HIROSAKI, Aomori Pref. — The world can’t understand how Robert Mugabe has support left in Zimbabwe. After violence and intimidation against his opponents he was able to steal a victory, but at great cost. Why do his people put up with it and why did he gain over 40 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections, when voting was relatively fair?
Certainly Mugabe still has much support and respect left from when he was leader of the Chimurenga, the guerrilla struggle against the white minority regime that had taken half the land in the country and reserved it for the whites. Many former leaders of revolutionary struggles either fell from power or saw their time was up and resigned. Why does Mugabe still have enough support to hold on?
One answer is the struggle over the land. Land has been central to Zimbabwean politics for centuries. Cecil Rhodes invaded not only for gold but also for land. Earlier the Shona and Ndebele had been fighting over the land. In the late 20th century, Ian Smith’s settler government declared independence from Britain and fought for years to keep the land. Guerrillas from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) fought over the land.
It is still being fought over. In a recent BBC interview, former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda traced the roots of the present crisis to the failure of the British Labour government to continue the work on the land issue done by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The issue of the land and its sacredness is central to the struggle over Zimbabwe in a way that few Western peoples other than the Irish could understand.
Why is land so important to the people of Zimbabwe? The answer is in the way of life of the Shona people who constitute over 80 percent of the population, and whose medieval capital gave its name to the country. When missionaries first penetrated Shona country in what is now Zimbabwe, even the Jesuits could not understand Shona spirituality. They tried to teach the Shona about natural religion before trying to convert them. Thus it is common to talk about “the Shona way of life” rather than “Shona traditional religion.”
In the 1980s, when Thomas H. Graves, senior minister at St. John’s Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, went to study the problem of evil in the Third World, he found his ideas so challenged by the attitudes of the Shona among whom he lived that he changed the entire focus of his study. He wrote: One finds in the Shona people a steadfastness in the face of suffering that is difficult to imagine. In spite of living in poverty conditions, having recently survived a long struggle for independence, and even more recently having dealt with an extended drought, the Shona seem to be a fairly contented people.
No amount of sanctions or international pressures will be likely to cause the supporters of Mugabe to change their mind about the importance of getting back their land. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party is based in the villages and has strong organizations there, as well as support from traditional rulers.
People who grow their own food and consume it in their own villages are not going to be concerned about the collapse of the national currency on international exchange markets. They are much more likely to be concerned about the threat to their land and their traditional way of life posed by outside pressures. Nor will they care very much about how many slips of paper were anonymously slipped into boxes by supporters of different political parties. Democracy is not traditionally part of the Shona way of life.
Yet those traditionalist supporters of Mugabe and his government are no longer a majority of Zimbabweans, or else the government would not have had to steal the elections. Who are the opposition, and where did they come from?
They are largely the wage-earning urban working class. Morgan Tsvangirai was the most prominent leader of the union movement in Zimbabwe. He represents the modern people, who no longer hoe out subsistence from the soil, and who no longer care as much about the sacred struggle over the land as about the fluctuations of currency on international markets.
Ironically, in large part they came from the very economic success of Mugabe’s early years. Mugabe was hailed as an economic moderate who proved that African states didn’t necessarily collapse when blacks took over. His example was important in convincing the whites of South Africa to cede power.
The very success of Mugabe in developing Zimbabwe created the urban working class that now opposes Mugabe and wants him removed. Had he quit when he was ahead he would have gone down in history like George Washington and Nelson Mandela, but by clinging to power when his time had passed, Mugabe ruined both his country and his place in history.
Tsvangirai’s movement is supported by other labor unions in southern Africa. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to unload a shipment of Chinese arms being shipped to landlocked Zimbabwe long enough for a South African court to forbid the weapons shipment, despite the South African government’s unwillingness to intervene.
In that sense the struggle in Zimbabwe is similar to the struggle against Communism in Eastern Europe, which was led to success by the Solidarnosc union in Poland and the workers it represented. Karl Marx may have been wrong about the working class having an interest in socialism, but he was right that this new class of wage and salary earning people would have a great impact on history. Even in Africa the rise of wage- and salary-earning classes is irrevocably changing the political landscape.
John Edward Philips, a specialist in African history and politics, is professor in the Department of International Society at Hirosaki University. He has recently been working on the relative economic efficiency of slavery as opposed to wage labor. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org