Zimbabwe - As Economic Collapse Looms the Vultures Gather


The recent police repression in Zimbabwe has again exposed the desperate economic and social situation in the country. In mid-March an opposition “prayer meeting” was attacked by Zimbabwe police; one young man was shot dead and the leaders of the opposition Movement for Democratic change (MDC) who were going to the meeting were severely beaten.

The country appears to be on the brink of economic breakdown and conditions of life are now similar to what a population experiences under siege in conditions of war. The present critical situation in Zimbabwe is a direct result of the regime breaking the rules of western imperialism and trying to live with the results. The main crime, which the regime committed, is that of breaking the terms of IMF loans in the late 90s. Since 1999 the IMF and other international lenders cut off funding to the country and waited for Mugabe or his successor to come to terms. Mugabe has avoided capitulation by a number of short term manoeuvres. These have included the expropriation of the European owned farmlands, the looting of mineral wealth from the Congo during Zimbabwe’s intervention in that country’s civil war, and the selling of rights to Zimbabwe’s own mineral wealth. However, these were short term measures and some of them, like the farm expropriations, have made the present situation worse as food production has collapsed. Hyper-inflation is disrupting the normal functioning of the economy making survival extremely difficult. The Zimbabwe working class has launched a number of wildcat strikes, some demanding pay increases of 8000% but these have been met with the predictable repression. It is estimated that 4 million people, or 25% of the population, have fled the country. The regime’s room for manoeuvre is running out.

In the period before the collapse of the Russian bloc, a regime which fell out with western imperialism in the way Zimbabwe has done, could always become a client of Russian imperialism and receive help from the rival bloc. After 1991 the world became dominated by a single imperialist power, the US, and such manoeuvring became impossible. However, the post 1991 situation of a single imperialist power is being challenged, and in Africa, China is now emerging as a new imperialist force. In its present desperate situation the Zimbabwean regime is trying get help from the Chinese to stave off economic collapse. It has been reported that the regime is trying to negotiate a $2 billion loan from the Chinese. (1)

The older and more established imperialist powers on the African scene, such as the US and the UK, do not wish to see their positions challenged by China, particularly in a mineral rich country such as Zimbabwe. This has been expressed by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, who, on the one hand, energetically denounce the economic failings and repression of the Mugabe regime, while on the other denounce the “unprincipled” nature of Chinese loans and the suspicious ulterior motives behind them. (2)

The loans given by the US & UK are, we are assured, “moral” and help the debtor countries to get out of debt! Such hypocrisy from our leaders is only an attempt to camouflage their class interests and is not, of itself, of particular interest to us. What it does show, however, is that in Africa, as in the Middle East, imperialist confrontation with China is developing. As we have written in previous articles (3), it is this which is behind the conflict in Sudan. Countries like Zimbabwe, finding themselves in desperate straits, are again attempting to play off one imperialist power against another. The situation in Zimbabwe is, however, so critical that it is probably too late for this strategy to succeed.

Facing economic collapse

The economic and social situation has become virtually unsustainable. 80% of the population is unemployed with 85% living in poverty. Inflation is now 2200% annually which means prices double about every 2 weeks! The currency is in free fall, despite a revaluation in August 2006 in which 1000 old Zimbabwe dollars (Z$) were made equal to 1 new one, the exchange rate of the new currency has plummeted. One new Z$ is equal to 25000 US $, which makes purchases like, for example, a tank of petrol cost Z$ 1 million. Savings have become worthless, pensions have become worthless, and the government’s attempts to raise money by issuing bonds have failed despite offering an interest rate of 500%. The country is desperately short of foreign currency, and is unable to import fuel or sufficient food to feed its people. The food situation has been made much worse by the expropriation of the large-scale farms, parcelled out to the peasantry and the top ZANU party members. This has meant food is no longer produced for the market and the population faces starvation. The governor of the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank, Gideon Gono, explained that the country’s priority was to use its reserves to import food and blamed those who had taken over the white owned farms for failing to produce food. (4)

The UN World Food Programme has been feeding 1.5 million people in Zimbabwe or 12.5% of the population but has recently announced it is cutting back to feeding only 250 000. This is likely to lead to further starvation. (5)

Malnutrition and disease, particularly aids, have cut average life expectancy in the country to 34 years for women and 37 years for men! A decade ago the average life expectancy was 65 years. (6)

Meanwhile state administration of the country is being placed under enormous strain. Government services, such as health, education and public transport are all in disarray. The shortage of fuel means there are electricity blackouts and the food available cannot be distributed. Army and police are also restive as their salaries become worthless and the state fails to provide equipment they need. The unreliable state of the Government’s forces of repression is shown by Mugabe recent request to Angola, his ally in the Congo war, to send 3000 paramilitary police to support the regime. (7)

Workers, particularly in the state sector, have been trying to fight back and in January there were a rash of wildcat strikes. Health services were brought to a standstill and power to the capital Harare was cut. These strikes were organised outside the official trade union movement and took the authorities by surprise but their demands were not met. There was supposed to be a follow up general strike on 3rd and 4th of April but since this was organised by the Congress of Zimbabwe Trade Unions (ZCTU), the official union movement, it was publicised well in advance, so the state had time to prepare its thugs and the strike call was largely ignored. This happened although general strikes called in earlier years, when attacks on the working class were far less severe, were widely observed. In 1998, for example, price rises of 67% for fuel and 100% for electricity led to two general strikes. In 2001 a further 70% rise in the cost of fuel precipitated another general strike. Today such price increases occur every fortnight! Now, however, there is certainly a wariness of entering a struggle with the state. This caution could, however, easily change as the regime appears to be adopting an attitude of confrontation. An example of this is the provocative call, made by Mr Gono the governor of the Reserve Bank, for a wage freeze! (8)

One of the reasons for the present weakness of the workers response is undoubtedly the exodus of 4 million of them to the neighbouring countries, in particular to South Africa and Botswana. Those workers who are able to are trying to get out rather than stay and fight the regime. The money sent back by migrant workers allows life to continue for their dependants, and it is this which enables the working class to survive with such astronomical levels of unemployment.

Every day more workers are trying to get out of the country and there are now 300 000 people waiting to be given passports they have applied for. However, the state is not even able to deal with this because the passport office does not have paper and ink to print the passports! Many are travelling without papers and crossing the borders in secret. They hope for jobs in the informal sector of the host countries where papers are not required.

Under these circumstances it is extraordinary that Mugabe still claims to be implementing socialism and is regarded by some in southern Africa as a Marxist.

ZANU and MDC - organisations of the capitalist class

When the ZANU (9) party came to power in 1980 it described itself as Marxist and socialist and claimed it stood for the entire nation of black Zimbabweans. This was immediately disproved in the two years to 1982 when a massive strike wave erupted. The regime responded to this strike wave with repression and Mugabe described the strikes as:

Nothing short of criminal.

The subsequent 25 years during which the Mugabe regime has been in power have simply confirmed what we wrote at the time, namely, that the regime stands for the interests of the African bourgeois class, as opposed to the white bourgeois class, and is the deadly enemy of the working class. During its period in power the regime has forced austerity on the working class to keep up profits, it has broken strikes with the army and shot workers when they have demonstrated. It has not hesitated to outlaw class struggle including strikes when it suits it. (10)

The new African bourgeoisie, particularly the ZANU political elite, have gained shares of industry and ownership of farmland and have emerged as a new ruling class. It is worth remembering that this regime, and Mugabe himself, were praised to the skies by the spokesmen of international capitalism in the period up to the break with the IMF in the late 90s.

The break with the IMF was over the implementation of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme which the IMF demanded Zimbabwe impose as a condition for further loans. The regime was not prepared to cut state spending and introduce the privatisations in the economy the IMF required. The seizure and division of large scale farming land and the entry into the Congo civil war made relations with the IMF much worse and led to the suspension of loans. This led to Zimbabwe being proclaimed a pariah state. For western imperialism and its representative in the shape of the IMF, Zimbabwe had transgressed the rules. It had devastated its main source of foreign exchange, namely farming, it had wasted millions on a foreign war, it had not sufficiently privatised the economy, it had exceeded its budget deficit provisions, it had fixed the price of staple foods, it had fixed exchange rates instead of floating them and, of course, it had not repaid its debts. All this meant that the regime must be changed. It was under these circumstances that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was created.

The MDC was formed in 1999 and backed from the start by the large mining companies such as Anglo American/Ashanti Gold Fields, Broken Hill, as well as National Power. These, together with other capitalist groups formed an organisation called the Democratic Trust which provided finance and publicity for the MDC. The programme of the MDC is, unsurprisingly, to implement the IMF’s plans, give independence to the state bank, abolish price controls, let the currency float etc. In short, the MDC plans to take Zimbabwe back into the orbit of western imperialism.

Both the main political forces in Zimbabwe are therefore organisations of the capitalist class. ZANU represents the African nationalist sector of the capitalist class and favours state capitalist measures in certain areas of the economy. Despite the rhetoric about state capitalist measures, it is worth noting that ZANU has not entirely broken with the IMF, and when it was due to be expelled from the organisation in 2005 actually paid off the interest on its debt. However its opposition to the working class is quite unambiguous and has been demonstrated time and again. The MDC, in contrast to ZANU, stands for the conversion of the Zimbabwe elite into the administrative faction of international capital and the supports the exploitation of the working class for the benefit of international capital. There is little to choose between them.

Imperialist struggle for control of Zimbabwe

Despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a relatively minor country on the periphery of capitalism, a collapse in Zimbabwe has the potential to destabilise the whole southern African region. The region as a whole has many vital raw materials such as platinum, chromium, magnesium, manganese, antimony and, of course, gold. In addition it has strategic value in that it controls the sea route round Africa. It is therefore an important region for US imperialism to keep under its control. However, this control is now being threatened by China.

The enormous economic growth taking place in China requires massive amounts of energy and raw materials and the Chinese are scouring the world to get hold of these things. Africa, which has been starved of foreign investment by western imperialism (11), is seen by Chinese capitalists as a source of oil and minerals. Chinese moves to exploit Africa’s raw materials are reflected in its investment and trade with Africa. By the end of 2005 China had 800 enterprises operating in Africa with a total investment of $6 billion. Chinese trade with Africa, which now exceeds that of the US, was $55 billion in 2006 whereas US/Africa trade was only $44.5 billion (12) during the same period. The China/Africa trade is growing spectacularly and the 2006 figure quoted represents a 40% increase on 2005. (13)

In November 2006 it was announced that China was to set up a $5 billion fund for Africa/China development, (14) and in recognition of China’s new “pivotal” role in African development, the African Development Bank held its 2007 annual summit in Shanghai. It is clear that what the trend of increased Chinese trade and influence is set to increase.

China has taken advantage of Zimbabwe’s disputes with western imperialism and in the last 5 years has become the major supporter of the regime. The ZANU regime has recognised that China represents a life line, and has baptised its relationship with China as the new “Look East” policy. Chinese trade with Zimbabwe has increased dramatically. Whereas it was $191 million in 2002 by 2005 it had climbed to $280 million, and is expected to reach $500 million by 2008. China has become the largest buyer of Zimbabwe’s tobacco and also imports iron, chrome, nickel and platinum. It is also investing in Zimbabwe, and there are now 35 companies operating in Zimbabwe producing basic materials such as bricks, glass and cement. China is also providing loans to the regime. In September 2006 a loan of $490 million was made to purchase food and oil (15), and it is rumoured that China provided the money to pay off the IMF interest in 2005. As mentioned above it has been reported that Zimbabwe is now looking for a $2bn loan to get it out of the present mess. In return China is believed to have requested a stake in the country’s platinum mines. (16)

As one Zimbabwean capitalist stated the Chinese are “all over the place” and went on to say:

If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place. (17)

China is also providing military equipment to prop up the regime. It has supplied fighter jets, transport and communications equipment. The last have been used for such things as internet blocking and jamming of foreign radio broadcasts. In addition, as a gift to the president, the Chinese have built a 24 bedroom presidential mansion in grounds of 44 acres with 2 lakes at a cost of $11 million. The fact that this is being done at a time when 5 million Zimbabweans face starvation, shows how little the Chinese really care for the interests of the mass of Zimbabweans. There interests are precisely the same as those of western imperialism all that differs is the destination of the surplus value extorted from the Zimbabwean working class.

Difficult road ahead for Zimbabwean workers

The Zimbabwean working class finds itself in a difficult position. On the one hand it is weakened by massive emigration, while on the other it faces savage state repression. In addition the ideological baggage of the national liberation struggle has not fully been discredited despite the events of the last 27 years, as is shown by the use the regime makes of the myths which accompanied this struggle. The principal myth was that the liberation from white minority rule represented, in some way, liberation of the working class. However, in class society each class determines its own interests not those of other classes, and it was the black bourgeois class that liberated itself. It did not, and never could have liberated the working class. To liberate the working class would have meant the abolition of class society that is to say the abolition of the fundamental division on which capitalism is based. What really occurred was what the bourgeois class has done time and again from the period of the French Revolution onwards. The bourgeois class dressed up its interests as those of all classes belonging to the nation, and it did this in order to mobilise the working class and peasantry to commit themselves to its struggle for its own liberation. It used these lies to mobilise the working class and peasantry as cannon fodder against the Smith regime. The savage repression of class struggle in the last 27 years gives the lie to ZANU having liberated the working class or somehow being its defenders. Today, however, the working class is again being called to commit itself to the battles of the bourgeois class, namely the opposition MDC. It is vital that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Today the MDC presents itself as the party of freedom, democracy, justice, humanity and so forth. However, as we have shown above, it is simply the party of the faction of the Zimbabwean bourgeoisie who favour a return to the fold of western imperialism. They have no more interest in freedom or justice than the bourgeoisie in Washington or London. These slogans camouflage sordid bourgeois interests and are the bait being used to lure the working class into this trap. This group is, however, supported by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) which is trying to mobilise workers behind the MDC. As we have seen in South Africa the trade unions place themselves behind the banners of the nationalist bourgeoisie and are quite happy to throw their members into the fray.

The working class should reject all calls to shed its blood for the bourgeois opposition. Instead it should struggle for its own class interests such as pay and conditions. Although a large part of the working class is being sustained by remissions from emigrant workers abroad, the 20% still in work have the ability to paralyse the country. They would find support in the unemployed and they face demoralised and unreliable forces of state repression. The government’s suggestion of a pay freeze, at a time of hyper-inflation, show more attacks on the Zimbabwean workers are being prepared. The wildcat strikes of January point to the way ahead. Such strikes express a class fighting for its independent interests. The danger is that the Opposition will try to use that militancy to clam it as part of the fight against Mugabe. Once in power they will allow them to form trades unions, which instead of fighting for class interests, will, like in virtually every other country around the world act as disciplining force to negotiate worse conditions than the strength of militancy can command. Permanent economic organisations with “paid officials” will end up being recuperated by the regime whoever is in power. The alternative is that the workers increase their own self-organisation creating wider assemblies open to all and with elected strike committees. This all presupposes that they also multiply and coordinate their own united action in solidarity from one sector of the economy to another. Such action would, of course, probably precipitate the collapse of the Mugabe regime and its replacement by another bourgeois regime. However, the independent position of the workers would make their position much stronger in respect to the replacement regime and their demands would have to be met.

In the longer term Zimbabwe’s problems are a part of the global problems of the capitalist system of production, problems which produce the ravages of imperialism and turn vast regions of the planet, such as Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and Zimbabwe into a living hell. They can only be overcome when the problems of capitalist production are overcome. Capitalism is a system of production based on classes in which production is undertaken for the purpose of generating profit. This needs to be ended and global production carried out for the needs of humanity. This requires socialisation of the means of production and their control by the working class on a global scale. This is a system which we call communism, but which has absolutely nothing in common with what previously existed in Russia and China. The system in these countries was a form of state capitalism in which the state held most of the means of production and workers sold their labour power to the state. A communist organisation of production can only be achieved by a mass movement of the world’s working class and this requires a class conscious of its interests and having a programme for achieving them. For this to be accomplished a political organisation of conscious workers needs to be created. It is necessary for Zimbabwean workers, who understand the need to create a communist world, to forge links with international communists elsewhere to lay the basis for building this society.


(1) See Guardian unlimited, libcom.org .

(2) See Hilary Benn UK international development secretary quoted in Guardian unlimited, libcom.org .

(3) See RP 40 “Behind the smell of blood in Darfur lie imperialist interests”.

(4) See Guardian 1/3/2007.

(5) UNICEF the UN children’s organisation reports that 2 million people are vulnerable to starvation.

(6) WHO figures quoted Independent 17/11/2006.

(7) See Independent 20/03/2007.

(8) See Guardian 1/3/2007.

(9) Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) fought against white minority rule from 1966 to 1979 when the minority regime gave up the fight. ZANU won the subsequent election and have held power since.

(10) In 1998 after 2 general strikes the government banned strikes and introduces and introduced a sentence of 3 years gaol for anyone convicted of organising a strike.

(11) See RP 31 “Africa showcase of capitalist decline”.

(12) See Christian science monitor, csmonitor.com .

(13) See FT 1/02/07.

(14) See China Daily, chinadaily.com.cn .

(15) See Reuters 14/09/2006.

(16) See Agence France Press, reliefweb.int .

(17) Trevor Ncube, a newspaper owner reported in Washington Post, washingtonpost.com .

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