Zimbabwe in crisis

WILLIAM BROWN unpicks the rhetoric and looks beyond the headlines to examine the origins and assess the likely outcomes of the recent unrest in Zimbabwe.

Not since independence was granted in 1980 has Zimbabwe accounted for so many minutes of TV news and so many column inches in the broadsheets in Britain. However, the coverage of the recent political crisis might well leave one with the impression that here again was an example of African barbarism – white (read ‘civilised’) farmers are under attack from black (read ‘savage’) thugs under the orders of yet another mad African tyrant.

In fact, in order to understand what has been going on in Zimbabwe we must get beyond this stereotype and the latent racism in British media coverage. In particular we must try to grasp the politics of the situation, for this is a crisis borne out of years of conflict over power and wealth.

There are two issues at the heart of the current crisis in Zimbabwe: land and political power. These have dominated the history of Zimbabwe since independence.

The racial division in land ownership has been the central conflict in Zimbabwean politics and society for over 100 years and was the key issue in the struggle for independence. Racist, white colonial rule ensured that the vast majority of the best land was in white hands while the poor, black majority population was concentrated in the low-rainfall Tribal Trust lands (since independence called Communal Areas). Access to good farm land was therefore a central issue in the independence war, with land reform a key pledge, to be delivered by black majority rule.

The land issue

At the time of independence, Zimbabwe was one of the most unequal countries in the world – the richest 5 per cent of the population (overwhelmingly white) received around half the total income, much of it coming from commercial farming. The 6,000 or so commercial, white-owned farms accounted for half the farm land in the country and were concentrated in the most fertile regions, with reliable rainfall, while 65 per cent of the rest of the population were concentrated in the Communal Areas, with low-rainfall and poor soil.

It was assumed by many, not least the Zimbabwean population, that moves to address this inequality would rapidly follow independence. However, progress has been slow to non-existent – a result of the way Zimbabwe gained independence, and the policies of the Mugabe government.

Promises of land reform helped Mugabe to an overwhelming victory in the elections which delivered independence in 1980, yet the scope for land reform was tightly and deliberately constrained. Independence was won after lengthy negotiations at Lancaster House in London in 1979 between the liberation movement, the white Rhodesian regime and the British government. This ensured that the liberation forces, led by Mugabe’s ZANU party and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, agreed to abide by a constitution which had to remain in place for 10 years. By far the most significant part of the Lancaster House agreement (aside from delivering independence) was that which related to land.

The agreement specified that any redistribution of land had to be conducted on a ‘willing-seller willing-buyer’ basis – in other words, compulsory expropriation of white land was outlawed. It also stated that land had to be paid for at a market rate and in hard-to-come-by foreign currency. Therefore, land reform was only likely if marginal or underused white-owned land could be identified and bought, and if foreign donors granted aid for this purpose.

Britain and other western powers were insistent that these conditions were necessary both to protect white interests and to limit the scope for Mugabe, a declared Marxist, to move the country towards socialism and an alliance with the Soviet Union – something that the west, in the wake of Soviet ‘gains’ in Angola and Mozambique a few years earlier, was concerned above all to avoid.

The deal was, thus, both a racial and a class compromise, securing the economic interests of the white population which were also the dominant capitalist interests in the country. The liberation movement accepted the deal but gained an undocumented promise from Britain that it would supply funds for land reform. In the event, although much aid was channelled to the new state, only a small amount was used to fund what turned out to be a very limited land reform programme.

It is little wonder, then, that Mugabe claims Britain shares some responsibility for the land issue and that it should now fund land reform as promised. It is little wonder either that land continues to be at the centre of conflict in Zimbabwean politics. In 1992, when the whole of southern Africa was hit by drought, it was the low-rainfall Communal Areas that bore the brunt of the crisis, while the white, commercial farms continued to produce and export lucrative cash crops to the benefit of both the rich farmers and the Mugabe government.

However, any notion that the recent focus on the land issue represents a ‘radical turn’ by Mugabe, finally finding the political wherewithal to fulfill the historic mission of the liberation movement, should be quickly dismissed. His actions have little to do with concern for the rural poor and everything to do with political power.

Politics and power

Mugabe’s hold on power has rarely looked so insecure. His victory in the independence election owed much to his leadership role in the independence struggle, although there was also evidence of violent intimidation of voters by his supporters in rural areas. While this electoral popularity was relatively slow to wane, intimidation and repression has always been part of Mugabe’s hold on power. The most graphic illustration of this came when the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade brutally repressed the supporters of Mugabe’s main rival, Joshua Nkomo, in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.

In 1987 rapprochement with a weakened Nkomo saw Mugabe’s hold on power entrenched as the ruling Zanu absorbed Nkomo’s Zapu. Mugabe’s proposals, in the late 1980s, to create a one-party state by then seemed superfluous, given the total dominance of politics by the newly-created Zanu-PF. Yet it was these proposals, and the rising tide of corruption scandals around the régime, that prompted the first stirrings of opposition, initially among students and trade unions.

In the early 1990s, this urban-based opposition grew in the face of the economic reforms pursued by Mugabe’s government, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Cut-backs in state spending, charges for health and education (which had been massively expanded after independence), liberalisation and deregulation coincided with the 1992 drought to produce a deep recession. Rather than creating jobs to absorb the rapidly-swelling ranks of the young unemployed, factories closed and inflation and interest rates rose.

By 1995, the failure to reform the civil service – a major source of political patronage to Zanu-PF supporters – prevented further cuts in government expenditure and IMF support for the policies was withdrawn. It was at this time that the land issue came back to centre stage.

For some time, usually just before an election, Mugabe had paid lip service to the continuing need for land reform. It had always been the single most pressing issue for the rural poor who were the bedrock of Mugabe’s power. But, apart from the early years, little serious attention had been paid to it. Given Zanu’s political dominance, Mugabe had little need to do so, provided the right noises were made at election times. By the early 1990s, the only instances of land redistribution were those which granted farm ownership to Zanu-PF insiders and cronies.

In 1996 the Land Acquisition Act was passed, allowing the compulsory purchase of white-owned farms. Freed from the constraints of the Lancaster House constitution, major change now appeared to be possible. Mugabe’s critics claimed, with some justification, that this would merely allow the rising black political and economic élite, centred around Zanu-PF, to be further enriched.

However, the white farmers successfully challenged the land reform plans in the courts. Meanwhile, donors, brought on board to supply the necessary funding, demanded that land redistribution follow market principles, involve proper compensation and be conducted in a fair and transparent manner. A conference with donors in September 1998 brought offers of support from Britain, the United States, the European Union and the World Bank, among others, conditional on these terms – terms that Mugabe rejected.

Conflict with donors

Underlying Mugabe’s rejection was an ongoing tension between his government and these donors. Both the World Bank and the IMF had been conducting negotiations to try to restore Zimbabwe’s stalled economic reform process. As inflation soared and the need for foreign exchange increased, Mugabe seemed to move towards an accommodation. The stumbling block was the need to cut government spending which was now inflated by Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Congo war.

In a manner which would have made the British imperialist and founder of Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes, proud, Zimbabwe sent troops to the civil war in the Congo in return for rights to various mineral and mining concessions. The action, which was condemned internationally, was estimated to cost some US$10bn per month – hence Mugabe’s difficulties in meeting the IMF’s demands for spending cuts. Therefore, this dispute also reduced the likelihood of a deal with donors over land reform, although the issue would not go away and remained central to Mugabe’s strategy for confronting the rising domestic opposition.

Renewed opposition

Various sources of opposition to Mugabe converged in the late 1990s – the worst possible time for the president. Economic discontent, which had been stimulated by the economic reform programme, increased, especially among the young unemployed, as the economy spiralled downwards. Even the IMF’s programme in the early 1990s hadn’t managed to create the 50 per cent inflation and 70 per cent interest rates that Mugabe’s policies had achieved by 1999. Opposition to involvement in the Congo adventure merely added to this simmering discontent, and was widely seen as responsible for worsening economic woes.

Longer-standing but growing demands for political reform also came to the fore. Civil society groups, concerned at the apparent concentration of power and corruption under Zanu-PF, and the stagnation of democracy in Zimbabwe, proposed a reformed constitution, put forward by the National Constitutional Assembly. As if that wasn’t enough, another long neglected group – veterans of the war of liberation – decided they had had enough too, when it emerged that the fund set up to provide compensation payments to them as war veterans had been looted by Zanu-PF cronies. And to exacerbate all of these factors, there was ongoing frustration in rural areas at the lack of land reform.


With parliamentary elections due in April 2000, Mugabe had to act. But his first move merely made matters worse. To forestall the constitutional reforms, he proposed his own constitution which extended and entrenched presidential powers removed legal obstacles to land reform. The proposal was put to a referendum in February 2000 but was used by voters as an easy way to register their discontent and they voted no to the changes. Encouraged by the vote the newly formed opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), now posed a real threat to Mugabe’s total control of parliament.

The war veterans seized their chance and confronted Mugabe with an ultimatum: satisfy their demands or face civil unrest. Mugabe cut a deal: in return for the veterans’ support he would ensure they got access to land. Under the leadership of Chenjerai Hunzvi (a rank opportunist with a taste for political violence and a war veteran who had spent the entire war safely ensconced in East Germany) the veterans began their much-publicised attacks on white farms. These had much more to do with Mugabe’s need to stay in power than with land reform.

While the attacks on white farmers were indeed brutal they were targeted specifically at opposition supporters. More importantly, they were vastly outnumbered by attacks on black farm labourers – a fact largely neglected by the British media. These were low paid, wage labourers, outside the systems of political control and coercion that Zanu-PF operated in other peasant-based rural areas.

It was hoped that the repression and occupations would prevent a large number of rural voters joining the longer-established and rapidly-growing urban opposition in the up-coming election. The passivity of the police in the face of mass beatings, abductions and deaths merely reinforced how far political and state power had become entwined under Mugabe’s leadership.

The results of the election on 27 June showed that Mugabe’s brutal attempt to cling on to power was partially successful. Although in the cities, and in the east and south of the country, the opposition made astonishing gains, these are areas where Zanu-PF has always been weaker. Mugabe’s strongholds in the central and northern rural areas delivered enough seats for a parliamentary majority (62 compared to the MDC’s 57). This demonstration of popular discontent was immediately dismissed and newly-legalised land seizures appear to be going ahead, while the perpetrators of the violence that preceded the election seem to have completely escaped justice.

Political disintegration or reconstruction?

What happens next is hard to predict but much hinges on Mugabe’s future strategy and the development of the new opposition party.

Mugabe himself will face presidential elections in two years’ time and has a weakened political base from which to secure victory. However, he has two years to try to garner support among client groups with promised or actual land reforms; and two years also to weaken the opposition with further abuses of state power. For this, as recent events have shown, Mugabe can rely on entrenched party support within the state and the forces of law and order, although there are hints that some in Zanu-PF now see Mugabe as a liability.

Support from business will be more difficult to secure, given the appalling economic situation, while any understanding with the white farmers has been completely blown away. Nevertheless, white farmers are the source of the bulk of Zimbabwe’s foreign exchange earnings and Mugabe’s ability to completely ignore their interests will turn on whether he can survive a disintegrating economy.

In addition, Mugabe faces problems controlling the ‘war veterans’ who did so much of Zanu-PF’s dirty work. The immediate post-election period has shown some indications that Mugabe may try to put the genie back in the bottle though this will not be easily done.

For its part, the opposition faces many tests. Its emergence has been remarkable enough – discontent with Mugabe is long-established but earlier attempts to form opposition parties all failed to create a credible threat to his power. Some discontent fed into the constitutional reforms that came to the fore in 1999, but it was from another source of opposition – the trade unions – that the MDC eventually emerged. The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is a veteran opponent of Mugabe having joined protests against the one party state in the late 1980s and, most notably, having led resistance to the IMF-backed reforms in the 1990s as leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

However, the MDC is a much broader animal than this, encompassing business interests, commercial farmers and civil liberty groups. Spanning the rural-urban and class divides, such a broad-based movement creates both opportunities and dangers. Simply in galvanising the discontent towards Mugabe it has been a huge success, and if all it is able to achieve is to create more space for democratic political activity, it will have achieved much.

Whether it can provide a comprehensive solution to the many conflicts that have now come to the fore is more in doubt. Tsvangirai himself, the only likely serious threat to Mugabe in the presidential elections, has moved a long way from his days of trade union opposition to the IMF reforms of the early 1990s. Now he proposes a rapprochement with external donors, along with the usual tough measures to get the economy back on track.

In addition, the opposition will face considerable hurdles if it’s to survive the next few months and years. It will almost certainly face more of the harassment and intimidation that has become so visible in Zimbabwean politics, particularly if it is still a credible threat to Mugabe in the 2002 presidential elections. It will have an equally tough job resisting the centrifugal forces that are bound to emerge as tensions between its diverse supporters grow. And its new parliamentarians may well be tempted to trade opposition for the lure of office and patronage.

The recent crisis in Zimbabwe was forged in conflicts that go back decades and the violence of recent months has shown just how critical these have now become. The election result has resolved little and the next two years look set to be testing times.


A history of conflict

1890: Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company occupies land in present day Zimbabwe

1893: British defeat the Ndebele king, Lobengula

1890s: Finding no gold the British take over the best farmland from the Ndebele and Shona peoples

1896: The first Chimurenga (liberation war). Ends in defeat in 1897

1923: White-rule consolidated in Southern Rhodesia constitution

1930: Land Apportionment Act gives whites the best lands amounting to half the country

1960: ‘Constitutional’ black nationalism repressed

1963: Central African Federation (including Southern Rhodesia) collapses as Zambia and Malawi move towards independence

1965: Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government to forestall moves towards black majority rule

1966: Liberation war begins (the ‘second Chimurenga’)

1979: Lancaster House agreement

1980: Mugabe wins independence elections

1982-1987: Repression in Matabeleland

1987: Zanu-PF formed as Zanu incorporates Zapu

1990: Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) launched with World Bank and IMF backing

1995: Suspension of IMF funding

1996: Land Acquisition Act allowing compulsory purchase of white land

1998: Donors’ conference to raise money for land reform – lack of agreement over donors’ terms. Ongoing negotiations with the IMF.

1999: National Constitutional Assembly proposes new constitution. MDC formed. Zimbabwe sends troops to support Kabila regime in Congo

2000: (February) Mugabe’s proposed constitution blocked in referendum. Land seizures by so-called war veterans begin with government backing.

2000: (June) Mugabe wins 61 seats and the MDC opposition win 50.



Labour and Mugabe

Relations between the British Labour government and Zimbabwe have further complicated the political crisis.

Given the current policy of donors in general, reflected in Labour’s purported ‘ethical dimension to foreign policy’, the government’s initial reaction to events in Zimbabwe was predictable. In response to the defeat of Mugabe’s constitutional referendum the government stressed its support for real moves towards greater openness, transparency and respect for human rights – in donor parlance, ‘good governance’.

However, subsequent events and, in particular, the invasions and physical attacks on farmers and farm labourers, toughened the Foreign Office stance. Again, much of the rhetoric was predictable – it called for the rule of law to be implemented and for a fair, open and transparent process to deal with the land issue. Indeed Labour reiterated its long standing offer of £36 million to fund land reform – but only on the same conditions that were being insisted on by all other donors.

All this was perfectly in accordance with current donor policy towards Africa which stresses liberal norms of governance, human rights, the rule of law, democracy and the free market. Where Labour went beyond this stance was in the tone of the rhetoric used, particularly by Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister for Africa. His remarks about Mugabe were (let’s be charitable) robust to say the least and, however much we might agree with him, they did little to help either relations with Britain or the internal situation in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, Mugabe’s response to such comments was predictable. Part and parcel of his recent rhetoric over the land issue has been to equate the white farmers (the enemies within) with Britain (the traditional enemy without). As such, this is little different from the rhetoric used at the time of independence, and it ignores how much things have moved on in the intervening 20 years.

Politically, Hain’s stance was a gift to Mugabe who could then portray Britain as acting like the old colonial power, preventing land reform and telling Zimbabweans how to run their own affairs. However, relations went from bad to worse because of Mugabe’s own bizarre and paranoid homophobia.

After meeting with Hain in London, Mugabe was attacked in the street in an attempted ‘citizens’ arrest’ by Peter Tatchell, protesting at Mugabe’s many rabid anti-homosexual statements. In an interview on BBC2 Mugabe claimed that an adviser had informed him that Tatchell was Hain’s ‘wife’ and that Hain had arranged this attack. Apparently, the even stronger condemnations of Britain which followed were partly due to this belief.

Mugabe also seems to have a long standing dislike of Labour which goes back to Harold Wilson’s reaction to Ian Smith’s illegal unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. Wilson declined to use force against Smith or to enforce UN sanctions, and this angered the liberation movements. It was Thatcher who finally delivered the coup de grace to Smith in 1979.

Whatever the personal peculiarities of Mugabe’s relationship with Britain, it seems clear that, while the Foreign Office’s overall policy to support human rights, anti-corruption and due process in Zimbabwe may well be correct, the manner in which it has been carried out has done little to alter the situation internally and may well have given Mugabe an easy stick with which to further beat the opposition.


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  1. Summer 2000 - ILP
    22 October 2010

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