I am still recovering after being laid low. I hope to be back on my feet in a day or two. In the meantime here is another guest post. This one by Detroit’s own Brad D. on the crisis in Zimbabwe and reactions on the left, particularly the black left. RBR
Some reflections on Zimbabwe (and the left)
Brad D. Detroit
I’ve been pretty wrapped up in what’s happening in Zimbabwe, I know a lot of you have been too. I want to chance to put down some of what I’ve been thinking.
It needs to be said that this issue is the business of the left because in years past he was one of ours. This is how some of our movements turn out and we should learn from that and be involved in changing it. These days there is a split on the international left about Mugabe and the last few years of crisis. It’s been difficult for many of us to really come out against him, as Bill Fletcher remarks in his defense of an open letter that he contributed to. I would really like to draw comrade’s attention to this open letter that is addressed to Mugabe, signed and co-written by a number of Black progressives in the U.S. It’s widely available online, including Z Magazine’s site. It plainly states that the letter was written by long time supporters of the liberation war and many subsequent years of ZANU-PF rule. In fact the letter only criticizes the recent years, so it’s definitely written by some true blue supporters. But the letter is forthright and unequivocal in its grave concern for the situation in Zimbabwe and its opposition to Mugabe’s rule of late. It’s a protest letter author by outraged former sympathizers and it brings up many key points.
What is really telling is one of the reasons cited for the grave concern is the authors ongoing connections to trade unions, women’s groups, and other social change institutions on the ground in Zimbabwe. Our friends are telling us that your rule is making it impossible to operate, the letter explains. Also quite damning is the fact that, along with the slew of other injustices mentioned, landlessness is still a major problem. This plainly deflates the rumor on the left that Mugabe undertook a serious effort to carry out land reform in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. It’s pretty obvious to me that his brief land reform efforts came twenty years after they should have, were horribly planned, and not very thorough anyway. Of course not pursuing much needed land reform right off the bat in the early 1980’s was an important concession ZANU leadership made. A meaningful redistribution of land and wealth that truly breaks with the colonial pattern is still needed. The letter frankly states that land reform as it has existed has not been about tackling poverty but rather nepotism. They spell out how the blame for botched, belated land reform, deadly hunger, and food distribution in general lays at the feet of Mugabe and ZUNA-PF.
The letter also states that its signers “represent a long tradition of opposition to unjust laws “. Another pretty cutting point, considering Mugabe’s use of painstakingly legislated authoritarism. The letter also points to the fact that the government has done precious little to combat AIDS, which you should not be surprised is another major social catastrophe.
The letter also makes sure to mention that there is indeed a vibrant struggle against oppression in Zimbabwe. As the letter states again and again, this is faced with raw police brutality. Nevertheless, the letters authors state their belief that there can be a peaceful solution to the crisis. They also say that the result of the peaceful end to the crisis needs to be the removal of Robert Mugabe and his replacement with a “more broadly supported government upholding the democratic rights of all”. I think some of this is fairly naïve. I don’t doubt that a popular mobilization can defeat Mugabe, so we agree there. But it’s hard for me take seriously the plea that Mugabe “find a way to work with others in and outside of your government to create an effective process for a transition”. I don’t think Bob’s going out like that. We all saw Morgan Tsvangirai’s bloody head last year, and that was before the election. I think more violence is in store before he leaves. I think the authors know that, too. Check out more commentary on the letter on The Black Commentator website, which is always packed with great essays and news.
Another thing that has sometimes prevented me from coming down hard on Mugabe in the past—and I think this goes for a lot of leftists, too—is the political unsavoryness of major parts of the main opposition groups platform. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a somewhat pluralistic party that favors freedom of speech and is supported by trade unions. That’s the good news. It’s also a neoliberal party that is generally in favor of limited privatization. As far as them getting Western backing as Mugabe constantly points out, it’s true. This is simply not the party socialists would prefer to be rooting for, to say the least. Critically, then came out against land reform. This was not a good move politically at the time and many potential supporters were hesitant to support them for a long time because of this.
With all of those reservations I am damn pleased that the MDC has taken the parliament and—intentional delay aside—seems to have taken the presidency. ZANU-PF is an entrenched clique and with an autocratic president that needs to be dislodged after 28 years in power. MDC is the only force able to make that happen right now. As a modest bright side, there are socialists in the MDC as barely influential as they are. The International Socialist Tendency (anchored by the British Socialist Workers Party) has a number of comrades on the ground and has fielded candidates on a MDC ticket in the past. Needless to say they are operating underground now.
It is pretty widely believed that the 2000 election was stolen (sound familiar?). It is in the eight years since then that the MDC has really been in a fight for survival, essentially because it is a viable threat to the state. The police state tactics I have mentioned have been ramped up and let us not forget the urban clearance of a few years back. MDC’s base is mostly urban and quite obviously Mugabe’s campaign to ‘beautify Harare’ by bulldozing entire neighborhoods of makeshift city housing and market stalls was aimed at ‘softening up’ the part of the population with a history of challenging him. It’s classic state intimidation, creating social fragmentation as an organizing deterrent. In recent years the discontent with Mugabe has spread to the countryside. This was writing on the wall, loyal to Mugabe as the rural base has been. But the hunger is just too much. With the exception of a shrinking chunk of rural people and war veterans, there’s not really a sector that Mugabe can thoroughly depend on anymore.
Back to the split on the left. There of course is the ‘enemy of my enemy of my friend’ approach. This tendency is epitomized by Workers World Party, but frankly it is fairly widespread on the international left. For Kim Jong Il to contemporary Iran or Sudan, do not expect a word of criticism. Of course we are Marxists and considerably more honest about what we can plainly see. In addition to being defended on simple defencist grounds, Mugabe and ZANU-PF are also defended based on a series of myths.
First there are the romantics that cannot see past the 1970’s. Sure what’s not to like about old school Mugabe? But for them it end there. Somewhat related to that camp are the nationalist romantics, the same comrades who would never dare criticize Sekou Toure or Ethiopia’s Megitsu either. Again, stuck thirty years ago. For the younger generation there is the myth of the recent land reform attempts. I’ve already made known my feeling towards this dashed promise, but not everyone makes the same appraisal. Of course as socialists and anti-imperialists we know damn well why farms need to be taken out of nearly exclusive white hands and collectivized. This was always supposed to be a part of the Zimbabwean Revolution, going back to its earliest incarnations. For some it’s symbolic importance and historic necessity make any effort worth exalting. Any revolutionary has a knee-jerk approval of colonized people freeing the land. But we have to recognize the dissonance between what we wanted and what we got. Part of why people can still love Mugabe is they are not interested in sorting out these contradictions.
Then of course there are the lefties who remember his anti-imperialist rigor and determination, not to mention his professed socialist politics. He was basically like Che with a better strategy. But let us remind ourselves, for example, of Mugabe’s past dealings with the IMF. Let us look at some of the unbearable social ‘belt-tightening’ that his regime has undertaken. He has not been any recognizable variety of leftist in ages. But his credentials from past eras are good enough to maintain our good will, some of our fellow socialists maintain.
For example I will draw comrades attention to a small but active Black nationalist group based in Brooklyn called December 12th Movement. Politically they are a pretty interesting group, promoting a socialist-tinged version of classic 20th century Black nationalism. They wear the Red, Black, and Green. They are involved with reparations activism, against police brutality, and definitely stress Pan-African solidarity. They are typical of many of Mugabe’s contemporary defenders, although with more enthusiasm than most. For them Mugabe is not just a defendable president, but really a vibrant symbol for what the African Diaspora really needs (miraculously they had supporters visit Zimbabwe recently, returning with glowing reviews). It is a mirage, we know, but to them it is potent. We are going to talk to people in our daily lives who look at Zimbabwe this way and we should understand the reasoning and be prepared to talk.
For me, Robert Mugabe is kind of like Elvis. There are the early years spent making headlines for shaking up the system. The rebel that changed history. Then there are the awkward middle years featuring a couple of hits (68 Comeback Special, attempts at land reform) and lots of disappointments. Then comes the late years: embarrassing long-time fans, in a sad spiral downward. Then there are the late, late years spent dying on a toilet.
Here’s to hoping the Zimbabwean people kick the corpse off the thrown.