Zimbabwe’s darkest hour but dawn nowhere near

Wednesday 2 May 2007, by Patrick BOND

Repression against Zimbabwe’s political and civil society opposition has intensified in recent weeks, apparently at the behest of president Robert Mugabe, to the point that Southern African neighbors have taken notice. But instead of applying pressure at a regional heads of state meeting, South African President Thabo Mbeki was mandated to negotiate between Zimbabwe’s condending forces, notwithstanding numerous previous occasions where his pro-Mugabe bias was evident.

At the same time, vying factions of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) party were divided and conquered by Mugabe at a politburo meeting, leading to an endorsement of his candidacy for the 2008 election. As he celebrated his 83rd birthday in luxurious style last month, Mugabe must have felt omnipotent.

For Morgan Tsvangirai, former trade unionist and leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, the cost of this maneuvering was high. On March 11, he and dozens of other key MDC leaders were badly beaten by police in the course of a nonviolent demonstration that Mugabe had banned. Several hundred have been arrested, tortured and hospitalized, and a few - notably Gift Tandere, a Harare civil society activist - were killed by security forces.

According to Dr. Douglas Gwatidzo of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, the state is now carrying out “a continuous level of attacks, without an increase or decrease,” with an average four hospitalizations per day. The point, it seems, is to leave the MDC bloodied and bowed before the elections, unable to field parliamentary candidates.

That will make it easier for Mbeki - anointed George Bush’s “point man” on Zimbabwe in 2003 - to engineer an elite transition in which a Mugabe appointee takes over in 2008 with MDC acquiescence.

The question then is whether Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown - the world’s highest inflation and fastest-shrinking GDP - can be arrested through an inflow of emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Although Mugabe repaid the IMF roughly $190 million in 2005-06 (and still owes roughly that amount), not just money is at stake. With several Latin American countries veering sharply leftwards, out of Washington’s orbit, little Zimbabwe could become the IMF’s next big ideological battle ground.

Mugabe’s spindoctors typically blame the 2000-07 economic crisis upon Western states and institutions angry about land reform, or mythical ‘sanctions’ (aside from loan blacklisting due to nonpayment, there are only minor smart sanctions against a few dozen individuals in operation).

In contrast, the US State Department’s lead Africa official lists ‘poor fiscal policies and rampant government spending - including the cost of Zimbabwe’s military involvement in the Congo - [and] ... an illegal and chaotic “fast track” land reform programme.’

Though the majority MDC faction guided by former labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai has declared itself social democratic not neoliberal, suspicions remain that - like Zambia’s first post-Kaunda regime in 1991, presided over by trade unionist Frederick Chiluba, in the wake of late 1980s mass riots against IMF dictates - it may revert to the Washington Consensus.

According to the last IMF statement on Zimbabwe, in December: ‘Going forward, the key will be first to ensure that sharp cuts are made in real terms in fiscal spending... Strong fiscal adjustment will need to be supported by moving a unified exchange rate towards market-determined levels, removing restrictions on current account payments and transfers, liberalizing price controls and imposing hard budget constraints on public enterprises.’

The last time the IMF exerted real power over Zimbabwe was when it lent $53 million in 1999, which was meant to release another $800 million from other creditors. According to leading IMF negotiator Michael Nowak: ‘We want the government to reduce the tariffs slapped on luxury goods last September, and second, we also want the government to give us a clear timetable as to when and how they will remove the price controls they have imposed on some goods.’

Five months later, the IMF agreed to increase the loan amount to $200 million, but more conditions were reportedly added: access to classified DRC war information and a commitment to pay new war expenditure from the existing budget.

This meant the IMF encouraged Mugabe to penalise health, education and other badly-defended sectors on behalf of military adventures and business cronies, and also ordered Mugabe to immediately reverse the only redistributive policies he had adopted in a long time: a) a ban on holding foreign exchange accounts in local banks (which immediately halted the easiest form of capital flight by the country’s elites); b) a 100% customs tax on imported luxury goods; and c) price controls on staple foods in the wake of several urban riots.

That deal quickly fell apart, however, when fiscal targets were missed. Harare was, quite simply, broke. The previous year, Mugabe had spent an historically-unprecedented 38% of export earnings on servicing foreign loans, exceeded that year only by Brazil and Burundi.

To be sure, last December’s IMF statement also called for social security protections, but the IMF’s most essential medicine - ‘sharp cuts’ in an already broken state - will not cure this wretched patient.

Instead, the last time Zimbabwean civil society generated an analysis was 2000, alongside a progressive group within the UN Development Programme. Its strategy was developmental, basic-needs driven and patriotic - and now needs urgent fleshing out by organisations like the Zimbabwe Social Forum, trade unions, Women of Zimbabwe Arise and churches.

South Africa’s Mass Democratic Movement rose to a similar challenge in 1993, producing the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Then the really tough job looms: ensuring accountability of the state to the people.

Patrick Bond is director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and coauthor of Zimbabwe’s Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice (UKZN Press).

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