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The people vs the elite

That will the final verdict of history be on Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF? It seems to be the reverse of Midas — everything it touches turns to dross and corruption. Virtually all the institutions it inherited, and those created for the party by foreign aid, were devoured in the maw of political patronage as it strove to force individuals to be “loyal” and “disciplined”. Integrity, efficiency, initiative — all core values for running successful institutions — were pushed aside.

But while Zanu-PF presided over dissolution of institutional capacity and deindustrialisation there arose from the indestructible people of the country a contrasting creativity, which led to institutional birth and growth. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in the escape of the trade unions from the clutches of the party machine and their transformation into an efficient series of grassroots structures — despite massive intimidation. This significant triumph is now in the written record, with lessons for South Africans who wonder about the future of their own institutions and freedoms.

The most valuable of 10 contributions is by Zimbabwean academic Lloyd Sachikonye on the institutional development of the unions. They have, as he notes, made “quantitative and qualitative gains”. Unlike the ruling elite, unionists learnt how to manage funds and develop real leadership skills, educating workers on the shopfloor. They took up gender issues and gained self-confidence in the face of radical socialist rhetoric from a ruling elite that claimed — spuriously — to “speak for the workers”.

Brian Raftopoulos, in a similarly useful account, shows how this creative growth then spread — inevitably — into the political field, reaching even constitutional reform. Zimbabweans came to look to the unions to protect their individual liberties from the elite, rather than perform some magical work of general wealth redistribution — the great fantasy in the past.

Of more dubious use are the studies contributed largely by non-Zimbabweans that try to tie relations between the labour movement and the state to vogue topics such as class struggle and globalisation. The immensity of the demographic and ecological crisis that brought Zanu-PF to power (the explosion of the population from fewer than 500 000 to 7-million in 90 years) must never be forgotten, nor its continuing ravages since 1980 as the population increased to 13-million.

Yet many of the contributing writers commit just this crass oversight. It is as if those analysing the problems of the United States in 1776-1876 and “Manifest Destiny” ignored the explosion of its white population from 6-million to 120-million. History must ask about Mugabe’s patronage system: How else was he to keep the lid on the ethnic and social tensions that built up as a result of this demographic and ecological crisis?

The crisis is still with us, although the demographics are changing with the decline in the birth rate, the advent of the Aids pandemic and the threat of ruinous mass emigration. It needs a creative response in the years ahead. South Africa’s Patrick Bond suggests that Morgan Tsvangirai — former Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary general and now leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change — will deserve Zanu-PF’s epithet “sell-out” if he comes to power and fails to repudiate Mugabe-era debt, introduce price clamps, watertight exchange controls and nationalise strategic areas of the economy. Bond has no comprehension of frontier-society economics, nor the enormous risk factors that make it anything but “an extremely comfortable environment for wealthy whites” — hence current mass emigration of skilled people of every hue. Nor does he perceive today’s de facto apartheid between those with and those without internationally saleable skills, which cannot be simply regulated away.

A chapter on the mining industry by Canadian Suzanne Dansereau likewise ignores the schism between formal and informal sector operations. The latter now employs up to 200 000 people, including women and children, in nightmarish conditions not seen in Britain since the 1700s. As Wild West-style wars rage, with explosives thrown down pits to drive the shrinking and increasingly unviable formal sector off registered claims, Dansereau says this sector must “abandon its desire to maintain profit through intensive labour production”. This sort of idealogically committed writing, often replete with brain-clogging trendy phrases such as “bourgeoisification” and “de-legitimised neo-liberalism” is divorced from reality and only contrasts with the vastly better work of Zimbabwe’s own scholars.

The crucial issue, as Mugabe grasps when he attacks “totemless aliens”, is not race, class and capital, but our transition from a paternalistic society in which people lived collective lives to one in which individuals, including even rural women, aspire to economic autonomy and individual integrity. Zimbabweans want the right to be “disloyal” and “indisciplined”, even if it means going to live in Hounslow or some squatter camp outside Johannesburg. We do not want some new centrally planned form of serfdom. Do you have to be a Zimbabwean to see this?

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