by Jake Wilson

Originally published in Inqaba No.2 (April 1981).

Throughout Southern Africa revolutionaries have been debating the lessons of Zimbabwe.

A few months after the ZANU-ZAPU government came to power, Comrade Oliver Tambo, ANC President, compared the developments in Zimbabwe with his perspective for the future of South Africa: “Before they took power, the leaders had certain theories of what they would do when in power. But when they did take power, they had to face up to certain realities. That is the way it would be in South Africa.”

These conclusions need to be seriously examined. What are the ‘realities’ faced by the leadership in Zimbabwe? Are they the same realities that are faced by the Zimbabwean masses?

What are the theories which guided the leadership during the struggle, and why did these prove impossible to implement when power passed into their hands? 

Every comrade in the ANC needs to address these questions, precisely to avoid similar pitfalls confronting us in South Africa. 

The downfall of Smith and Muzorewa and the coming to power of the ZANU-ZAPU government marked a big advance for the Zimbabwean masses and a political setback for imperialism.

Bringing the war to an end itself has lifted an enormous burden of brutality and oppression from the people. Schools, hospitals and shops have been re-opened, families re-united, and political life reawakened.

There has been a recovery of economic activity and a growth rate of 8% for the first year after the devastating war period. But in moving beyond the immediate tasks of reconstruction, the Mugabe government finds itself against a wall of limitations both political and economic. The bitter armed clashes which erupted around Bulawayo in February, leaving over 300 dead, are a symptom of the huge unsolved problems facing the people of Zimbabwe. The fighting between ZIPRA and ZANLA former guerrillas and units of the national army is not simply a reflection of party rivalries and still less the result of ethnic or ‘tribal’ differences, as the capitalist newspapers portray it. 

The mass of the workers and peasants in all parts of the country—ZANU and ZAPU supporters alike—are basically for unity in carrying the revolution forward. They are united in wanting to gain the land, jobs for all, and an end to the twin evils of black poverty and white privilege.

But they are being forced to bear the continued burden of landlessness, unemployment, deprivation and discrimination of all kinds. This is because the coalition government of the ZANU and ZAPU leaders with the rich landowners, factory bosses, and bankers has meant a compromise over white privilege, property and profits.

Instead of real power passing into the hands of the masses, the result has been the concentration and manipulation of power at the top, among the elite. Because of this, a destructive struggle for mere status and position between the ZANU and ZAPU leadership has been inevitable.

In turn this has sharpened old rivalries between the former guerrillas, embittered by the immense sacrifices of the war and the failure of the government to bring about the fundamental change of society that was fought for.

As a result of his overwhelming victory at the elections, and also by leaning on the old state machinery inherited from Smith, Mugabe has been able to steadily weaken the hold of the ZAPU leaders on government. Nkomo was demoted from Minister of Interior, and ZIPRA guerrillas were shifted from the centre of power in Salisbury to Bulawayo. The ZIPRA rebellion bore all the signs of desperation as these humiliations sank in.

Some comrades in the ANC have the idea that the unresolved problems in Zimbabwe are attributable to ZANU’s victory and that, if ZAPU had gained the upper hand, the situation would have been fundamentally different. But this is not true.

Nkomo and the ZAPU leaders are equally committed to compromise with capitalism as Mugabe and the ZANU leaders are. They are equally wedded to the false ‘two-stage’ approach—which has landed the revolution in Zimbabwe in a cull de sac. 


The idea of the ‘two-stage revolution’ is that the struggle for socialism belongs to a different stage than the struggle for democracy. First, so the theory goes, democracy must be consolidated with the support of the ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ capitalists, and then in due course when the country is ‘ready’ for it the socialist tasks can be taken up.

This was the idea of the Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution and it would have led to disaster there if Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had not fought successfully against it. Later, after the rise of Stalin, the same idea was taken up again by the ‘Communist’ parties as they turned away from Lenin’s revolutionary method. The ‘two-stage’ theory has led to a whole number of bloody defeats for the masses, for example in Spain in the 1930s and Chile in 1973.

The ‘two-stage’ idea completely fails to recognise that capitalism itself is the enemy of democracy. The workers and peasants want democracy in order to get rid of the very problems that capitalism has loaded on their backs—poverty, homelessness, land hunger, a shortage of job. To tackle these evils means precisely to tackle capitalism—and this brings the toiling masses into head-on collision with the rich. 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 in Zimbabwe 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.

Over the coming months and years Zimbabwe will face a stark choice—either break with capitalism, or see even the democratic content of the revolution turn increasingly to sand.

The Lancaster House agreement signed by ZANU and ZAPU entrenches white political privilege, safeguards the property of the capitalists, and forbids any expropriation of the land. It was signed when the power of the colonial regime had been weakened but not broken and when there was a real possibility of South African intervention. It reflected the interests of the capitalists internationally who wanted to slow the pace of the Southern African revolution and were prepared to bring the white ruling class to heel before their power was smashed.

The only alternative to the Lancaster House agreement was a strategy moving beyond guerrilla warfare to the mobilisation and arming of the working masses in Zimbabwe to seize power in Salisbury, and to call on their South African brothers and sisters to help stop an apartheid intervention.

This strategy was not favoured by the ZANU or ZAPU leaders or by the governments which backed them.

But this does not mean that the Zimbabwean workers and peasants have to accept the terms of Lancaster House. An active struggle is needed to bring the privilege of the whites to an end, and to clear the way to bring the industries, mines and farms into the hands of the working people.

Capitalism (the private ownership of the factories, mines, farms and banks) and white privilege are bound up together in Zimbabwe. It is the rich whites, the local monopolies and multinational companies who own these means of production. Safeguarded by the Lancaster House agreement, the capitalists demand the continuation of their privileges in politics, education, health and elsewhere.

A break with white privilege cannot come about through increased aid (welcome though this will be) but through a break with the capitalist system which demands the privileges continue. It is on this point that the “two-stage” approach of the ZANU-ZAPU leadership has caused the government to falter. 


During the first few months of the Mugabe government it was clear that the workers and peasants would give it some time of grace. But right from the onset the workers in the factories, mines and municipalities put forward demands to implement the promises of the election campaign.

There has been the biggest outbreak of strikes since the Second World War. It is this action by the workers, and not the initiative of the government, which has forced up wages.

A continued demand abroad for the exports of the mining industry – gold, nickel, ferrochrome and asbestos – made it possible for the capitalists to make some wage concessions after years of decline. But the upturn in the economy, which could continue through much of 1981, offers no prospects of a permanent rise in living standards for the working people, whatever the capitalists might claim.

Already there are reports that the expansion of production is encountering limits: further development depends increasingly on new machinery and factories. This in turn depends on expanding exports and enormous aid to bring in sufficient foreign exchange to buy the equipment overseas.

Because of the capitalist basis of the economy, new investment in production is largely in the hands of the multinational companies dominating Zimbabwe. With these companies facing declining profits world-wide, they will not step up investment unless the government can guarantee high profits, low taxation and a ‘disciplined’ workforce. 

The ZANU-ZAPU government is thus dependent on the big sanctions-busters of the past—Rio Tinto Zinc, Anglo American, Johannesburg Consolidated Investment, and the General Mining Cooperation to develop the economy. These companies, mostly based in South Africa, demand guarantees for profits and against nationalisation.

At the moment hopes are pinned on mining exports, which increased by 62% in value in the first half of 1980. But this expansion has not been based on much increase in output, rather on the rise in the price of gold, nickel and other ores on the world market. On top of this, 1981 does not look like a good year for mining exports as the United Sates economy moves into decline.

All these factors limit the possibility or major reforms on a capitalist basis without an enormous struggle by the workers.

While the government is going ahead with a three-year national development plan drawn up by the Minister of Economic Planning (without discussion with the workers and peasants), the demands of the masses are becoming more urgent. Black Zimbabweans are demanding jobs for themselves and their children, and end to cheap labour, land for the peasants, urban housing, and equal education for all. Despite a year in office the present government is no nearer to putting the bulk of these demands on the agendas of reforms. In fact, these aspirations are impossible in meet within the present economic system, even at the highest growth rate.

The demand of “jobs for all” brings this out clearly. Today there are over a million workers unemployed in Zimbabwe—while the total number with job is only about one million! Employment prospects for the youth are particularly bleak.

Jobs and wages

In fact, the demand for full employment can only be met if the capitalist system is replaced by a planned economy. Nowhere in the world, not even in the richest countries, can capitalism provide enough jobs for the workers.

The same applies to the workers’ demand for an end to cheap labour. In response to the strikes the minimum wage levels laid down by the government have been slightly increased. But even in the urban centres Zimbabwean workers are still earning wages far below the poverty line. From the beginning of 1981 the minimum wage per month for industry and commerce is Z$70 (R85); for miners Z$58 (R70) including payments in kind; while domestic and agricultural workers are to be paid Z$30 (R36).

Mugabe has committed his government to raise wages above Z$125 (R151)—itself abysmally low level. But how can even this be achieved under capitalism in Zimbabwe?

Employers faced with even the relatively small increases in wages so far announced have dismissed many workers, saying they cannot afford to continue employing them. There is now talk of the ‘refugee problem’ of dismissed workers. This shows the rottenness of capitalism which pushes workers out of work as soon as there is an increase in wages—while those who remain in employment have to work harder. 


ln Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in Southern Africa, the land question is of crucial importance.

During colonial rule the white farmers took the finest land, driving the Africans into so-called ‘tribal trust’ areas. 95% of the maize sold to the marketing board is produced on land owned by capitalist farmers and companies. At the same time, while the peasants hunger for land, large tracts of white-owned land are not worked.

Under the Lancaster House agreement even vacant land of the whites cannot be expropriated—it has to be bought. And to do this the government has to go begging to the imperialist powers for massive aid! Furthermore, at the recent Zimcord aid conference, Mugabe’s Minister of Economic Planning and Development made it clear that he has no wish to buy out white capitalists who are actually engaged in farming.

Not surprisingly, the process of giving land to the peasants is going ahead at a painfully slow pace and threatens to grind to a halt. This has led many peasants to move onto unworked ‘white’ land and stake their claims, even though they are threatened with police action.

The same lack of progress is shown in housing for the workers. In Salisbury, prices in the select suburbs are reaching a premium as the newly-enriched bureaucratic and business layers and embassy staffs look for accommodation at the ‘white’ — or rather bourgeois—level. But in the same city there has been a sharp drop in the building of low-cost housing. The swollen population of the townships must fend for themselves in pondokkies.

Is it not possible, ask the workers, for the government to do more by increasing spending on education, roads, railways and housing, and so steadily improve the conditions of the masses? Every demand for this by the workers must be supported. But we must be clear that there cannot in fact be lasting reforms under capitalism—and certainly step-by-step reforms cannot lead to socialism.

Under capitalism big welfare spending leads to rising prices. Plans can be made for social reform, but these bump up against the reality that profits for the capitalists have to be maintained. The capitalist system is in worldwide crisis – little growth; rising prices and a general decline in profitability.

This has already been discovered by the Zimbabwean government. Big spending on the military and education is already producing the problem of rising prices which are expected to go up 15% or more this year. The government is now cutting back spending to bring these prices down. This has led to the increase of the price of bread which has brought bitter complaints from the workers. Again, government spending and economic expansion is being deliberately slowed in an attempt to curb inflation.

The limits of reform under capitalism in Zimbabwe are becoming very clear. When the present economic upturn has spent itself and inflation hits at the impoverished working class, the bankruptcy of capitalism will be more and more understood by growing numbers of workers and youth. By following a policy of piecemeal reform under capitalism, Mugabe is forced to call on the workers to ‘work harder and observe strict discipline and self-control’ while refusing to take measures against the capitalists in industry and on the land. The struggle for ‘socialism’ becomes reduced to pleas for ‘localisation’ – that is, that the multinationals should offer shares to Zimbabweans and develop what they call the “real partnership” between management and the workers”. 

Working under the discipline of capitalism, the ZANU-ZAPU government is now revising the Industrial Conciliation Act (previously enforced by Smith) to give further power to the Registrar of Trade Unions to force all trade unions to register. In the same way the new trade union body set up by the Minister of Labour, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, has appealed to workers not to take strike action. “Each time we down tools”, a ZCTU leader told the workers, “we are ruining the economy of our country.”

But Zimbabwe does not yet belong to the working people, who produce all its wealth. The capitalists (local, South African, and overseas), still take this wealth— and this is supposed to represent the national interest! It is the demands of the workers and peasants for an end to poverty wages, for the take-over of the land, and all the other needs of the masses which represent the true national interest. And to promote this national interest the workers need the unfettered right to organise and strike against their exploiters.

As the government retreats before the tasks of political and social liberation, the workers will have to fight for socialist policies not only in the trade unions, but also and especially in ZANU and ZAPU where the rank and file is growing increasingly impatient. A socialist programme could unite the ranks of ZANU and ZAPU, and solve the problems of the people through the nationalisation of the banks, big industries and farms and the distribution of land to the peasants. 

Desperate talk of going ‘back to the bush’ and suicidal actions by sections of the former guerrillas, like the ZIPRA revolt in February, cannot provide a way forward for the working people. They can only divide the masses in the face of the ruling class. In fact the February events actually strengthened the hand of conservative, undemocratic forces in the country. The postponement indefinitely of local elections in Bulawayo is only a small indicator of this.

More important is the fact that the government gained the opportunity (with widespread support) to disarm most of the remaining ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas—something it had not been able to do before. Also, for the first time since independence, units of the state army were brought into action and tested against black Zimbabweans in revolt.

While reinforced with thousands of former guerrilla fighters, the army is still staffed by many of the same officers who previously carried out the butchery of the masses on behalf of Smith and Walls. This filth openly gloated that they were once again able to slaughter ‘gooks’.

The failure of the ZANU-ZAPU government to dismantle the capitalist state machine means that it is once again being strengthened. The consolidation of the military as an armed power over an unarmed people represents a mighty weapon of capitalism and a huge danger for the future struggles of the Zimbabwean workers and peasants.

It will be vital in the next period to win over the rank-and-file soldiers of the army to the idea of carrying the revolution through to socialist conclusions. For this reason, too, the revolutionary activists in ZANU and ZAPU need to unite their own efforts. 

It is their common demand that the government of Mugabe and Nkomo must end immediately the coalition with capitalism and white privilege. But merely to raise the demand will not be enough. 

The workers’ organisations need to be built independently of the state and the influence of privileged classes. Workers’ unity must be the rallying cry, and the basis for winning the support of the peasant masses and soldiers for action against the capitalist class. 

Links need to be made with revolutionaries in South Africa – especially with cadres of the ANC and SACTU and with activists in the trade unions – to ensure maximum support of the SA working class against any new threat against Zimbabwe from Pretoria. Along this path the revolution in Zimbabwe, for which 30,000 black people have given their lives, can be carried forward to victory, and the domination of the landlords and capitalists finally overthrown.