Eight hundred farms, owned by 'ex-colonials', occupied in defiance of the high court. Militant anti-British demonstrations demanding, "Down with neo-imperialism". Rich whites beaten in the street. This is Zimbabwe, two decades after its war of liberation against the racist regime of Ian Smith.
On the face of it we have a movement of the dispossessed, at last taking decisive action against their exploiters. But appearances can be deceptive and the reality is rather different. Those occupying the white-owned land are not the poor, super-exploited farmworkers themselves, but supporters - many of them paid - of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front of president Robert Mugabe.
The truth is that Mugabe, presiding over a steeply declining economy, fuel rationing, rampant inflation, 50% unemployment and falling living standards, is desperately seeking to cling onto power by diverting discontent against his corrupt, autocratic regime through stoking up a crude anti-white, anti-British and anti-imperialist populism. Facing almost certain defeat in an imminent general election, Zanu-PF hypocritically claims to champion the rights of the peasantry and the poor.
In February Mugabe suffered his first ever electoral setback, when his constitutional amendments were clearly rejected in a referendum. The majority saw through the attempts to increase his own powers despite the insertion of a proposal to seize and redistribute farm lands without compensation. In fact the previous 'redistribution' of one million acres resulting from compulsory purchase benefited only 400 of Mugabe's privileged cronies, including, for example, George Charamba, the presidential spokesman.
Clearly the present occupations do not represent an attempt to take over and run the farms in the interests of those who work them. They are a stunt, directed from the top, whose only effect on agricultural production is to further hold it back. And the violent attacks on the white-organised April 1 demonstration in Harare was not the result of the spontaneous anger and indignation on the part of the capital's workers against the 'settlers', but a carefully organised assault by Zanu-PF thugs in collaboration with the police.
The demonstration was called by the National Constitutional Assembly, which, as its name implies, is primarily concerned with upholding bourgeois legality, and is supported by whites and middle class blacks. The main theme of the demonstration was the ending of the occupations, in accordance with the high court ruling declaring them illegal. Mugabe's police have refused to intervene on the side of the farmers: indeed they have cooperated with the squatters.
But the NCA is not the main opposition. The Movement for Democratic Change, led by trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai, referred to colloquially as the 'Workers Party', is continuing to make rapid progress and looks likely to win the general election - if it is held. Already the election has been 'postponed' from this month to the middle of May, with as yet no firm date set.
With members of his own party calling on him to resign, Mugabe may be tempted to look to the army to help him stay in power. Troops have been recalled from the Congo, where they were used to prop up the regime of Laurent Kabila, and army officers have been appointed to head state agencies in the past few weeks. Tsvangirai commented: "Mugabe is clearly creating conditions of destabilisation. He is not campaigning for elections: he is campaigning for a state of emergency. I fear he is agitating to get the military to step in" (The Sunday Telegraph March 26).
What of the MDC itself? Set up by Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions activists, it is undoubtedly a working class-based grouping with its main support drawn from the urban centres. Like its South African counterpart, the ZCTU has a history of militancy, and for much of the past decade it has been the only effective opposition. Often subject to state repression - Tsvangirai himself was jailed in 1989 - its leaders have formed the backbone of the MDC. It contains revolutionary elements, including comrades from the International Socialists, one of the few Cliffite groups in Africa. Tendai Biti, a former IS member, is responsible for the MDC's land policy.
However, more recently the leadership has sought to broaden its support, appealing also to business to back the party, and indicating that it would seek a more positive relationship with the IMF and World Bank. In an interview with Green Left Weekly, paper of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, Tsvangirai declared: "In our case the main characteristic is that we are driven by working class interests, with the poor having more space to play a role than they do now. But one of the components is participation by business, which is just not able to develop under present conditions" (March 22). Tsvangirai describes the leadership - accurately - as "social democrats".
Nevertheless, the MDC is undoubtedly an important site for revolutionary intervention, particularly in the current atmosphere. Unlike the National Constitutional Assembly, and perhaps despite the intentions of its leaders, the MDC is hardly a non-violent organisation. Its comrades have been engaged in clashes with Zanu-PF supporters and in Kwekwe there have been pitched battles. Mugabe's police have been rounding up MDC supporters in the town, including its election candidate.
It could be that Mugabe, under pressure from imperialism, will eventually accede to the popular will, agree to hold the election and quietly step down if, as seems inevitable, he loses. In that case the new MDC government would be highly susceptible to the influence of imperialism and international capital.
In 1991 trade union leader Frederick Chiluba won an election in Zambia, where there was also mass discontent and where the union-based opposition also won the backing of business. Chiluba implemented pro-capital, anti-working class policies.
But that is not the only scenario. Mugabe may well decide to fight it out to the bitter end, in which case the MDC itself will be pulled in two directions: on the one side will be the constitutional liberals who will look to the west for support and sponsorship; on the other the organised workers and rebellious youth, who, increasingly, will want to take matters into their own hands.
The more the government denounces the MDC as a front for white interests and an "illegitimate puppet of the British", the more the party will have to prove the opposite is the case. The more Mugabe clamps down, threatening to ban peaceful MDC protests, the more it will feel the pressure from the masses for decisive action. The role of the small, but potentially influential revolutionary left will be crucial.Jim Blackstock