ZIMBABWE has undergone dramatic political and socio-economic changes since attaining Independence in 1980. The early euphoric years were characterised by substantial economic success while President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF government invested heavily in health, education and other social sectors, thanks to his socialist policies and international goodwill which attracted large figures in donor funds.
The country’s impressive economic growth was anchored on a highly successful manufacturing sector that was linked to a highly productive agricultural sector dubbed “the breadbasket of the region”.
But Mugabe’s story after Independence is a story of patches of success which have since mutated into a debilitating economic crisis that has impoverished a once promising country, as he continues to hang on after 35 years of power.
After years of appearing to be pro-poor, which made him a darling of many vulnerable Zimbabweans, Mugabe appears to have gradually lost touch with reality and the majority poor, abandoning them in the process though not entirely by design.
Few will forget the people-oriented policies Mugabe put in place in the 1980s, among them free education, free health as well as a reliable social welfare that reached out to millions of poor Zimbabweans.
During those days he was fittingly known as “a man of the people”.
According to a 1991 World Bank report, soon after Independence the Zimbabwean economy showed strong growth with GDP increasing by 10,6% in 1980 and 12,5% in 1981. The average economic growth rate between 1980 and 1989 was 4,47%.
According to the World Bank 1995 report, after Independence Zimbabwe gave priority to human resource investments and support for smallholder agriculture and, as a result, smallholder agriculture expanded rapidly during the first half of the 1980s while social indicators improved quickly.
In terms of health, there was a committed fight against the infant mortality rate. The World Health Organisation’s country health system fact sheet (2006) says from 1980 to 1990, infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1 000 live births, while the under-five mortality rate was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1 000 live births.
Immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population. Child malnutrition also fell from 22% to 12% and life expectancy rose from 56 to 64.
By 1990, Zimbabwe seemed to be doing pretty well with a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrolment rate compared to many developing countries.
During that period Mugabe, indeed, was a leader who could change people’s lives; he was against extreme capitalism and supported trade unions and collective bargaining by workers. He would turn up on Workers Day to deliver his speech and name the “Worker of the Year”.
But as the years passed, the darker side of Mugabe, which first emerged with the brutal attacks on Zapu and the late former vice-resident Joshua Nkomo’s supporters in what became known as Gukurahundi massacres, where an estimated 20 000 people were butchered in killings that largely escaped international attention, emerged.
For many, the adoption of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in 1991 due to local and international pressure — a move which was meant to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) — was the first sign Mugabe was abandoning the poor. Esap was meant to herald a new era of modernised, competitive, export-led industrialisation.
But, according to a report by Richard Saunders titled Economic Structural Adjustment Programme’s Fables, neither the market reforms, nor the different measures that were meant to offset their effects on the most vulnerable, went according to plan. Instead, the Zimbabwean private sector displayed worrying signs of de-industrialisation, public debt spiralled upwards and the standard of living of most Zimbabweans plummeted, while price control relaxation saw inflation explode and consumer demand shrink by as much as 30%.
There was a sharp decline in average real wages, with average real earnings falling to the lowest levels since the early 1970s by the mid-1990s. Esap quickly brought the Zimbabwean working class to the brink of widespread destitution making it clear its reforms were the leading factor in undermining ordinary people’s standard of living, Saunders argues.
Since 2000, however, Mugabe’s policies by design or accident have hit the poor very hard, resulting in questions being frequently asked about whether he has ordinary people at heart.
His government embarked on a chaotic, often violent land reform programme in 2000 arguing it wanted to empower landless and poor indigenous people in line with the objectives of the war of liberation.
In reality, however, the elite in government, Zanu PF, security establishments and their connections awarded themselves large tracts of land and rich wildlife conservancies.
Mugabe and his close associates became multiple farm owners as a result of the land reform programme, which disrupted the country’s agricultural system contributing to food shortages that show no signs of ending, with government recently admitting land reform has been a disaster. Mugabe has also admitted most of the land is being underutilised.
The majority poor ultimately became the main victim of the land invasion disruptions to agriculture and the economy.
Perhaps the most anti-poor action that Mugabe’s government has taken was the controversial, widely condemned Operation Murambatsvina where thousands of people were left homeless while thousands others were displaced following the destruction of illegal structures in urban areas in 2005. It is believed the move was aimed at destroying the opposition’s strongholds ahead of parliamentary elections.
Mugabe’s controversial and ill-conceived policies such as indigenisation, which requires foreign firms to cede at least 51% shares to locals, have also resulted in de-industrialisation and lack of FDI, contributing to the high unemployment levels which independent economic analysts put at 90%.
The policies have also resulted in widening socio-economic inequality, collapse of social services, infrastructure decay and falling exports.
Company closures and retrenchments have seen a rapid growth of the informal sector which has resulted in most of the country’s city streets being occupied by vendors. The government is currently cleaning up cities by, among other moves, removing vendors from the central business districts, but the action has angered the informal traders who feel government is robbing them of their source of livelihood at a time it has no capacity to create jobs despite promising to create more than two million jobs.
A Supreme Court ruling on July 17, which allowed employers to terminate contracts on three months’ notice without retrenchment packages saw well over 20 000 workers lose their jobs before it was amended. Parastatals laid off thousands of workers suggesting government supported the ruling, with some officials at parastatals revealing they retrenched after getting orders from government.
Human Rights Watch Africa Division senior researcher for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa Dewa Mavhinga doubts Mugabe has ever been pro-poor, suggesting instead he is “pro-power”.
Said Mavhinga: “A pro-poor leader should be prepared to give up power to allow the nation to move towards development. It is not that Mugabe’s government has failed to rescue victims of poverty, but in many cases his government has been the author of poverty, suffering and other human rights abuses like in 2005 when 700 000 people were rendered homeless by a government operation.
“Unbridled corruption in government is taking away essential national resources meant for essential public services and Mugabe’s government has not taken any decisive steps to root out corruption. The needlessly chaotic land reform programme has resulted in the nation failing to feed itself when proper and orderly reforms would have achieved genuine empowerment as well as food security.”
Mavhinga also said the corruption-ridden Marange diamond mining activities saw the nation losing out while Mugabe’s cronies lined their pockets, showing poverty alleviation is no longer on their agenda.
“Everyone knows that what is needed now to get Zimbabwe working again are fresh elections that usher in a new democratic leadership, but Mugabe self-servingly clings on to power. His Zanu PF party last December endorsed him to be presidential candidate in 2018 when he will be 94; is that being pro-poor or pro-people?” he asked.
Director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) Pedzisai Ruhanya says Zanu PF has changed fundamentally in terms of its ideology, moving from a party with socialist pretensions to a purely capitalist one largely pursuing state capitalism.
“The party is now a largely neo-liberal outfit whose leadership pursues neo-liberal economic policies. Most Zanu PF leaders, including Mugabe himself, now own the means of production through their indigenisation and land acquisition policies that have benefitted the ruling elite mostly and not the poor,” said Ruhanya.
“For instance, Mugabe and his wife own vast tracts of land in Mazowe and they are into massive milk production and other businesses. The Labour Law Amendment Act and general labour flexibility, which has resulted in the firing of more than 20 000 workers since the July 17 Supreme Court ruling, is clear evidence that Mugabe and his ruling elite have joined the bourgeois class at the expense of the poor. They have amassed a lot of wealth that any attempts to position themselves as socialist and pro-poor will be dismissed even by their most gullible or sycophantic followers.”
As Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, nationalism often fails at achieving liberation across class boundaries because its aspirations are primarily those of the colonised bourgeoisie — a privileged middle class who sought to defeat colonial rule, only to usurp its place of control and dominance over the working class.
Colonialism, he says, should only be understood as a complicated network of complicities and internal power imbalances between factions within the broader categories of coloniser and colonised — not least, of course, the way in which nationalist leaders often replicate the systems of coercion and domination that shaped colonial rule.
Fanon blames the failings of nationalism on the “intellectual laziness of the middle class”, saying the native bourgeoisie rose to power only insofar as it sought to replicate the bourgeoisie of the “mother country” that sustains colonial rule.
“The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class,” he says. “It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.
“In its narcissism, the national middle class is easily convinced that it can advantageously replace the middle class of the mother country. But that same independence which literally drives it into a corner will give rise within its ranks to catastrophic reactions, and will oblige it to send out frenzied appeals for help to the former mother country.”
Fanon further observes: “Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, political liberty and national dignity, but as soon as independence is declared, far from embodying in concrete form the needs of the people in what touches bread, land and the restoration of the country to the sacred hands of the people, the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that company of profiteers impatient for their returns which constitutes the national bourgeoisie.”
This is what Mugabe has now degenerated into — a leader of greedy Zanu PF profiteers and even racketeers who have colonised and are looting the state to look after themselves, not the poor anymore.