By Stephen Gowans
One thing opponents and supporters of Mugabe’s government agree on is that the opposition is trying to oust the president (illegally and unconstitutionally if you acknowledge the plan isn’t limited to victory at the polls.)
So which came first?
Attempts to overthrow Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF government, or the government’s harsh crackdown on opposition?
According to the Western media spin, the answer is the government’s harsh crackdown on opposition. Mugabe’s government is inherently authoritarian, greedy for power for power’s sake, and willing do anything – from stealing elections to cracking skulls — to hang on to its privileged position.
This is the typical slander leveled at the heads of governments the US and UK have trouble with, from Milosevic in his day, to Kim Jong Il, to Castro.
Another view is that the government’s authoritarianism is an inevitable reaction to circumstances that are unfavorable to the attainment of its political (not its leaders’ personal) goals. Mugabe’s government came to power at the head of a movement that not only sought political independence, but aspired to reverse the historical theft of land by White settlers. That the opposition would be fierce and merciless – has been so – was inevitable.
Reaction to the opposition, if the government and its anti-colonial agenda were to survive, would need to be equally fierce and merciless.
At the core of the conflict is a clash of right against right: the right of White settlers to enjoy whatever benefits stolen land yields in profits and rent against the right of the original owners to reclaim their land.
Allied to this is a broader struggle for economic independence, which sets the rights of investors and corporations abroad to profit from untrammeled access to Zimbabwe’s labor, land and resources and the right of Zimbabweans to restrict access on their own terms to facilitate their own economic development.
The dichotomy of personal versus political motivation as the basis for the actions of maligned governments recurs in debates over whether this or that leader or movement ought to be supported or reviled. The personal view says that all leaders are corrupt, chase after personal glory, power and wealth, and dishonestly manipulate the people they profess to champion. The political view doesn’t deny the personal view as a possibility, but holds that the behavior of leaders is constrained by political goals.
“Even George Bush who rigs elections and manipulates news in order to stay in office and who clearly enjoys being ‘the War President,’ wants the presidency in order to carry out a particular program with messianic fervor,” points out Richard Levins. “He would never protect the environment, provide healthcare, guarantee universal free education, or separate church and state, just to stay in office.” (“Progressive Cuba Bashing,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 1, March 2005.)
Mugabe is sometimes criticized for being pushed into accelerating land reform by a restive population impatient with the glacial pace of redistribution allowed under the Lancaster House agreement. His detractors allege, implausibly, that he has no real commitment to land reforms. He only does what’s necessary to stay in power.
If we accept this as true, then we’re saying that the behavior of the government is constrained by one of the original goals of the liberation movement (land reform) and that the personal view is irrelevant. No matter what the motivations of the government’s leaders, the course the government follows is conditioned by the goals of the larger movement of national liberation.
There’s no question Mugabe reacted harshly to recent provocations by factions of the MDC, or that his government was deliberately provoked. But the germane question isn’t whether beating Morgan Tsvangirai over the head was too much, but whether the ban on political rallies in Harare, which the opposition deliberately violated, is justified. That depends on whose side you’re on, and whether you think Tsvangirai and his associates are simply earnest citizens trying to freely express their views or are proxies for imperialist governments bent on establishing (restoring in Britain’s case) hegemony over Zimbabwe.
There’s no question either that Mugabe’s government is in a precarious position. The economy is in a shambles, due in part to drought, to the disruptions caused by land reform, and to sanctions.
White farmers want Mugabe gone (to slow land redistribution, or to stop it altogether), London and Washington want him gone (to ensure neo-liberal “reforms” are implemented), and it’s likely that some members of his own party also want him to step down.
On top of acting to sabotage Zimbabwe economically through sanctions, London and Washington have been funneling financial, diplomatic and organizational assistance to groups and individuals who are committed to bringing about a color revolution (i.e., extra-constitutional regime change) in Zimbabwe. That includes Tsvangirai and the MDC factions, among others.
The timing of the MDC rally was suspicious (it coincided with the opening of the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council.) Its depiction as a prayer meeting is flagrantly disingenuous. Those of an unprejudiced mind will recognize it for what it was: a political rally, held in already volatile conditions, whose outcome would either be insurrection or a crackdown that could be used to call for tougher sanctions, even intervention.
For the Mugabe government, the options are two-fold: Capitulate (and surrender any chance of maintaining what independence Zimbabwe has managed to secure at considerable cost) or fight back.
Some people might deplore the methods used, but considering the actions and objectives of the opposition – and what’s at stake – the crackdown has been both measured and necessary.