We should celebrate the fall of Robert Mugabe. But hypocritical governments like Britain’s that are now attacking him supported him for years, writes Leo Zeilig. Real democracy has to be rooted in popular struggles inside Zimbabwe – and such movements have a powerful history.

A moment came on Saturday 18 November which thousands of Zimbabweans have been awaiting for years. Over 30,000 demonstrated in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. They gathered in the historic Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield Township, a place of great significance where Mugabe first arrived in 1980 to announce independence.

Harare, long exhausted, its movement small and fragmented, was in festive mood today – young women, children and men danced, laughed and sang. Not a single member of the police was in sight. The protestors were disciplined, many shouting ‘today is independence day … we have taken Zimbabwe.’ The march came with 500 metres of State House, Mugabe’s official residence. Socialists were distributing leaflets with the slogan ‘No to the IMF, No to the Lima programme’ – the Lima programme is the IMF’s ‘structural reform’ plan for Zimbabwe, a debt and arrears clearance plan drafted in 2015 in Peru. For now the generals are the heroes – yet the same generals will attempt to hold back the people.

How was the current political crisis triggered? Recently there has been a serious economic emergency, which threatens further collapse in a country already gripped by economic mayhem, food shortages and the ‘dollarization’ of the economy, where the US dollar replaces the Zimbabwe dollar after years of hyperinflation. As Munyaradzi Gwisai explained this week, ‘This is a crystallisation of a faction fight within the ruling class and reflects an economic crisis… This has significantly deteriorated in the last three weeks. There have been major price rises and some goods are not available.’

For years, Mugabe has sought to present himself as an anti-imperialist. In the late 1990s and early 2000s he helped to lead invasions of white-owned farms by ‘war veterans’, only months after he had sent the military and police to evict other ‘illegal’ occupations. Throughout the 2000s, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government erratically introduced price controls to combat food shortages and promised renationalisation and indigenisation. In the end, of all these initiatives, he fell back into he arms of the IMF and World Bank – while bellicosely denouncing western interference and imperialism when it was necessary.

ZANU-PF itself has faced deep splits in its own ranks. The biggest of these is a faction lead by Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife – know, and lampooned, on the streets of Zimbabwe as ‘Gucci Grace’ – called G40. This is a group of ZANU-PF members who did not fight in the 1970s guerrilla war against Ian Smith’s racist white-minority government.

The other main group is supported by Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa – an old general, formerly Vice-President, who played a role in the killing of ‘oppositionists’ to the ZANU regime in the 1980s. More than 20,000 such oppositionists, known in Shona as the Gukurahundi, were killed in Matabeleland in southern Zimbabwe. The Harare-based ZANU government fought the war with the help of the North Korean army, who trained the notorious Fifth Brigade. Meanwhile the West looked on and ignored the bloody campaign – in fact Mugabe, and the entire ruling party, was feted by the West during the brutal decades of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1994 Queen Elizabeth knighted Mugabe, drawing on racist stereotypes of Africa to describe him as an ‘exception on a continent of dictators and coups’.

At the time Mugabe was willing to implement the structural adjustment programmes insisted on by the World Bank and IMF, and which were frequently designed by the regime itself. The government pursued policies involving privatisation and the closure of state companies deemed unprofitable by Western donors. The year after the implementation of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme in 1990, the first programme of economic reform, saw a huge 11 percent fall in per capita GDP. More than 20,000 jobs were lost between January 1991 and July 1993. By the middle of the decade, unemployment had reached a record 1.3 million from a total population of about 10 million.

Mnangagwa represents the old guard, a supporter of the IMF, and the brutal authority of the military – he was regarded as the probable figure to take over from Mugabe in elections scheduled for next year. Two weeks ago he was sacked by Mugabe, who suddenly decided to swing behind his wife’s bid for the presidency.

Behind the hollow talk of elections, democratic accountability and the rule of law, the fight is about who has a right to the diminishing ‘spoils’ of state patronage, kickbacks from diamond mining, contracts from the large companies and shady deals with foreign mining companies and Chinese firms.

The talk about elections in the West, by the British and international press, is pure hypocrisy. The West’s break from Mugabe in the early 2000s was only triggered when he sought to retain power by launching a Third Chimurenga – a liberation war to follow on from the anti-imperialist struggles of the 1890s and the 1960s to 70s. He attacked giant white farms and distributing them to his supporters – and, under pressure, to the poor.

Real opposition to Mugabe came from a mass movement and opposition that started in 1996, which saw the high point of protest and resistance on the continent and culminated in the formation of a mass-based party, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC, in 1999. Tendai Biti, a former socialist and Finance Minister in the Government of National Unity from 2008, has described the period as “a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence – you could smell working class power in the air.” This was not an exaggeration. Between 1996 and 1998, Zimbabwe’s Two Red Years saw national public sector strikes, a shutdown of the national university in the capital of Harare, and a student revolt across the country. These struggles politicised war veterans, ex-fighters from the liberation war in the 1970s, who seized farmland as part of a a widening arch of protest that challenged the power of the ruling party.

Mugabe was hated in urban areas across much of Zimbabwe, but he was able to retain power, and not simply by force. His pro-poor land reforms did secure him some rural backing, and though elections were frequently stolen, and marked by violence, they were also genuinely won in some regions by the ruling party. Meanwhile the opposition, unable to outflank ZANU-PF to the left, became hopelessly cautious. After a brief period of ‘cohabitation’ in a Government of National Unity after the 2008 elections, the opposition began to fragment.

The fragmentation was a sign of political decay in the opposition ranks. The MDC split several times. New formations emerged, set up by disaffected ZANU-PF politicians. Political opposition to the regime was hopelessly weak, and the government could once more resume ‘reforms’ acceptable to the international community, devastating as they were for the poor. In 2015, to much fanfare, the Minister of Finance stated that the IMF would loan Zimbabwe $984 million in the third quarter of 2016 after paying off foreign lenders, the first such loan in almost 20 years – in return for which, further ‘reforms’ to the country were promised.

Though under ‘house arrest’ since Tuesday, Mugabe has not been pushed out with ease. He has read the situation, understood regional power and attempted to negotiate his own exit. He knows that he has real support among regional politicians, organised in the body SADC (controlled by South Africa) but also among certain activists across Southern Africa – many who see him as a defender of the disenfranchised. From 2008, in cabinet meetings of the Government of National Unity he was treated with awe and respect, by opposition politicians he had beaten, jailed and humiliated, who would defer to him around the cabinet table as ‘comrade-right-honourable Mugabe’. His role as architect of the liberation war could not be simply erased.

Overall, the current internal ‘coup’ has emerged not just on the back of the recent economic crisis, but after the long defeat of the popular, working class movements that once controlled the streets. Those movements briefly lit up the skies over Southern Africa, were bludgeoned by the regime, starved by economic crisis and choked politically – and undermined by the leadership of the opposition itself, too scared to lead the struggle against ZANU-PF. Today, the demonstration and the possibilities of continued mass action could – if they go beyond carefully organised protests coordinated by the military – become once more a real arbiter for a future Zimbabwe.

Leo Zeilig is a longstanding commentator on African politics and the author of An Ounce of Practice (Hoperoad, 2017), a novel set in Zimbabwe.

Written before Mugabe was forced to stand-down on 21 November, this blogpost appeared on the RS21 website on 18 November.