How Britain and the US helped to bring Mugabe to power

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Today the leaders of ‘western democracy' put the blame for the current chaos and misery in Zimbabwe squarely on the corruption and vicious repression of Robert Mugabe and his dictatorial regime. Mugabe on the other hand blames all the woes of his country on the conspiratorial attempts of the former colonial powers led by Britain to overthrow him.

Meanwhile, many of today's leftists hide the fact that they once supported the ‘national liberation' struggle in Zimbabwe and the coming to power of Mugabe as in some way expressing the interests of the working class.

In fact, as this article by a close sympathiser of the ICC shows, the coming to power of a black nationalist regime in Zimbabwe was the result of a deliberate policy of the US imperialist bloc in order to protect its own strategic interests in Southern Africa. Against the hypocrisy of the democratic states today in denouncing the terror and corruption of Mugabe's regime, revolutionaries need to demonstrate that the USA, Britain and their allies were instrumental in creating the current chaos and misery in Zimbabwe.

The strategic significance of Southern Africa for the rival imperialist blocs

The deepening of the global capitalist crisis in the 1970s intensified the struggle between the two rival imperialist blocs that dominated the Cold War period before the collapse of the Russian bloc. By the mid-1970s there was a significant tendency for localised inter-imperialist confrontations to move from the peripheries of the capitalist world towards its vital centres: the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin and the regions of Africa astride the major trade routes linking Europe with Asia and the Americas.

Africa became a particularly important focus for inter-imperialist conflicts, as the economically superior bloc suddenly found itself facing a threat to its strategic interests from its economically weaker Russian rival. This led to a dramatic shift in US policy, demonstrated by the intervention of French and Belgian troops in Zaire in 1978 to prevent this mineral-rich region from being overrun by Russian-armed and Cuban-trained guerrilla forces. There were also bloody inter-imperialist confrontations in the western Sahara, the Horn of Africa, and in Southern Africa - which due to all its raw materials and control over the Cape trade routes was of vital strategic importance to both blocs.

For more than two decades, faced with the overwhelming economic resources of the US, the strategy of Russian imperialism had been to attempt to weaken and destabilise its rival through the arming and training of ‘national liberation' fronts to overthrow fragile pro-American regimes or to smash the remnants of the colonial empires of the US's allies. Following the collapse of Portuguese control over Mozambique and Angola in the mid-1970s, Russian imperialism raised the stakes by directly using Cuban and East German ‘volunteers' and ‘advisers' in a formidable military build up to try to wrest these countries from the American bloc.

Faced with these attempts by its rival to destabilise Southern Africa, the US was forced to reorient its strategy with the aim of neutralising the Russian threat and ensure economic stability in the region, and in particular to safeguard South Africa itself, the capitalist jewel at the tip of the sub-continent. This meant preventing the spread of chaos in the other so-called front-line states - Mozambique, Botswana, Angola, Zambia and Zaire. The state then known as Rhodesia to the north was a weak link in this strategy - less strategically important but a dangerous source of instability, where the white minority regime of Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front had been fighting a long-running struggle against black nationalist guerrilla forces based largely in Mozambique and backed increasingly by Russian provided arms and ‘military experts'. From 1975, following the failure of talks on a transition to black majority rule, the black nationalist struggle intensified, at a time when the Russian presence in Angola was growing.

Alongside its increased willingness to participate in direct military interventions, the US committed itself to regime change in Southern Africa, reversing its previous support for Smith's racist regime. With the continued guerrilla war bleeding the country dry, and its Mozambique border closed, the land-locked Rhodesian economy was on the verge of collapse, so using its diplomatic and economic muscle the US persuaded Smith's regime to reluctantly agree to black majority rule. It was supported in this by the white South African bourgeoisie, who had also been persuaded to accept black majority rule by hard economic inducements plus assurances that their own political domination would not be fundamentally threatened. The US ‘godfather' had made the white regimes of Southern Africa an ‘offer they couldn't refuse'.

The only question was, which particular faction of the emerging black nationalist bourgeoisie would take over the Rhodesian state?

The struggle of the black nationalist factions for political power

In the frenzied jockeying for position with the prospect of power in Rhodesia, the main contenders at the time were Bishop Muzorewa and Joshua Nkomo, who claimed to lead rival wings of the United African National Council (in reality a defunct political shell). The US's favoured contender was Nkomo's ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union), which showed itself both moderate and willing to compromise, but lacked military support within Rhodesia.

The other force in the black nationalist struggle was the Zimbabwe African Nationalist Union (ZANU), in which Robert Mugabe had gained ascendancy, and with a military wing based in Mozambique. It was Mugabe who, while lacking US backing, ultimately had the ‘guns and muscle' to make sure the Smith regime finally conceded, and it was his ZANU which used the most radical and militant ‘national liberation' language.

The leaders of the US imperialist bloc came to realise that a Rhodesian settlement without the two wings of the Patriotic Front - Nkomo and Mugabe - would risk allowing the Russians to increase their intervention in the guerrilla war, and they therefore decided to integrate the Front into a political settlement before Russia could use its military support as a tool in its strategy of destabilisation.

In 1978 there was a last ditch attempt by the doomed Smith regime to reach an internal settlement with the moderate black nationalist factions. The US, together with its loyal British lieutenant led by the Labour Party, refused to support the resulting elections in which Muzorewa's supporters won a majority. The settlement was opposed by the Patriotic Front, which refused to lay down its arms and was thus able to present itself as the only genuine opponent of the regime, honing its radical credentials with the black working class.

The International Herald Tribune, clearly spelled out the American strategy: "This agreement endangers the most important American interests in Africa. These interests demand that there will be a peaceful transition to black majority rule in all of southern Africa, and that any conflict which risks provoking the intervention of foreign powers is avoided. The surest means of promoting a peaceful transition is to insist that any agreement includes the Patriotic Front."

The leaders of the Patriotic Front were subsequently invited by the British bourgeoisie to participate in a ‘negotiated peace', leading to new elections under British supervision. The Lancaster House agreement in December 1979 finally ended the seven years of guerrilla war, and the US imperialist bloc finally achieved its desired carve up - this time assisted by the Conservative government, which despite its bluster about not supporting terrorists quickly fell into line with US policy. The front-line states, desperate for western loans and economic aid, were also instrumental in exerting pressure on the Front to sign an agreement, in order to prevent further disruption to their own economies caused by the war, and to avert the threat of spreading social unrest.

Mugabe in 1980 - ‘capitalism's latest superstar'

After seven years of open fighting, the Rhodesian/Zimbabwean economy was officially bankrupt, and the black masses, having experienced the massacres and murder of the civil war, now faced more misery and chaos, this time under the cover of socialist rhetoric about reconstructing ‘their' country. But for the US bourgeoisie, as the ICC put it, Robert Mugabe was "capitalism's latest superstar" (WR 29, April 1980).

In the elections held as part of the Lancaster House agreement in early 1980, Mugabe's ZANU won a landslide victory, which was initially viewed as a problem for the US bloc. However, Mugabe, the former ‘marxist' guerrilla and ‘scientific socialist', and the most reluctant to accept agreement during the ‘peace talks', rapidly reassured western leaders by confirming that the new government would, in its leader's own words, "retain the economic structure of the country within the existing capitalist framework." It would also adhere to the letter and spirit of the constitution and uphold "fundamental rights and freedoms." He even re-employed the old white military leadership to integrate the former guerrilla forces with the Rhodesian security forces. The reaction of the Tory government in Britain on hearing the election results was to rush to dispel the impression that Mugabe was a puppet of the Soviet Union.

A victory for US imperialism

All in all, the outcome of the Zimbabwe elections was a cause for congratulations in the ranks of the democratic bourgeoisie, and was rightly seen as a victory for US imperialism which, through the peace deal in Zimbabwe and the support of the other front-line states, regained the initiative from its Russian rival. In Angola the MPLA could not afford to finance the continuation of a war outside of its borders when it faced American-backed guerrilla forces operating in its own territory, while ‘red' Mozambique played a crucial role in aiding America's cease fire plan by threatening an end to its support for Mugabe's forces operating within its borders.

The Russian bloc, unable to compete with the superior economic strength of its US rival, lacking its political and diplomatic muscle, lost out all along the line in Southern Africa and other strategic regions like the Middle East, as its former satellites desperately sought the economic aid and stability the US could offer; it also began the 1980s increasingly bogged down in the war in Afghanistan.

As the ICC warned at the time, the coming to power of a black nationalist regime in Zimbabwe could not be seen in any way as a victory for the working class, and the success of the US bloc's strategy to stabilise the region only made it possible for the new black bourgeoisie to do what all bourgeoisies in decadent capitalism do - attempt to reconstruct the national capital from the blood and sweat of the proletariat: the only difference from before would be the rhetoric used by the government.  

MH 29/08/08