Mugabe – body laid to rest as contested legacy finds new life

by Weizmann Hamilton

Mbeki & Mugabe

The empty seats at the National Sports Stadium in Harare at Robert Mugabe’s 14 September official funeral ceremony spoke volumes about the views of the Zimbabwean people. The circumstances of Mugabe’s death symbolically captured the real relations between this alleged hero of the liberation struggle and the masses. That he died in Singapore from cancer, as Zimbabwean doctors were striking for higher wages in hospitals that cannot fund even paracetamol, was pregnant with symbolism.

In September 2017, when Mugabe’s 37-year reign was ended, the six million Zimbabweans in the diaspora, from London to Johannesburg, had joined citizens at home in celebration, dancing in the streets. The jubilation was, however, tempered with deep skepticism. Mugabe was, after all, deposed by his closest collaborators. A thinly veiled dictatorship had been put to an end by an equally thinly-veiled coup. As Izwi La Basebenzi pointed out at the time, Mugabe had gone, but his regime remained in power. Both in relation to economic policy as well as in its authoritarianism, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has not been a break from, but a continuation of Mugabe’s.

With the economy in meltdown, and determined, if as yet uncoordinated mass resistance to the austerity onslaught , Mnangagwa used Mugabe’s death in a desperate, even pitiful attempt to restore his regime’s political authority by eulogizing his hated predecessor as a “son of the soil”, who for all his sins, liberated Zimbabwe. The last half of Mugabe’s reign is being presented as an aberration from an otherwise heroic first.

In a humiliating retreat following three weeks of wrangling over where Mugabe was to be buried, Mnangagwa was forced to abandon plans for a specially built mausoleum at Hero’s acre in the capital. Mnangagwa had failed to strong-arm an embittered Mugabe family who insisted on burying him in his home village.

In a desperate attempt to shore up his own rapidly eroding domestic credibility, SA president Cyril Ramaphosa joined this choir of praise singers, dressed in the ragged costume of “Mugabe the liberator” mythology at the official funeral. His delivered eulogy as xenophobia was sweeping across SA.  Ramaphosa was roundly and deservedly booed. The masse’s indignation was roused not so much by his distortions of Mugabe’s historical role. It was much more for the hypocrisy of singing Pan African solidarity hymns for a tyrant whose policies had forced millions to flee. Yet Ramaphosa’s ANC government has deflected anger over mass unemployment, poverty and inequality towards “undocumented” foreigners allegedly stealing South African jobs.

Going much further at an official memorial service in Durban, former president Thabo Mbeki hailed Mugabe as a “great patriot, a defender of Africa’s independence (and) interests.” He went on to claim that he had not met a single Zimbabwean that wanted Mugabe deposed! A quarter of the population has fled his disastrous rule.

Portraying him as a Pan Africanist who had played a role in shaping SA’s liberation struggle, he claimed Mugabe had delayed land reform to ensure SA’s “talks about talks” would conclude in successful negotiations. This was an unintentional confession of Zanu (PF)/ANC collaboration in the betrayal of the liberation struggle in both countries. For them the purpose of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and South Africa was to assimilate into the capitalist system the class forces both Zanu (PF) and the ANC represent: the aspirant black capitalist class.

Liberation and Mugabe’s role

The real heroes of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle – the chimurenga – who took up arms in 1965, are the 30,000 who made the supreme sacrifice. But heroic as the armed struggle was, it proved incapable of toppling the white minority regime. It was the combination of the 1974 revolution in Portugal and its repercussion in Portugal’s colonial possessions that one year later led to the coming to power of the MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique that was decisive in changing the balance of forces in Southern Africa. The then-Rhodesian Smith regime, now seen as a threat to imperialist interests, was simply treated as small change in imperialist machinations and forced to agree to a negotiated settlement.

And where was Mugabe during this time? Basildon Peta reports: “Admirers of the ‘liberation icon’ may also want to know that [Mugabe’s] role in the liberation struggle was grossly exaggerated. Yes, he did spend about nine years jailed by Smith, a period during which many perished on the struggle front but he got time to improve his education. Upon his release in 1974 he crossed into Mozambique but remained aloof from the actual war front, ably led by Josiah Tongogara and Rhex Nhongo (aka Solomon Mujuru). Mugabe’s former right hand man, Edgar Tekere, used to tell how, until he took the oath of office in 1980, Mugabe had ‘never fired a gun. Nor could he wear a military uniform properly’.  The war lasted only about four (more) years after Mugabe’s release before the 1979 Lancaster House talks ushered in Zimbabwe’s independence.” (Sunday Times – Johannesburg 22/09/2019).

The “Marxist” Zanu (PF) and Mugabe’s “socialism” was mere rhetoric, calculated, in Bonapartist fashion, to lean on the Zanu rank-and-file against any actual or potential rivals, as well as the working class, alternating with repression against them.

The capitalists soon realised that Mugabe’s socialism was just talk. In their book Zimbabwe’s Plunge Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya quote a leading US banker as saying: “The management of the more sophisticated large companies…seem to be impressed by and satisfied with Mugabe’s management and the increased level of understanding in government of commercial considerations…I felt it is a political pattern that Mugabe gives radical, anti-business speeches before government makes major pro-business decisions or announcements.”

Neither in its programme nor therefore in strategy has Zanu ever stood for the socialist transformation of society nor taken any steps to take control of the commanding heights of the economy. Far from recognising the working class as central, the Zanu leadership saw in them an independent force over outside their control and potential spanner in the works of their plans for a capitalist negotiated settlement.

Mugabe’s role after liberation

Zimbabwe is a text book example of the bankruptcy of the Stalinist two-stage theory. Predicated on the idea that the struggle for democracy must be separated from that for socialism, it has in practice never achieved a fully-fledged bourgeois democracy nor socialism. Instead it has led to the perpetuation of the economic dictatorship of the capitalist class masked by a fragile, truncated bourgeois “parliamentary democracy”. Mugabe accepted the former Soviet Union and China’s advice: “Do not rush things – take your time…nationalisation would disrupt the economy” (Financial Gazette – Zimbabwe 01/02/85). 

As the Marxist Workers Tendency (predecessors of the Marxist Workers Party) warned a year after the Zanu-Zapu government’s landslide victory in the independence elections, “No government can both defend the interests of the capitalists and carry out the demands of the people. That is why the Zanu-Zapu government has been unable, despite its enormous popular support, to solve the land question, to end starvation wages, to provide jobs for the unemployed, or even to abolish white privilege.” (Inqaba Ya Basebenzi No.2, April 1981)

The Lancaster House agreement which led to independence in 1980, provided for honouring the white minority regime’s foreign debt. More importantly capitalist property ownership, including the two thirds of the economy under foreign control was protected from nationalisation. This included, critically, land – the central question in the chimurenga. To add insult to injury, the new Zimbabwean Army was to be led by the former head of the former Rhodesian armed forces, General Wallis complete with his own selected officers, their hands dripping with the blood of the liberation struggle’s martyrs. Mugabe’s regime also incorporated the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and the Special branch with its domestic security and intelligence functions.

Enthused by the Zanu-Zapu government’s victory, after the elections the working class embarked on the biggest strike wave since the end of World War I, regarding their action as strengthening the government’s hand. Their ‘liberators’ regarded their action with hostility.

Some reforms were introduced in health, education and a new minimum wage. From only 177 secondary schools in 1980, the number surged to 1,548 increasing adult literacy from 62% to 82% – among the highest rates in Africa. The economy experienced a brief boom from 1982-84.

But under the harsh austerity regime living standards nonetheless stagnated and mass unemployment continued to rise. The anger of the masses resulted in frustrated peasants occupying vacant land and workers striking. Threatened by these developments, the Mugabe government denounced the occupation of vacant land and tightened labour laws to deal with strikes, with many union militants either dismissed or arrested.

In a consciously tribal campaign, Mugabe lashed out at opponents in his own party and at the same time rekindled the animosities that had led to the split in the nationalist movement in 1963. Blaming Zapu for the government’s failures and its Ndebele base for collaborating with the West and the apartheid regime, Mugabe deployed the ‘new’ army to Matabeleland North in January 1983 – an occupation calculated to crush Zapu and its support amongst the minority Ndebele. Dubbed the Gukurahundi, a Shona expression meaning “the early rains that wash away the chaff before the spring rains”, the campaign escalated to the barbaric ethnic cleansing of at least 20,000 Ndebele people.

The ANC and Zanu

The ANC has for years propagated the falsehood that it fought in the trenches alongside Zanu. The truth is somewhat different. Although most of the chimurenga was fought in the east by Zanu’s Zimbabwe African Liberation Army (Zanla), the Soviet-backed ANC’s and Zapu’s military wings, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army (Zipra), succeeded in joint battles along the north western border to  establish a base at Zenani near the Beitbridge Border. Following the 1979/80 ceasefire, Mugabe forced MK back to Zambia whilst starting operations to neutralise Zapu.

Kent State University Professor Scarnecchia has revealed that documents declassified in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria) and London last week, show that Mugabe sent Mnangagwa, amongst others to enter into an agreement for peaceful co-existence and trade relations with the apartheid regime. (Dumisane Muleya, former Zimbabwe Independent editor in the Johannesburg Sunday Times (29/09/2019)  

The ANC’s relations with Zanu, influenced by Zanu’s alignments with China in the Sino/Soviet rivalry for influence in the colonial world, only ever provided the ANC diplomatic and political support after independence not military collaboration.

If Mbeki’s claim that Mugabe delayed land reform to aid the successful conclusion of the negotiations in SA is true, it means that the ANC and Zanu actively colluded in the betrayal first of the Zimbabwean masses and later those in SA itself. The Lancaster House Agreement was, in hindsight, a dress rehearsal for Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) where SA’s negotiated settlement was concluded. For this Mugabe was to be rewarded with an honorary knighthood by his beloved Queen of England in 1994; Mandela with the Nobel Peace prize.

Mbeki is in fact offering Mugabe a posthumous alibi for his betrayals by lending credibility to his cowardly claims that British imperialism’s broken promises prevented land reform. The liberation of the masses from capitalism should have been funded by imperialism!

In the final analysis the Lancaster House agreement was a mere piece of paper. It could have been torn up by the mobilisation of the masses on a programme for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy – industry in the cities and the commercial farms in the countryside; for workers control and management of industry in the cities; and led by the 350,000-strong black farm workers, combining the collectivisation of the big commercial farms with a programme of distribution of land for small famers in the countryside.

Land Reform

Under the pressure of a growing movement taking direct action and occupying white-owned farms, and in an attempt to control the process, Mugabe’s so-called “fast track” land programme in 2000 was not part of a comprehensive strategy to change the ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. Rather, the central strategic calculation of Mugabe’s farm expropriation was to make up in the countryside Zanu’s dramatic loss of support in the cities. At the same time Mugabe wanted to strengthen his hold over an increasingly fractured Zanu (PF) through the largesse of distributing some of the best land to the political elites.   

The limits of the capitalist straightjacket Mugabe’s land reform is trapped in is being more and more revealed. The Zimbabwe Independent (02/08/2019) reports that tobacco farming, the mainstay of the agricultural economy, is now dominated by small scale farmers and rural households. Yields per hectare have trebled. Such has been the turn-around in tobacco production that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) has used tobacco output as collateral in securing loans from the Pan African Bank.

But the improvements in the tobacco industry are now coming up against the contradictions of the government’s land expropriation policy. There was no parallel expropriation of industrial commercial and financial capital which remains firmly in the hands of the capitalist class and foreign SA-dominated multinationals.

The gains of these small farmers are already under threat from an economy in deep crisis with rapidly rising inflation, rolling power cuts and chronic foreign exchange shortages. This is aggravated by the RBZ’s commandeering 50% of their export earnings.  

Likewise, big business simply brushed aside Mugabe’s feeble attempts at “indigenization” – Zimbabwe’s equivalent of SA’s failed “black economic empowerment” policies.


Throughout these developments the ANC remained steadfast in its support for Mugabe and the Zanu (PF) regime.  When a massive strike wave in the 1990s against the effects of the Mugabe’s government culminated in the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999 out of the trade union movement, the ANC’s support intensified. Fearing that the working class in SA would be inspired by these development and create pressure on the leadership on the SA Congress of Trade Unions to break from the class collaborationist Tripartite Alliance with the SA Communist Party, the ANC echoed Mugabe’s denunciations of the MDC as puppets of the West.

Unfortunately the MDC, captured by big business from birth, answered the Mugabe regime’s capitalist policies with their own even worse neo-liberal programme. Despite this the masses turned towards the MDC on the electoral plane giving it 57 out of the 120 seats in parliament in the 2000 elections. This posed the possibility that Zanu could be ousted from office for the first time. In the 2002 presidential elections, the Mugabe regime, determined to hold onto power, engaged in open vote rigging, intimidation and voter fraud. The army generals declared they would not recognise an MDC administration.

So brazen was the manipulation, then SA president Mbeki was compelled to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry. Its report contradicted the findings of SADC election observers that the election had been “free and fair”. Adhering to the ANC’s policy of “Quiet Diplomacy”, Mbeki suppressed the report, as did his successor, Zuma, until he was forced to publish it through a court order.

Not even Mugabe’s 2005 Operation Murambatsvina – the clearance of squatters and informal traders from Harare’s streets, in revenge on urban dwellers for turning against Zanu (PF), forced a change in the ANC’s policy. It left nearly a million homeless. Whilst the masses in the region turned against Mugabe Mbeki sparked outrage by insisting there was no crisis as intimidation and violence reached new levels in the 2008 elections.  In April 2008 SA Transport and Allied Workers Union dockworkers refused to unload a Chinese ship, packed with ammunition, rockets and mortar bombs destined for Zimbabwe. Only court action by the Anglican Archbishop and an NGO prevented the shipment from passing through on a permit issued by SA’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee’s scrutiny committee.  

Mugabe’s regime has in effect been illegitimate for just under half of his 37 years in power. The ANC government has played a critical role in propping up Mugabe, enabling him, his family and his inner circle to steal billions, defy election results, curtail free speech and have opponents arrested, tortured or disappeared.

Mass workers party

Under Mnangagwa there has been no respite for the masses. Already in recession, the economy is likely to contract by at least 5.2% in the current fiscal year — the first since 2009, when Zimbabwe was forced to abandon its currency due to hyperinflation.

The September 2019 statistics completely vindicate the masses’ deep distrust of their “saviour”, Mnangagwa. Unemployment stands at 95%, inflation at 558% and the cost of basic services are up by 400%. Zimbabweans are beginning to hoard basic commodities as prices go up on an hourly basis with the recently re-introduced Zimbabwean Dollar’s falling against the US Dollar.

The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee estimates that 4.1million (42% of the rural population) were food insecure in the January to March 2017. Unfortunately the MDC has broken into rival pro-capitalist factions, none offering any way forward. Workers and young people must take the lead in building a socialist mass party uniting workers, small farmers and the poor. This is the main task of the working class in Zimbabwe.