Is Tsvangirai a leader?

Mugabe's challenger is a man of more substance than his critics admit, but he has made strategic blu

South African president Thabo Mbeki used to privately sigh that the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was just "another Frederick Chiluba". Chiluba, a former bus conductor and trade unionist, swept to power on a pro-democracy wave in Zambia in 1991, ousting the independence leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had clung to power since independence in 1964.

Kaunda at least left when he saw the writing on the wall, unlike the 84-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, and who is seemingly prepared to hold on until death. Chiluba was hailed as a breath of fresh air, but once in power soon dashed the democratic hopes of those who elected him. In a final backsliding act, he tried to change the country's constitution so he could run for president for a third time. He lost.

The comparison is unfair. Tsvangirai, a burly former trade unionist, is a man of more substance than his critics admit. The son of a bricklayer, he rose from humble roots to become plant foreman of the Bindura Nickel Mine, while pursuing a parallel trade union career that saw him elected as general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in 1988. Under Tsvangirai, the ZCTU bucked the African trend whereby trade unions become mere appendages of governments once the liberation movements to which they were linked assume power.

It took guts for Tsvangirai, a former senior Zanu-PF official, to oppose Zimbabwe's slide into dictatorship by forming the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999, turning his back on the liberation movement to which he was dearly attached. Even if they concede Robert Mugabe is a disgrace, Mbeki and other African leaders still cannot countenance Tsvangirai in power. For neighbouring leaders such as Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Tsvangirai has committed two crimes: one in 1999 when he formed the MDC to oppose a sitting liberation movement; and, before then, by cutting his political teeth as a civil activist rather than as a Zanu-PF guerrilla.

Tsvangirai was born in 1952, in the small town of Gutu in central Zimbabwe. The eldest of nine children, he had to leave school at 16 to support them. Mugabe, who prides himself on his seven degrees, gets palpitations about the fact that Tsvangirai, with his lack of formal qualifications, may yet become Zimbabwean president. Many African independence and liberation leaders claim to represent "the people", but most come from elite backgrounds.

Zimbabwe has a central place in the mythology of African liberation movements. Its decline, under Zanu-PF, into dictatorship, has damaged the almost sacred idea of the liberation movements being on the side of the people. Could the MDC under Tsvangirai forge an alternative path by becoming Africa's first real grass-roots-based movement: the first to split from a liberation movement, achieve power and then govern democratically?

Learning from his mistakes

First, Tsvangirai will have to win the presidential run-off. After the 29 March polls, Mugabe gerrymandered the results to give the opposition less than 50 per cent, forcing a second presidential run-off. Mbeki and other African leaders are making feverish behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the run-off and cobble together a coalition government similar to the one negotiated by Kofi Annan in Kenya after the disputed election of December 2007. But Mugabe insists he will only agree to cancel the run-off if he becomes the head of any coalition government.

After recounting the ballots in areas where he lost, Mugabe now has all the information on those who voted for the MDC and has unleashed a targeted terror campaign to stop them voting again. In recent weeks, South African generals returned from Zimbabwe with reports of Zanu-PF brutality on such a horrendous scale that even Mbeki - who made the infamous declaration that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe" - is said to have been shaken. Tsvangirai must now mobilise his supporters to go on in the face of sustained violence. He has been largely prevented from campaigning - on 6 June police detained him for the second time in a week. The day before, Mugabe indefinitely suspended all work by aid groups and police held a group of US and British diplomats for several hours after they visited victims of state-sponsored violence. African leaders and the west have done shamefully little to help ordinary Zimbabweans face up to this intimidation.

And Tsvangirai himself has made strategic blunders. Those who had reservations about his leadership must have felt vindicated when he went against a democratic decision by his party's national council to contest the 2005 senate election. Partially as a result, a dissident wing, under former student leader Arthur Mutambara, formed a rival MDC to contest the disputed senate poll. Just at the moment when Mugabe had his back against the wall, the Zimbabwean opposition split into irreconcilable factions.

Tsvangirai has made other mistakes. In 2000, when Mugabe launched his land grab and terrorism against the opposition, Tsvangirai sought help in South Africa. Mbeki, then, as now, did not know how to respond, and took the safe option of doing nothing. Instead of lobbying ANC figures who had been critical of Mugabe, Tsvangirai turned to the predominantly white conservative Democratic Alliance and white business leaders. But the white opposition in South Africa tried to frame the Zimbabwe meltdown as a case of blacks fighting whites; rather than as the actions of a dictator against his people - black or white.

It took the MDC almost five years to regain the confidence of those within the ANC who opposed Mbeki's closeness to Mugabe. And Tsvangirai has found it hard to dispel Mugabe's propaganda that he is a pawn of Britain and the United States. Nor has the MDC leader been able to articulate a coherent strategy on how he is going to resolve Zimbabwe's skewed land and wealth distribution - which is not going to disappear once the MDC comes to power.

Since the disputed 29 March elections, Tsvangirai has been either in hiding or outside the country. His strategists say it was to prevent him being assassinated by Mugabe's thugs: last year his bloodied face was beamed across the world after he was beaten by police following a peaceful march. Some years earlier an assassination squad tried to push him out of the tenth floor of a building after beating him over the head with metal bars. Ahead of the 2002 elections, he was accused of planning to assassinate Mugabe. The case dragged on for almost two years. If he had been found guilty, he would have faced the death penalty.

Some of his supporters wonder why, knowing Mugabe would not relinquish power even if he lost, Tsvangirai did not launch a Ukraine-style peaceful revolution to oust Mugabe when he refused to release the results of the presidential elections. Instead, Tsvangirai opted for petitioning the courts to force Mugabe to release the poll results. Some MDC members urged Tsvangirai to grab power last week, when Mugabe left the country to attend a UN summit in Rome on the global food crisis. He refused.

Yet his travails have matured Tsvangirai. He appears presidential, surer of himself, choosing his words with more care. When Mugabe petulantly decided to stay put in Harare in April while regional leaders were discussing the Zimbabwean turmoil in Zambia, Tsvangirai took his place. This is a far cry from the naive politician I met in Johannesburg a decade ago. The fact that he proactively lobbied African leaders one by one during this stand-off showed a man who appears to have learned from his earlier mistakes.

If Tsvangirai sweeps to victory, there will not be time for on-the-job training. He will inherit an economy in freefall, with inflation at 165,000 per cent, and unemployment at 80 per cent. He will need that organisational flair fostered in the trade union movement to heal divisions in Zimbabwe, but also to bring in western governments and businesses to commit money to the country's long-term reconstruction.

William Gumede's book "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" is published by Zed Books (£16.99)

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.