Rosa Luxemburg argued before World War One that in the epoch of imperialism national liberation stands opposed to working class liberation. The recent death of Zimbabwe’s national liberation hero, Robert Mugabe, the conditions of the Zimbabwe working class, and the hellish state of the country as a whole, is yet another wretched demonstration of how true this is.
When Mugabe was lying in state in the Rufaro Stadium in Harare, the same place at which he was sworn in as prime minister of the newly “liberated” nation in 1980, an unemployed worker who was born in the year of so-called “liberation” remarked bitterly;
"I won’t go and see him. Everything is terrible in Zimbabwe. Those people who are going in just want to make sure he is dead."1
When the price of fuel was doubled in January this year the protests which followed were met with repression. The security forces killed 12 demonstrators, arrested 1,500, and detained opposition politicians whom they charged with subversion. Further protests in August were met with the same treatment. That people are protesting cannot surprise the authorities. To obtain fuel it is necessary to queue for hours, prices are soaring with inflation at 175% or more, power cuts go on for 18 hours daily, there is no clean water, no transport and the currency is on the brink of hyper-inflation once again. Unemployment is 90% if the informal sector is included in the figures. This means only 10% of the workforce is officially employed and those in work have seen wages collapse. Civil servants, for example, earn the equivalent of $1.80/day while trained professionals like doctors are paid the equivalent of $3/day2 while the health services are on the point of collapse. 3.5 million people, according to the World Food Programme are;
“Marching towards starvation.”3
The result of this dire situation is that between 1 and 3 million people have emigrated to neighbouring countries. Many Zimbabweans now survive by the remittances their relatives send back or actual food sent back. Remittances amount to $1.9bn annually and the economy is in such a state of collapse that this figure amounts to 9.6% of the Gross Domestic Product.4 95% of the economy is now what is classed as the informal sector which means it is outside government taxation. The country appears to be approaching a breaking point. Meanwhile “national liberation” has enriched the political class and the top generals in the army. It was reported in the US cables released by WikiLeaks, dated 2001, that Mugabe himself has assets of $1.75bn mostly invested outside Zimbabwe.5 When he was put out to grass after the army removed him from power in 2017 he was allowed to keep all his business interests and awarded an additional $10m just for good measure. National liberation has liberated the Zimbabwean rising bourgeois class at the expense of the working class.
Background to Present Crisis
Since independence Zimbabwe has pursued a strategy of playing off one imperialist power against another, and the present state of the country indicates just how badly this strategy has failed.
The odyssey of Mugabe himself is an illustration of this strategy. The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was initially a creature of Chinese imperialism, but in the 80s China had little to offer a country like Zimbabwe and Mugabe threw in his lot with Western imperialism. Many people today forget how, in the 80s, Mugabe was the darling of Western imperialism. US and British imperialism together with South Africa isolated the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith and forced it into a capitulation to the liberation movement. Mugabe’s triumph in the 1980 election and subsequent offer of reconciliation with his enemies was greeted with euphoria and initially the economy grew at 4% annually. His subsequent murder of over 10,000 Ndebele, of the rival ZAPU liberation movement in the early 80s, was brushed under the carpet. In fact, so impressed were the British with Mugabe, that they knighted him in 1994. It was only in the late 90s, when he stopped paying back the country’s debts to the World Bank, that he became the devil incarnate. This status was carved in stone after his initiation of seizures of arable farmland, which was mostly owned by white farmers, in 2000. Once the country was shut out of Western finance in 1999, and sanctions imposed in 2001, Mugabe turned to China. As we wrote in “Zimbabwe – crawling between imperialist masters”:
“The Chinese have been happy to invest in Zimbabwe and advance loans as it is potentially a very rich country containing minerals which they want such as platinum, chromium, magnesium, antimony, cobalt and gold. A policy baptised with the name of “Look East” was instituted in 2003. Initially this policy bore fruit. China became Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner and advanced interest free loans and built schools, hospitals, sports facilities as well as textile and cement factories and helped in the development of steel manufacturing. By 2015 Chinese annual investment was $450 million which represented over half the total foreign investment in the country.”6
However, corruption and incompetence of the dictatorial regime caused the Chinese to limit their support. The Chinese had sustained massive losses through their support for Gaddafi in Libya and did not want to repeat this in Zimbabwe. To make matters worse Mugabe legislated that all companies valued over $500,000 should be at least 51% owned by Zimbabweans and imposed import restrictions both of which represented serious blows to Chinese investment. It now became clear a return to the embrace of Western imperialism was the only way out but Mugabe himself was not able to do this. Instead a series of desperate measures followed. After the 2007/8 financial crisis the regime had insufficient foreign exchange and started printing money. This resulted in hyperinflation in which the Zimbabwe $ finally traded at 35 quintillion to a single US $. A square of toilet paper was worth more! The Zimbabwe $ was discontinued as a currency in 2009 and the US $ became the country’s currency. Over the decade which followed the economic and social situation deteriorated dramatically leading finally to Mugabe’s removal by the military. It is even possible that the Chinese sanctioned the coup of 2017 as the general who carried it out, Chiwenga, just happened to be in China a few days before he struck. Mugabe’s successor, Mnangagwa, who was previously his most loyal lieutenant, promised to take the country back into the arms of Western imperialism. He would pay back the loans to the World Bank and IMF, get fresh capital, and make the country “open for business.”
One of the first things Mnangagwa did was to make foreign capital investments safe by rescinding the act requiring large companies to be over 50% Zimbabwean owned. He also reapplied to join the Commonwealth and has subsequently admitted the IMF to advise and monitor the economy with a view to extending fresh loans. So far none of this has borne fruit. One reason for the failure of these measures appears to be internal divisions in the regime. The army, and particularly general Chiwenga, who organised the coup which put Mnangagwa in power, are reluctant to stop looting the economy and end the general corruption which has reigned for the last decade. This is, of course, one of the things the IMF requires. Instead they are happy to continue to rig elections, as they did in the 2018 election, and meet any protest with a violent military response and continue with the looting. All this has prevented foreign investment and produced a shortage of foreign exchange, particularly US $ affecting imports such as fuel. The regime has simply ignored the advice of the IMF as has also been shown by its ham-fisted attempts to deal with the currency problem. In June the US $ and the South African Rand were declared no longer legal tender and the Zimbabwean $ reintroduced. This was almost exactly a decade after it was abolished under Mugabe. The new $ was supposed to be a combination of the so called RTGS $7 , introduced in February this year, which was intended to be a means of electronic settlement and the previously introduced bond notes. The bond notes were a circulating currency introduced in 2016 and 2017 to overcome the shortage of US $. They were supposed to be equivalent to the US $ but immediately collapsed in value as has the RTGS $. The new Zimbabwe $ was, like the previous creations, declared equal to the US $. The IMF has been monitoring this and set a target for inflation of the money supply for the new currency of 8 to 10%. However recent pay-outs to companies owned by cronies of Mnangagwa, for example Sakunda Holdings supplying for fuel, have seen the money supply surge by 80%. The new currency is, like the previous incarnations, devaluing rapidly causing shortages and prices to spiral upwards.
In short, the attempt to return to the fold of Western imperialism is so far a failure because Mnangagwa is unable to confront the vested interests, particularly those of the military, who hold him in power but also his own. For the working class the situation is becoming worse. At the stadium where Mugabe was lying in state, a man who had just queued 2 hours to buy petrol told a Financial Times reporter:
“I remember marching in this street (to remove Mugabe, ed.), we were saying things must change. We changed the driver but the bus is still the same.”8
Each new development in Zimbabwe, and indeed in South Africa, shows their national liberation movements as bourgeois political forces implacably hostile to the working class. In Zimbabwe “liberation” has meant unemployment or brutal exploitation enforced by police and military, shortage of food or starvation and for millions, emigration. The whole national struggle has created great confusion amongst workers about what has happened and the way forward. It is clear that workers have been misled into identifying their interests with a faction of the bourgeoisie and are paying a terrible price for this.
The Stalinists and Trotskyists have consistently urged workers to support the national struggles in order to “liberate the nation from imperialism and weaken imperialism.” However, in the world of globalised capital, the national state is national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. Its ability to act independently is severely limited as developments in Zimbabwe clearly show. In its key aspects the national state exists as an agent of capital and the imperialist alliances in which it finds itself. The Stalinists and Trotskyists show by their actions that they are merely the left wing political forces of capital. Today it is impossible for them to explain how support for the nationalists in Zimbabwe, South Africa or elsewhere has benefited the working class. On the contrary, if the national struggle had been recognised for what it was, namely a bourgeois struggle, and workers had maintained their own independent class struggle and independent political organisation, the road ahead would be much clearer today.
The wretched condition of Zimbabwe’s workers shows clearly that workers need to unite and fight for their own interests and never those of the national bourgeoisie. The Zimbabwe bourgeoisie have grown fat on the surplus value they have squeezed out of the Zimbabwean workers, and have salted away their loot overseas. The vice of imperialism in which countries such as Zimbabwe find themselves also clearly indicates how workers struggles need to become international. There is simply no national solution to the dire situation workers face in any country. A first step in this direction will be to strengthen the international political forces, which are growing worldwide, and which aim to lead the struggle for a communist world.
- 1Quoted in Financial Times 15/9/2019. Worker was afraid to give his full name as repression remains so bad.
- 2Figures from Financial Times 14/09/19
- 3Quoted in Financial Times 14/08/19
- 4Financial Times 13/08/19
- 5This puts Ramaphosa, the South African president, in the shade. His assets are only $550million.
- 6See leftcom.org
- 7RTGS stands for Real Time Gross Settlement.
- 8Quoted in Financial Times 14/09/19