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‘What may seem to some a progressive and brave government is upon closer examination a tyranny’, which despite ‘rhetoric about land redistribution, is ultimately very hostile to its own society’s poor and working people, women, youth, elderly and ill,’ writes Patrick Bond.

If leaders of a little African country stand up with confidence to imperialist aggression, especially from the US and Britain, that would ordinarily strike any fair observer as extremely compelling, especially when the nightmare of racist colonialism is still be to exorcised and when whites hold a disproportionate share of economic power, and when state rulers appear serious about changing those factors.

But that country needs a second glance. What may seem to some a progressive and brave government is upon closer examination a tyranny whose leader repeatedly acts against grassroots and shopfloor social solidarity, and notwithstanding rhetoric about land redistribution, is ultimately very hostile to its own society’s poor and working people, women, youth, elderly and ill.

‘Progress in Zimbabwe’ was the title of a four-day Bulawayo conference last week, gathering mainly academics but also leading civil society strategists. It was organised by University of Johannesburg political economist David Moore and by Showers Mawowa of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) School of Development Studies and Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD).

Said Moore, ‘For many analysts, the end of progress is signified in the political projects of Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF – not to mention the Government of National Unity’. It’s been two years since South Africa’s outgoing president Thabo Mbeki negotiated dysfunctional power-sharing between Mugabe’s junta and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Just before the deal took effect in early 2009, the local currency collapsed entirely, and is no longer used. On the upside, that move ended hyperinflation and empty shop shelves. The tiny elite is happier, as is the World Bank (not yet lending, but carefully looking over the state’s shoulder). Yet without any ability to earn hard currency, what’s a peasant or the unemployed (90 per cent of the workforce) to do?

A related problem: Monetary policy is now set in Washington and Pretoria, since the US dollar and South African rand are now Zimbabwe’s core currencies. The Reserve Bank cannot stimulate the sickly economy, because its governor, Gideon Gono, gave Zimbabwe ‘monetary gonorrhea’, a corrupting disease transmitted from his overworked printing press to the economy as a whole.

A US$2 billion bill for Gono’s leftover local debt is being negotiated, and another $5+ billion in foreign debt remains unpayable. Progressives writing the National People’s Convention Charter in February 2008 demanded a debt audit before any World Bank and IMF loans are serviced, and as happened similarly in Ecuador in December 2008, ‘the right of the people of Zimbabwe to refuse repayment of any odious debt accrued by a dictatorial government.’

Politically, progress against Mugabe’s dictatorship is terribly fragile, as the army is now being deployed in many hotly-contested peri-urban and rural areas. Since paramilitary violence forced Tsvangirai to pull out of the mid-2008 run-off presidential election (after winning the first round – but, claimed Mugabe’s vote-counters, with less than 50 per cent), a constitutional rewrite outreach process has provided space for 4,000 meetings in recent weeks.

Many were marred by intimidation. Worse, a mid-2011 election announced by Mugabe promises a return to bad habits: Outright violence, including murder, ending in poll thievery. The most likely scenario, according to leading commentator John Makumbe: ‘The MDC will win and Zanu PF will again refuse to concede power’. So back they will go into the cul-de-sac of renewed power-sharing talks.

Hence the conference was devoted mainly to recording regress not progress, given Zimbabwe’s deep plunge. History needed reviewing, for after all, the most banal measure of progress, that of the economics profession, is per person Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and the point it began declining may surprise.

Per capita GDP didn’t begin its slide in February 2000 when President Robert Mugabe lost his first election (a constitutional referendum) and unleashed the war veterans on white farmers. Nor was it on November 1997’s Black Friday, when the Zimbabwe dollar lost 74 per cent of its value in four hours, a world record. Nor was it when the Washington-sponsored structural adjustment program began in 1991, nor when Independence in 1980 meant the small economy’s rearticulation with hostile global capitalism after 15 years of sanctions.

If one thinks of progress in this conventional way, as GDP per person, then Zimbabwe began shrinking in 1974, as indeed was the case in most of Africa, as the world slowdown hit the poorest continent hardest, at a time most African leaders had succumbed to neocolonialism. In Zimbabwe, overproduction of luxury goods, machinery and steel for a limited market left the economy with huge excess capacity at a time of shrinking confidence in Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesian Front regime. After liberation was won in 1980, the economy then recovered some of the lost ground in a growth spurt from 1984 to 1990.

Income in 1990 was much better distributed then than under Smith’s white rule – or than under Mugabe’s kleptocracy after it became avaricious in the mid-1990s. A small black middle class had emerged mainly through the expansion of Zimbabwe’s civil service, though the World Bank successfully insisted that it shrink by 25 per cent during the 1990s.

Sorting out the politico-ideological confusion in historical context requires, according to Sheffield-based Zimbabwean Ian Phimister, a ‘distinct paradigm of radical historiography’. But Muchaparara Musemwa lamented that their discipline still lacks cohesion and purpose. Phimister recommended the new book ‘ and [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.