While the exact details are still unclear, and the situation still unfolding with several conflicting reports, it is clear that a coup is now underway in Zimbabwe. The army has taken over the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), blocked access to parliament and placed President Robert Mugabe under house arrest. The coup appears to have been planned well ahead of time with one source telling the Guardian newspaper that for several months negotiations have been ongoing between the army and various opposition figures in preparation for it.

Currently the military leaders are claiming that President Mugabe is still officially the president, and that the apparent house arrest is “for his own safety.” Coup leaders have stated they are purely targeting “criminals” around Mugabe, which appears to be a reference to his wife Grace Mugabe and elements of the ruling party loyal to her. Mugabe has reportedly confirmed to South African President Jacob Zuma that he is under confinement. If such a situation continues, in other words, it would certainly be symbolic and not substantive leadership — a coup by another name.

Zimbabwe was slated for elections again next year with many predicting that the fragmented opposition would be unable to overcome the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front or ZANU-PF, which continues to be represented by Robert Mugabe, now 93, who led the principal thrust of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement. Tensions however, have been very high within ZANU-PF for quite some time with contending factions based on different segments of the ZANU base with different programs — and each with their own post-Mugabe ambitions. Some reports say that Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, was planning to install herself as President post-election, a very controversial move among party veterans who have questioned her motives and lack of credentials in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

Background and context

The mainstream media often portrays politics in oppressed nations, and especially targeted ones, as mere “power struggles” in the abstract, with no examination of the country’s history or contesting political programs. Behind conflicting political interests there are almost always deeper social interests, which must be discerned.

The root of Zimbabwe’s many current political struggles are the vast changes that have followed from the fast-track land reform carried out by ZANU-PF in the early 2000s. Understanding that context is key. Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle ended with a negotiated settlement, the Lancaster House Accords, brokered by the United Kingdom in 1980 that brought an end to white settler rule and established Black majority rule under ZANU which would later unify, after intense struggle, with another former liberation force ZAPU, to form ZANU-PF.

The settler-colonial period was marked by the dispossession of land from Africans and the development of a mining sector, worked, in large part, by Africans. If not working in the mines they were primarily confined to “communal areas” where they were crowded into low quality land and essentially were maintained as a reserve population for the mining interests and large white-owned commercial farms. Outrage at these social conditions propelled the anti-colonial liberation struggle.

The Lancaster House Accords preserved this basic economic structure, in exchange for Black majority rule. In other words, the economic domination of the country by Western mining capital and white farmers remained. So while Zimbabwe made impressive gains in areas such as education, ultimately the economically subordinated position of the Black population was not resolved.

Fast track land reform

This ultimately led Mugabe to dramatically reverse course in the early 2000s. From below there was a mass movement of land invasions in the countryside among dispossessed Black Zimbabweans, and ZANU-PF in turn initiated “fast track land reform” seizing land from whites and redistributing it to the Black population. While the press in the Western imperial centers howled, in truth this was a historically legitimate act of social justice–reparations for colonialism–which solidified ZANU-PF’s popular credibility. The ruling party was confronted by an opposition, by contrast, that contained some popular elements, but was largely supported by white dominated rural areas and the overall settler colonial economy.

This brought on deep ire from Western imperialism which slapped severe sanctions on Zimbabwe and overall tried to sabotage the economy. The effort to force ZANU-PF from power or to reverse course ultimately failed. ZANU-PF was able to win elections in 2008 and 2013, not without some controversy, because the opposition had no real strategy for dealing with the settler-colonial legacy.

Also, land reform, despite the constant claims to the contrary in the Western press, produced some success. Academic researchers who have studied carefully the results at the province level have found a few basic things. First, that land reform was in no way dominated by crony giveaways from ZANU-PF — even though that was a factor — but that the bulk of the land was redistributed to the land-starved people from the communal areas, and that many of these farmers were starting to succeed.

One assessment, for instance, estimated that about 35 percent of the new farms were doing quite well with another 55 percent being viable if challenged in various ways. This has led to a whole new rural structure inside the country.

It also set the stage for the current political crisis. This is a very complicated subject but there are some broad outlines to consider.

Essentially there is a “tri-modal” system in the countryside. The bulk of farms, so-called A1 farms, are the smaller farms. Many of these are becoming the center of new value chains, the most successful of which are becoming key producers for urban food markets, some for export. Second are the A2 medium sized farms. Many of these farmers are the so-called “elites” of various types: former civil servants and the like. These aren’t doing as well and haven’t received much state support. The more successful ones have been those most connected to ZANU-PF leaders it seems, and thus able to use those networks to market their products better.

Finally, there is a large-scale farm and estate sector centered around export crops which deals directly with international capital. Some of these, particularly in sugar, have been economically successful for new farmers, a considerable number of whom are former teachers or estate workers as well as individuals from the security services and party establishment. Some owners are even making tens of millions of dollars in profits.

Could there be a retreat or reversal of land reform?

In other words, a new and different economic and social composition has developed in the country. However the country retains its essential capitalist character. ZANU-PF has never attempted to transcend capitalism, and even its recent turn on land reform was only radical in the  relative sense that it decisively departed from the norm in  Southern Africa. A key goal of imperialism in this region has been to prevent any land reform that could disrupt the settler-colonial ownership structures that underpin the extractive and exploitative relationship with Western corporations.

If anything, the hatred from imperialist nations towards Zimbabwe is a profound statement about neo-colonialism. They have worked to prevent a rearrangement that could allow Southern African nations to be more independent and significant players in the world economy, even on a capitalist basis.

All this has to be taken into account in the present situation. While the land reform has been much more successful than Western observers put forward, without a doubt the overall economy is stagnating and the lack of investment, inputs, marketing support and the like has highly limited the possibilities in the country.

ZANU-PF has been arguing that the increased crop returns last year provide the basis for food sovereignty and the base for a new industrialization policy when combined with the “indigenization” of the mineral sector — that is, its takeover by the state or Black businessmen.

However, given the other economic challenges, many of the successful farmers, not all of whom are hostile to the government, have proposed that the government make space for more joint ventures to help improve the economy and bring in more foreign investment. Controversially, some have argued for bringing back thousands of expelled white commercial farmers to use their expertise, access to capital and lessen aggression from the West.

Eruption of political crisis

Last week the political crisis erupted when vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, widely seen as Mugabe’s successor, was sacked by Mugabe.

Mnangagwa’s opponents have linked him to the proposals to bring back many white farmers, tarring him with the brush of essentially wanting to reverse land reform and return to more of a settler-colonial-esque status quo. South Africa’s Business Day paper, citing Mnangagwa’s spokesman, asserts that this is indeed a core part of his political program. The irony is that Mnangagwa has been known as a stalwart supporter of Mugabe, the land reform and indigenization. The same can be said of other stalwart ZANU-PF members, including Joyce Mujuru, who were forced out by Grace Mugabe and her G40 faction, which has a significant base among young supporters of ZANU-PF. Unlike Grace Mugabe and her supporters, Mnangagwa has the prestige of being a leader of the anti-colonial liberation struggle and having endured the repression of the white minority dictatorship.

Mnangagwa, is, according to some reports, likely to become the new President post-coup. The same reports say that prominent opposition leaders would be placed in subordinate positions in a coalition government to give it international legitimacy. (Several years ago Mugabe himself brought the opposition Movement for Democratic change, MDC, into a similar coalition to try and get the Western sanctions lifted.)

Unresolved questions of decisive importance

The primary question is if this is fundamentally a faction fight inside of ZANU-PF, a preemptive move to settle a long-unresolved question about post-Mugabe succession, or something more? An older generation of liberation war veterans clearly expected to succeed President Mugabe and in their own terms are blocking Grace Mugabe and her group of younger ZANU-PF leaders from solidifying their hold on governance. The coup leader, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, had warned of military action after the removal of Mnangagwa, who had been rumored for quite some time as a likely next leader for the party. In other words, might the coup retain the essential ZANU-PF strategy just with a different leadership core?

Or will the coup plotters attempt to pursue a new course that could include courting the West and former white settlers? Will they be confronted by large numbers of Zimbabweans who will take action to oppose the coup and defend Mugabe as the legitimate and elected leadership, which one would expect in some form as a measure of the government’s support?

As of now, none of this is  clear — nor has the hand of the British and U.S. governments been shown or revealed, or for that matter the position of the South African government, which has a complex and, of late, antagonistic relationship with Zimbabwe’s leadership. But these are collectively the questions that must be asked and answered to assess the political trajectory of the coup.

ZANU-PF is clearly split as are some important social groups like the association of liberation war veterans which supports the military’s action. On the other hand, some opposition figures aligned with Western imperialism have expressed support for it as well, seeing it as an opportunity to realign the country politically and economically. As such, there is ample reason to remain vigilant and wary of the possibility that this coup is designed to return Zimbabwe by force “into the fold” as a country whose exports of food and minerals would be essentially subordinated to the Western economic order’s supply chains.

For Zimbabwe this is a clear inflection point, and given the similar issues facing countries all over Southern Africa, the fallout could have serious reverberations. Beyond the tactical debates on the pace of land reform, a strategic reversal of land reform would clearly be a step backwards in moving the country away from its settler-colonial past into a self-determining future. If that is in the cards it will likely be revealed soon.

That the coup is relying on military action, rather than democratic, popular or constitutional means, gives strategic leverage to Western governments to exact such economic concessions in exchange for recognition.

A key role for progressives and anti-imperialists in the West is to ensure that U.S., UN and British military forces do not use the crisis to insert themselves into the country as a so-called “stabilizing” force.

There is no question that such a violation of Zimbabwean self-determination would return the country to a neocolonial status.