These are the lessons to be learnt from Zimbabwe - SACP

Party says WB/IMF's demand in early 1990s that govt halve 10% budget deficit bound to lead to serious socio-economic decline

Lessons from Zimbabwe

20 November 2017

The fundamental issues facing the Zimbabwean revolution and its people remain. Key amongst these are, overcoming the colonial legacy; addressing the national and gender questions; and transforming the economy. Cutting across these issues is the challenge and urgency to rebuild the liberation movement and re-root amongst the masses of the people.

As our neighbour, developments in Zimbabwe have social, economic and political implications for South Africa, and indeed the Southern African region as a whole. Our own movement needs to learn appropriate lessons in a situation where the liberation movement enjoyed the support of more than 80 per cent of the people, but now experienced a drastic decline in support.

We need a correct understanding of Zimbabwe

The developments in Zimbabwe are too important to be approached from clichés and conspiratorial theories, no matter how plausible and comforting these may be.

The other approach and analysis of Zimbabwe is that of seeing current developments as purely an expression of counter-revolution hatched everywhere – in the Western capitals, the non-governmental media and the offices of the opposition forces in Zimbabwe. Whilst we should not discount the presence of counter-revolutionary activity, but it would be completely wrong to approach the question purely from this standpoint.

It is as if we have not witnessed the painful collapse of Eastern Bloc countries as a result of, yes, imperialist-backed counter-revolution, but also internal weaknesses and serious errors by the parties in power. Unfortunately this crude position is also finding echo within the ranks of our own movement, thus completely ignoring ZANU-PF policies that hurt the working class and the poor over the years, the bureaucratisation of the party, and consequently the growing distance between it and the mass of the people.

The current developments in Zimbabwe are an expression of three interrelated realities, namely, the colonial legacy and its contemporary political expression, the effects of the structural adjustment programme of the 1990’s, and the bureaucratisation of ZANU-PF. The intractable nature of the colonial legacy, principally expressed through a combination of persisting economic inequalities and grossly unequal distribution of land. This legacy continues to express itself politically through sections of the white Zimbabwean population opposed to redistribution of land and seeking to roll back whatever modest gains made since independence.

The colonial legacy has also been expressed in the arrogant refusal of the UK over the years – the former colonial power – to honour one of the main agreements in the Lancaster House settlement, payment for the redistribution of land. Instead all indications showed that the British government has chosen to support any expression of opposition in Zimbabwe.

Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes in Zimbabwe

The second and major factor in the current Zimbabwean situation, which has been completely ignored in all major commentaries, is that of the effects of the structural adjustment programme imposed by the World Bank from 1991, but also implemented by ZANU-PF with very little resistance.

The uncritical implementation of the structural adjustment programme was as a result of the consolidation of the power of a small and aspirant indigenous capitalist and bureaucratic bourgeoisie, which had become dependent on the post-colonial state, and had hoped to benefit from the privatisation of state assets under this programme.

The effects of the structural adjustment programme under the hegemony of this class is perhaps the single most important explanation for the erosion of the power and influence of ZANU-PF amongst the people, and therefore requires some detailed attention.

The first ten years of Zimbabwean independence (1980-1990) witnessed some major advances and improvement in the social conditions of the majority of the working and poor people. For instance there was massive expansion of social services, in particular in the spheres of health and education. According to research done by the Southern African Regional Institute for Policy Studies (SARIPS) based in Harare, health recurrent expenditure rose from Z$8,19 in 1979/80 to Z$18,17 in 1990/91 in real per capita terms.

Real per capita recurrent expenditure on primary education grew from Z$10.61 to Z$28.70 during the same period. Primary education during this period was made free and compulsory, thus becoming accessible to millions of children from poor and rural families. During this period infant mortality rate declined from 88 to 61 per 1000 births, and immunisation coverage increased from 25 per cent to more than 85 per cent of the children. Levels of literacy also improved dramatically during this period.

From 1991, the Zimbabwean government adopted, at the instigation of the World Bank, a severe five-year structural adjustment programme. This programme principally entailed a severe cut back on social spending, privatisation of state enterprises, liberalisation of the economy, a radical reduction of government deficit from 10 to 5 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product or GDP, removal of food and other subsidies in particular for the poor, reduction of the civil service by 25 per cent through retrenchments and freezing of posts, devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar, and orienting the economy towards exports at the expense of domestic demand.

Like virtually all neoliberal economic restructuring in the developing world, a promise was made that certain benefits will flow from such restructuring. These promises included the usual ones: an increase in foreign direct investment by at least 20 per cent of the GDP per year, generate more foreign exchange, job creation and an economic growth of 5 per cent per year. None of these materialised, instead the economic and social situation in Zimbabwe declined rapidly in the 1990’s, almost eroding all the gains made during the first 10 years of independence. Even worse was that this programme, like all such neo-liberal restructuring, was driven bureaucratically without the involvement of the mass of the people and their organisations, including trade unions, which are usually treated with suspicion as a nuisance that might block such “necessary” restructuring.

After 1990/91 secondary school enrolment started to decline, with a decline by 7.5 per cent in 1992. Real heath expenditure fell to below the 1983 levels, and education spending dramatically falling to 32 per cent below its 1990/91 peak, and malnutrition rates amongst children increased by 13 per cent in 1992 over 1991. Inflation rose from 23 per cent in 1991 to 46 per cent by December 1998, with the interest rate nearly 50 per cent. Manufacturing output fell from 129.9 in 1992 to 116.9 in 1996, and real wages fell by 10 per cent in 1992 over 1991, with more than 17 000 workers in the manufacturing sector being retrenched between 1991 and 1996. Real wages actually fell by 33 per cent between 1990 and 1997.

Between 1991 and 1995 the private and public sectors had retrenched 25 510 and 20 000 workers respectively. During the same period about 300 000 school-leavers joined the labour market each year. Even more serious was the rise of food prices between 1981 and 1999. The net effect was rising poverty, to the extent that according to the 1998 Zimbabwe Human Development Report it was estimated that 61 per cent of Zimbabwean households were poor, and of these 45 per cent were ‘very poor’.

Of course it can be argued that the Zimbabwean budget deficit was too high at 10 per cent and was not sustainable. But to ask of the government to cut it by half within 5 years - a religious and fundamentalist requirement by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank irrespective of the nature and scale of social inequalities – was bound to lead to serious socio-economic decline. Indeed this situation was also exacerbated by the drought in 1991/2, but the government was in no position to even modestly respond to this within the tight monetary and fiscal targets it had set itself.

The most cynical and scandalous dimension of this economic restructuring was that the IMF and the World Bank were in 1995 trumpeting the Zimbabwean adjustment programme as a success to be emulated by other countries. In addition, the Zimbabwean experience shows that neo-liberal economic restructuring has left the colonial economic legacy intact, in particular the grossly unequal distribution of land and other economic resources. After this structural adjustment programme, 5000 mostly white farmers in a population of about 12 million are still holding 60 per cent of prime arable land, half of which is not being utilised!

The most important lesson to learn out of this is that much as the imposition of this programme was principally from the World Bank, but when the destructive effects began to be felt, these institutions and the imperialist media blamed the crisis on Mugabe and the government. To them the problem was no longer the colonial legacy and the structural adjustment programme, but the lack of a viable opposition in Zimbabwe. Another important lesson out of this is that neoliberal economic restructuring does not alter the economic balance in favour of the working people and the poor, but benefits the same forces who benefitted under colonialism and a small stratum of indigenous entrants.

It was principally as a result of this growing impoverishment of the Zimbabwean people that began to alienate the mass of the people from ZANU-PF and government, and saw the emergence of food riots and strikes by the trade union movement in the mid-to-late 1990s. It is of course true that counter-revolution does exploit such grievances by the people, but the creation of these conditions needs to be looked at not only externally but also from within the political behaviour and economic programme of the liberation movement itself.

Shifting class allegiances in ZANU-PF

After its landslide election victory in 1980, Mugabe’s ZANU quite rapidly began to change character. The upper echelons formed the political elite in the post-independence government. The second-layer leadership became officers and NCOs in the new army. Thousands of rank and file combatants were demobilised and returned to their remote peasant farms. From there they could hardly influence the ongoing evolution of post-independence affairs. Urban students and trade unions had been supportive but largely marginal in the struggle. In the early years after independence they were organised as tame appendages of the ruling party.

These developments were unfortunately similar to those that have characterised many former liberation movements on our continent. After ascendancy to political power, the class alliances within the liberation movement shifted from the pre-independence alliance between the working class, the peasantry and progressive sections of the petty bourgeoisie to a new alliance between these (formerly) progressive elements of the petty bourgeoisie and sections of local and international capital. This is usually brought about by the marginalisation of the working class and the peasantry in the post-independence reconstruction programmes.

Without participation of the masses, the petty bourgeoisie, now in control of state institutions and within the context of the domination of imperialism, sought to advance its interests in accumulation into an alliance with sections of local and international capital. The end result of these developments has always been the continuation of the economic structure of the colonial era, albeit under new circumstances, thus sacrificing the interests of working class, the peasantry and the poor.

The growing bureaucratisation of ZANU-PF, as a result of similar processes, left it vulnerable to external pressure. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s Mugabe was unable to resist pressures from the World Bank and the IMF, and was forced to implement harsh structural adjustment programmes.

Zimbabwe’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme

(implemented since 1991)


Measures to achieve the objectives

To register an economic growth of 5 per cent per year

Give tax incentives to the productive sectors of the economy

To register an increase in foreign investment in the productive sector by at least 20 per cent of GDP per year

Relax other controls on the economy

Increase investment in productive sectors such as agriculture, mining and manufacturing, together with supporting infrastructure in transport, electricity and communication

Sign international agreements securing investment and guaranteeing foreign investors’ rights to take their profits out of Zimbabwe

To generate more foreign exchange through increased exports

Devaluation of the local currency make locally produced commodities competitive on the foreign market

Liberalising exchange control so that exporters can keep a share of all foreign currency they earn for their use

Trade liberalisation which allows for the relaxation of import controls, thereby enabling exporters to modernise their productive equipment

The establishment of export processing zones, where goods can be brought in and out of the country without being subjected to duty and tax regulations

Decontrolling of wages in order to do away with minimum regulations and allow collective bargaining process between employers and workers. This is designed to make the productive costs ‘more competitive’

Eliminating price controls in order to encourage the producers

To reduce government budget deficit progressively from its 1990 level of 10 per cent of GDP to 5 per cent by 1995

Eliminating subsidies to state-owned enterprises in order to encourage them to become more profitable by charging economic prices, reducing costs and selling their shares to private companies

Cost recovery in the social sector through the re-introduction of school fees at primary education and an increase of fees at secondary education and health institutions, except for those earning less than R66 per month

Reduction in defence spending, but only when there is peace and tranquillity in the country

Reducing the size of the civil service by 25 per cent through freezing all non-essential posts and the rationalisation of all non-essential service in order to avoid duplication of service and overstaffing

Remove subsidies by 1995, except for exceptional cases for the benefit of specific groups

Introduce more reforms in order to improve the commercialisation and privatisation process leading to profit orientation of state-owned enterprises

To generate employment opportunities in order to absorb the existing unemployed, those expected to be retrenched following economic restructuring and the school leavers who annually entered the labour market

Sound economic growth coupled with the ability to promote exports and lure foreign investment would generate more employment opportunities in the country Objective Measures to achieve the objectives

 Commodity by Price (%) and Year in Zimbabwe



1998 (APRIL)

1999 (JANUARY)





Flour (2kg)




Maize-Meal (5kg)




Milk (500 ml)








Both these tables were sourced from “Social Policy in an Economy under Stress - the case of Zimbabwe”, edited by Allast Mwanza.

Where to?

The challenge of the Zimbabwean people is to rebuild the liberation movement, root it amongst the mass of the people, and return to a path of pursuing the original demands of the people with increased attention paid to economic transformation and the struggle for socialism. It is this programme that the SACP, and indeed our movement as a whole, should be supporting and seeking to strengthen.

Issued by Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo, National Spokesperson and Head of Communications, SACP, 20 November 2017