A return to the madness – Zimbabwe’s reawakening

Leo Zeilig, author of a recent book on Franz Fanon, reports on how a national shutdown is threatening Zimbabwe’s Mugabe regime and explains the origins of the current struggle.

Shops closed in Harare during the national shutdown. Image: Garikai Chaunza
Shops closed in Harare during the nationwide shutdown. Image: Garikai Chaunza

Last week a national shutdown or ‘stay away’ in Zimbabwe paralysed the country. For the first time in years the country’s ruling party, ZANU-PF, and the tenure of 92 year old president Robert Mugabe, were seriously rattled. Young people, workers and traders – who survive by hawking food, cheap imported goods in cities and towns – engaged in pitch battles with the police and army, in many cases outnumbering the security forces.

Although a lot has been made in the mainstream press of the role of the 39 year old pastor, Evan Mawarire and his ‪#‎ThisFlag‬ movement, the protests have much deeper roots. There is an explosive convergence of issues including food shortages, unpaid wages and corruption. Nurses, teachers, doctors and other civil servants have already been on strike, many have not been paid for June. On 4 July, protesters assembled in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, ahead of the national strike in the civil service. Scores of people were arrested, in an attempt to break the resolution of the protest. However something significant happened – instead of intimidating people, the opposite occurred. Repression seemed to harden resistance.

Two days later, on 6 July, a massive, national shut-down, when people stay away from work and major conurbations – was held across the country. Most cities and towns were drawn into the protest. In the Southern city of Bulawayo, almost all shops in the CBD (Central Business District), and large suburbs were closed. The local transport for the poor, Kombis, small VW vans, had parked their vehicles and joined the stay-away. In Harare, the capital, an activist reported,

“A virtual stand-still with Zimbabweans heeding a call by pro-democracy activists to stay-away in a bid to force President Robert Mugabe to find a solution to the country’s problems or better still for him and his ZANU-PF government to resign en masse.” In the high-density neighbourhoods, poor residential areas, residents built barricades and fought the police.

Further action is planned for this week. A pervasive fear seems to have been broken and the ruling party’s apparent invulnerability ruptured. The International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe, active in the country for more than twenty years, issued a call for unity: “All sections of workers, vendors, youths, rural farmers and their unions and movements must unite on class lines and across political lines… to lead the struggles and not surrender to politicians, NGOs, rich middles classes and other elites.”

Back to the 1990s

To unpick what has been happening in Zimbabwe we have to look back to the 1990s. In 1999 a mass opposition organisation was formed, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which swore to unseat the ruling party, initially founded as a pro-poor coalition with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) as the key element. Branches were set-up across the country by activists who had played a role in the mass struggles of the poor and working class from the mid-1990s. One leading activist, later to become Finance Minister, in the discredited Government of National Unity from 2008, Tendai Beti, described the period of revolt, “This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence – you could smell working class power in the air.” This was not an exaggeration. Between 1996-1998 Zimbabwe’s Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years), saw national public sector strikes, a shut-down of the national university in the capital, Harare, and a student revolt across the country, which politicised war veterans, ex-fighters from the liberation war in the 1970s, who seized farm land, in a widening arch of protest that challenged the power of the ruling party.

What happened next is depressingly familiar. The opposition became increasingly cautious, it faced a crackdown by ZANU-PF, repression which claimed the lives of hundreds of activists, but it also, crucially, tacked right. As the party grew in influence it quickly attracted a markedly mixed crowd of supporters. Unreconstructed Rhodesians – remnants of the white settlers, who had kept their land and farms at independence in 1980 – business owners, and the Zimbabwean 1%, disillusioned by ZANU-PF who they had supported for years, now joined the new party. ZANU-PF saw its opportunity. The ruling party started to champion the war veterans, who were now encouraged in their occupation of white farms. For land poor Zimbabweans ZANU-PF now became their champions. In circumstances that were simultaneously bizarre and disheartening, the MDC, under the influence of the white interests, business owners and the middle class, promised to distribute land back to the white landholders in the interest of ‘legality’.

The MDC was outflanked from the left, while ZANU-PF started to present itself as a party of a radical African renaissance. Zimbabwe, we were told, was undergoing its third Chimurenga. The first Chimurenga, or ‘uprising’, had occurred at the end of the 19th century against colonial conquest of what became contemporary Zimbabwe, and second was during the guerilla resistance to the Rhodesian state in the 1960s and 1970s. Across the continent, Mugabe presented himself as the champion of a renewed fight against the contemporary manifestations of neo-colonialism. He was often taken at his word – his redistribution of land, the promise to take over businesses and introduce price controls on basic food stuffs, seemed to testify to his sincerity. The reality was dramatically different. As the Zimbabwean socialist, Tafadzwa Choto, has recently commented,

“For all of its black empowerment bombast, [ZANU has failed] to make any serious efforts at controlling the countries riches for itself. Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral wealth with only a minority, approximately 1%, enjoying access to enormous wealth in kick-backs from deals with multinational corporations. At the same time more than 90% of the population struggle to afford to send their children to school, while young girls are often forced into prostitution or early marriages and boys turn to petty stealing or drugs. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, has always been a city of extremes, but never more so than today. The mansions the rich build for themselves, match the opulence of Constantia in Cape Town, while holidaying all over the world, and sending their children to top universities in Europe and America.”

Having briefly inspired the struggle against the ZANU-PF state, the high-point of popular resistance across the continent, the opposition entered a protracted melt-down. Fracturing into different groupings, led by various politicians and NGOs, the opposition to dictatorship splintered, with foreign NGOs funnelling activists into other directions. Ultimately the political opposition, now operating in NGOs or mobilised by contaminated political parties, disarmed a movement that had emerged from below and shifted the attention of people from the actual struggle into commodified arenas – paid workshops, foreign scholarships, political stunts. Activists described this period as the ‘commodification of resistance’. By the mid-2000s, Zimbabwean politics, was described by student activist John Bomba,

“Those who remember 1997 to 2000 today feel like they are living in lost times. Every day activists ask what it will take to rebuild the confidence and idealism that drove us in the 1990s… One wishes for a return of the madness.”

Open for business

There is one story that appeared to characterise the general predicament. In Mugabe’s birthday interview in February 2016 he announced that the country had lost US$15 billion revenue from the mining of diamonds mines in Marange diamond fields in Chiadzwa, in the east of the country. This was US$15 billion that could have been directed at the broken economy, but instead the diamond revenue had been lost to corruption. This was a bold admission of incompetence, from the continent’s figurehead of decolonisation. Yet instead of bringing the culprits before the justice system Mugabe stated pathetically that his government would simply tempt new foreign investors to the country’s diamond fields. The regimes true face was revealed in 2008, when the army was sent into the Chiadzwa diamond mines, to clear poor ‘artisanal’ miners, trying to scrape a living. Zimbabwe socialist Raymond Sango describes what happened next,

“Unemployed youths who… descended on Chiadzwa in 2008 to pan for diamonds were brutally massacred by the military and police as the government moved in to create a ‘formal looting format’ … in response to the World Diamond Council which pressured the government to curb the smuggling of diamonds. Approximately four hundred miners were killed in 2008 through indiscriminate volleys of gunshots fired by mounted police accompanied by dogs and helicopter.”

The message was clear: Zimbabwe was open for business.

Recently the government, once again, courted international financial institutions. Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa and Reserve Bank Governor John Mangudya recently proclaimed, to much fanfare, that the IMF would loan Zimbabwe $984 million in the 3rd quarter of 2016 after paying off foreign lenders, the first such loan in almost 20 years. It was IMF loans in 1991 and 1996, and the structural adjustment programmes which were the ‘conditions’ of these loans, that devastated local industry, and led to mass unemployment. IMF conditions, as we have seen around the world, including in the Global North, saw austerity for ordinary people across Zimbabwe. The much talked about ‘crisis’ and economic collapse in the country, was the devastating consequences of such loans in the 1990s.

In this context, ruling party and opposition have divided into warring factions many times over. The inability to chart a resolute anti-austerity project, meant the opposition split, again and again. Using the brand of the MDC, opposition politicians have set-up redux versions of the party. MDC-N was led by Welchman Ncube, and the disbanded MDC-99 once led by Job Sikhala, a former student activist, who returned to the party fold in 2014. Tendai Biti, a founding member of the original organisation, became the leader of MDC-Renewal, but quickly launched a distinct party, the People’s Democratic Party, in September 2015. The MDC is in total disarray and was marginal to the protests last week – a fact that is even more astonishing when you consider that many of the leading figures of the party where members of the radical left in the 1990s.

The ruling party is also in disarray. With the collapse of the South African rand and the slowdown of the Chinese economy, ZANU-PF’s system of patronage has begun to dry up. The party has been involved in political blood-letting. Former Vice-President, Joice Mujuru, expelled in 2014, joined others to form a political party, People First (PF) – which is committed to neoliberal policies, sharing much in common with the ruling party. While the G40 (Generation 40) faction, consisting principally of younger ZANU-PF members who did not fight in the liberation struggle, are advocating for Mugabe’s wife, Grace, to succeed her husband.

These are the circumstances in Zimbabwe today, which renewed revolt and protest promises to overturn. It has become a cliché to write about ‘the crisis’ in Zimbabwe. What once seemed immutable, unchangeable facts of Zimbabwe’s long-standing predicament – the on-going tenure of 92 year old president Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government, the paralysis of the once mighty opposition, the Movement of Democratic Change and the seeming impotence of the ZCTU, which once threatened the dictatorship – has been shattered. The possibilities of overturning the regime, not through elite negotiations, but popular uprisings are once more a possibility. For the people of Zimbabwe who had suffered, more than any other country on the continent, from years of repression, the mass exodus to the UK in the North and South Africa in the South, unemployment of staggering levels, of 85%, and the failure of a once great opposition movement, this is an opportunity for real change. Though once more they must ensure that their actions, mass protests and movements, are not hijacked and paralysed by the country’s bankrupt political parties and elites.

Leo Zeilig has written a number of books on African political struggles and is currently editor of the Review of African Political Economy.

He is also the author of forthcoming novel, set in Zimbabwe, An Ounce of Practice (Hope Road Publishing).


  1. More ultra leftist posturing pretending to stand with the oppressed, but in reality, knowingly or unknowingly, RS21 is going along with attempts by imperialism to get rid of Mugabe, just like they got rid of Gaddafi, or the phoney revolution in Syria etc.

    Mugabe is a great fighter against apartheid and imperialism. Give him his dues.
    I fear that RS21, the Guardian and other useful idiots want to demonise Mugabe.

    Furthermore, RS21 and other ultra leftist groups have no real program.

    Mugabe is an anti imperialism and he shouldn’t be demonised by ultra leftists from the UK.
    see this ridiculous attempt to citizens arrest Mugabe by that twit Tatchell


  2. Mugabe ‘stood up to imperialism’ all right — by standing on the backs of Zimbabwe’s laboring masses, peasants and workers. We stand with them, not with their ‘anti imperialist’ oppressors.

  3. Great to get the historical perspective on Zimbabwean protests and opposition politics in this highly informative article! Thanks Leo! I have been very moved over the past week by messages and posts by mostly younger Zimbabwean friends and colleagues who have expressed excitement pver the fact that finally the fear seems to have been broken for the first time in more tham a decade. From their perspective it appears that the #This Flag movement has joined new youthful democratic movements across Africa, which have brought about critical change and struggles in Burkina Faso and elsewhere, mmostly inWest and Central Africa.

  4. Ashley is completely correct in his account of the hijacking of the land seizures in the late 90s and early 2000s, events that he was a direct witness. Tragically Mugabe is often still seen as a revolutionary, nothing could be further from the truth.

  5. This is not true.
    Mugabe is a revolutionary and has stood up to western imperialism.

    To attempt to overthrow Mugabe is not revolution, it would just be complete capitulation to imperialism
    this article reminds me a bit of the articles against Gaddafi favouring some kind of western sponsored ‘revolution’.

    Don’t buy it.

    Long live Mugabe!

  6. Leo writes a concise account as usual and places it in the correct context. I just want to expand (and clarify) a point that Leo makes. In the second paragraph under the sub-heading “Back to the 1990s” is the line “The ruling party started to champion the war veterans, who were now encouraged in their occupation of white farms.” There is a mis-conception that Mugabe has been consistent in his approach.

    Mugabe verbally championed the landless. But in practise it was totally the opposite. On several occasions between 1980 and 1999, peasants seized plots of land independently of both ZANU-PF and Mugabe. In response the police, with the approval of Mugabe, went in, evicted them and either burned or bulldozed their newly erected homes. It was argued that the Lancaster House agreement signed in 1979 had to be adhered to.

    Then came the Constitution referendum exercise in 1999. Mugabe himself refused to include a clause agreeing to the seizing of land in the draft constitution. It was only at the 11th hour, after unprecedented protest by var veterans outside State House, that he caved in. In February 2000 ZANU-PF lost its bid to reform the Constitution. Mugabe accepted it and was prepared to serve out his term as President and then retire.

    But the peasants were not about to give up. They, once again independently, began seizing farms. Seeing this revolt from below, Mugabe and some in ZANU-PF, opportunistically began to champion their cause. Yet Mugabe consistently refused to seize the land for almost 2 decades. It is when the peasantry did so that he, and ZANU-PF, were forced to the left. Even after the land was seized, the more agriculturally productive areas and farms were parceled out to those more wealthy – those who owned companies, politicians, government ministers, court judges, and military generals.

    ZANU-PF’s socio-economic policies remained, and still remain today, supporting big capital and the IMF and World Bank economic programmes that see millions of ordinary Zimbabweans, both peasant and working class impoverished and oppressed.

    Ashley Fataar, Keep Left, South Africa (previously with the International Socialist Organisation in Zimbabwe)


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