Sacha Ismail spoke to Briggs Bomba, an activist in the Zimbabwean democracy movement and international coordinator of the Zimbabwe International Socialist Organisation (ISO).
What’s the current situation in Zimbabwe?
We are in the middle of a severe economic crisis, following the reintroduction of the government’s neoliberal “Economic Structural Adjustment Programme” (ESAP). ESAP began in 1991, but Mugabe retreated in the late 90s when workers, the urban poor, peasants and war veterans rose up against the effects of structural adjustment. The ZANU-PF regime redirected this anger into limited farm and factory occupations, and attacks on the democracy movement, in order to save its own skin.
Now it is bringing back neoliberalism with increased force, even restoring the evicted white farmers and promising they will receive police protection against “any disruptions” on their property.
These neoliberal policies have meant the complete collapse of social services in Zimbabwe: no new hospitals are being built, drugs are not available, and schools are falling apart, while subsidies on fuel and electricity charges have been removed. The transport system has almost disappeared. Over 80% of Zimbabweans are now unemployed, with most surviving through the informal economy, yet the regime has just begun an attack on this sector.
In the last few weeks, despite the start of winter, thousands of cabins, houses and flea-markets, providing a living for hundreds of thousands of people, have been razed to the ground. There are now more than a million displaced people in Zimbabwe. This is an attack on the poorest of the poor. To crush the resistance, Mugabe has arrested more than 17,000 people and had dozens shot in his so-called “Operation Murambasvina” (Operation Restore Order).
What about the democratic opposition?
Let me stress that my organisation is part of all democratic struggles in Zimbabwe — workers‚ struggles, students‚ struggles, other struggles by the poor. The Movement for Democratic Change was founded by activists in the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions to unite opposition to the regime. However, it was hijacked by politicians representing the interests of capital, white farmers and the multinationals. The working-class element of that party is totally submerged. The MDC leaders are very friendly with Bush and Blair. If you read their economic policy documents, what they advocate is exactly what Mugabe is doing now!
Our comrade Munyaradzi Gwisai was elected as an MDC MP in Harare [Zimbabwe’s capital and an MDC stronghold], but he was expelled together with our organisation for resisting the betrayals of the leadership. But we continue to work with the grassroots of the democracy movement, where there is a lot of anger against the leadership’s capitulation to neo-liberalism. We say: “Workers unite against dictatorship and neoliberalism”, against both ZANU-PF and the MDC. It tells you a lot that Mugabe’s police recently rushed to defend Welshman Ncube, an MDC leader whose house was under siege from angry MDC youths!
Similarly, the leaders of the ZCTU are now absolutely tied to the bourgeoisie. They spend more time preventing strikes than initiating them. ZCTU General Secretary Wellington Chibhebhe recently received a CIA-funded award and has been denouncing wage rises given to domestic workers as too high!
So the prospects for the Zimbabwean labour movement are bleak?
No, we should not confuse the labour movement with the trade union bureaucracy! In Zimbabwe, we still have a mass trade union movement whose members have shown themselves willing to struggle. That’s why my comrades work in the unions to build rank-and-file groups, to mobilise workers and oppose the ZCTU leadership. In the printing workers’ union, the Zimbabwe Graphical Workers’ Union, they hadn’t held an election for twenty years, but the rank and file were able to kick out their leaders and transform the situation. We now have rank-and-file groups in the construction sector, in engineering, in food production and among textile workers.
We also say that the unions must break with the MDC and lead a recomposition of the democracy movement. Workers need an independent voice.
Do you have links with other parts of Africa?
The ISO has links with socialist groups in many African countries. In addition, we are part of the social forum movement which is active across the continent. The problem is that labour is marginalised in these social forums. This needs to be changed. We want to support all workers‚ struggles and democratic struggles. Today students are being shot in Ethiopia for protesting against the rigged election; people in the South African townships are resisting privatisation; Nigerian oil workers are on strike. These struggle are the same as ours.
It is not possible to build a successful socialist movement in one small country like Zimbabwe. At the very least we need regional coordination to fight across several countries.
Have you heard the argument that the working class in Africa is a privileged minority?
Yes, this is the same old argument. But workers are not privileged compared to their bosses, and the poor are not poor because workers are rich. Capital is the enemy of all the oppressed. At the same time, it is workers who strategically placed to aim a blow at capital, who have power and can strike at the centre of production. Without the working class, movements for social justice will not achieve their goal. Take the social forums. They are currently just loose groups of people, because they do not have the labour movement to give them social power.
It is true that in many African countries, the workers are a very small minority. Even in Zimbabwe, we now have 80% unemployment. That is why we want to construct an alliance of the workers with the urban poor, the peasants, housewives, informal traders, HIV/AIDS activists, students and so on. But the working class must lead this alliance because it is the only force with the power to confront capital. It is the class which can abolish poverty in Africa.
That is another reason why regional links are important. Many countries have strong trade union movements, and these countries can become the centres of revolution across Africa, leading the masses in the less developed countries.
Lastly, what do you make of Blair and Bush’s recent announcement on debt cancellation?
We demand 100% cancellation of the debt in poor countries. Look at how this debt was accumulated — by semi-colonial and other repressive regimes, using the money to suppress freedom fighters and the working class. To demand repayment now is legalised extortion! The creditor governments doled out this money without any concern about how it would be used, yet now they are saying that poor Africans must pay the bill.
Blair’s plan covers only a very few countries. It will not deal with the factors that prevent Africa from developing. It will not end the robbery that takes place when Western governments flood the African market with cheap goods and prevent the growth of African industry. And the condition for even limited debt cancellation is more structural adjustment, more privatisation, more sweating the workers and peasants to line the pockets of the elite.
We need to demand cancellation of all debts, and in our own countries fight for democratic institutions which will stop the money being squandered. We need money for schools, for dams, for industrial development. To win these things we need to fight Bush and Blair, but also our own capitalists. We would like to convince social justice activists, in Africa and across the world, that if you are against capitalism the solution is socialism.