The Nation has published an excellent and extremely valuable article by James North, a freelance journalist, about the relationship between the British colonial legacy in Zimbabwe and the recent events culminating in the resignation of President Robert Mugabe. This article is so important because it challenges the dominant narrative in the Western media that treats the present condition of Zimbabwe as singly caused by the policies of Mugabe alone. While it cannot be denied that Mugabe made an indelible impact on the country, helping to bring down its white-minority government and then ruling as president for the last 37 years, intense skepticism should greet the assertion that one man alone, however influential, made Zimbabwe what it is today. Instead of limiting our analysis to the last 40 or so years, we should go further, to a colonial era that began in the 19th century and which only ended less than forty years ago.
Woefully few people in the West know that Zimbabwe used to be named Rhodesia, and fewer still probably realize that Rhodesia was named after the most infamous agent of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, whose estate still funds the highly-coveted Rhodes Scholarship postgraduate award to study at the University of Oxford. Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC) subjugated the Matabele, Ndebele, and Shona peoples and conquered their homelands. The Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun, first saw “wartime” use when British soldiers utilized them in the First Matabele War (1893-1894), and would become a bloody symbol of cruel imperial conquest during the “Scramble for Africa.” White veterans of the BSAC massacres received land grants, with the native Africans their indentured tenants. The southern regions of Rhodesia, the territory that would become Zimbabwe, contained fertile farmland, as well as rich deposits of chrome, gold, and nickel. The United Kingdom eventually annexed the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923, incorporating it into the British Empire, although it remained the affluent white minority largely ruled itself. It was not until the “winds of change” began blowing in the immediate post-World War II era that the prospect of decolonization became tenable to the imperial powers. It should be stressed, however, that most white settlers in Zimbabwe never considered it a plausible option.
This was partly a result of the colonial context that distinguished Rhodesia from its neighboring British holdings. Kenya, for example, was for settlers belonging to the upper classes: retired elites going on safari and kicking up their feet in social clubs. Rhodesia with its lucrative farms and mines attracted settlers in need of wealth, who had fewer resources to fall back on and thus had more to lose by giving up their racial dominion over the black population. This is not to say that white settlers in Kenya embraced black rule with enthusiasm, but they realized that they could retain their status while co-existing with the native Africans. White Rhodesians could not countenance any such co-existence; their status depended on their political power and their control over the economy. They knew that their privileged position depended on the exploitation and repression of the black majority, and they feared deprivation of their wealth and property or the outbreak of a “race war.” They uttered the rhetoric of Enoch Powell in the United Kingdom and pro-segregation “Jim Crow” politicians in the U.S. They voiced fears of a race war, of retribution killings, because they were intimately aware of the injustices and violence they themselves had inflicted on black Africans.
Under international pressure due to shifting norms regarding imperialism, the British government of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson grudgingly agreed to a policy of “no independence before majority rule,” meaning that the United Kingdom would not grant Southern Rhodesia independence from its empire unless it created a multiracial political system. To a certain extent, this was because the white ruling class refused to give up its privileges; although they made up only 5 percent of the population, the status quo favored them politically, economically, and culturally. To add to the historical context, however, the slow rate of change following independence in the Belgian Congo had resulted in spontaneous uprisings by the black population. In response to violence against white settlers who had remained, the Belgian government intervened militarily and supported Congolese secessionists. Although the United Nations sent peacekeepers, they refused to aid the black nationalist Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, restore order, so the Soviet Union sent military assistance. Faced with competing Soviet influence in Africa, leading Western governments had Lumumba captured and killed after a coup d’état, leading Western nations eventually rallied behind a stable anti-communist military dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko. Most white Rhodesians felt betrayed by a British government that had previously granted them the autonomy and freedom to institute racial segregation an economy centered on the exploitation of native workers was arbitrarily altering the arrangement, and so – in conscious imitation of the United States – declared their own independence. While this led to the introduction of economic sanctions against Rhodesia and its government was formally unrecognized by all Western countries, the U.S. government undermined them through the 1971 Byrd Amendment, which stated that, if the U.S. imported valuable raw materials from communist countries, it had to import them from non-communist ones. This meant that the U.S. had an obligation to import chrome and nickel from Rhodesia, even though this meant financially supporting its illegal white supremacist government. From 1971 to 1977 (when Jimmy Carter finally pushed Congress to repeal the amendment), the U.S. ensured that the sting of sanctions did not harm the white-ruled Rhodesians too much, and its ultimate revocation had to do with an oversupply of foreign ferrochrome that pushed down prices for the U.S. own ferrochrome industry.
The repeal of the Byrd Amendment hurt the Rhodesian economy, but the major turning point for white-ruled governments in southern Africa came with the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 1974, when radical leftists among the military overthrew the Caetano government in Lisbon and granted independence to Mozambique and Angola. The Portuguese colonial empire was one of the last to dissolve, but when it did fall, the changes it wrought were immense: Marxist leaders in Mozambique cut off Rhodesia from rail access to ports, meaning its trade and industry had to go through apartheid South Africa. Angola, too, aligned itself with the Soviet bloc after Soviet military assistance and Cuban troops intervened in its civil war. With the balance of power reversed, it was no longer feasible that 274,000 Rhodesian whites could continue to govern over 6.1 million black Africans, with the whites outnumbered 22 to 1.
The National Party in South Africa, the stalwart defenders of apartheid, faced a similar reality, and a growing number of its members accepted that, at the least, apartheid needed to be reformed. The collective Western conscious prefers to imagine the anti-apartheid struggle as a largely bloodless affair, a non-violent movement, omitting the hundreds of black protesters (many of them children) murdered in the 1960 Sharpesville massacre and the 1976 Soweto uprising. They also choose to forget the African National Congress’ own violent methods in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the U.S. and British governments classifying it as a terrorist organization. It was only after the economic decline and final collapse of the ANC’s main benefactor – the Soviet Union – in the late 20th century that it took a more conciliatory posture, which coincided with the rise of reformist F.W. de Klerk premiership that saw the writing on the wall.
In Rhodesia, black rule came a decade sooner than it did to its south, thanks in large part to aid from communist states. In addition to Soviet-Cuban assistance, Chinese advisers and weapons went to African liberation movements; Mugabe, as leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) independence movement, primarily received support from Beijing rather than Moscow. The Soviets preferred their historical asset in the colony, the trade union leader Joshua Nkomo and his Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). As Soviet policy was to mobilize industrial workers, ZAPU support lay in the cities, whereas ZANU was much stronger in the much more abundant rural areas. A main reason for this gulf of popularity was the ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), the armed wing of ZANU, were the primary combatants in the guerilla war against the Rhodesian government. They earned the loyalty of their fellow blacks, so much so that being a “war veteran” is still a position of honor in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe was deeply involved in the guerilla war. He was a committed Marxist militant, having become radicalized after a decade in prison from 1964 to 1974 (he was originally a teacher before entering politics). While imprisoned, Mugabe was tortured and denied a temporary pardon after his three-year-old died of severe inflammation of the brain. Upon his release, he went to Mozambique and found an ally in that country’s Marxist leader, Samora Machel. It was Machel more than anyone who urged Mugabe to moderate his positions, who induced him to participate in peace negotiations mediated by the British government in 1979. Mugabe believed he could have defeated the Smith regime military and was hesitant to compromise, but Machel argued – quite logically – that an exodus of whites would do damage to a post-colonial economy. Machel helped broker negotiations at Lancaster House in London with the British government mediating, and on his advice, Mugabe agreed to black political power but with most of the arable land in the hands of a small number of white farmers. Mugabe also permitted the politicians of the past white supremacist government to continue to participate in politics, including the unrepentant prime minister, Ian Smith, who had overseen the war against the nationalist freedom fighters. Mugabe, perhaps against his better judgment, agreed to compromise rather than a reckoning, and did not push for land redistribution.
Mugabe and ZANU did not have to steal power; they easily won elections held after the Lancaster House agreement. Nkomo and ZAPU, by default, became junior partners, but they aspired for greater representation than they received. Division between political parties also evolved into division between ethnic groups; the Ndebele people, based in the Matabeleland region in western Zimbabwe, became associated with ZAPU, while the Shona people became associated with ZANU. Fearing competition for power, Mugabe repressed ZAPU through the early 1980s, including a series of massacres carried out by a North Korean-trained unit called the Fifth Brigades. This pogrom is referred to as “Gukurahundi,” a Shona phrase meaning “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” In many ways, Mugabe was imitating the British Empire when it mowed down the Ndebele a century before with the Maxim gun, as well as the Rhodesian soldiers that slaughtered them in the wilderness. Political violence was learned behavior from imperialism and colonialism. While this does not excuse the Gukurahundi, it does help to understand why Mugabe reacted to dissent with violence rather than a pluralist liberal parliamentarian approach. He also recognized that his proximity to apartheid South Africa put him in a precarious position. In the 1980s, Johannesburg was still committed to white supremacy, and just as Mugabe had raided Rhodesia from Mozambique, the South African military struck into Zimbabwe.
Economically, Mugabe pursued an agenda of raising social spending, and in important areas – education, health care, housing – standards improved for the black majority. Western multinational corporations owned monopolies on advanced technology, however, so the more regulatory, government-interventionist policies adopted by Mugabe led to capital flight. Economic growth stalled. In the 1980s, the rise of the neoliberal consensus, protectionism and emphasis on local production was anathema to the industrialized nations. Moreover, because the government could only take land from white farmers if they were willing to sell, the acquisition of farmland and its redistribution to black farmers went slower than Mugabe had promised. The average war veteran resented that he had sacrificed blood and sweat for a revolution. It was Matabeleland where the inequality in land ownership was very acute. Mugabe accepted this until the 1990s, when a Land Acquisition Act granted the government to seize any land it wished, if financial compensation was made. As part of the decolonization process, the British government had promised money to buy out white farmers, but London opposed a policy of mandatory acquisition. When Tony Blair’s Labour Party came to power in 1997, the new international development secretary, Clare Short, denied that the U.K. had any obligation to pay for land purchases, citing her own Irish background as evidence the British government had no connection to the colonizers of the imperial period. In 2000, paramilitaries loyal to Mugabe invaded white farms, and in some instances, killed white farmers and their workers. As it was the war veterans who felt owed the land, and since Mugabe had previously accepted the status quo, it is questionable how much this “fast-track” land reform came from Mugabe, or was him acquiescing to social forces stirring in his power base. As his abrupt downfall shows, his hold on power was dependent on military support; once he lost this, he lost power.
After the “fast-track” land reform started, Mugabe may have mollified the veterans, but he had triggered an implosion of the Zimbabwean economy. Capital flows into the country fell to almost zero, with the government facing cutbacks in social spending as well as falling incomes, rising prices, and accelerating poverty. In the 2000s, inflation and unemployment skyrocketed. In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe, leading to Mugabe accusing Tony Blair of racism. Critically, however, Mugabe enjoyed some support from the ANC government in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki. From the 1990s to the present, South Africa had been the closest thing to an ally that Zimbabwe had. While the Western narrative around Mugabe makes him appear as a universally loathed tyrant, many black South Africans regard Mugabe as a hero of the independence movement. With income inequality itself a persistent problem in South Africa as well, there is also some consideration for violence against white farmers and the appropriation of their property. Understandably, those who themselves remember the brutality of white supremacy in southern Africa are the most compassionate to the fury unleashed against a class of people who, in recent memory, profited from colonialism.
As time went on, Mugabe became emblematic of the mythical African “Big Man” forming in Western popular culture: authoritarian, reliant on violence, clinging to socialist ideals, manipulating ethnic cleavages. In truth, he was very weak. As early as 2000 impeachment proceedings began again him, only to be stopped by the erstwhile Mugabe loyalist and now his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was minister of state security during the massacres in Matabeleland. Mugabe’s replacement with Mnangagwa illustrates that true power lies in the hands of the war veterans, the traditional ruling elite and now the nascent bourgeoisie. There is no reason to believe that the Mnangagwa administration will be anything but another repressive kleptocracy, save that it may warm up to a dependent role in the international economy. Mnangagwa could go the way of Raul Castro in Cuba or his allies in China, and accept liberalization of the economy – as long as his pockets are lined in the process. Even if Mnangagwa wished it otherwise, he would likely have little choice in the matter. To paraphrase Marx, Mnangagwa may be making history, but he is not making it as he pleases.
Like Mugabe before him, Mnangagwa is inheriting a Zimbabwe wherein the only functional framework is one of guards protecting plunder – in other words, the colonial model. It may be more accurate to call it political organized crime. A handful of oligarchs govern through coercion, acting as quasi-law enforcement to safeguard their interests. Formal institutions are empty vessels beside the military. If we in the West complain about this state of affairs, we must also accept some responsibility for it. Western empires created the institutional arrangements and political norms in which political gangsters flourish, as those empires were criminal syndicates par excellence.
We must also be skeptical of the cottage industry that has emerged around Zimbabwe, such as the writings of the white Zimbabwean Peter Godwin. The same social conservatives of the 1970s who urged white Rhodesians to continue white rule lend support to the narrative that the choices of Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe, rather than the system they benefitted from and its long-term consequences. Rather than speculating what would have happened had the racist Rhodesian regime been utterly defeated and rapid land reform undertaken in 1980, we instead get laments for the breakdown of that regime. The premise underlying this discourse is that Victorian imperialism, while morally wrong, was a civilizing force, and that left to their own devices, black Africans forsake “good governance” (a non-parsimonious development term meaning Western institutions and values) and establish tin-pot dictatorships. This is framed in the context of human suffering, to illicit sympathy for the benevolent oppressor contrasted with the malevolent one. Compare this to the more explicitly racist case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who massacred nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015, and a photo of him wearing a jacket with the Rhodesian flag on it. In this image, the pining for the Rhodesia of yesterday over the Zimbabwe of today takes itself to its logical conclusion: black people are a threat to healthy white-run societies.
There is no denying that many Zimbabweans, black as well as white, greeted news of Mugabe’s resignation with celebration. Taking the position that structural factors matter more than the individual choices of one man does not pardon that man for his crimes. Yet the view that such choices and free will override structural parameters means those same parameters will produce the same outcomes. The role of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwean underdevelopment and the misery of its people is irrelevant next to the injustices perpetrated by the West, both in the past and present, whose shadows still loom large over an entire continent that still supplies more wealth than it takes in.