Robert Mugabe and the Poisonous Legacy of British Colonialism

Robert Mugabe and the Poisonous Legacy of British Colonialism

Robert Mugabe and the Poisonous Legacy of British Colonialism

Britain left behind two evil legacies when Zimbabwe gained independence: the harsh lesson that violence works, and a grotesquely unequal distribution of farmland.


The life of Robert Mugabe is a human tragedy, but his awful failure is not all of his own doing. Mugabe could have been another Nelson Mandela—the renowned father of his nation, and a moral exemplar. Instead, he is finally being pushed from power in disgrace, years after a clear majority of Zimbabweans turned decisively against his violent tyranny.

What went wrong? So far, the mainstream media is missing or downplaying key elements of the Zimbabwe story, partly by whitewashing the poisonous legacy of British colonialism.

Although Mugabe’s own generals are orchestrating his downfall, there would be no change if there had not been two decades of courageous resistance preceding the latest crisis. The giant peaceful demonstration in Harare on November 18 is only the latest example of how a broad-based opposition maintained its commitment to nonviolence even after the ruling ZANU-PF party unleashed police, army, and Youth League thugs to assault and murder. One of the opposition stalwarts, the labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has survived beatings and three assassination attempts, during one of which the assailants tried to throw him out of a 10-story building. The pro-democracy forces have won a series of elections since 2000, and only the regime’s brutal force kept them from governing.

It may seem hard to believe now, but Robert Mugabe was once the most popular man in Zimbabwe. No one who was in the country for the historic February 1980 election will ever forget the exuberance of black Zimbabweans as they walked miles through the countryside to giant ZANU-PF election rallies, and then waited in line for hours to vote. That election took place during a tenuous cease-fire after a vicious seven-year liberation struggle, during which young soldiers from Mugabe’s party and another liberation group, ZAPU, fought their way to the negotiating table. I met young black fighters back then who told me the white-minority regime’s troopers routinely hanged anyone they captured; I also heard those white soldiers refer to blacks as “floppies”—because they supposedly “flopped” when you shot them.

The last time I saw Mugabe he was standing in a backyard in the northern suburbs of Salisbury, as Harare was still called, about to reassure the world after ZANU-PF’s smashing victory, while his elegant first wife, Sally, passed out home-made snacks to the international press. His soothing remarks won widespread approval, and Zimbabwe settled in for several years of peace and reconstruction.

But Britain had left behind two evil legacies: the harsh lesson that violence works, and a grotesquely unequal distribution of farmland. Legally, Britain had remained responsible for the colony it still called Rhodesia, and so it was Prince Charles who appeared at the ceremony that April to lower the Union Jack. In fact, the white colonialist Rhodesian minority, led by a disagreeable, slippery big landowner named Ian Smith, had unilaterally declared “independence” from the UK in 1965, in order to maintain a system of white supremacy just like that of apartheid South Africa. Smith boasted that Rhodesia would not have black-majority rule for “a thousand years.”

Black people noticed right away that Britain let Smith and the white Rhodesians get away with their illegal declaration. The UK had dispatched troops when its darker-skinned subjects rebelled in places like Kenya and Guyana, but no paratroopers landed in Salisbury to quell the uprising. London confined its intervention in Rhodesia to meaningless words and idle threats.

Meanwhile, the Rhodesian regime arrested the black nationalist leaders who had campaigned nonviolently for justice and sent them to prison camps. Robert Mugabe, a secondary-school teacher, was locked up for 10 years. His only child, a son, died when he was in detention, but Smith did not let him attend the little boy’s funeral.

So when the new Zimbabwean government faced armed threats in the early 1980s, Mugabe and the others reacted instinctively with more violence. After dissident former guerrillas staged attacks in southwestern Matabeleland, the government waged a reign of terror in the province; no one knows for sure, but at least 1,500 civilians may have been killed. An ugly ethnic dimension surfaced, as the government’s forces were overwhelmingly from the Shona-speaking majority, while Matabeleland is home to the Ndebele people, some 20 percent of Zimbabwe’s total.

At the same time, the land time bomb was ticking away. At independence, some 6,000 white farmers, British settlers or their descendants, owned half the countryside, while 4 million black Zimbabweans were squeezed into the other half. When Kenya won independence in 1963, Britain had helped buy out white farmer/settlers, promoting a relatively peaceful transition. A broad class of small black farmers is a major factor in Kenya’s economy and a source of stability. But in Zimbabwe, the UK offered a laughably low amount of compensation.

The Zimbabwean government waited patiently as land pressure grew. Then, in 1997, the new Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, reneged on even the minimal pledge. A member of his cabinet, Clare Short, made a clumsy, insensitive statement arguing that her ancestors were Irish; they had also been victims of British colonialism; which somehow meant that she and the UK owed Zimbabweans nothing.

Meanwhile, the economy, after growing steadily in the first decade of independence, stagnated. Mugabe did not in fact launch the widespread land invasions in 2000, but he soon opportunistically realized that he could shore up his weakening popularity if he jumped in to support them. At least seven white farmers were killed in the subsequent violence. The land seizures got worldwide attention, although the British treachery that had indirectly contributed to them was barely mentioned.

(There is a surprising and encouraging sequel. The latest studies suggest that after the first years of chaos, the land reform is actually starting to succeed. By one estimate, 10 percent of the formerly white-owned land was seized by ZANU-PF cronies, and some high-level officials did grab several farms each. But the remaining 90 percent is now in the hands of some 1.5 million black Zimbabwean farmers, and production levels are rebounding.)

I last visited Zimbabwe in 2014, more than 3 decades after I had regularly reported from there during the first years of independence. I found that economic collapse and a sour atmosphere of corruption, opportunism, and violence were unquestionably part of the daily reality. As many as 4 million people—a third of the country—had fled into exile, mostly to neighboring South Africa. A 37-year-old teacher named Khaya Mabika told me, “We have young people of 15 who do not know that water comes out of a tap.”

Zimbabweans confronted the chronic economic crisis with characteristic ingenuity. In the worst year, 2008, gasoline shortages got so bad that people with cars waited in line for days. Tendai Tapera, another teacher, chuckled: “You were allowed to jump to the front of the queue if your vehicle was carrying a coffin with a corpse inside. So some enterprising small businessmen loaded empty coffins with weights, and drove around from one petrol station to another.”

The Zimbabweans I met did emphasize that ZANU-PF is not a one-man Mugabe show, but a political-economic mafia, with several factions. They had no illusions about Emmerson Mnangagwa, the long-standing ZANU-PF commissar who is now likely to take over from Mugabe. “Mnangagwa is certainly cruel and repressive,” Mabika explained. “But he has ties to business, both inside Zimbabwe and overseas, and he understands the country has to reduce violence to give the economy a chance to recover.”

There is cause for hope. If the repression does continue to ease, the mass pro-democracy movement of the past two decades may thrive again, especially contrasted with a ruling party that has long since lost any shred of genuine idealism. For Robert Mugabe himself, the enthusiastic Harare crowds last Saturday may be a painful reminder of what once was, and of what might have been.

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