In Zimbabwe, capitalist crisis + ultra-neoliberal policy = ‘Mugabesque’ authoritarianism


Zimbabwean protesters block a major road leading into the city centre of Harare. PHOTO/ Aaron Ufumeli/EPA/The Guardian

PART ONE: Finance minister a ‘fraud’ and ‘political moron,’ as army represses protests

Once again, a formidable burst of state brutality against Zimbabwe’s citizenry has left at least a dozen corpses, scores of serious injuries, mass arrests, internet suspension and a furious citizenry. The January 14-17 nationwide protests were called by trade unions against an unprecedented fuel price hike, leading to repression reminiscent of former leader Robert Mugabe’s iron fist.

Most of the country’s economy ground to a halt. For more than a week, the cities remained ghost towns, as army troops continued attacking even ordinary civilians who are desperate to earn a living in what often seems to be the country’s main occupation these days: street vending of cheap imported commodities. A national strike of 500,000 civil service workers has been called. Most essential commodities are now vastly overpriced or in very short supply. This is what a full-on capitalist crisis looks like.

The stresses are obvious within elite politics, for as ever in Harare, rumors of political upheaval abound. But whatever happens to the ruling party’s leadership, a more brutal fiscal policy plus an even tighter state squeeze on hard currency appear to be the new constants. The stubbornness of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s leadership is partly due to the ideological fervor of his finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, an academic economist with a dubious practical track record and fast-fading international credibility (as CNN interviewers now openly laugh at answers to questions). Ncube argues that Zimbabwe’s problems boil down to loan repayment arrears to international creditors, a high state budget deficit and a trade deficit.

In addition to ultra-neoliberal macroeconomics, Mnangagwa depends on Vice President Constantino Chiwenga’s renewed authoritarian tendencies. The country’s crony-capitalist system is being shaken by its own contradictions, even more profoundly than in the darkest days: before Rhodesian colonizers finally gave up power in 1980, when the Third World debt crisis hit hard in 1984, when deindustrialization began with a ‘homegrown’ (i.e. World Bank-transmitted) structural adjustment program in 1991, when foreign debt defaults began in 1998, in the lead up to several hotly-contested elections (especially 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008), and when the local currency crashed to its death in 2009.

Post-coup, return of the ‘IMF Riot’

The protest was sparked by a 150% overnight price increase in petrol announced on Saturday, January 12. At $3.31/litre, this makes it the world’s most expensive retail fuel, with Hong Kong second at $2.05/litre. The next day, Mnangagwa and a plane-load of colleagues departed for Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in search of mineral investors, energy deals and what the president called Moscow’s “state of the art” (albeit unaffordable) military equipment. Indeed, Mnangagwa was meant to continue to Davos for the World Economic Forum, but was persuaded that the country – and his own leadership – were in peril, so instead headed home.

Mnangagwa’s first tweet after arriving back in Harare was in defence of the fuel price hike, “not a decision we took lightly. But it was the right thing to do. What followed was regrettable and tragic.” He promised to look into army and police thuggery, but hopes for a reckoning are vain, since his own background is littered with the country’s most extreme post-liberation repression (he managed the 1980s ‘Gukhurahundi’ massacres of more than 20,000 Ndebele people), and since his own spokesman (inherited from Mugabe) told the press that the recent army attacks – which included numerous rapes – were “a foretaste of things to come.”

At this writing, army repression continues and leading activists remain behind bars, including five members of parliament. The term that veteran Zimbabwean social justice activist Elinor Sisulu uses to describe Mnangagwa’s dictatorial tendencies, ‘Mugabesque,’ is now very hard to refute, in spite of Ncube’s surreal whitewash attempts in Davos last week.

Recall that Mugabe had run Zimbabwe since 1980, after leading the armed liberation struggle against the white racist Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. Twenty years on, he was threatened with probable electoral defeat. So his belated, urgent and chaotic land reform – against a few thousand mainly-reactionary white settlers who for a century had controlled nearly all Zimbabwe’s good farmland – gained him permanent hatred from the Western establishment. Though land redistribution was justifiably popular in some circles, Mnangagwa last year admitted that the acquisitions had “robbed the country of its breadbasket status,” given how much of the staple maize needed to be imported (even while tobacco production hit record highs). As a result, land acquisition was “now a thing of the past,” the new president promised.

Riddled with corruption and dictatorial tendencies, Mugabe’s ruling party – the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) – had meanwhile become widely hated in the cities, which were mainly governed by the liberal opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), whose constituents gave Mnangagwa’s 2017 coup their immediate, joyful approval. But the celebration was brief and the hangover long, for MDC founding leader Morgan Tsvangirai died of cancer early last year and the mid-2018 national election witnessed Mnangagwa victory’s, one that his MDC successor, Nelson Chamisa, considered to be rigged.

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