Lucien van der Walt, 1998, “Trade Unions in Zimbabwe: For Democracy, Against Neo-Liberalism,” Capital and Class, volume 22, number 3, pp. 85-117

pdflogosmallGet the PDF here.

This paper, written around 1997 and published in 1998, provided an overview of the Zimbabwe labour movement, locating it in the country’s larger political economy and history. In general, the paper was optimistic about union (and broader class) struggles in the country, but pointed to the resilience of the de facto one-party state of the ruling ZANU-PF party of Robert Mugabe – including its enormous power through a state-party nexus and history of repressing and / co-opting rivals.

The role of organised labour was a major challenge to analyses – so current in the 1980s and 1990s, and even today – that rubbish the working class and class politics. However, I did raise some anarchist/ syndicalist criticisms of the parliamentarist orientation of the unions – essentially their desire to elect a new party in place of ZANU-PF.

Parliamentary democracy is greatly to be preferred to dictatorships and other highly authoritarian regimes, but parliaments do not – and cannot – change the social injustices of current societies; on the contrary, elected parties get co-opted into co-managing and defending the class system, and their leaders become part of the ruling class (a fate that has subsequently overtaken the union-backed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) once installed in office through the unprincipled 2008 power-sharing agreement with ZANU-PF. Nor (as I argued in this article, and elsewhere, such as here and here), did the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) manage to develop a basic policy alternative to the neo-liberal framework. Its Beyond ESAP (1996) accepted many core elements of Structural Adjustment, and the MDC, founded in 1999, followed the same trend. It was not a labour party, even of the social democratic type, but a multi-class party with strong neo-liberal elements, including a significant capitalist (in the objective sense i.e. actual capitalist farmers and business types) wing.

A parliamentary democracy with a MDC government on a non-racial basis would doubtless have been an improvement on the ZANU-PF regime – a regime that became even more predatory in the 1990s and 2000s, persecuting squatters, unionists and opponents, promoting a crude and violent racism against the whites, waged war in central Africa, and helped implode the economy through elitist land grabs (most prime land went to party cronies) and “indigenisation” schemes (for example, in banking). Zimbabwe has de-industrialised rapidly, unemployment is at an all-time high, and agriculture – apologists aside – is in crisis. Not all of this, by any means, is due to ZANU-PF: as I demonstrated, neo-liberal Structural Adjustment had a devastating effect – to this we can add various sanctions placed upon Zimbabwe in the 2000s. This is the background against which more 3.4 million have fled the country for jobs and safety abroad since 2000.

However, as a self-criticism, I would say that this paper understated the full implications of the autonomous power of the state. As I have since argued elsewhere -in part as a critical reflection on my Capital and Class analysis, which did not really anticipate the land grabs  -the bureaucracy of large organizations (such as state universities – see here) has its own irreducible dynamics; the political wing of the ruling class, wielding means of administration and coercion – see here. In conditions of extreme stress, its alliance with the (private) economic elite wielding means of production can break down, leading to a decisive clash. In the Zimbabwe case, the political elite (centred on the ZANU-PF party-state nexus) clashed with the private economic elite (centred on the white commercial farmers) and crushed it, transferring those means of production to itself through “fast track land reform” and other means. This took place in the context of a deep economic crisis and a substantial challenge from below (from ZCTU, MDC and others, sometimes linked to the white farmers). (This is not to say that no peasants benefited, but the bulk of good land was taken by the ZANU-PF elite, and hundreds of thousands of farm workers were evicted).

This outcome was not predicted – and is extremely difficult to explain – in classical Marxist analyses of Zimbabwe (i.e. a capitalist state destroying private capitalists). But it is not so very strange for an anarchist analysis, which stresses the autonomous power of the state: see here.

Anyway, here is the original abstract

The author examines the impact of organised labour on the process of democratisation in Zimbabwe. However, the extent to which democratisation and economic reform has been achieved has been strongly conditioned, on the one hand, by the weaknesses and divisions within the opposition, and by strength and skills of the incumbent regime, on the other. The outcome is the current situation of stalemate in which the formations of working-class organisation have proved powerful enough to defend and win limited political rights, but too weak to topple the formidable edifice of the de facto one-party State in favour of a bourgeois democratic regime. This raises questions of strategy which are touched on at the end of this paper.


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