../  Africa

Asian Meltdown Hits Zimbabwe

By John E. Peck

                Unknown to many activists in the U.S. (thanks to our corporate media’s ethnocentrism), there was widespread political turmoil across southern Africa this past spring. The Asian meltdown, precipitated by Wall Street speculators and Washington, DC technocrats, has washed across the Indian Ocean with a vengeance and even threatened to spoil Clinton’s photogenic African safari save for some last minute spin-doctoring.

    Zimbabwe has been grappling with its post-apartheid legacy of institutionalized racism and artificial immiserization for almost two decades—much longer than South Africa. Having won a protracted 15-year revolution against the white Rhodesian regime back in 1980, Zimbabwe’s new government declared education and health care “basic human rights”; established minimum wages and encouraged labor unions; began land reform while shifting public support to the peasant sector; and otherwise focused development on satisfying the basic human welfare of the poor black majority. Almost overnight, hundreds of schools and clinics were constructed. Between 1980 and 1988 secondary school enrollment increased 800 percent, while infant mortality rates declined from 79 per 1,000 to 61 per 1,000. Union membership doubled to 250,000 between 1980 and 1984 and as late as 1989 average real wage income in Zimbabwe was still well above Rhodesian standards. By 1988 over 42,000 families had also been resettled on 2.6 million hectares of formerly white-owned farmland.

    By 1990, though, Zimbabwe faced a balance of payment crunch and, since it was not an indebted superpower like the U.S., came under the iron fist of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) through an Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP). With ESAP, Zimbabwe was forced to eliminate price subsidies on basic commodities; scale back minimum wages and workers rights; deregulate currency and financial markets; institute “cost recovery” fees for education, health care, and other social services; increase cash exports to reduce foreign debts; slash government payrolls and programs; provide concessions and tax holidays to foreign investors; and so forth.

    Having swallowed all these recommended “free market” remedies, Zimbabwe’s situation still deteriorated as its terms of trade plummeted and domestic growth stagnated. Worse yet there was a 20 percent drop in elementary school attendance for girls, 27 percent decline in public visits to hospitals and clinics, 45 percent interest rates for peasant farmers and small entrepreneurs, 50 percent unemployment for high school graduates, 60 percent decline in real wage income over 1980 levels, etc. Due to World Bank/IMF-imposed cutbacks, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management (DNPWLM) even had to fire over 260 rangers in 1993, triggering a poaching “free-for-all” of Zimbabwe’s already endangered black rhino population. Land reform has been effectively stalled as the western superpowers and their multilateral loan sharks threaten to hold future credit hostage if private property rights are not respected in Zimbabwe. Political backtracking on revolutionary promises and full blown corruption within the inner circles of President Robert Mugabe’s administration have only exacerbated the situation.

The patience of people in southern Africa reached the “breaking point” early this year when the greed of both foreign and domestic elites became too crass to ignore. From January 19 to 21 food riots rocked Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, and half a dozen other cities, when the government was forced to ease back price controls, and the cost of maize meal, cooking oil, and other staples jumped by 35 percent. In the resulting violence, 8 people were killed, millions of dollars worth of property damaged, and over 2,000 people— mostly poor urban women—were arrested and detained on looting charges. Particularly disturbing for many Zimbabweans was to witness young male soldiers trashing people’s homes in supposed searches for stolen goods and beating their female elders in the process. Of course, this collateral damage from imposed World Bank/IMF demands was portrayed in much of the west’s mainstream media as just another example of political chaos in Africa.

    On February 12 the Students Executive Council (SEC) of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) warned the Administration and the government that classes would be boycotted if they proceeded to privatize the school’s catering and housing services. As their press release argued “the majority of students are extractions from a peasant worker background and can ill-afford to pay for catering services provided by a private company...(this) matter is a brainchild of the IMF and the World Bank, which was never discussed but imposed. We deplore and violently reject without equivocation any person who overrides the sovereignty of the Students Union.” In early March they made good on their threat and student strikes paralyzed Zimbabwe’s higher educational system. Similar strikes prompted by runaway education expenses were also underway across college campuses in neighboring South Africa.

    Besides rejecting privatization of higher education, Zimbabwean students were also demanding a 253 percent increase in their living allowances to cover the new price hikes. Their stipend had been frozen at $ZW700 per semester (about $43.75 U.S.) since 1996. Faculty followed the students’ lead, demanding a 50 percent hike in their paltry salaries. In response, the Minister of Higher Education appeared on national television to declare that higher education was no longer a right, but a privilege. As in Asia, further student unrest was met in Zimbabwe with a ruthless law and order crackdown. Campuses were besieged by riot troops, students were tear gassed, and when activists tried to stage a public rally before Harare’s Education Ministry on March 9 close to 300 young people ended up hospitalized after a bloody police charge.

    Then on March 24 and 25 in one of the strongest expressions of popular solidarity in recent African history, nearly 90 percent of the Zimbabwean workforce supported the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union’s (ZCTU) call for a two-day mass stay-away, costing the economy an estimated $ZW700 million (about $44 million U.S.). All major urban business and industrial districts were effectively deserted, and many government offices and public schools were also closed as bureaucrats, teachers, and students chose to side with the workers and took an unofficial “holiday.” Wildcat strikes also hit several plantations where farm workers were tired of receiving a daily minimum wage that had dwindled to $ZW19.50 per day ($1.22 U.S.) Students and workers have forged a strong opposition coalition in Zimbabwe ever since 1989 when the ZCTU’s General Secretary Morgan Tsvangirai was arrested for publicly supporting UZ student protests, having miraculously survived an assassination attempt last November by government thugs.

    Zimbabwean officials and foreign observers were stunned by the mobilization and this nixed any visit by President Clinton, even though Zimbabwe was on the original White House itinerary. Despite all the hype, Clinton’s March 23 tour of Africa was not well-received. In Zimbabwe people have already seen through the neoliberal rhetoric and dismissed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act/Sub-Sahara Trade Bill (S. 778) as a fresh version of western neocolonialism. The worst aspect of Clinton’s “trade not aid” plan is that it basically exports the absurd notion that “eradicating poverty” and “fostering democracy” can somehow be achieved through trickle down economic policies that cater to the bottom line of multinational corporations. For many Zimbabweans, watching Clinton set aside scarce taxpayer dollars to subsidize U.S. companies, while the U.S. reneges on its obligations to the UN and slashes its foreign aid budget to the lowest level within the OECD (a measly 0.1 percent of GNP), was the height of hypocrisy. Adding insult to injury, in order to play the old game under new rules countries must first acquiesce to the aforementioned World Bank/IMF adjustment program. So much for respecting African sovereignty.

    As for recognizing labor standards, environmental protection, and human rights, Clinton’s NAFTA for Africa proposal does not even bother with the token side agreements. Sweatshop migration from southeast Asia will be exacerbated as corporations take advantage of Clinton’s proposed duty-free African textile rule. Already in Madagascar teenage girls are getting paid the equivalent of $5.60 U.S. for a 63-hour work week, cranking out apparel for Disney and the Gap. Under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), enforced through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Africa will suffer further plunder of its native crops, medicinal plants, and other indigenous resources by U.S. biotech outfits. Oil drilling, clear cutting, toxic dumping, strip mining, drift netting, and other destructive corporate “development” activities will be taxpayer-subsidized through Clinton’s proposed $500 million “infrastructure fund” and $150 million equity fund administered by the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC)—with no real concerns about social justice or ecological impact. In February 1998 the water supply of Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, was contaminated “courtesy” of a foreign-owned mine when its waste tailings pond ruptured, dumping cyanide into a reservoir.

    Another insidious element of the Clinton agenda for Africa is the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI). Despite a sordid history of assassination, terrorism, and destabilization, the Pentagon is now eager to remilitarize the continent, this time for the sake of corporate profitability. Many U.S. companies (and even some U.S. embassies) must now rely on private mercenary outfits, such as Defense Systems Ltd. (DSL), Military Professional Services Inc. (MPRI), and Executive Outcomes to protect themselves in “unstable” Africa. For instance, Chevron has subcontracted Air Scan based in Titusville, FL (managed by retired Brigadier General Joe Stringham who used to run U.S. clandestine operations in El Salvador) to protect its offshore oil concessions in Angola’s volatile Cabinda province. Of course, it would be much “cheaper” for private investors to have public taxpayers kick in their “fair share”—say $15 to 20 million per year—and basically hire the Pentagon to coordinate African security instead. Under Clinton, the U.S. had already invested $175 million between 1991 and 1995 for training 3,400 African military officers—mostly from dictatorships.

    Creating client police states is also an easy way to threaten and discipline others, reminiscent of how Reagan militarized Costa Rica for low intensity conflict against Nicaragua. Of all countries in the world, Zimbabwe’s neighbor, Botswana, has had the highest increase in defense spending since 1994, much of it for building a superpower airbase at Molepole and purchasing $100 million in weapons including Leopard tanks and F-5 fighter planes. Meanwhile, Clinton has yet to implement a code of conduct banning U.S. corporate weapons sales/transfers to systematic human rights violators. Between 1991 and 1995 there were $23 million in such U.S. sales to Africa, including the Nigerian dictatorship. Clinton has also reduced U.S. funding for landmine clearance, despite the fact that Africa remains the worst mined continent (with up to 30 million in the ground, many supplied through the CIA’s support of apartheid regimes and rebel groups).

    Fortunately, the White House and its corporate bank-rollers are not the only ones with a vital interest in the future of Africa. As Professor Mahmood Mamdani of the University of Capetown editorialized in a Ugandan newspaper, the Monitor, on April 10, “After a decade of liberalization, the issues for Africa are no longer those of the Cold War, of socialism or capitalism, but those that expand the boundaries of meaningful choice in the era of globalization. Seen from southern Africa, the world seems divided into two: countries that can restructure out of choice, and those that have structural adjustment imposed on them by others.” Workers, students, and peasants in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa have long looked to activists in the U.S. and other “developed” countries for inspiration and assistance. Now is as important a time as any to renew that solidarity relationship.                     Z

John E. Peck is a graduate student in the Land Resources Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently returned from a three-month research visit to Zimbabwe.