The crisis in Zimbabwe has intensified. Inflation is incalculably high. The central bank limits – to an inadequate level – the amount of money Zimbabweans can withdraw from their bank accounts daily. Unarmed soldiers riot, their guns kept under lock and key, to prevent an armed uprising. Hospital staff fail to show up for work. The water authority is short of chemicals to purify drinking water. Cholera, easily prevented and cured under normal circumstances, has broken out, leading the government to declare a humanitarian emergency.
In the West, state officials call for the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, to step down and yield power to the leader of the largest faction of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai. In this, the crisis is directly linked to Mugabe, its solution to Tsvangirai, but it’s never said what Mugabe has done to cause the crisis, or how Tsvangirai’s ascension to the presidency will make it go away.
The causal chain leading to the crisis can be diagrammed roughly as follows:
• In the late 90s, Mugabe’s government provokes the hostility of the West by: (1) intervening militarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the side of the young government of Laurent Kabila, helping to thwart an invasion by Rwandan and Ugandan forces backed by the US and Britain; (2) it rejects a pro-foreign investment economic restructuring program the IMF establishes as a condition for balance of payment support; (3) it accelerates land redistribution by seizing white-owned farms and thereby committing the ultimate affront against owners of productive property – expropriation without compensation. To governments whose foreign policy is based in large measure on protecting their nationals’ ownership rights to foreign productive assets, expropriation, and especially expropriation without compensation, is intolerable, and must be punished to deter others from doing the same.
• In response, the United States, as prime guarantor of the imperialist system, introduces the December 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. The act instructs US representatives to international financial institutions “to oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the Government of Zimbabwe; or any cancellation or reduction of indebtedness owed by the Government of Zimbabwe to the United States or any international financial institution.”
• The act effectively deprives Zimbabwe of foreign currency required to import necessities from abroad, including chemicals to treat drinking water. Development aid from the World Bank is also cut off, denying the country access to funds to upgrade its infrastructure. The central bank takes measures to mitigate the effects of the act, creating hyper-inflation as a by-product.
The cause of the crisis, then, can be traced directly to the West. Rather than banning the export of goods to Zimbabwe, the US denied Zimbabwe the means to import goods — not trade sanctions, but an act that had the same effect. To be sure, had the Mugabe government reversed its land reform program and abided by IMF demands, the crisis would have been averted. But the trigger was pulled in Washington, London and Brussels, and it is the West, therefore, that bears the blame.
Sanctions are effectively acts of war, with often equivalent, and sometimes more devastating, consequences. More than a million Iraqis died as a result of a decade-long sanctions regime championed by the US following the 1991 Gulf War. This prompted two political scientists, John and Karl Mueller, to coin the phrase “sanctions of mass destruction.” They noted that sanctions had “contributed to more deaths in the post Cold War era than all the weapons of mass destruction in history.”
The Western media refer to sanctions on Zimbabwe as targeted – limited only to high state officials and other individuals. This ignores the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act and conceals its devastating impact, thereby shifting responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe from the US to Mugabe.
The cholera outbreak has a parallel in the outbreak of cholera in Iraq following the Gulf War. Thomas Nagy, a business professor at George Washington University, cited declassified documents in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive magazine showing that the United States had deliberately bombed Iraq’s drinking water and sanitation facilities, recognizing that sanctions would prevent Iraq from rebuilding its water infrastructure and that epidemics of otherwise preventable diseases, cholera among them, would ensue. Washington, in other words, deliberately created a humanitarian catastrophe to achieve its goal of regime change. There is a direct parallel with Zimbabwe – the only difference is that the United States uses the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act – that is, sanctions of mass destruction – in place of bombing.
Harare’s land reform program is one of the principal reasons the United States has gone to war with Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has redistributed land previously owned by 4,000 white farmers to 300,000 previously landless families, descendants of black Africans whose land was stolen by white settlers. By contrast, South Africa’s ANC government has redistributed only four percent of the 87 percent of land forcibly seized from the indigenous population by Europeans.
In March, South Africa’s cabinet seemed ready to move ahead with a plan to accelerate agrarian reform. It would abandon the “willing seller, willing buyer” model insisted on by the West, following in the Mugabe government’s footsteps. Under the plan, thirty percent of farmland would be redistributed to black farmers by 2014. But the government has since backed away, its reluctance to move forward based on the following considerations.
1. Most black South Africans are generations removed from the land, and no longer have the skills and culture necessary to immediately farm at a high level. An accelerated land reform program would almost certainly lower production levels, as new farmers played catch up to acquire critical skills.
2. South Africa is no longer a net exporter of food. An accelerated land reform program would likely force the country, in the short term, to rely more heavily on agricultural imports, at a time food prices are rising globally.
3. There is a danger that fast-track land reform will create a crisis of capital flight.
4. The dangers of radical land reform in provoking a backlash from the West are richly evident in the example of Zimbabwe. South Africa would like to avoid becoming the next Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is accompanied by a political crisis. Talks on forming a government of national unity are stalled. Failure to strike a deal pivots on a single ministry – home affairs. In the West, failure to consolidate a deal between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and the two MDC factions is attributed to Mugabe’s intransigence in insisting that he control all key cabinet posts. It takes two to tango. Tsvangirai has shown little interest in striking an accord, preferring instead to raise objections to every solution to the impasse put forward by outside mediators, as Western ambassadors hover nearby. It’s as if, with the country teetering on the edge of collapse, he doesn’t want to do a deal, preferring instead to help hasten the collapse by throwing up obstacles to an accord, to clear the way for his ascension to the presidency. When the mediation of former South African president Thambo Mbeki failed, Tsvangirai asked the regional grouping, the SADC, to intervene. SADC ordered Zanu-PF and the MDC to share the home affairs ministry. Tsvangirai refused. Now he wants Mbeki replaced.
At the SADC meeting, Mugabe presented a report which alleges that MDC militias are being trained in Botswana by Britain, to be deployed to Zimbabwe early in 2009 to foment a civil war. The turmoil would be used as a pretext for outside military intervention. This would follow the model used to oust the Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Already, British officials and clergymen are calling for intervention. British prime minister Gordon Brown says the cholera outbreak makes Zimbabwe’s crisis international, because disease can cross borders. Since an international crisis is within the purview of the “international community,” the path is clear for the West and its satellites to step in to set matters straight
Botswana is decidedly hostile. The country’s foreign minister, Phando Skelemani, says that Zimbabwe’s neighbors should impose an oil blockade to bring the Mugabe government down.
Meanwhile, representatives of the elders, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Anan and Graca Machel sought to enter Zimbabwe to assess the humanitarian situation. Inasmuch as an adequate assessment could not be made on the whistle-stop tour the trio had planned, Harare barred their entry, recognizing that the trip would simply be used as a platform to declaim on the necessity of regime change. The elders’ humanitarian concern, however, didn’t stop the trio from agreeing that stepped up sanctions – more misery for the population — would be useful.
The Mugabe government’s pursuit of land reform, rejection of neo-liberal restructuring, and movement to eclipse US imperialism in southern Africa, has put Zimbabwe on the receiving end of a Western attack based on punitive financial sanctions. The intention, as is true of all Western destabilization efforts, has been to make the target country ungovernable, forcing the government to step down, clearing the way for the ascension of the West’s local errand boys. Owing to the West’s attack, Zimbabwe’s government is struggling to provide the population with basic necessities. It can no longer provide basic sanitation and access to potable water at a sufficient level to prevent the outbreak of otherwise preventable diseases.
The replacement of the Mugabe government with one led by the Movement for Democratic Change, a party created and directed by Western governments, if it happens, will lead to an improvement in the humanitarian situation. This won’t come about because the MDC is more competent at governing, but because sanctions will be lifted and access to balance of payment support and development aid will be restored. Zimbabwe will once again be able to import adequate amounts of water purification chemicals. The improving humanitarian situation will be cited as proof the West was right all along in insisting on a change of government.
The downside is that measures to indigenize the economy – to place the country’s agricultural and mineral wealth in the hands of the black majority – will be reversed. Mugabe and key members of the state will be shipped off to The Hague – or attempts will be made to ship them off – to send a message to others about what befalls those who threaten the dominant mode of property relations and challenge Western domination. Cowed by the example of Zimbabwe, Africans in other countries will back away from their own land reform and economic indigenization demands, and the continent will settle more firmly into a pattern of neo-colonial subjugation.