Rebuilding the struggle

The regime of Robert Mugabe has overseen the destruction of a huge number of self-built houses. At least 2.5 million people were affected. Yet protests and resistance proved minimal and muted. There is a crisis of leadership, reformists dither and the left does not grasp the necessity of a Marxist programme and the centrality of democracy. Instead, it is mired in economism and clutches at eclectic, spontaneous single-issue campaigns. Rosa Zulu, national treasurer of the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe, spoke to Peter Manson

How would you describe the situation for working people in Zimbabwe? For the ordinary worker it is the most terrible time. There is mass deprivation. Food inflation is currently sitting at about 300%. The price of fuel has risen a total of about 430% in the last 10 weeks. Yet at the same time bosses want to keep wage hikes to 30%-50%. Literally every day the purchasing power of the worker's dollar declines. Workers are forced to cut back what they spend on groceries. What they spend on entertainment, like going to the cinema once every couple of months, has been cut out altogether. Today the streets of Harare city centre are almost dead. School fees have risen 1,000%. At the end of 2003 only 70% of children of school-going age were actually at school. Attendance is compulsory, but this has never been enforced. With the current level of rises in fees, it would not surprise me if at the start of the new school year in January the level of attendance has dropped to between 50% and 60%. But the bosses continue with their life as normal. At present they are advertising an air show at the Prince Charles airport in Harare. Investors are being shown there what they can unleash on the ordinary person in order to protect the investor class. What was the effect of 'Operation Restore Order', when thousands of dwellings were demolished in June? It was the largest single attack on the workers of this country for the last 25 years. The homes of ordinary people were destroyed on such a scale that the townships and the working class areas looked as though they had been bombed. Some of our own comrades were affected - one had to go back to his parents' house, for instance. Robert Mugabe: arm the working class to overthrow the dictator It is difficult to give an exact figure, although the United Nations says that a total of 70,000 income-earners and 2.5 million people in all were caught up, in terms of the destruction of both livelihoods and homes. We will probably never know the true figure for the number of households destroyed. It was certainly an extremely big gamble on the part of both the ruling class and the regime, because of the extent of the whole operation. Not a single urban area was spared. They could never be sure of the backlash that might have arisen. But it was a gamble that for the short term has come off: there has been no backlash - the most that happened was that a civic group called Crisis in Zimbabwe organised a public meeting over the operation, but offered no way forward, no leadership. We on the ground attempted to provide that leadership. We went into the townships to distribute hundreds of leaflets urging support for a two-day stayaway, but at most the stayaway was one-third successful countrywide. We were working with a loose united front called the Broad Coalition - ourselves, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the National Constitutional Assembly (an oppositional grouping that is fighting for a new constitution) and, more loosely, the Movement for Democratic Change. For the MDC, involvement was more at a provincial than national level. The reason for the poor response was twofold. There has been a degree of treachery on the part of the reformist opposition groupings from 2001 up to now - mainly the MDC itself, of course. For example, in the June 2003 so-called 'final push' the MDC issued a statement calling for a march on State House. It then proceeded to call for a five-day stayaway. But in the process the leadership refused to give out any venues or announce specific dates and times (where they did, the leadership did not turn up, as happened in Gweru). Similarly, the ZCTU called a protest after the March 2002 presidential elections - but all they did was issue a leaflet virtually 12 hours before the intended stayaway without any prior warning. In other words there has been no actual organisation whenever some kind of action has been called. So the ordinary person has become very sceptical about such calls. By comparison, if you take the December 1997 march on parliament, or the mass strikes of 1998, these were organised by calling for report-back meetings of shopfloor workers. In other words, you call for a meeting at a public venue, you discuss the issues, you organise. This time the response to 'Operation Restore Order' was a failure. It is the result of the continued disorganisation over the last four to five years. Why did the regime undertake such huge social dislocation? Mugabe, despite the leftist rhetoric over the last few years, has in fact sent a very clear message to the IMF and World Bank, to international investors and to George Bush and Tony Blair. The message is that the rule of law is being restored. There will be no more land seizures, and the chaos of the last five years is coming to an end. Here was a regime employing leftist rhetoric that had moved away from the IMF and World Bank, that had broken ranks with the economic section of the ruling class - the investors - in order for the government to try and save itself. In the process it had ruined the economy. What they are saying now is that what happened between 2000 and 2005 is over: from now on we will do things by the book. But the operation was not portrayed in the west as the restoration of the 'rule of law'. Such wanton destruction appeared more like lawlessness. Yes, the international media were continuing to put pressure on the Mugabe regime and so they presented the operation as lawlessness - which to a certain extent is true, because, as well as those who had built homes 'illegally', a lot of 'innocent' people were caught up. Once the land seizures started in 2000, people in the urban areas began occupying vacant land in the towns - there is a serious accommodation shortage. They began building in their own back yard as well. They would erect structures from pre-cast concrete slabs - like 'prefabs' in the UK. That was also taking place in the rural areas. At the same time, the land seizures saw farmworkers being displaced. Many of them moved to urban areas looking for work. This resulted in a shortage of farm labour. So the operation was also aimed at increasing the rural labour force. People living in temporary dwellings in the towns and cities were trying to make a living selling prepaid telephone cards or various other wares on the pavement or in the flea market. So, first of all, the flea markets were smashed up and then the vendors' houses were torn down. What can those people do but return to the rural areas? At least that was the thinking of the regime. But this has not had the desired effect. To return to the rural areas would have meant certain starvation for many. Rather than do that, most people have remained in the towns - they could not simply abandon their livelihood. They have been put up in the houses of friends and relatives. And slowly the street vendors are beginning to reappear in the city centre. How is it possible for so many to be taken in by friends and relatives? The situation in this country is that very often one family lives in a single room - that is very common in the townships. If, for example, a house has two bedrooms, it will have a minimum of two families, plus another in the lounge. In other words, for each dwelling there are likely to be three to four families. Didn't the operation disrupt the official economy? Surely it must have hit officially employed workers too? It certainly affected ordinary workers. In every single workplace in Harare there were workers who had to take a day or week off to move their belongings. But in fact production was not badly affected. There is, of course, very high unemployment. If a casual or contract worker is forced to stay away from work, the employer can simply take somebody else from the street. The MDC has claimed that the whole thing was aimed at their own supporters. One of the biggest flea markets hit was in the Mbare township in Harare. It is Zanu-PF supporters who work there. Then there were unofficial housing cooperatives targeted in the western and northern part of the capital which were also Zanu-PF. It was the same with the small rural town of Ndura. The TV showed hundreds of Zanu-PF supporters going to party headquarters begging for the operation to stop. So it was certainly not aimed only at MDC supporters. And semi-urban and rural dwellers were also on the receiving end, if they lived in brick structures without permits. It was aimed solely at the ordinary worker, regardless of their political affiliation. Haven't such sweeping attacks cost Zanu-PF in terms of mass support? Most Zanu-PF support is concentrated in the countryside and there was no attempt to seize back the farmland taken there. Where Zanu-PF supporters might have put up a wooden hut, these were not targeted. Neither were villages or the land occupied by rural tenants. But surely people in the countryside hear about what has happened to their relatives in the cities? This is part of a discussion that we in the ISO have had over a number of years. We argued in 2000-2001 that, contrary to what some were saying, Mugabe would be able to survive the elections because of his support in the countryside, where Zanu-PF is very well organised. In fact that was how it conducted the war - it had close-knit organisation - intelligence, information and so forth. If, for example, your urban relative were to turn up in your village because they have been displaced, the reaction would be: 'You cannot come here if you are an MDC supporter. Otherwise we will get targeted by Zanu-PF.' As a result it has been virtually impossible for anyone else to organise in the countryside. How would you assess the position of the MDC? The MDC is a reformist party and reformists are obviously not willing to take on the system. They are more scared of the ordinary people than they are of the regime. The history of the MDC over the last five years has been - 'Yes, there's a strike; yes, there's a stayaway or mass demonstration. But we're not going to do anything about it.' The MDC seeks to contain the economic crisis and yearns for social stability. For example, after the March 2005 parliamentary elections Gibson Sibanda, the MDC deputy president, went with his chief whip to meet Robert Mugabe to find areas of common ground. The Zanu-PF regime over the last two weeks has been making efforts to stave off expulsion from the World Bank and IMF and they have the backing of the MDC. That is the kind of alliance that is taking place. David Coltart, the MDC secretary for legal affairs, recently admitted that he was told in December 2001 by Washington and London not to go ahead with a planned mass demonstration to try and get Mugabe out. They were worried the protests were going to massively destabilise the country. Another indication of the role of the MDC came with the ending of the treason trial against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The verdict was political. In other words, it showed how much pressure the regime had come under: Tsvangirai had to be preserved as a safety valve, which they eventually opened. He was more useful to them as an opposition leader than as a convict. The MDC is too far gone in its relationship with Zanu-PF to be a meaningful force in the future. The so-called opposition is working hand in glove with an oppressive regime. The leaders ran off to have tea with the president after the elections. At this stage there are no attempts to pull it into government, but they are looking to get Tsvangirai into the newly created Senate - the equivalent of your House of Lords. That is probably how the regime will try to accommodate him. The MDC was once a 'broad church' - it was founded with union support. But it is now revealing itself as a neoliberal party pure and simple. So where does that leave the trade unions? The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions is deeply divided at the top. Some are pro-Zanu-PF and some are pro-MDC. Right now they are at each other's throats. Tragically, like the MDC, it has failed to mobilise the rank and file and the ZCTU is in deep crisis. It is dead in the water and virtually anything could happen to it. We stated in 2000-2001 that the first serious attempt to get rid of Mugabe had failed - because it was led by reformists. We now have a situation where, because of the continuing economic crisis, a second attempt is beginning to emerge through building a rank and file grassroots movement to challenge neoliberalism. What form is that movement taking? Despite the tragedy that has taken place with the MDC over the last four-five years, clearly an organising of the rank and file over bread and butter issues is going to be the way forward. The issues of democracy, human rights and the so-called 'crisis of good governance', while we do not wish to downplay them, have become very abstract. In October 2004 we had a most successful conference of the Zimbabwe Social Forum - the second such event in Zimbabwe. It was very dynamic with 2,000-3,000 activists - labour, HIV Aids, gender activists and so forth. It owed its success to grassroots mobilisation. In October this year the Southern Africa Social Forum is taking place in Harare, which seeks to offer a popular alternative to the neoliberal agenda. It is promising to be as large, if not larger than last year's ZSF. For any serious activist this shows that the key is grassroots mobilisation of the rank and file and that is what is happening this year. The struggle here has not suffered a fatal blow. It is continuing because of the crisis in living conditions of the ordinary people. That is why the ZSF was so important. The struggle is being organised in a different manner and on a different level. It is no longer a case of instructions from the top. Serious activists are regrouping and reorganising and going to the rank and file. I have to say that this sounds to me like clutching at straws. Compared to past mass movements, a meeting of 2,000 people of the type you describe does not represent very much. Yes, that's true. The anger that was evident in 1998-2000 was diverted and has dissipated. Right now there is disillusionment and cynicism. The period of mass action has fallen away. That is the stark reality. The window of opportunity that we had in 1998 and 2001-02 has now closed. The struggle has to be rebuilt. But things can change quickly. Take South Africa from 1987 onwards. A British comrade commented in 1994 that you could cut the tension in Johannesburg with a knife. Two years later, by the end of 1996, the leftist organisations were in deep crisis with declining memberships. However, in the last few years in South Africa there has been the landless people's movement, the Anti-Privatisation Forum and so forth. There are brilliant, inspiring stories on the Indymedia website. So this is the point I am trying to make. As in South Africa, the movement in Zimbabwe must be rebuilt. There are going to struggles around electricity and water delivery, around health and council services, school fees and so forth. Has the ISO and your paper been badly hit by the various repressive laws passed over the last few years? We have been able to continue operating. Socialist Worker is not a mass circulation newspaper. Our sales are concentrated on the shop floor and our paper has not reached the same level of influence as the neoliberal anti-Mugabe papers. It has not been targeted and neither have our comrades thankfully. The International Socialist Organisation is in the process of setting up a new website, which can be visited at www.isozim.blogspot.com