Military deployed on the streets – while trade unionists, journalists and civil society organizers languish in jails or live under death threats – characterize the Zimbabwe government’s response to an economic crisis which has now assumed the proportion of a humanitarian crisis.
99% of the population is “now living at the base of the food datum (poverty) line”, drawn at the minimum expenditure required for basic nutritional intake, says Ady Mutero, general secretary of United Food and Allied Workers Union of Zimbabwe (UFAWUZ).
With inflation as high as 800%, the earning of an average worker has reduced by more than 85% over the last two years. There is no end in sight to this decline in income, as the currency in which they are paid is losing value from one day to another.
When COVID-19 struck amidst this crisis which had already left the healthcare system in tatters, the government was exposed to have indulged in rampant corruption in its handling of the funds meant to deal with the pandemic.
Distress and anger has now turned the population into a boiling pot, over which the government has been able to hold down the lid only through brute force. Thus it was that on July 31, when a country-wide protest call was given against the deteriorating situation and rampant corruption, the ZANU-PF government led by Emerson Mnangagwa deployed a heavy force of military across the country, allegedly with “shoot-to-kill” orders.
“We are fully aware that the ZANU (PF) youth militia were (also) deployed in police uniforms to cause havoc in our communities,” Ngqabuto Mabhena, general secretary of Zimbabwe Communist Party (ZCP), said in a press conference earlier this month. The majority of the population stayed home.
“We salute the mass of our people for refraining from exposing themselves as targets,” Mabhena said. He added, however, that the protest was nevertheless a success in form of a strike, caused in part by the government itself by making it unsafe for people to come out of their homes.
In the lead up to July 31, leaders of various trade unions were forced to go underground for safety. Japhet Moyo, general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), told Peoples Dispatch that the union’s president Peter Muthasa “was put on the wanted list by the police.”
Muthasa has previously faced repeated abduction attempts by alleged state security agents, one of which has been successful. Both Moyo and Muthasa have been living under constant death threats. “Therefore”, she said, “we had to take precautions to be safe during the action.”
Risk of another military coup
Declaring solidarity with unions and civil society organizations, Mabhena however stressed on the need to ensure that the massive discontent of the population is not opportunistically used by a section of the ruling elite to settle an inter-factional rivalry emerging within the ZANU-PF.
A faction inside the party, led by Zimbabwe’s vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, is allegedly eyeing the power Mnangagwa currently holds. Mabhena later told Peoples Dispatch that “The military is also split (between the factions). We know that many soldiers had penetrated the protest, participating in civilian clothes in some small demonstrations that did take place on July 31. It was a way of pressurizing Mnangagwa to resign.”
He reminded that in November 2017, when the country was rocked with mass-demonstrations for over a year, the military coup, which replaced the then president Robert Mugabe with his vice-president Emerson Mnangagwa, brought no respite to the masses.
Much hope that was invested in the new leadership was quickly dashed by Mnangawa who, rather than reversing the neoliberal slide of Zimbabwe’s economy, endorsed “Austerity for prosperity” as an economic policy, says Ady Mutero.
In September 2018, Mthuli Ncube, previously the chief economist at the African Development Bank, was appointed as the finance minister of Zimbabwe. Unelected by popular vote, he was appointed to the post by Mnangwa’s cabinet.
His position as the founding chairman of an investment banking firm, Barbican and Selwyn Capital, was not considered a conflict of interest, but widely publicized as qualification for handling the country’s finances.
Slashing incomes through currency manipulation
Under Ncube, a form of currency manipulation was set into motion which has reduced the income of an average worker in the country by roughly 85% in less than two years.
This was accomplished by using RTGS, as the currency in which wage payments were made starting from October 2018. Until then payments were made in US dollars, which was adopted in 2009 after an inflationary spiral saw the value of the Zimbabwean dollar drop to next to nothing. Other currencies, including South Africa Rand, were accepted for transactions.
By February 2019, the multi-currency system was scrapped and the RTGS was deemed as the only legal tender for transactions in Zimbabwe.
Initially, when it was used to make payments, the government claimed that the RTGS was pegged to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio. However, its value soon began to slide. According to the current official exchange rate, about 80 RTGS dollars equal 1 USD. In the black market, the ratio is 100 RTGS to a dollar.
In tandem with its fall in value vis-a-vis the US dollar, the prices of commodities in RTGS – including that of essentials like food and medicine – have risen sharply. However, wages, as measured in RTGS, have remained virtually stagnant.
An average worker who earned about US$ 500 before October 2018, now receives an equivalent of “US$60.00, inclusive of allowances (for).. housing and transport paid in an unstable currency that continues to lose value every minute,” Mutero says.
Nurses, junior doctors, teachers and other civil servants have repeatedly organized strike actions since 2019, protesting the denial of fair wages. Workers claim that they cannot afford to travel to work, after meeting the basic needs of their families at their current pay levels.
The government responded to these labor actions by issuing large scale dismissals. Leaders of labor unions which led these agitations have been abducted, beaten and harassed with prosecutions.
The “masses are now faced with twin evils: the lesser evil of COVID-19 and (the greater one of) grinding hunger and poverty which is threatening human existence,” Mutero says. Hunger and poverty-related afflictions are today “killing more than what COVID-19 is able to kill on a daily basis.”
USD 3.5 billion compensation to wealthy white farmers living abroad
Amidst this crisis, the government agreed to give USD 3.5 billion in compensation to large White farm owners whose lands were redistributed during land reforms in the early 2000s. The compensation is reportedly for the “improvements on the lands” made by these farmers before it was taken over.
“It should be noted that ‘improvements on the land’ were paid for by money created by underpaid and abused farm workers,” Mabhena insists. Most of the to-be recipients of this compensation now live outside of Zimbabwe, in a relative prosperity. “We would understand if money was allocated to support local farmers, both black and white.. as we approach the farming season.”
The ZCP, ZCTU and UFAWUZ are unanimous in claim that this compensation is a “gesture of appeasement” to the finance capital by president Mnangagwa, who has been attempting to bring Zimbabwe back into the “imperialist fold” – where a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is among the inducements.
For the first 18 years since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe under Mugabe had a “cosy relationship with the US/UK Axis”, Mabhena said in the press conference. However, the relationship began to sour in 1998 when he sent troops to defend the Democratic Republic of Congo “from a US-sponsored invasion”.
Following this, when he yielded to land occupations by peasants and war veterans by undertaking land reforms in 2000, Zimbabwe “found itself isolated from imperialists’ favor, Mabhena recalled.
Mnangagwa’s decision to now compensate to the tune of billions of dollars the wealthy White farmers, whose lands were redistributed almost two decades ago, is seen as an extreme gesture to win back favor. This has infuriated the workers whose salaries the government claims to be unable to restore.
Prospects of an uprising
With the mass of the population placed on a hair-trigger, any country-wide protests can easily snowball into a mass uprising against Mnangagwa’s rule. This in fact was the agenda behind the July 31 protest call, Mutero claims.
However, he cautions that, under present circumstances, this might yield no respite to the masses, and serve only to bring gains to the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Unlike the ZANU-PF, which until Mugabe’s ouster continued to make pretensions of having a socialist inclination, MDC has always been openly advocating neoliberalism. It was the agents of this party who had given the protest call on July 31, Mutero told Peoples Dispatch.
He finds the agenda for the protest articulated by the organizers to be instructive. While corruption in the ZANU-PF was rightly called out, MDC’s politicians with a corrupt record were given a pass. More importantly, the systemic and structural looting inherent in the neoliberal economy found no mention.
Their sole intention was to provoke a mass confrontation, which will eventually lead to a civil war-like situation. This can then be leveraged by the MDC to bring the government to the negotiating table. And on the table is the offer to replace the current government with a so-called National Unity government, in which both ZANU-PF and the MDC will share power.
Mabhena concurs that in case of a massive unrest, “the opposition faction within ZANU-PF will reach out to the MDC. The two will be happy to share power.”
Such a government where an increasingly neoliberal party and the original neoliberal party share power will be in the best interest of the big capital, Mutero argues. The unity government – a product of resolution of the intra-party and inter-party conflicts within the ruling elite – will be more efficient in enforcing the will of capital and crushing the working class resistance.
Mabhena acknowledges Mutero’s description of the national unity government’s class character. However, the ZCP favors this government over the present dispensation for a limited tactical reason.
“As far as the economic policies are concerned, we are fully aware there is no difference between the ZANU-PF and MDC,” Mabhena says. “However, ZANU-PF under Mnangagwa has turned into a terroristic dictatorship, leaving very little breathing space for the unions and other organizations to mobilize and advance the interests of the masses.”
He believes that the National Unity government will provide some respite in terms of the crackdowns against unions, as civil liberties is one of the agendas around which the MDC is trying to mobilize. However, he has no illusions about how long this might last.
“It will only be a matter of time before this government also begins a crackdown on the labor movement,” he said. However, he argues, the lifting of this atmosphere of terror for at least some period can be used by the working class to strengthen its organizations and advance its own class-interests through mass mobilizations, independent of the ZANU-PF or the MDC.
Mutero disagrees with this approach. He maintains that the sacrifices workers will have to make in the course of the unrest, which must precede the negotiations to form the National Unity government, will be too enormous to be worth the temporary concession on civil liberties.
The immediate task, he argues, is not to attempt country-wide protests aimed at an uprising, but to focus on organizing workers, peasants and students, and cultivating bonds of solidarity between them.
Mobilizations by these organizations should be around demands which directly address the root cause of the key economic problems affecting the population. In the course of these mobilizations, an alliance should be built with sections of the security forces, who also have not been spared by the economic crisis.
Without these adequate preparations, a premature participation in calls for an uprising, given by those with questionable motives, will only result in a mass outburst. In such an outburst, he warns, workers will die in large numbers in a confrontation whose end would amount to no more than a resolution of an intra-bourgeois conflict over power.