Harare: the left under scrutiny
The ISO was first established in the early 1990s, by a number of student activists prominent in the struggle against the one-party state. One key figure was Riyad Desai, a young tearaway whose father was a leading figure in the South African black-consciousness movement, the PAC. Desai joined the SWP in London, and now lives in South Africa. Comrades from his youth tell of the scrapes in which he took part: staying in his teens with some elderly comrades, neighbours complained of his unruly ways and his adopted parents grew anxious. Desai determined to make life better for them, by going down to the nearest supermarket, and filling two whole trolleys with the most expensive stolen groceries he could find.
In the past dozen years, ISO's members have included Tendai Biti, a brilliant labour lawyer and public speaker, now a leading member of the MDC front bench and Lovemore Madhuku, now leader of the National Constitutional Association, the ally and main challenger to the MDC on the Zimbabwean left. At college, Morgan Tsvangirai was taught by current ISO leader, Munyaradzi Gwisai, who was until recently the MDC's Member of Parliament for the working-class constituency of Highfield. Other ISO leaders have included Briggs Chopa Zano, a sober working-class intellectual who died tragically of AIDS. In a small country with a new elite, ISO has played an extraordinary part. Even right-wing figures in the opposition tend to boast of having 'graduated' from the party.
The organisation has always been affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency, and has been influenced by the best parts of that movement: the ISO's hostility to the bureaucratic Soviet state, and its insistence instead on a tradition of change from below. Unlike other formations on the left, they have regarded the trade union bureaucracy consistently as a partial ally, at best. Yet the influences on ISO are many, as befits a rooted, Southern African party. Names taken by the comrades include 'Rosa', 'Briggs', and 'Biko'.
ISO began as a study circle in the University of Zimbabwe, before making a turn to mass work. In 1995, it was part of a student revival, and called huge protests against police brutality. Together with its closest allies in the universities, ISO involved students in solidarity work with Harare workers. Large numbers of students began to view themselves as ‘the voice of the voiceless’. It was from this agitation, and the rebirth of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions, that the current leadership of the MDC took confidence to challenge Mugabe for power. The Movement for Democratic Change was launched as a workers' party, although it has moved to the right since then, under pressure from the state, and with western aid.
The situation now in Zimbabwe is complex. The MDC failed to call mass actions for twelve months, but decided this year to relaunch itself through protests. Its leaders remained fearful of working-class action. They advertise their protests 'by remote', placing ads in the national press rather than rebuilding the structures that had previously linked them to the townships. Meanwhile, Mugabe has been more willing than his opponents to use swing left. Articles in the pro-government Daily Herald condemn US and British foreign policy. The MDC allows itself to be presented as having a more moderate programme than the state's. Through all the twists and turns of high politics, one fact remains constant. In the words of John Bomba, an ISO comrade, 'The masses see Mugabe as the biggest enemy'.
All these tensions could be seen in the bye-election this spring in Highfield. Having been forced out of the MDC, the ISO stood Gwisai against both the Zanu and the MDC candidates. Newspapers gave his campaign a good coverage. He was the sitting MP. He was the author of a new labour law. He was widely liked by local workers. Some papers even talked of him as a potential future President of the country. Despite everything, Gwisai achieved just 73 votes, a disastrous result.
The challenge facing ISO is now to re-engage with the desire of workers for change. A fierce debate takes place around the organisation. Can ISO ally with the activists of the MDC? Would it be better to relate rather to other formations such as the NCA, which share the MDC's opposition role, but (for both principled and bureaucratic reasons) have a more critical line, in regards to Western neo-liberalism? Behind these questions, lies another: has the movement itself been checked, or is the potential there to rebuild the trade union and civic opposition that in 1997-9 and challenged the basis for the Zimbabwean state?
Some of what I saw in ISO surprised me. The comrades seem to write off the MDC too quickly. Yet the opposition activists I met were cut from the same cloth as the global anti-war or anti-capitalist left. They debate the tactics of resistance. They have the same enemies as us. One South African friend put it well when he said that ISO is brilliant at judging the mood of a minority that already belongs to the hard-left, and its weakness still stands in engaging with a wider working-class constituency. These may be errors. But I want to end by remembering the strengths of a young party which debates freely, and has a proud future ahead.