“The leadership of Zimbabwe must be judged on the basis of the current relationship with the Zimbabwean people.”

The following paper was distributed within the Black Radical Congress (BRC) during the organization’s national conference at Seton Hall University, East Orange, NJ, the weekend of June 20. Authored by BRC Executive Council member Horace G. Campbell, a Syracuse University Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, the paper notes that the highly critical Open Letter to President Mugabe “was circulated in the week of intense repression against the workers of Zimbabwe.” Prof. Campbell encouraged “open debate” among African Americans on the Zimbabwe crisis. “Gone are the days,” he wrote, “when Black people should support leaders on the basis of past revolutionary actions.”

Campbell began his paper with examples of men who have “manipulated the symbols of liberation to promote carnage, gender violence, arbitrary arrests, insecurity and destruction across Africa.”

Charles Taylor and Jonas Savimbi as freedom fighters

At the beginning of June 2003 an arrest warrant was issued for Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia. While he was on a visit to Ghana the indictment for war crimes was unsealed and any government should arrest Charles Taylor if he travels outside of Liberia. The indictment charges Taylor with "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes (murder, taking hostages); crimes against humanity (extermination, rape, murder, sexual slavery); and other serious violations of international humanitarian law (use of child soldiers) in Sierra Leone. It is generally agreed in West Africa that Charles Taylor is one of the single greatest causes of spreading wars in West Africa. This was an important development in so far as it sent a message to leaders across Africa that crimes against humanity will be prosecuted. The era of impunity of African dictators has come to an end. Africans overseas must stay abreast of these developments so that they can take the lead in opposing African dictators. More importantly, Black radicals must not wait for the establishment of special courts or truth commissions to oppose violators of human rights in Africa. This is the second major leader in Africa to be declared a war criminal.

In 1998, Jonas Savimbi was declared a war criminal by the leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Before he could be arrested and brought to trial he was killed in battle in Angola, in February 2002.

Savimbi had been involved in warfare as a business and ensnared numerous governments (Zambia, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Togo among others) in the business of procuring weapons, selling diamonds, procuring fuel and food and bribing leaders. Jonas Savimbi had justified his war in the name of defending the interests of the African population against whites and mixed race Angolans. For over thirty-five years Savimbi had been presented to certain sections of the African population outside of Angola as a freedom fighter and liberator. During the Cold War, while he was aligned to the most conservative forces in the USA, certain political forces supported Savimbi even in the face of clear evidence of his alliance with the forces of the apartheid government in South Africa. Savimbi pursued a campaign of death and destruction in the Angolan countryside. It is not too late for a thorough summing up of the experience of the relationship of the Black radical community to the Savimbi experience. This is especially important for the younger members of the progressive community.

Context for discussion on Zimbabwe today

That Savimbi was supported by many African descendants in the United States and beyond was an indication of the need for clarity of what constituted liberation in Africa. Throughout the continent of Africa leaders such as Laurent Kabila (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Foday Sankoh (Sierra Leone) manipulated the symbols of liberation to promote carnage, gender violence, arbitrary arrests, insecurity and destruction across Africa. From Eritrea to Uganda and from Namibia to Zimbabwe there are leaders who came to power through major sacrifices of the ordinary people. These leaders have integrated themselves into repressive state institutions while claiming to carry forward the traditions of liberation. Since the end of apartheid, the limitations of the liberation model based on the charismatic guerilla leader has become apparent, where the leadership advances their personal lust for power while forgetting the basic goals of uplifting the living standards of the most exploited.

In the examples noted above, instead of liberation becoming the foundation for a new mode of politics, the militarist and masculinist leadership turned the victories of the people into a never-ending nightmare of violence and military repression. In the specific case of the AIDS pandemic, the patriarchal leadership has failed to mobilize resources to provide health care for the people. Instead, these leaders have succumbed to the most conservative and uninformed opinions on the origins and sources of the AIDS pandemic. The myths of the relationship between AIDS and virginity reached such ridiculous proportions that in Zimbabwe local leaders instituted virginity tests. This is the same country where the leader became distinguished as the leading opponent of persons of the same sexual orientation. Organized attention to the AIDS pandemic is the most urgent issue in Africa, especially Zimbabwe where there are over 2500 persons dying every week.

These experiences of repressive leaders masquerading as freedom fighters have been compounded by the major divide over the question of the politics of Zimbabwe. In 1980, when the Rhodesian settlers were removed from power, a previous generation celebrated the victory of the peoples of Zimbabwe. Can it be said that in the year 2003 the political leadership of Zimbabwe is carrying forward a policy of empowering the ordinary Zimbabweans?

Despots and anti-imperialism

All dictators and despots claim to be acting on behalf of the people. More importantly, the anti-imperialist movement since the era of Bandung has made itself felt on the world stage. Hence, the most undemocratic, misogynist and homophobic leaders represent themselves as anti-imperialist forces. That leaders, such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, in the past, represented themselves as anti-imperialist fighters should not blind citizens of the planet to the reality of the discredited nature of patriarchal nationalism. The fact that forces such as Osama Bin Laden are anti-imperialist does not mean that progressives should support the politics of Bin laden.

Mugabe and Castro

In September 2000, President Mugabe was feted at a ceremony in Harlem as a great anti-imperialist leader. The struggles over land and the support for the government of Laurent Kabila had been used as examples of Mugabe's distinguished role as an African freedom fighter. For those who organized this meeting and placed Mugabe on par with Fidel Castro, there was no contradiction in the reality that the government of Zimbabwe represented a section of the population that unleashed violence on the society. When progressives compare leaders such as Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro they are doing a major disservice to the sacrifices of the Cuban and Zimbabwean peoples. This is because in both cases the peoples are suffering because of sanctions imposed by US imperialism. In both cases, the leaders are held up as anti-imperialist forces. However, the similarities end there. In the specific case of the Cuban people, the political leadership did not seize the land of the rich landowners (gusanos) to hand it over to Cuban capitalists. Secondly, and more importantly, the Cuban leadership has steadfastly paid attention to the health and education of the Cuban people. Hence, while there are serious economic problems in Cuba, it cannot be said that the Cuban leadership has enriched itself at the expense of the people. Moreover, there are no accounts of the people of Cuba suffering while the Cuban leadership goes on shopping sprees at the palaces of the same imperialists that they are supposed to oppose. The wife of Robert Mugabe is now rivaling Imelda Marcus in the outlandish expenditures in imperialist capitals while the majority of the Zimbabwean people go without food, fuel and medicine.

This provides a context for analyzing the conditions of the people of Zimbabwe in a period when the government of Zimbabwe represents itself as a force that is recapturing the land for the people. The conditions in Zimbabwe have deteriorated so sharply that the ordinary people are suffering beyond description. Last week (June 2-6, 2003) the military carried out another violent exercise of crushing worker protests. Arbitrary arrests, assaults, torture, and general intimidation of the public characterized government's response to a week of mass action. Poor urban residents and university students were attacked and beaten by riot police and the army. The repression went to the point of intimidating those in hospitals.

In this context of repression and popular opposition to an unpopular government, there is a major need for clarity on what is going on in Zimbabwe. It is a contradiction in terms to repress the people in one's society and to act as a major force for peace and anti-imperialism. This is the concrete lesson of the recent manipulation of the symbols of anti-imperialism by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Those who support peace must oppose US imperialism and oppose the interference of the imperialists (US and European Union), but this opposition to imperialism must not provide blinders so that repressive regimes are supported.

This is the context for deepening the discussion of Zimbabwe by progressive humans everywhere and Black radicals in particular.

Land and liberation in Zimbabwe

The increased division in the progressive world over the land question in Zimbabwe requires a thorough examination of the concept of liberation and liberation support. The first and most fundamental question is the question of the quality of the lives of the majority of the working people. The question of liberation should no longer be judged on the basis of the actions of great leaders or revolutionary parties. The conditions of the working people, landless workers, communal farmers, women, students, youth and poor urban sufferers were deplorable under colonialism and the working conditions of the majority continues to be deplorable, whether they work for blacks or whites. By the end of the year 2002 the settler class had been liquidated as a political force in Zimbabwe.

These settlers have been replaced by African capitalists. The landless workers and poor women in Zimbabwe are no better off today than they were working for white settlers. This is the concrete reality and it is there for anyone who cares to grasp the situation of Zimbabwe beyond the rhetoric of leaders. Radical rhetoric as a disguise for state repression has been developed into an art form by the leadership in Zimbabwe. Instead of sending another delegation to speak to President Mugabe, the authors of the letter should support sending a delegation to Zimbabwe to speak to communal farmers, farm workers, plantation workers, poor women, youth, students and human rights activists. Can one imagine if it was suggested that in order to get a clear understanding of the conditions of Black people in the USA a delegation from Zimbabwe came to the USA and spoke to Bush, Powell and Clarence Thomas? The conditions in Africa require far more seriousness than sending another delegation to support President Mugabe.

Most freedom loving persons instinctively support the legitimate struggles of the Zimbabwean peoples for the return of the land seized by the settlers. The return of the land to the African people is a democratic question and there can be no contestation over the rights of Africans to take back the land seized by colonial settlers. In the period of the struggle for independence (1980) the issues of land along with the conditions of working peoples were the key questions. At that historical moment the leaders of ZANU and Mugabe articulated the demands of the people, and at that historical moment the leadership could claim support from decent peoples everywhere. This was the moment when the political leadership of Zimbabwe was aligned to the anti-imperialist forces.

In the present moment, the political leadership in Zimbabwe has degenerated and this degeneration affects every aspect of the society, including the legitimate requirement of the land being returned to the toilers. Africans everywhere instinctively rally to the support of the Zimbabwean people in the face of the propaganda war waged by the British and US governments. Progressive humans and Black radicals need to reflect on the essence of the nature of the redistribution of land since the expropriation of the settlers is now complete and the anti-democratic nature of work, handling pesticides, absence of health care and lack of proper conditions for farm workers continue.

Different conceptions of land reform

There are contesting positions on the land question in Zimbabwe. I will seek to shed light on the broad outlines of this debate.

1. The first is that of the ruling party (ZANU-PF) that the land should be returned to the African capitalist class. This is after twenty-three years in power. In Zimbabwe, this is called the nationalist approach. This approach had been discredited because of the political degeneration and repression of the leadership. For radicals outside of Zimbabwe the important question is to grasp the class content of this nationalism. There are contesting positions on the land question in Zimbabwe. I will seek to shed light on the broad outlines of this debate.

2. The second is that of the International Human Rights activists who deplore violence against white landowners and support the sanctity of 'private property'. There was the view that there should have been a slower and steady transfer of the land. This position is taken by many international NGO's that support welfarist measures for the society. The World Bank and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) support the welfarist approach. There is overlap between the social forces supporting the second position since those in the United Nations are still wedded to the kind of reform that privileges "Africans who can modernize agriculture."

3. The third position is that of the agricultural workers union. This is the position that the first priority is the health and safety of the farm workers. This position starts from the fact that all schemes for land distribution must start with the poorest in the society, the communal farmers and farm workers, especially women. This position is called the workerist position.

4. The fourth position that is taken by those who want real change is the transformation approach that calls for the structural transformation of the relations on the land. This calls into consideration the issues of water, seeds, fertilizer, crop and outreach services along with the infrastructure for agriculture and agricultural communities. The reality is that without fundamental transformation exploitation can wear a black face as well as a white face.

For Africans overseas it is important to support the struggles for the land but it is my view that the last two positions stated above should be the ones that are supported. These positions on the land are being debated daily in Zimbabwe. The first two approaches are those of the government of Robert Mugabe and those who oppose the government (the Commercial Farmers Union and their supporters in Britain and the USA). Those who support the current large farmers both black and white do not want a transformation of the relations on the land.

The third position is that of the workers, women and landless. It is very important for Africans overseas to hear the position of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union. The fourth position of the transformation of the relations on the land is one that has been taken by Sam Moyo, by the women of Zimbabwe fighting for citizenship rights and by those supporting a twenty first century approach to the issues of genetically modified foods, genetically modified seeds and the question of the patenting of plants and genetic materials in Africa. While the Mugabe government was busy seizing the land foreign pharmaceuticals and researchers appropriated the knowledge of the medicine from the snake bean tree and patented the medicine in the USA. Plants, seeds, water and the infrastructure for agricultural production is as important as land. In the short and medium term the opportunistic farm seizures in Zimbabwe will benefit the large agribusiness firms that will make peons out of the new landowners in the absence of a strategy for financing the change in the agricultural techniques.

Transformation and empowering the working peoples

In the past twenty-three years this writer has been an active participant in the debates on the transformation of the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. I was brought up in the generation that supported materially and politically the struggles of the peoples of Zimbabwe and Southern Africa against apartheid. I have sought to engage the discussion on the future of the working peoples in the recent book, Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation (David Phillip, Cape Town and Africa World Press, USA). As a member of the Black Radical Congress it is my firm belief that if we take seriously the ideas of the freedom agenda, then the opposition to imperialism cannot lead to the support of despots who exploit African workers and expend scarce resources fighting wars while hundreds of thousands require decent health care.

The research and writing of this book benefited from those Zimbabweans inside and outside the Zimbabwean society who oppose the militaristic and brutal rule of the Mugabe clique. These are the anti-imperialist forces in Zimbabwe that support the rights of the working people of Zimbabwe. It must be acknowledged that there are forces of the official opposition in Zimbabwe (MDC) who have made alliances with British and US imperialists. It would be a mistake, however, for progressive persons overseas to consider that all opposition to the Mugabe and ZANU government is pro-imperialist.

A related point is to bring to the fore the work of scholars such as Sam Moyo, Tandi Nkiwane, Brian Raftapolous, Rudo Gaidzanwa and many others who start from an anti-imperialist position. This writer benefited from working with Sam Moyo while he was the Director of Research at SAPES/SARIPS in Harare. His books, The Land Question in Zimbabwe, and Land Reform under Structural Adjustment, along with numerous journal articles spelt out the issues of land reform from the point of one dedicated to the working people. The removal of Sam Moyo from SAPES/SARIPS at the beginning of 2002 contained all of the signs of the undemocratic and arbitrary forms of politics that is practiced not only by the regime, but by the spokespersons of the regime. Hence, when my friends from the BRC call for members to read the documents of SAPES/SARIPS it is not clear whether these comrades are calling on the members to read the writings of Sam Moyo or the writings of the undemocratic elements mired in court battles over the treatment of workers. This writer welcomes the call for progressives to closely follow the debates from among the working peoples in Zimbabwe. It is imperative at this moment to move beyond a superficial journalistic reading of "Land Reform in Zimbabwe."

All over Southern Africa cultural artists such as Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi and Hugh Masakela are singing songs calling on Mugabe to step down. In his latest album, Everything Must Change, Masakela called on Mugabe to respect the wishes of the Zimbabwean and Southern African peoples. These cultural artists sing the songs that reflect the aspirations of the most oppressed in Southern Africa.

Plantation and agricultural workers in Zimbabwe

In a statement reproduced in the Daily News of September 6, 2002, the General Secretary of the Plantation Workers (GAPWUZ) argued that he was "disappointed that the government chose to resettle rich people and senior government officials ahead of farm workers and land hungry villagers, crowded in the communal areas across Zimbabwe." Clarence Sungai, the General Secretary of GAPWUZ, said: "We have always said the government should consider farm workers first because they are the immediate casualties of this land redistribution programme. Less than 7 000 farm workers have been resettled out of 150,000 who were affected by the exercise."

The stories of the rich persons receiving land have overshadowed the real crisis of hunger, food shortage and the upheavals in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. The story of the move of the President's wife (Grace Mugabe) to personally claim the Iron Mask Farm and House was a story of the obscene land grabbing by members of the present military, police, security and political rulers in Zimbabwe. (The media described the 3,000-acre Iron Mask Farm in this way: Tucked into a valley between two dramatic hills, Iron Mask, founded by Mrs. Matthews and her first husband in 1967, is one of the most beautiful farms in the Mazowe area. The house itself has oak-paneled interiors, sloping roofs and a commanding view. Pretty cottages on the grounds and two swimming pools add to the attraction).

The media is replete with stories of the political careerists seizing farms and creating more hardships for already exploited workers. More than 300,000 farm workers have been rendered homeless by this grabbing of land by the political class.

The plantation workers of Zimbabwe have not yet matured to the point of the landless workers' movement in Brazil, where they can organize popular land occupations. These popular land occupations in Brazil have forced the state to support the landless workers movement.

In the Zimbabwe situation, the propaganda of the British and the US media in support of the settlers has made it virtually impossible to generate a movement that is independent of the opportunistic and repressive land seizures that has been initiated by the present government of Robert Mugabe. In the absence of a clear popular movement, many anti-imperialist forces seek to support the land seizures of Mugabe while separating themselves from the repression. This position needs to be re-examined especially in light of the experiences of repressive leaders (such as Forbes Burnham of Guyana, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Idi Amin of Uganda) who used progressive anti-imperialist rhetoric to mask repression and violence.

There are concrete ways to contact the forces that are calling for workers rights and for transformation. At the forefront of these calls is the Congress of South African Trade Unions. It will be important to get the positions of COSATU. This position of the General Secretary of COSATU on "Zimbabwe: Lessons for South and Southern Africa" was given on 14 February, 2001 and can be read on the World Wide Web.

The most important point for Black radicals is the reality that land cannot be farmed without labor. The whites enjoyed cheap and coerced labor. It is important that as important as the seizure of land from whites, Black radicals stress the need for the workers on the land to be paid a living wage and to be protected from pesticides and other hazards of farm labor.

Alongside land reform there is a need to change the conditions of exploitation on the land.

The British and US media is preoccupied with the displacement of the white settlers, but the chaotic displacement is enriching a few while bringing untold hardship to the majority of Zimbabweans.

Workers perspectives

The seizure of the land is more or less complete in Zimbabwe. It is most important that Black radicals continue to engage the issues from the perspective of the ordinary Zimbabwean. There are ten points that are worth using as a litmus test to decide whether the political leadership in Zimbabwe is worthy of support in this period:

a. Response to the AIDS pandemic and leadership on the question of health care for the people
b. Violence and discrimination against women, including rape, violation and virginity tests
c. Question of peace and the use of the resources of the country to fight war or support peace. Soldiers in business enriching themselves and intimidating the population
d. Use of war veterans against innocent civilians, whether students, workers, opposition elements and the press
e. Hunger in the rural areas and the chaotic conditions caused by the manipulation of the land issue
f. The government new act, Water Act of 1998 that privatized water and made it more inaccessible for the poor, especially women
g. The question of the rights of workers and the rights of trade unions to organize autonomously
h. African women in Zimbabwe should have the same rights to citizenship as males
i. Progressive activists must oppose the persecution of cultural workers and artists
j. Radicals and those who want an end to state violence must support the efforts of the mediating forces of [Nigerian] President Obasanjo and [South African] President Mbeki  (African Union) to find a peaceful solution to the present political differences in the society. These points provide a basis for the engagement with the Zimbabwean society and the Zimbabwean people. African liberation in the 21st century requires a different standard from the period of the glorification of great males.

Concluding comments

As a member of the Executive Council of the BRC, this writer acknowledges the fact that the statement on Mugabe was not widely circulated in the National Council before it was released. Hence, it is correct for members of the BRC to raise questions as to the process of the posting of the statement that was signed by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Africa Action, TransAfrica Forum, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Coordinating Committee of the Black Radical Congress. However, the BRC is a democratic organization and it is expected that the Coordinating Committee will make decisions that are in the interests of the organization.

The difference of opinion in the BRC is important and all attempts to circumvent democratic discussion must be opposed.

Having said this, however, the fact that the Coordinating Committee took the initiative to sign on to a statement that opposes the repression of African workers in Zimbabwe should be discussed by all members of the BRC. Gone are the days when Black people should support leaders on the basis of past revolutionary actions. The leadership of Zimbabwe must be judged on the basis of the current relationship with the Zimbabwean people.

The open letter to Robert Mugabe was circulated in the week of intense repression against the workers of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, those who hail the anti- imperialist credentials of Mugabe are silent on this matter.

It is a fact that to advance democracy there must be information, education and open debate. I hope that this debate can continue in a manner that will clarify to members the realities of the conditions of the workers and poor farmers of Zimbabwe.

Horace Campbell
June 9, 2003

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Issue Number 51
July 31, 2003

Other commentaries in this issue:

Cover Story - Analysis: The Debate on Zimbabwe Will Not Be Throttled... African Americans must debate the issues of human rights and economic development in Africa among themselves

The DLC’s National White Man’s Conversation - Let the rich rump of the Party go where they belong

Cartoon: Halliburton Coming and Going

Bush Uses IRS To Push Around Poor People - ACORN fights fed's proof-of-poverty scheme

e-MailBox: Hip-Hop Hits Back... Killing Africans as Policy... Bush Mental Disorder Catalogued... Obama’s name off DLC list

No safety without peace, no peace without change - A speech by Cynthia McKinney, Former U.S. Rep. (D-GA)

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Contents of Issue 50 - July 17, 2003:

Cover Story: Barefoot, Sick, Hungry and Afraid - The real U.S policy in Africa

The Consequences of Believing Your Own Propaganda by Mamadou Chinyelu

Cartoon: Hollywood's Magic Negro

Think Piece: The Pretense of Hip-Hop Black Leadership By Dr. Martin Kilson

Affirmative Action as a Tool of Imperialist Expansion and Aggression by Mark P. Fancher, Guest Commentator

One Bush Too Many in Africa by Kweli Nzito, Ph.D., Guest Commentator

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.