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Diplomatically Quiet on Zimbabwe

By Matthew Hennessey, Patrick Bond | June 11, 2008

Pro-MDC expatriates in South Africa.
Photo by Sokwanele-Zimbabwe (CC).

The disputed election of March 2008 has further eroded the economy of Zimbabwe, a nation once regarded as "the breadbasket of Africa." Millions of refugees, fleeing a nearly decade-long economic collapse, have flooded into neighboring South Africa, where recent outbreaks of violence against foreigners have provoked harsh criticism of president Thabo Mbeki. According to Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy" has nurtured the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler for nearly thirty years.

Matthew Hennessey of Policy Innovations interviews Bond, author of several books including Zimbabwe's Plunge and Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation.

Is land reform at the root of the political crisis in Zimbabwe?

No, I see it as a symptom of the conflict, useful mainly for confusing people. After Mugabe lost the February 2000 constitutional referendum and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) rose to threaten his hold over the state, land politics became a central piece of the ruling party's legitimation strategy. It appears now, however, that cronyism has gone so far that even once-enthusiastic backers of land redistribution via the war veterans and paramilitaries have to acknowledge high levels of corruption, incompetence, and an agricultural crisis. Sorting out agriculture, post-Mugabe, will be exceptionally difficult if there is a relatively close balance of forces between Mugabe's cronies and a new, democratic government. It's easy to see how U.S., British, and other Northern pressure will only make matters worse.

How has the land reform issue been dealt with in South Africa?

Nearly identically to Zimbabwe in its 1980–2000 policy period. The same "willing seller, willing buyer" strategy was adopted. Even the same World Bank staff have been involved. And the results, too, have been the same: practically no land reform in South Africa's first fourteen years of democracy. Around 4 percent of arable land has changed hands, when 30 percent was the target for the first five years. This was based upon a natural turnover in the market of six percent and the expectation that an end to subsidies for white farmers would put even more land on the market. The obvious consequence has been growing social unrest in both urban and rural settings.

Does the crisis in Zimbabwe threaten southern Africa's regional economic stability?

In spite of Zimbabwe's meltdown since late 1997, there have been fairly good gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in the three neighboring states to the east, south, and west: Mozambique, South Africa, and Botswana. It is plausibly argued, for example by the Financial Times correspondent in Harare, that South African businesses have benefited from Zimbabwe's meltdown thanks to large inflows of desperate and inexpensive labor and takeovers in the domestic market as manufacturers went bankrupt. Remember, Zimbabwe used to have the world's third-largest industrial economy as a percentage of GDP.

The main "risk" is an awareness by business leaders that what happens in Zimbabwe is a harbinger for southern Africa's problems, since so many nations have rather similar appearances. The biggest difference in South Africa, though, is a strong civil society which has contested what's called the "Zanufication" of the African National Congress, with a degree of success.

Do you expect violence in Zimbabwe to worsen prior to the June 27 runoff?

Yes, and it's happening now. Thabo Mbeki's younger brother, Moeletsi, gave one of the most eloquent warnings of how bad things might get on Sky Television last year. Reading this will help you to understand why Thabo has nurtured Mugabe's dictatorship, and why intense violence is the inevitable result.

Should he be elected, what should Morgan Tsvangirai do to address the dire economic conditions inside Zimbabwe?

Hopefully, Tsvangirai keeps his word and strives to win the June election outright rather than agree to a top-down government of national unity which would cement all the worst features of political life in Zimbabwe. As the situation in Kenya shows, there's no guarantee of stability while an Old Guard elite retains partial power. If Tsvangirai were to miraculously win and be appointed president, the first job for any serious government would be to end the crony relationships that are so central to the inflationary surge. Dislodging several thousand parasitic bureaucrats will take enormous effort.

The challenge is greater because of the conditions that lending countries and institutions would likely attach to aid and loan money ($2 billion/year is anticipated). These conditions would include the full liberalization of macroeconomic relations, privatization of parastatal agencies, and decimation of the bloated civil service—actions that would rapidly shrink effective demand and create much more instability.

Repayment of Mugabe's $5 billion in odious debt to the Bretton Woods Institutions and other lenders will be another crucial economic choice: Progressives demand repudiation of this debt in view of the corrupt character and ineffectiveness of Mugabe's prior international financial dealings.

Although the World Bank called his 1990–95 Economic Structural Adjustment Programme "highly satisfactory" (the highest rating), the rest of the society believes it to have been a central structural cause of the subsequent meltdown. There are a few civil society initiatives, such as the Jubilee affiliate and the National People's Convention, which will resist the sort of program that the World Bank and its donors are currently drawing up, partly in association with Movement for Democratic Change economists and the Cato Institute.

Quite a serious class struggle lies immediately ahead in the event Tsvangirai wins and takes power.

Are South Africans satisfied with their government's response to what is happening in Zimbabwe?

Thankfully, no. The disgust most South Africans have for Mbeki's quiet diplomacy approach to Zimbabwe—i.e., nurturing Mugabe's dictatorship—is similar to the disgust for the structural aspects of his rule in South Africa, including AIDS denial and pro-poverty/profit policies.

His economic policies led to such intense inequality—higher even than during apartheid—and also the doubling of unemployment, while the West cheered him on, that grassroots reaction was inevitable. Recently this has turned proto-fascistic with xenophobia, but the reaction is also captured in a more hopeful sign: There are more protests and demonstrations in South Africa than just about anywhere else in the world.

The challenge is to help channel this amazing energy and address the local grievances in a structural manner, so that society can quickly move to both a post-nationalist and post-neoliberal footing. The Zimbabwe situation has such an adverse balance of forces that getting to the first stage will be difficult enough, since Mugabe appears ready to cling to power at all costs—and the second stage may be foiled by the heavy hands of bumbling Western diplomats.

Meanwhile, at least a couple of million Zimbabweans here in South Africa are hunkering down, as it's not safe to go home, and it's sometimes not safe to go outdoors in South Africa either. This is in part because Pretoria has been really slow, stingy, and xenophobic in its own right, when it comes to refugee relief.


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Read More: Agriculture, Democracy, Development, Diplomacy, Governance, Human Rights, Migration, Poverty, Security, War, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Africa

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