By Brian Raftopoulos
THE deportation last week of Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) representatives from Zimbabwe, the second in four months, is yet another reminder of th
e intolerant instincts of President Robert Mugabe’s regime.
It is also a further indication of the ruling party’s capacity for diplomatic blunders, when allowing the Cosatu delegation into the country would have had no major impact on the internal politics of the country and could have marginally improved the image of Zanu PF before the March 31 general election.
In order to understand this latest act of authoritarian bravado, it is necessary to look back both at the relationship between nationalist politics and the labour movement and the recent internal turmoil that has engulfed the ruling party.
Historically the nationalist movement has had an uneasy and often hostile relationship with labour politics since the inception of mass nationalism in the 1950s. The tension between the two was based largely on the struggles of the labour movement to maintain its autonomy from the nationalist parties, as well as disputes over control over international funding and the partnerships and alliances that this entailed.
Sometimes in competition for international funding nationalist parties would often resort to labelling labour leaders “western stooges” and “sell-outs”. Thus the language of denunciation and exclusion of labour leaders and organisations considered critical of a particular construction of the national agenda is as old as nationalist politics itself.
In the immediate post-Independence period the new Zimbabwe government established the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in order to control the voice of labour in the new dispensation and in effect create a labour wing of the ruling party. This strategy prevailed only until the mid-1980s when an increasingly self-confident labour movement asserted its autonomy from Zanu PF tutelage.
It came as little surprise therefore that when Zanu PF launched its “Third Chimurenga” in 2000, the labour movement — and the urban population as a whole that supported the political opposition — became one of the central targets of the regime’s authoritarian nationalism.
The narrative of a selective liberation ideology spared little effort in characterising the Zimbabwean labour movement as a “tool of western imperialism and white capital”, and set about creating its own more compliant labour centre. Never comfortable with the language of citizens’ rights, Zanu PF was enraged by a labour movement that became a central part of the politic of constitutionalism that characterised the emergence of opposition politics in the late 1990s.
Moreover, the trade union movement in Zimbabwe, as with other trade union movements in Africa during both the colonial and post-colonial periods, proved adept at drawing on international labour agreements and protocols to confront the anti-labour practices of the Zimbabwean state. In this arena it has proved unable to outflank the labour internationalism of the ZCTU with its anti-imperialist rhetoric.
Having proved adept at marginalising the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Africa through its particular articulation of Pan-Africanism, the Mugabe government has been hostile to the emergence of new forms of civic regional solidarity that would begin to re-define the parameters of Pan-Africanist solidarity.
Cosatu is not the first target of the Zimbabwean government’s animosity towards attempts at regional civic solidarity on the Zimbabwe question. In 2001 the government of Malawi deported four civic activists from the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition at the behest of the Zimbabwean government. Their “crime” was their attempt to lobby a Southern African Development Community summit over the abuses of the Zimbabwean state.
It is also likely that the state’s hostile reaction to the Cosatu visit is part of a longer term reaction towards the perceived regional hegemony of the South African state. Notwithstanding the realpolitik of “quiet diplomacy”, Zanu PF retains an antipathy towards the African National Congress (ANC), and its rebuke of the Cosatu delegation was similarly directed toward the ANC.
Moreover, this stance has an additional resonance given recent allegations of spy activity by the South African state in Zimbabwe. The Cosatu leadership may well have calculated on just such a perception to further intensify the debate on Zimbabwe within the alliance, especially given the recent remarks of the ANC secretary-general on the lack of progress over election conditions in Zimbabwe.
In the language of Zanu PF, “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” is only preceded by “Zimbabwe is not a province of South Africa”. Mugabe’s diplomatic belligerence and his ability to maintain a core of solidarity in the region have kept South African President Thabo Mbeki responding to the former’s agenda. At present the ANC strategy on Zimbabwe appears to be in crisis, even as Zimbabwe remains a security threat in the region.
The recent battles for succession within the ruling party have also contributed to the atmosphere of intolerance into which Cosatu entered. The opposition of six provincial chairpersons in Zanu PF to the nomination of Joyce Mujuru as vice-president, expressed in the Tsholotsho Declaration, represented an internal revolt as serious as any that Zanu PF has faced.
The five-year suspension of the provincial leaders involved and the demise of Jonathan Moyo may have removed the representatives of this dissension, but not the lingering discontent and the ethnic factionalism it has exacerbated in the party. Mugabe may have deepened his centrality to the immediate future of the ruling party, but the future reproduction of Zanu PF’s leadership remains in doubt.
The leadership crisis in Zanu PF highlighted a number of problems in the ruling party. These included the lack of democratic accountability in the party structures, and the conspiratorial accusations that have resulted from the strangling of open debate on the succession issue.
The continued political tribalism of leadership struggles, manifested in the struggles over economic control and the selective “war on corruption”, are characteristic of the continuing weaknesses of a dominant national class and the fragility of the nationalism it espouses with such turgid repetitiveness. The loud party proclamations about patriotism are belied by the economic and political “enemies” that have emerged within its own ranks. The internal conflicts within Zanu PF have bred an even harsher intolerance to criticism. Cosatu’s attempt to conduct its own critical discussions in Zimbabwe was therefore viewed as anathema.
The logic of an authoritarian nationalism built on a growing exclusivity is that it involves a process of permanent identification of enemies both without and within. Claims to legitimacy and lineage within party history constantly recur as individuals fight for their economic and political future. Assertions of “genuine liberation hero” against the derogatory accusation of “mafikizolo” become the coda around which battles of legitimacy are fought within the party.
The result is a growing crisis over the future leadership and identity of Zanu PF. The weakened state of the MDC and its struggles to establish its own identity and situate itself historically in the Zimbabwean polity have prevented it from capitalising on the crisis in the ruling party.
As the country enters the 2005 general election Zimbabweans are confronted with a ruling party presently in control of internal politics but facing immense challenges of leadership change, and an opposition party that must battle to maintain its place in electoral politics in an electoral environment that is in all major areas stacked against it. The electorate is thus caught between the rock of an authoritarian state and a hard place of an uncertain alternative.
*Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Development Studies.