1995) to South Africa (1996) to Southeast Asia and even South Korea (1997), the semi-periphery of the world economy was subjected to formidable waves of currency speculation, raiding of foreign reserves, domestic credit crunches and stock market panic. This partly followed from the frenzied, footloose rush of international financial capital, but more fundamentally, from the awesome problem of systematic overinvestment, overproduction and overtrading in the productive sectors of the world economy.

Within this maelstrom, the Zimbabwe government's two emerging neoliberal strategies - "Zimprest" and "Vision 2020" - were taken less and less seriously. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank erratically endorsed and then unendorsed the state's progress during the mid1990s. By mid1997, Zimbabwe debuted in the Swiss-based World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report at third to last, out of 55 countries. True, the ineffectual, debt-ridden character of the state helped bring Zimbabwe's rating down. But this was at a time when nearly all other neoliberal advice had been closely followed, and as even foreign investment (mainly mining, retailing and banking) had picked up from minuscule levels of the previous fifteen years.

As a result, a certain frustration must have emerged in Mugabe's inner circle regarding both state capitalism (1980s) and neoliberalism (1990s). One short-term gut reaction was a return to dirigiste methods, including the land grab and the takeover of foreign-currency denominated accounts (at a discount to the unwilling sellers) - thus doing great damage to government credibility on financial liberalization - as part of an initial, vain attempt to protect the value of the currency during the November 1997 tumble. But the medium term would see more dramatic reductions in the state budget, the introduction of Value Added Tax (largely to squeeze an extra 5% or so of the income of rural consumers who had avoided the general sales tax), as well as larger-scale privatizations.

If these aspects of Zimbabwe's political superstructure were related in any way to an underlying tendency to economic crisis, as has been witnessed so frighteningly in the recurrent financial market upheavals, nevertheless, Mugabe's willingness to discard his mask of investor-friendliness does not necessarily warrant sympathy. Bank-bashing populism, at which Mugabe excels, is often a guise for conservative not progressive politics, based ultimately on slight adjustments to flows of resources for the sake of patronage, not economic transformation.

Contradictory? Yet this is the cul-de-sac in which the Zimbabwean political elite now finds itself: the stark realization that there is no way out must by now be upon this regime. Moreover, if any of the argumentation above has merit, this must also be the cul-de-sac that any state manager of southern African capitalism - from Mandela to Chiluba and all others in-between - confronts at the end of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the left's structural weakness in all parts of the African continent means there is no formal political solution on the horizon at this stage. Instead it is in the autonomous, unplanned but hopefully better directed protests than occurred during the January riots, that we can expect a stimulation of popular imagination. that imagination will take forms hardly predictable at this stage. If in undoing the placid reputation of Zimbabwe's citizenry - translated to me once by a Canadian graduate student as "Prozac Nation" - there are many false turns, at least there is emerging a militant sense of larger rights and wrongs, and courage to face the troops in the streets of the capital city. Of course, social justice in the long term will depend, in the short- and medium-terms, on deepening the left critique of a situation that is now too readily being understood as exemplifying merely anti-government sentiment. It is that, certainly, but it is potentially much more indeed.

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Printable Version

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