The threatening situation in Zimbabwe puts in sharp relief the new lines of division in the global era, which are replacing the old divides of twentieth-century world politics. The lesson is all the more striking since Zimbabwe has marked, in the last month, only the 20th anniversary of its independence – the conclusion of the national liberation struggle led by Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). Zimbabwe was one of the last major successes of old-style revolutionary guerrilla war. The lateness of this victory means that here the impasse of this tradition here has come all the sooner.
Militarized revolution was the dominant mode of revolutionary struggle between the 1930s and the 1970s. With roots in the bureaucratization of world Communism under Stalin, and above all in Mao Zedong’s campaign in China, armed struggle displaced the urban proletarian model of revolution that peaked in Russia in 1917. The new model found its widest applicability in the colonial liberation struggles, which were mostly concluded in the third quarter of the century. Its victories often disclosed, however, hideous political deformities. Within a decade of 1949, Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ had already produced the worst state-made famine of the century, in which 30 million people are estimated to have died; later, Mao’s rule concluded with the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ against the educated urban population. In Cambodia, this tradition culminated in the 1970s with the most complete genocide of modern times.
In Zimbabwe, although Mugabe adopted the ‘Marxist’ ideology of this tradition, the victory over Ian Smith’s racist settler regime was finally negotiated with the British government, and the post-war regime presided over a still-capitalist economy, seeking compromise with the West. The new regime effectively eliminated its political rivals and engaged in ruthless repression of the minority Ndebele people, perpetrating genocidal massacres in Matabeleland in the early 1980s. But it kept the trappings of parliamentary democracy, left white farmers in ownership of most of the land, and even allowed Smith and his cronies a continuing niche. Thus a de facto one-party state, the common form of political rule in post-colonial Africa, was established without compromising Zimbabwe’s international status. Mugabe and his elite enjoyed the perks of Western-style enrichment, rather than the austerity of Maoism. The land transfers that were carried out benefited the elite, not the masses of the rural poor.
In recent years, however, Mugabe’s monopoly on power has been threatened. The poor are not benefiting from the regime, but getting poorer. He has drastically overreached himself in the hugely unpopular and expensive military intervention in Congo (former Zaire). New winds of change are blowing through Africa: a more sophisticated and progressive democracy has been established in South Africa; in post-colonial states, one-party regimes are on the way out and ruling parties have started to lose elections. In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – an opposition party based on the country’s main trade union organization – looked set to take advantage of Mugabe’s unpopularity and win the elections due in 2000.
In short, a new wave of democratic revolution is challenging the discredited regime left by the old wave of militarized struggle. Mugabe has resorted with the intensified tactics of counter-revolution. With his past of armed struggle, he has few qualms about unleashing violence to gain his political ends. Opposition supporters have been subjected to widespread intimidation and numbers have been killed. The attacks on white farmers are, as has been widely observed, part of this campaign. Neither land reform nor inverted racism is the true rationale for the occupations: the bottom line is holding on to power. Scapegoating the small minority of privileged whites, entrenched in farming, business and professions, is part of Mugabe’s last-ditch attempt to corrall an electoral majority. (A comparison might be made with Hitler’s attacks on Jews in Germany in the 1930s: a relatively privileged minority, 1 per cent of the population, concentrated in business and the professions.) By creating an atmosphere of violence and intimidation he hopes, if not for an excuse to cancel elections, then to browbeat enough voters to return him to power.
In the global era, one-party government backed by force is no longer an acceptable basis for rule. The democratic movement in Zimbabwe is part of an upsurge in the demand for democratic accountability across the non-Western world. China’s rulers, with their relatively vast resources and fast-growing economy, may be able temporarily to stem the tide (of which Tiananmen Square in 1989 was an early portent). Mugabe cannot, unless like the leaders of Iraq or Serbia he is prepared to preside over a country vastly poorer, more isolated and tyrannised than Zimbabwe is today. The signs are that Mugabe’s international position, with pressure from South Africa as well as the West, is sufficiently weak that relatively soon he will have to hold elections, and that probably the intimidation will have been insufficient to prevent an MDC victory. At least that is what we must hope. The alternative is bleak.
Only by thinking ourselves out of the old categories of anti-colonialism, to which Mugabe himself clings as thin justification for his bloodshed, can we understand and act effectively to help Zimbabwe’s people. The worldwide democratic revolution is a truly global movement for accountable power and human rights. The movement’s relation to Western power is double-edged: the West is disentangling itself from its complicity in many of the lesser authoritarianisms (even as it half-embraces Russian and Chinese rulers), and in cases like Zimbabwe can play a positive role in democratic change. Where social-democratic Western leaders, like Robin Cook and Peter Hain in their elaboration of British policy, offer constructive support for democratic opposition, civil-society organizations should strengthen their hand, as well as giving direct support to the Zimbabwean opposition. For us, too, there are less palatable alternatives, if only the ‘democratic’ reaction of William Hague and George W. Bush.
2 May 2000