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Zimbabwe's lessons for Africa
Book review by Charlene Smith
August 2002


Earlier this year Zimbabwe dominated the headlines. President Robert Mugabe’s manipulation of the electoral process seemed to know no end. Journalists and human rights groups were banging on drums that suggested the tyrant must fall. Preparations were made in South Africa for refugees. E-mail circulars from anxious Zimbabwe citizens reached a pitch.

Now barely three months after the election, there is silence. Administration called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions days after the poll to protest what it called unfree and unfair elections met with scant response. Zimbabweans are too poor and too beaten to rise against their ruler of the past two decades. The authors of Zimbabwe’s Plunge quote Frantz Fanon, writing in The Wretched of the Earth, who warned that a new petty bourgeoisie emerging from colonialism "never stop repeating that in an underdeveloped country the direction of affairs by a strong authority is a necessity… The party plays understudy to the administration and the police, and controls the masses, not in order to make sure that they really participate in the business of governing the nation, but to remind them constantly that the government expects from the obedience and discipline".

Dictatorship remains when opposition is weak. Polls as far back as October 2001 indicated that most people would vote for Mugabe because they were uncertain of what the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) stood for. But the MDC failed to listen and instead of articulating what it was for, banged on loudly what it was against: Mugabe. Single-issue politics focused on individuals lose elections. There was a rush into bookstores of books about the situation in Zimbabwe, but none have stood up quite as well as Zimbabwe’s Plunge by Wits academic Patrick Bond and Zimbabwean economist and one-time Zanu-PF and MDC insider Masimba Manyanya.

They note that "Mugabe has perfected, during many decades of demagoguery, the art of "talk-Left, act-Right", and that Zimbabwe’s industrialists long benefited from an economy that ignored globalisation and remained overprotected. By the early 1990s there were warning signs but business bosses and farmers had grown too fat and lax to concern themselves with these portents of doom.

The impoverishment of workers has steadily deepened: "The precise moment the Zimbabwe economy began its generalised plunge was probably the late morning of 14, November 1997, when over a four -hour period the Zimbabwe dollar lost 74% of its value… As a result, unprecedented inflation was imported – from levels below 15% in September 1997 to above 45% 18 months later, with far higher price increases recorded for food.

When, in October that year, Mugabe announced that white-owned farms were up for grabs, the die was cast. By 1998 Zimbabwe spent "an historically unprecedented 38% of export earnings on servicing foreign loans" The authors argue that Zimbabwe (and South Africa) should not have repaid a foreign debt that to some extent was deepened by apartheid-era destabilisation policies, which necessitated a growth in the defence force. Bond and Manyanya note that the MDC’s inability to come up with a clearly articulated land policy or an implementable economic policy was a mistake, and that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s social-democratic position may have been too weak and unclear to stimulate voters.

This has meant that "the urban petit-bourgeois intelligentsia – especially lawyers! – (took) control of the party in logistical terms, softening the class-conscious character of the MDC and recommending against mass action during the crucial late 2000 moment of turmoil when "ungovernability" could have advanced the democratic cause as it did 15 years earlier in South Africa. I n addition, the petit-bourgeoisie brought to the MDC an astounding capacity for infighting".

Zimbabwe, the authors say holds crucial lessons for Africa – although the conduct of many leaders toward those elections showed that few have been learned. Perhaps most of all it holds a lesson for civil society: watch democracy, nurture it and blow the whistle when pumped-up bureaucrats start choking freedoms. Zimbabwe’s Plunge details enough of the perils of an African autocracy to provide a long-term reference for economists and scholars of African politics and history.

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