Less than a week after a summit of presidents from southern African states reportedly told Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe that his nation’s police had used excessive force in beating and otherwise repressing his opponents, state-sponsored violence continued across the country, according to news reports.

The appeal to Mugabe was made in the wake of the arrest and beating of several dozen opposition leaders holding an anti-government rally last month. Morgan Tsvangirai, a prominent Mugabe critic and a leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), one of the opposition groups, sustained several injuries while he was detained by police.

Tsvangirai said, “Mugabe’s crackdown on our people leaves a trail of broken limbs, rape victims, torture victims and dead bodies.” Security forces reportedly rounded up some opposition leaders from their hospital beds while they were recovering from earlier police attacks.

Mugabe, 83, has led Zimbabwe since 1980. Rising to prominence in a 1970s guerilla campaign against the apartheid-like government of what was then called Rhodesia, he swept the first democratic elections and was repeatedly returned to power.

However, the people of Zimbabwe are now facing dire economic times. The economy is in shambles, a situation aggravated by drought, mismanagement and Western economic sanctions.

Mugabe’s opponents linked the economic difficulties to the political situation. Tendai Biti, secretary-general of a faction of the MDC, was quoted as saying, “The crisis in Zimbabwe is about inflation. The crisis in Zimbabwe is about food. The crisis in Zimbabwe is about corruption. The crisis in Zimbabwe is about elections that are stolen.”

Zimbabwe’s 1,700 percent annual inflation rate has caused real wages to plummet. Combined with food shortages, high unemployment, and a decrease in production, the inflation has stoked political tensions.

Despite government intimidation, an April 3-4 general strike called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions “to protest wages that have been reduced in value by inflation to a few dollars a month” met with 65 percent to 70 percent success, said ZCTU representative Khumbulani Ndlovu.

An anonymous South African source said that southern African leaders privately urged Mugabe to negotiate with the MDC and other opposition groups.

While some have sought to simplify the situation, portraying Mugabe as an anti-imperialist leader fighting against the U.S., Britain and their pawns, the situation is far more complex.

Critics of the MDC point out that some of its leaders have met with officials of Freedom House, a U.S. group that promotes regime change in countries that do not back neoliberal trade policies.

Some observers argue that Mugabe’s authoritarianism is a reaction to mounting pressures from Western nations, the U.S. and Britain in particular, to make Zimbabwe succumb to IMF-style dictates and to capitulate to the country’s white settlers who are resisting the government’s redistribution of agricultural land to the poor.

Currently, about 1 percent of the population, white heirs of British imperialism, own 70 percent of the arable land.

Undoubtedly, Western powers are meddling in Zimbabwe’s affairs. The U.S. State Department admitted in an April 5 document that it is actively funding some opposition figures in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has seized on this to argue that his opposition is a tool of imperialism. But many southern Africa-based commentators have said it was ridiculous to label the entire opposition, including the CTU and every faction in the MDC, as imperialist dupes.

A South African Communist Party statement, while calling U.S. concern about democracy “fictitious,” also cautioned against falling for “exaggerated anti-imperialist credentials” of Mugabe’s party, adding that “Mugabe is not a Southern African Chavez and will never be.”

Mugabe has, at times, taken Zimbabwe on a path of cooperation with monopoly capital.

A further SACP statement noted “the ongoing decomposition of the authoritarian state, a brutal state that functions like an occupying force, opens up all sorts of avenues for opportunistic forces of both an imperialist and militaristic nature to exploit the situation.”

With the fight against imperialism and for genuine land redistribution complicated by an increasingly authoritarian state, the situation in Zimbabwe remains tense and complex.

comradejmb @ yahoo.com