Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 19, 2017

Robert Mugabe’s downfall: a challenge to the “anti-imperialist” left

Filed under: Zimbabwe — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

For most on the left, Robert Mugabe was a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance and a shining example of how to promote economic development outside of the Washington Consensus. The highlights of his career are well-known to the left:

  1. He defeated the racist colonial settler state in 1979 and became Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister a  year later, serving in that capacity until a coup removed him from power this week.
  2. When faced with a challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he relied on repression but was also able to exploit his adversary’s ties to the West and neoliberal economic program.
  3. Pushed against the wall by Western sanctions and support for the MDC, Mugabe took steps to expropriate the rich, white landowners and redistribute the land to the landless. This step was in stark contrast to post-apartheid South Africa where the whites continued to own most of the land.
  4. He broke with Western financial institutions and investors, making Zimbabwe a prime example of the benefits of trade agreements and partnership with China.

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of Robert Mugabe is Garikai Chengu, a staunch anti-imperialist who describes himself as a “founder and chairman of Chengu Gold Mining Pvt. Ltd. one of Zimbabwe’s fastest growing indigenous private gold companies.” In 2014, he wrote an article for the Zimbabwe Herald titled “Mugabeism: A model for African liberation” that concluded:

Mugabeism is a new brand of African Democratic Socialism that is becoming increasingly resurgent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Candidates who espouse African Democratic Socialism won recent Presidential elections in Kenya and Zambia. Their opponents, who favored pro-Western, neo-liberal policies, dismally lost their elections.

Mugabeism is an ideology that believes in not only the transference of political power, but also an unwavering commitment to shift the means of production—land, minerals, and corporations—from the privileged white minority to the Zimbabwean majority.

As is the case with Syria, the terms democracy and socialism have a hollow ring when applied to Zimbabwe. With respect to democracy, challenging Mugabe in the elections can be rather risky as the historical record of countless beatings bears out. While the MDC has been on the ballot repeatedly, brutal attacks on campaigners and rallies have tended to lessen the party’s effectiveness, which was also impeded by its own inability to counter Mugabe’s socialist pretensions. Furthermore, when he seized the land of the rich whites and redistributed them to the landless, his leftist credentials gained a certain credibility especially when he was an economic partner of China that even a renowned Marxist like Michael Roberts considers in defiance of the laws of capitalist commodity production.

If you hadn’t been paying any attention to Zimbabwe in the past couple of years, as I admittedly wasn’t, you’d be surprised to see that his army has overthrown him. Not only that, there are reports that the architects of the coup have been given the green light by China. Given Zimbabwe’s break with Western imperialism, what could have caused his own military to rise up against him? Were they in cahoots with AFRICOM or getting funded by the Rothschild bank?

Or was it possible that the army had removed Mugabe because his regime had become intolerable, especially for those at the lower rungs of society who regarded the economic status quo as not only irredeemably capitalist but a threat to their survival?

A review of Zimbabwe’s history from the date that Garikai Chengu’s article about Mugabeism appeared to the present-day will give you some insights into why a break with Western imperialism in and of itself is no panacea.

The first dark clouds appeared on the China-Zimbabwe horizon in January 2016 when there was widespread recognition that a declining demand for African commodities impacted all countries that China traded with, including Zimbabwe. In the preceding year, China exported $102 billion to Africa but imported only $67 billion. Despite all the promises made to Africans about how China would be different than the West, this unfavorable balance of trade was consistent with colonial patterns of the past even if it was benefiting a “Communist” country. Ibbo Mandaza, a political analyst and businessman in Zimbabwe, commented: “The Chinese are not romantic anymore about their relations with Africa — far from it. For them, it’s purely economic.”

As it happens, Zimbabwe was dealing with a major drought in 2016 so maybe the masses were even less romantic about their revolutionary leader than the Chinese were about their anti-colonial dog-and-pony show. In February 2016, just two years after Chengu’s puff piece appeared, drought had left tens of thousands of dead cattle, dried-up reservoirs, and crop failure. A government official said, “Initial indications were that 1.5 million people were food-insecure with all the 60 rural districts being affected.”

Meanwhile, when this catastrophe was sweeping across the countryside like a Biblical plague, what was the intrepid anti-imperialist leader up to? He was celebrating his 92nd birthday with a 200-pound cake and accolades from a state-owned newspaper: “Mugabe’s birthday is like that of Jesus Christ.” Newspapers not controlled by the regime, however, were appalled by the party for which the cake was made since it cost $800,000. A bus driver and former organizer for Mugabe’s party, the ZANUP-PF, complained, “It is amazing that a president presiding over a state which fails to pay its workers on time, a country with a sea of poverty and going through one of the worst droughts in living memory and hunger, can see it fit to spend a million dollars celebrating his life, which has meant nothing but suffering for us.”

Oh, did I mention that Bashar al-Assad’s indifference to the suffering in the countryside during a drought just like this led to an uprising in 2011?

Somehow, I missed what was going on in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. The shit was beginning to hit the fan apparently. Strikes and protests broke out over the faltering economy, including in two poor townships of Harare, where roads were barricaded and people engaged in street fighting with the cops. Most civil servants had not been paid in a month but Mugabe was sure to keep the wages flowing for those critical to his survival: the cops, the soldiers, and the prison guards.

To make sure that a Zimbabwe Spring was not in the offing, Mugabe clamped down on the Internet and communications systems. WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off and the state-backed cellphone providers warned against “gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services.” The country’s anti-imperialist paragon told the masses to behave themselves: ”They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,”

In addition to the drought and the decline of revenue from trade with China, Zimbabwe was in the grips of a Weimar Republic type hyperinflation. The treasury had issued a $100 trillion note, which equaled 35 American cents.

For those in the higher echelons of the Zimbabwean state, none of this impacted their lifestyle. Phelekezela Mphoko, a ZANU-PF vice president, elected to stay at a hotel that cost a million dollars a year because government housing was not to his taste.

In the very hot summer of 2016, the mainstay of Mugabe’s support that had benefited the most from his land redistribution decided that the game was up. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association issued a statement that included this quite subversive challenge to their fearless anti-imperialist leader: “We note, with concern, shock, and dismay, the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle.”

Some of these veterans who had benefited from the land reform discovered that it was a bad idea to oppose the president for life. Agrippah Mutambara owned a 530-acre as part of this program, one certainly deserved on the basis of being a hero in the war of liberation and having served as an ambassador to three different nations over a 20 year period. But when he heeded the call of the veteran’s group and joined the opposition, he became the target of Mugabe’s goons who showed up at the farm with the intention of giving him the kind of beating MDC activists were habituated to. When Mutambara trained an automatic weapon on them, they had a change of heart and left peacefully.

Perhaps people would have put up with the lack of democracy and the corruption at the top if the commodity boom had continued, rainfall had been plentiful and inflation had been tamped down. Yet, the regime continued to act in the same fashion as the royal family in France in 1789 with Mrs. Mugabe playing the part of Marie Antoinette as the NY Times reported 4 days ago:

The press nicknamed Mrs. Mugabe “Gucci Grace” and “Dis-Grace” for her shopping trips. During a trip to Paris in 2002, she was reported to have spent $120,000. She is also said to have purchased multimillion dollar properties in South Africa and built luxury palaces after pillaging party coffers. Earlier this year, she was widely panned for having spent $1.4 million on a diamond ring.

I have failed to convince my comrades in the left supporting the “axis of resistance” that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was fueled by resentment toward the rich and the desire of the poor to live in a more just society. Instead, they saw the rebels as proxies of Saudi Arabia bent on turning the clock back to the 10th century.

Let’s hope that they have a better handle on what is going on in Zimbabwe. And even better, they might have a close look at what has been going on there for the past 37 years and ground their politics in class rather than the failed project of geopolitical chess game analysis.

4 Comments »

  1. There is a nice bit to this article, thanks. I’ll be watching for the usual suspects to offer some reflections … I also tweeted here: https://twitter.com/wsscherk/status/932388289830514688

    Comment by wsscherk — November 19, 2017 @ 11:24 pm

  2. Bit = bite

    Comment by wsscherk — November 19, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

  3. Mugabe betrayed many who struggled and sacrificed to end colonial rule. Among his crimes was his discrimination against LGBT people. Mugabe who went to Roman Catholic school accepted the homophobia perpetrated then (an still) by that religion. He sought personal advancement and recognition, seeking power for his very obvious feelings of insecurity. Corruption, lack of both empathy and respect, with indifference to others needs, often follows.

    Comment by John O'Brien — November 20, 2017 @ 1:42 am

  4. The revolution in Zimbabwe was betrayed a long time ago. I was there in early 2000 and already everybody, especially in the urban areas wanted him to go. Too much poverty, exploitation and corruption. Mugabe then had a stroke of genius, he sent the army and bulldozers to clear/destroy the urban working class areas – millions either left the country or went to their villages. The opposition was atomised…….

    Comment by Piergiorgio Moro — November 22, 2017 @ 3:05 am


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