Zim’s left populism and the lessons for SA
African-style left populism have in almost all cases in the postcolonial African period led to the collapse of African economies, and recolonization by the World Bank or IMF, or industrial country donors or more recently, by emerging powers, such as China, and the mass fleeing of citizens to neighbouring countries or to industrial countries.
Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF is the poster for African-style post-liberation left populism. Former Zanu-PF and Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe has been of the most adroit exponents of African left populism. In 2009 the country dropped its currency the Zimbabwean dollar to use US dollar as a currency. Since 1990 more than a third of Zimbabwe’s population has fled abroad, seeking safety, food and jobs.
According to Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank the country’s external debt is now around US$11.6bn, which is nearly 82% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Of the total debt, US$7.5bn is foreign debt, including those owned to the World Bank, China and South Africa.
In 2016, then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe declared a state of disaster for agriculture, a declaration which allowed international donors to help. According to the United Nation’s children’s agency, Unicef, around 3 million of Zimbabweans needed food aid. Around 40% of Zimbabwean households are hungry.
A decade ago Mugabe, with the country facing economic collapse, and his own leadership being challenged within Zanu-PF, launched a populist land reform programme which saw white-owned land being expropriated. The land reform boosted his and Zanu-PF’s popularity, particularly in the rural areas.
Land reform was absolutely necessary in Zimbabwe, to address past injustices when land was forcefully taken by white settlers, but Mugabe’s land reform was using a much necessary policy, for purely populist reasons.
Although some of the land was transferred to poor blacks, who had basic farming skills, many of the best land were transferred to Zanu-PF politicians.
Zimbabwe has 92 recorded state-owned enterprises (SOEs), with the latest audit by the country’s Treasury showing that 70% of them are technically insolvent. Zimbabwe has over the years struggled to pay civil servants because of worsening economy.
The health and education systems have virtually collapsed because of mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. Critical health tenders have been given to political capitalists aligned to Mugabe and Zanu-PF, without the necessary skills or quality products, incompetent Zanu-PF patronage appointments, and the pushing out of competent staff who are not aligned to Zanu-PF, have collapsed the health system.
The quality of education has dramatically plummeted. In 2009 Western donors and Unicef helped established an Education Transition Fund (ETF) to which donors can deposit funds to rehabilitate the country’s failing education system. Donors include the US, UK, Japan, Germany, Australia and Norway.
Zimbabwe is currently experiencing its worse cholera outbreak in a decade which has left 49 people dead. The outbreak of the waterborne disease is directly related to the crumbling health infrastructure, and corruption and patronage which have seen the appointments of incompetent public servants and poor performing health contractors, who were appointed solely because they are allied to Zanu-PF.
The government is appealing for foreign help to raise US$35m to buy vaccines and medicines and repair water and sewer pipes.
African left populism regimes position themselves as “radical left”, “anti-capitalist” and “anti-imperialist” political movements. African left populists would push for radical “left” proposals calling for the nationalization of the mine, the expropriation of land and properties of foreign, settler owned or white-owned companies and the Africanisation or indigenization of the public services.
African left populists would themselves personally be the first to take the best companies, banks and lands they have expropriated, or allocate these to political allies, business associates and family members. Mugabe and allies took the best land that was expropriated for themselves.
Similarly, the beneficiaries of black economic empowerment (BEE), whereby shares of established businesses are transferred to blacks, are not ordinary Zimbabwean entrepreneurs, employees or surrounding communities, but Mugabe, his family, and Zanu-PF politicians and the military, who add very little value – and therefore new jobs, to businesses they acquire.
Conventionally populism is usually seen as political movements and leaders constructing in the popular image an imaginary battle of “us” (“the people”) or the poor masses, which have little economic and political power, against the “them”, the elites dominating economic and political power.
In power, these African left populist movements positioned their inherited countries as the “underdog”, forever under from ‘enemies’ – supposedly former colonial powers, Western ‘imperialists’ and settler, white or foreign owned business, so-called “white monopoly capital”.
In spite of criticizing “capitalist” or “imperialist” foreign powers and businesses, the African left populist governing elites would enrich themselves through capitalist means. African left populists would shop for luxury in the very capitalist, imperialist countries they denounce. If they fall ill, they would visit the hospitals of these despicable imperialist countries they denounce. Mugabe and his wife Grace Mugabe, regularly shopped and visited health specialists abroad.
In political, cultural and personal life, the leaders of these left populist movements adopt conservative stances such as the autocracy, sexism and homophobia.
African left populists often call for the Africanisation of education, condemning vast numbers of poor Africans to the worse uncompetitive education imaginable, which make them unable to compete with the citizens of capitalist and imperialist countries.
In our highly technological epoch, the competitive quality of one’s education determines largely whether one will be colonized, oppressed or marginalised or not. African left populists will make sure they send their children to the best Western education at home or abroad.
African left populists would often say democracy is Western or unAfrican; but they manipulate institutions to entrench their power, enrich themselves and marginalize rivals. Mugabe’s children went to the best private schools and were educated abroad.
African left populists would be outraged when Westerners, white and non-Africans violate Africans. However, African left populist leaders, governments and elites have also bestowed less value on their fellow African counter-parts, seeing them as “subjects”, or voting fodder. They appear not to care, if Africans violate Africans in whatever form – corruption, violence and gender crimes.
Mugabe in his quest for self-enrichment could not care whether ordinary Zimbabweans who vote for him starve or lose their jobs, die in collapsing public hospitals and their children receiving poor quality education that would condemn to a life of unemployment, homelessness and little income.
Failures of these African left populists were often blamed on ‘colonial powers’ and Western ‘imperialists’. Local critics of the state were often labeled as in the pay of these ‘colonial powers’ and ‘imperialists’. Mugabe regularly blamed his own failure on the machinations of “colonial powers” and their local “puppets”.
No development reforms in an African country will ever succeed without governments and leaders managing their countries honestly, introducing reasonable meritocracy in the public services, giving government contracts and business licences fairly and on merit and governing in the widest interests of the country, not in the interest of the leader, his family or the governing party.
William Gumede is Chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworks.org.za) and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg)