By Mike Phipps
Zimbabwe rarely makes the UK news these days and when it does, the news is rarely good. And that’s exactly how it was when the BBC reported this week that seven babies were stillborn in one night in a major hospital in Harare, because their mothers did not get adequate medical care due to a nurses’ strike. Some context might help.
Nurses went on strike across Zimbabwe last month demanding US dollar salaries and proper personal protection equipment (PPE), which the government says it cannot afford. As a result state hospitals are massively understaffed and overstretched, particularly at a time of increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Many of the capital’s smaller clinics have also been affected, or closed, by the nurses’ industrial action. Doctors say the stillbirths are not isolated incidents and Zimbabwe’s Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists describes the situation as “beyond dire”.
The Zimbabwean currency was so unstable that for ten years, the country switched to the US dollar as thee means of exchange. But last year, the government reintroduced its own currency, since when it has been losing value rapidly against major currencies. The current rate of inflation is around 800%. The collapse of the currency means that the a major economic recovery package announced in May is already worth only half as much in real terms just two months later.
Nurses currently earn the equivalent of less than US $60 a month. The government’s response to the strike has been one of repression, with arrests by the police, and intimidation using the governing party’s youth wing.
Journalists have also been arrested for their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 100,000 citizens have been arrested for violating health measures. Many of these work in Zimbabwe’s informal sector and simply cannot afford to lockdown – to do so would mean no money to buy food for their families.
Critics of the government accuse it of using the pandemic as a pretext for cracking down on anti-corruption protests. Zimbabweans are outraged by a US $4 million scandal over the improper procurement of PPE for medical workers, involving the health minister and the president’s son. The mayor of Harare has also been arrested for corruption.
Yet anti-corruption protests have been met with repression, and demonstrations labelled by the government as insurrection. Journalists and oppositionists have been detained ahead of a planned day of action on July 31st, including renowned novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Despite the severity of the crisis, the Zimbabwean government this week agreed to pay a staggering £2.7bn in compensation to white farmers whose land it expropriated two decades ago. To many this settlement is reminiscent of the compensation paid to British slave-owners when slavery was ended in the 19th century. Where is the compensation from the UK government to the Zimbabwean people for a century of colonial exploitation and oppression?
Zimbabwe has been an independent nation-state for just 40 years, following a prolonged guerrilla war against the white minority regime, whose policies were modelled on South Africa’s apartheid state. Robert Mugabe, the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), won a landslide victory in the country’s first free elections in 1980. He consolidated his power, partly through state-directed massacres of the supporters of his principal opponent in independence politics during the 1980s. In total Mugabe ruled the country for 37 years, amid western sanctions, periodic economic meltdowns and rigged elections. In November 2017, he was overthrown by an army coup. When he died last year, he left behind $10 million and other assets in land and houses.
Since Mugabe’s removal from power, Zimbabwe’s government has gone out of its way to placate western governments and institutions. Deep cuts in public spending hit ordinary people hard, as did the currency reform. Neolberal reforms, largescale privatisation of state assets at knock-down prices and opening the country to foreign investment are all on the agenda. The compensation paid to dispossessed white farmers is a further sign of the new government’s priorities.
The presidential election won by Emmerson Mnangagwa (pictured) in 2018 failed to break with past practice. Irregularities abounded and security forces used live rounds against protestors, killing six. Last year, huge protests against fuel price rises triggered more killings and mass arrests of protestors.
Today, the UN predicts a humanitarian catastrophe for the country. The World Food Programme says nearly two-thirds of the population will need food aid by the end of this year. Yet the International Monetary Fund has decided it cannot advance any of the $50bn facility to help developing countries out of the coronavirus crisis to help Zimbabwe.
For mainstream armchair commentators, Zimbabwe is a classic example of an African kleptocratic state. But the country’s plight is one that has to a considerable degree been imposed on it by western institutions and governments. While Mnangagwa’s style of governance has much in common with his discredited predecessor Mugabe, there is also considerable continuity between the century of colonial subordination and the west’s economic throttling of the country today.
In its 2019 general election manifesto, Labour promised to “use Britain’s influence within the World Bank, IMF and WTO to transform the rules of the global economy so they work for the many.”
It continued: “We recognise the need to address historic injustices and will reset our relationships with countries in the Global South based on principles of redistribution and equality, not outdated notions of charity or imperialist rule.” Pressure must be mounted to ensure there is no retreat from this principled commitment now the Party is “under new management”.