Professor Paul Zeleza, May 9, 2005

For many of us from Southern Africa, Zimbabwe evokes conflicting
memories and emotions: the heroism of the liberation struggle against
settler colonialism, the hopes of reconstruction and social
transformation in the early post-independence years, and the descent
into tyranny and economic decline from the late 1990s. Today,
Zimbabwe is in deep economic and political crisis, a once proud
country held to ransom by a bankrupt and authoritarian regime whose
revolutionary credentials look ever more tattered from the ravages of
unproductive power and the ills stalking the land from widespread
food and fuel shortages, to high levels of unemployment and
inflation, to general discontent and even despair. Tens of thousands
of Zimbabweans vote with their feet to the neighboring countries or
overseas, a development unimaginable in the early euphoric years of
independence. What went wrong?

There are no shortages of explanations for Zimbabwe's current
agonies. To the ideologues of the regime and its ardent external
supporters Zimbabwe is a victim of an orchestrated plot by Western
countries-led by the devious Tony Blair, the British Prime
Minister-bent on frustrating African progress. Charges of western and
British complicity and duplicity in the Zimbabwe crisis are not
entirely without merit. Some have pointed out that the vitriol poured
on Zimbabwe in the western media has less to do with the country's
state of governance-which is far from the worst in Africa-than
lingering western empathies for settler colonialism that the Mugabe
regime is ostensibly trying to dismantle through the radical land
reform program of forcible land seizures from former white settlers.

To its critics, the Zimbabwe government uses the rhetoric of
nationalism, of an unfinished revolution, to cling on to power, as a
mask to hide its political intolerance and economic incompetence.
Again, there is a lot of truth in this indictment: the regime became
more autocratic and adopted a more radical land reform program as it
faced a growing and credible political opposition, coalesced around
the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and as its capacity to
manage let alone rescue the economy from its structural deformities

A more comprehensive accounting of Zimbabwe's economic and political
crises would have to consider the contexts and conjunctures,
processes and patterns of Zimbabwe's trajectory and transition from
settler colonialism to a developmental postcolonial state. The
country's current crisis is rooted in the failures of that transition
todate. As any postcolonial state, the new Zimbabwe government in
1980 was confronted with the complex challenges of turning the triple
dreams of Uhuru-nation building, development and democracy-into
reality. And having waged a protracted war of liberation, which
entailed the mobilization and politicization of the peasantry, these
dreams went beyond the aspirations of the urban elites and working
class for neo-colonial transformation that had bedeviled
decolonizations elsewhere on the continent.

But unlike many countries that got their independence in the 1950s
and 1960s, Zimbabwe attained its independence during a period
characterized by global economic crisis and the ascendancy of
neo-liberalism. The first severely limited primary commodity and
export driven economic growth enjoyed by many of the newly
independent countries in the 1960s, while the second entailed the
"rolling back" of the state and severely curtailed the
developmentalist ambitions of the new government. To be sure, in the
early post-independence years Zimbabwe's record of achievement in the
provision of social services especially education and health was very
impressive. But it was unsustainable following the imposition of
structural adjustment programs, which, as in much of Africa, took a
heavy toll on the economy particularly social services and formal and
public sector employment. In fact, the austerities of structural
adjustment programs (SAPs) galvanized the increasingly pauperized
urban middle classes and the rural masses still awaiting their fruits
of Uhuru into the wave of protests and agitation that crystallized
into struggles for democratization, for the "second independence."

If structural adjustment dented the revolutionary credentials and
developmentalist capacities of the Zimbabwean state, the struggles
SAPs engendered diluted the state's democratic claims and exposed its
authoritarianism. The monopoly of power enjoyed by the liberation
movement, notwithstanding its fierce internal conflicts, began to
crack in the 1990s as the working and professional classes in the
cities, the weakest link for the liberation movement, turned into a
noisy civil society demanding the full rights of political
citizenship to promote civil liberties and protect their declining
economic fortunes. However, structural adjustment was not the source
of all the problems for the political class and the state they had
inherited from the Rhodesians.

The liberation movement had inherent spatial and social
contradictions that became increasingly evident. The spatial
divisions were between the rural and urban areas as well as regional
in nature between Matabeleland and Mashonaland and within each
region. The merger of Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's
Union) into Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National
Union-Patriotic Front) in 1988, after a five year violent campaign in
Matabeleland, sought to defuse the regional tensions, although they
did not disappear. In fact, they mutated into new forms. No less
critical were the urban-rural divisions in so far as it was the rural
peasants who had largely fought in the liberation war but the
leadership and immediate beneficiaries of independence were the urban
professional elites. The latter had a class interest to consolidate
their power by promoting their own accumulation, to fashion an
economic base for the political power they had acquired.

The biggest opportunities for accumulation were in land-real estate
in the cities and farms in the countryside. Land was of course
central to the peasantry, the backbone of the liberation struggle,
and to the nationalist memories of violent dispossession by the
forces of settler colonialism, and the imaginary of independence. But
land resettlement for the peasantry especially for the poor peasantry
was not pursued aggressively until the late 1990s. This has often
been attributed to the constraints imposed by constitutional
safeguards of the Lancaster House Agreement that favored market-based
land transactions and resettlement. Also, shortage of resources and
the failure of the British government to provide sufficient funds to
honor its pledges have been faulted. It would seem that at stake were
the accumulative interests of powerful segments of the political
class. They wanted the land for themselves.

This balancing act-land for the masses and for the aspiring national
bourgeoisie-found succor in the increasingly empty ideological
language of socialism, a rhetoric that was not only out of touch with
the realities in Zimbabwe and the interests of the political class
itself but also with the intolerant demands of neo-liberalism and
structural adjustment and the unfolding demise of global socialism.
By the late 1997s the comrades in power could no longer fool their
beloved masses in the rural areas, the restive armies of unemployed
educated youths in the cities, and the workers flexing their
industrial muscles and discovering a new political voice through
mushrooming civil society organizations and the MDC.

It was in this context that a radical land reform program was
embarked on from 1998 and especially after the government lost the
constitutional referendum in early 2000. Its aims were multiple and
varied: to resettle more peasants and rekindle ZANU-PF's
revolutionary credentials both locally and regionally, locally with a
new generation including the unemployed youths who were too young to
be war veterans-in whose name the land seizures were undertaken-and
in a region now dominated by a reformist post-apartheid South Africa
where the governing ANC coalition had abandoned any pretensions to a
project of revolutionary socioeconomic transformation. The radical
land reform program sought to bolster ZANU-PF and weaken the MDC
ideologically and operationally by undermining the nationalist claims
and character-still a compelling card in a post-settler society-of
the MDC and its rural appeal where the bulk of the population lives.

These measures, augmented by violence, intimidation, and voting
irregularities enabled ZANU-PF to win the parliamentary elections of
2000 and 2005. Predictably, monitors from SADC pronounced the
elections "free and fair", whereas western monitors cried foul. The
elections of 2000 were more violent than those of 2005, an indication
to some of the continued popularity of ZANU-PF. More likely, it
reflected the effectiveness of ZANU-PF political terror and the
ineffectiveness of the MDC, its inability to articulate a credible
message of national transformation.

All this raises difficult questions as to the forces and strategies
that can effectively bring Zimbabwe's nightmare to an end, that can
facilitate a transition from the commandist politics of the
liberation movement to the democratic politics of a post-liberation
society, from Mugabe in power now for twenty-five years to a new
leader. Clearly, elections are not enough, but street action provokes
violent retribution from the state. And concerted regional pressure
seems unlikely. The regime's strength and Achilles heel is in the
rural areas, and the opposition must find ways of mobilizing the
rural population, of bridging the rural-urban divide, linking urban
and rural struggles. The generalized economic crisis that has become
more severe since the recent elections might offer a new opening.

A little remarked aspect of the farm invasions is that they led to
the displacement of tens of thousands of workers from the neighboring
countries, especially Malawi and Mozambique, some of whom had been in
Zimbabwe for more than a generation. In effect, the rural areas were
being emptied of both European and African settlers. The urban areas
also boast large populations who can trace their origins to the
neighboring countries, which may partly drive the attempts to
disenfranchise urban residents, who constitute the backbone of the
MDC. A new form of Zimbabwean citizenship was being constructed based
on autochothonous rather than residential claims. This underscores
what is at the heart of the Zimbabwean conundrum: how to restructure,
develop, and democratize a former settler colony that relied on
migrant labor from within and without, which necessitated massive
land alienation and left behind legacies of high structural
unemployment, racial disenfranchisement and dispossession, and
militarism and the use of political violence as weapons of both
control and liberation. In short: how to construct an inclusive
citizenship and subject state power and the political class to
democratic accountability.

Zimbabwe attracts intense political emotions as a former settler
colony in search of a viable future and for the mirror it holds for
South Africa. Both countries capture most poignantly, indeed
painfully, the highly racialized, exploitative, and abusive encounter
in modern times between Europe and Africa spawned by European
imperialism and colonialism. It is not surprising that both the foes
and friends of the Mugabe regime look to South Africa to provide
international leadership on the Zimbabwe "question." To some in South
Africa the Zimbabwe crisis serves as a warning to the dangers of
African nationalist demagoguery, to others an impetus for the country
to undertake extensive land reforms and socio-economic transformation
if it wants to avoid Zimbabwe's fate.

It is arguable what motivates President Mbeki's "quite
diplomacy"-Zimbabwe as an ally in the liberation wars of the region
or as an alibi for accelerated reform in South Africa. What is clear
is that the agony of Zimbabwe continues to deepen and profoundly
affects the entire Southern African subregion. South Africa, the SADC
countries, and the rest of Africa have a responsibility to help the
country chart a more productive future. Solidarity does not entail
collaboration with or sanitizing the brutalities of the corrupt and
self-serving autocrats in Harare who have obviously outlived their
historical usefulness. Rather it requires principled support for the
ordinary people of Zimbabwe struggling for a democratic and
developmental state, for a society worthy of their protracted
struggles against settler colonialism and postcolonial misrule.