How to break Mugabe's grip

Munyaradzi Gwisai, former MDC MP and a leader of the ISO, spoke to Peter Manson

What chances does Mugabe have of hanging on, would you say?

His chances are significant, because of the confusion and misleadership of the opposition. The movement against the dictatorship has been held back because of the cowardice of the MDC leaders.

What of the divisions within Zanu-PF?

There obviously have been divisions, but Mugabe is now beginning to consolidate and bring his party together. He didn’t go to the Lusaka conference on Zimbabwe, but chose to send three of his ministers instead and got Mbeki to come here. It shows the degree of arrogance and confidence he is feeling.

That is not surprising, because the opposition lost a very powerful moment immediately after the elections, when clearly there was a very excited mood amongst working people and other sections of society. But, instead of mobilising people for action, Morgan Tsvangirai and the rest of the MDC leaders called for restraint. They looked hopefully to the electoral commission and ran to the courts for a resolution. It’s only now, when they see that Mugabe is digging in, that they talk about mobilising for mass action.

But in many ways the enthusiasm and excitement and anger has diminished, so it’s much more difficult now.

But is an organisation like the MDC capable of leading such an unconstitutional movement in any case?

Well, they called for a stayaway, although it was done in a very unclear and confused manner. But, yes, the MDC has become a bourgeois-dominated party which answers to the whims of imperialism. It’s unlikely that it can on its own pull off any mass action, but it’s also true that the level of support it has received from the urban and rural poor is quite significant - certainly much higher than what we had anticipated. The degree of desperation amongst ordinary people, amongst the middle classes, is now so severe that a determined leadership could have achieved, and can still achieve, a substantial response.

It would have to encompass a united front. What we are saying in the ISO is the way forward to defend democratic gains is for the radicals in the MDC, together with those in civic society, organised labour and the left, to set up a united front centred around a programme of mass action and mobilisation. That, we think, would have some chances of success, given the high level of confidence that the working class has placed in the MDC - what they see as the alternative to the current crisis in the country.

Is the stayaway called by the MDC a workers’ strike or some kind of cross-class action?

They aren’t very clear. From what we see, it does appear to be a workers’ stayaway. But this is actually one of its limitations. The working class has been decimated - we are talking about 15%-20% of the population at most in work, and many of those are jobs that are under capacity. What we need is mass action that is able to mobilise all sections of the working people.

That would allow the unemployed, the youth, the women and others to join in. So what we require is a general strike and general demonstration that would involve everyone. The stayaway is therefore unlikely to succeed. Even so, there hasn’t really been any mobilisation of organised labour. The MDC leaders seem to think that they can summon up action out of thin air and the workers will respond.

We don’t think they are serious about it in any case. They viewed it as a way of exerting pressure on Mugabe to coincide with the Lusaka conference. The idea was to create a belief that things are about to happen when they hadn’t mobilised on the ground.

As for the capitalist class, it is sitting on the fence. Whilst on the one hand it obviously supports the MDC, on the other hand they can see that Mugabe is still very much in charge, and armed with new laws. Just a couple of months ago the Indigenisation and Empowerment Act was passed, which allows the government to take a majority shareholding in certain companies. So the bourgeoisie is not likely to take on Mugabe at this stage.

But we in the ISO have welcomed the latest position of the MDC - that they will not participate in a run-off - and the beginnings of mobilising for action. But it does not have the capacity on its own to lead a resolute mass action that can defeat the regime. The lesson learnt from 2000 is that any movement that is dominated by the MDC is not going to succeed against the dictatorship.

We are aware that, even if the ideologically bankrupt MDC does call for action, its purpose is merely to put pressure on the regime to achieve their main objective, along with their western handlers - to create a “government of national unity” with Zanu-PF. Such a government would restore economic stability and proceed to introduce a full-scale programme of neoliberal, free-market ‘reforms’, very much as we saw in Zambia after Kaunda was removed and replaced by Chiluba; and similarly with Kibaki in Kenya. The government of national unity would pre-empt any radicalisation of the Zimbabwe crisis.

Mugabe wants a run-off election which he will win or rig, so as to participate in a government of national unity as a senior partner. Given the depth of the economic crisis, he will probably capitulate to that in the end.

I agree that mass action needs to involve the whole working class, not just those in work. However, the working class is without leadership and is unarmed, while the regime is armed to the teeth.

On the lack of leadership, this is the tragedy we have - that radical and left forces have failed to create a significant alternative to the MDC. One of the main things the ISO has tried to do over the last five or six years has been to argue for an alternative radical left force. But unfortunately illusions in the MDC have remained very strong. We ourselves are a tiny organisation.

So the working class is paying the price for its failure to construct an anti-neoliberal, democratic, united force, which leaves the leadership of the anti-Mugabe movement in the hands of the MDC - a Trojan horse for the global forces of imperialism.

But we have to deal with the situation as it is. Part of that is the level of rejection of the dictatorship by the urban poor and very significant portions of the peasantry has been so high that any mobilisation involving organised labour, those in formal employment, but also the rest of the population could paralyse the economic life of the nation in a manner that would impose a new and very important dynamic.

Such action must be supported by regional and international solidarity, first and foremost from the South African working class and also in places like the UK, where there is a large Zimbabwean population.

We believe a general strike supported by a general demonstration can be achieved. Yes, it might initially be bloody, but the isolation of the regime is so severe that such action could potentially bring down the dictatorship. We are not fooling ourselves that it will be easy, but the key question of the day is whether or not the leadership will be provided.

Finally, the level of disenchantment and pauperisation amongst the lower sections of the armed forces is also very high. What has been very interesting in the last couple of weeks is that among the mixed groups of people looking for news - buying newspapers or gathered around car radios in Harare - have been junior police or army officers.

So if the working class shows determination to take on the Mugabe dictatorship there are real possibilities that key sections of the armed forces and the police might actually be divided. But that will not happen until and unless the working class moves.

In view of the continued illusions in the MDC that you talk about, do you think in retrospect that the ISO decision to abandon MDC work might have been a mistake? Ought you to have stayed inside in order to try and split it?

I don’t think we would have survived, given what it was and what it has become, and the question of survival became paramount. We would have been expelled in any case. We are under no illusions about what the MDC is today. If you look at its representation - elected senators and MPs - the number of bankers, financiers, top lawyers and business people is high. That kind of hegemony of the elite meant that to have remained in the MDC would not really have served much purpose.

Secondly, we believe that being outside has allowed us to survive and build the ISO. Just last year we held our first Marxism school in years, with about 350 people attending. Then there was the People’s Convention earlier this year attended by about 6,000 delegates from different groups. We sent a delegation of over 250 and were one of the important players.

Many civic groups are questioning the direction of the MDC, which has vindicated the position of the ISO. Whereas we have failed to spearhead the formation of an alternative united front, we are very well positioned now to play an important role in the establishment of such a united front over the coming years.

We have shifted our position partially in relation to the MDC. We are arguing that the way to defeat the dictatorship is through mass mobilisation and action from below. We are therefore supporting the position that the MDC has taken in regard to a presidential run-off. But we are saying that a united front of all forces in the opposition is needed.

However, although the MDC said they would not participate in any run-off, we think they may well end up doing so - what they say and do right now is all part of their pressure on Zanu-PF. Nonetheless, whereas before we called for a boycott of the elections, we have now decided to call for an unconditional but critical vote for the MDC in any new election.

What would a vote for Tsvangirai achieve? What is the purpose of such a tactic?

There is no substantial left alternative, yet at the same time the economic crisis has now reached totally unprecedented proportions. As I have said, the working class is reduced to around 15% of the population, but this is likely to get worse. People are dying in hospitals that have nothing. Schools are neglected. People can hardly survive right now. If Mugabe refuses to compromise with the MDC and does come back one way or another, his only means of clinging to power will be through a full-scale military dictatorship.

We are under no illusions about what that would do. It would not only smash the MDC. It would smash organised labour, civic society organisations and the forces of the left. These forces, including ourselves, are currently weak and do not have the capacity to stand up to a full-scale Zanu-PF military dictatorship.

Alternatively, the depth of the crisis, plus the likely escalation of sanctions and economic siege by the west and capitalist classes, would produce a desperate situation. We would not be able to survive in such a scenario. So the gravity of the situation and the absence of a substantial left alternative (and also the absence of a radical left trend within Zanu-PF) mean that the survival of the working class has become paramount.

Also we had not fully anticipated the extent to which the urban and rural working class would continue to back Tsvangirai and the MDC. To remain outside that movement would risk leaving us totally on the margins. A Tsvangirai government would stabilise the economy and provide us with new opportunities.

But who is going to say Mugabe will accept the result if the people vote for Tsvangirai in a run-off?

What we have seen in the first round is that the poor have demonstrated support for the MDC in a way we had not thought possible, especially in former Zanu-PF strongholds. The MDC should have used that increased support for mass mobilisation. Even if there is another vote for the MDC, the dictatorship is not going to surrender power easily.

But the new momentum created could provide an opportunity for serious mass action - an opportunity that was present following the original elections but has now been lost.

We are saying, let’s go for action now and build what we can. But even if the MDC elite push for a run-off, we should mobilise for that. Civic society should reorganise what we have done under the People’s Convention, which is quite a powerful movement, and prepare for a rigged election or a refusal by Mugabe to hand over power.

Didn’t the People’s Convention take a position of neither Zanu-PF nor the MDC?

It did not take a position on how people should vote. We ourselves were pushing for a boycott and for mass action. But most of the groups that participated ended up supporting the MDC anyway.

There was a lot of money poured into the elections and even groups that were supporting our position were put under huge pressure by the temptation of some of this money.

You mentioned the high number of bankers, lawyers, etc among the MDC candidates. Were there also candidates from the trade union wing?

Yes, but they are now more like isolated individuals rather than representatives of an organised movement of the working class. They were selected to keep the labour bureaucracy happy. The MDC will probably end up with 101 MPs, but only around 10 of them will be trade union leaders. It’s a minuscule number.

A similar proportion to that of the Labour Party in Britain perhaps.

Yes, but probably with the difference that the unions still have some kind of block vote within New Labour.

Isn’t Tsvangirai himself, as a former leader of the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions, still associated with the union movement?

He’s now completely divorced from the unions. I’m struggling to think of any trade unionists among Tsvangirai’s top team of advisers, with the death of the former chairman, Isaac Matongo. When you look at the power-brokers in the party now, the union leaders are highly marginalised. Some of them attended our Marxism conference last November.

Many trade unionists feel betrayed by what is happening in the MDC. But they and the working class support the MDC because they are hungry and there’s no alternative and they see Zanu-PF as the worse devil. But working class influence in the MDC has declined quite considerably. The working class still have illusions in what the MDC stands for, given its history, but the party has become dominated and controlled by upper middle classes and the bourgeoisie, along with their western handlers.

Look at the financial resources the MDC had in the election. They had more election material than Zanu-PF, whether you’re talking about posters or cars or television adverts. The MDC is a real instrument of the west and the bourgeois classes, have no doubt about it. But one in which the working class has illusions.

However, under the MDC sanctions will be lifted, some aid will come in and the economic crisis will clearly come to an end. The working class will be able to breathe for two or three years at most. But after that the effects of the new neoliberal programme that the MDC will introduce will begin to be felt. But the respite from the Mugabe dictatorship and the economic crisis, and the period of democratisation that is likely to follow, can give our forces room to reorganise and rebuild. It will also allow Tsvangirai to be exposed for what he is. Before that the illusions in the MDC will be very hard to break.

That is why we are ready to give unconditional but critical support to the MDC now. But outside the party, not inside it.

It seemed to us that a useful tactic during the last election might have been to differentiate between working class MDC candidates and those of the bourgeoisie. That is, urge a vote for the trade union leaders and condemn the lawyers and bankers. The aim would be to break the illusions of workers and eventually split the MDC.

That’s the tactic you adopted in the last election in Britain, but it would have had minuscule effect. Given the gravity and severity of the economic crisis, the working class, the poor and the peasantry do not care which candidate the MDC is standing. If you are going to give some kind of support, you might as well support all the candidates and build the alternative on the ground. It would have been splitting hairs, and creating illusions in certain sections of the MDC, not dealing with the real issue.

The real issue is not the MDC’s labour or trade union MPs. The real issue is building an autonomous, radical left movement outside the MDC, which works with radicals inside the party. If they do get into power, then we move beyond the current situation, and, given Tsvangirai’s record as a leader of the working class historically, given the dictatorship, given the poverty, when, as sure as day follows night, the MDC proceeds to implement its neoliberal agenda, we prepare for the reaction.

But you didn’t develop your point about whether the ISO should have remained in the MDC. What is your impression?

Well, it seemed to me that it was a mistake to leave. Yes, they could have expelled you if you had stayed inside, but the fight against that might have helped expose the party’s class contradictions. As it was, what did you get out of your time in the MDC?

We were expelled. If we had remained in the MDC, to have avoided expulsion would have required playing at popular front politics - the kind of thing you comrades raise about what our colleagues have done in Respect. We would have had to play along with the shit that the MDC was dishing up in the period after 2002.

What we have gained is, we think, immense respect from the radicals of the MDC, and even sections of the centrist leaders, for the principled positions we took - especially when we pointed out that taking on the dictatorship means going beyond electoral politics.

This is seen in the platform we gave to MDC radicals at Marxism last year. This is seen in the invitation they gave the ISO and myself to speak at Tsvangirai’s congress a year or two back. They invited us to come and give a solidarity speech, which I did and was quite well received.

So they expelled you and then invited you to come and speak to them?

But we had not been standing still. We are now one of the key players in civic society. I am now the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Social Forum. But not just that: three weeks before the election, the MDC informed us that they would be holding an ideological school and invited us to give the inaugural lecture on the importance of ideology in the struggle!

All this seems to contradict the idea that the MDC is now completely dominated by the capitalists. If there are such powerful elements looking in your direction, doesn’t that point to the battle that still needs to be had in the party?

These are developments that have occurred since 2002. We are well aware that around the general secretary, Tendai Biti, who was a leading member of the ISO in the early 1990s, there is a minority that does want to work with us, as well as with the radicals in civic society.

There are pressures on us to rejoin the MDC. We will not rejoin, but will maintain a fraternal relationship, especially with its radical minority. We think it’s easier to do that from the outside. On the inside there would be the whole question of party discipline and the threat posed by the right would be immense. Then you have the serious pressures of cooption of your membership into leading MDC positions. So we think that getting out when we did was essential. I’m not sure we would have survived inside the MDC.

Munyaradzi Gwisai is a leader of the International Socialist Organisation, which is calling for a “general strike and general demonstration” to defeat the Zanu-PF regime of Robert Mugabe. The ISO, an affiliate of the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency, joined the opposition Movement for Democratic Change after it was launched by the Zimbabwe Confederation of Trade Unions in 1999. Comrade Gwisai was an MDC MP in Harare until he was expelled from the party in 2002.