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Zimbabwe: The End of the Beginning

mugabe_un.jpgI have noticed quite a few comments finding their way back to the site regarding Zimbabwe, Mugabe, and the general state of things between the Limpopo and the Zambezi. While this is a travel site and not a political blog, the two concepts have a certain symbiosis thanks to the fact that politics in the liberation zone often has cultural overtones, so let me air my own thoughts on Mugabe, for what they are worth, and how things are and how they went wrong.

In the Beginning

Before 1980 Zimbabwe was Rhodesia. Before 1890 it was Matabeleland. Associated with Matabeleland was a large area to the north known as Mashonaland which existed more or less to breed Mashonas in order that the Matabele (Ndebele) could kill them. For the Mashona in particular life at that time was brutal, unpredictable, and usually short. The Matabele were a monarchical society ruled by the dynastic succession of Mzilikazi, father of the nation, and later his son Lobengula. The Mashona were a far less cohesive nation, that, although they had at one time been part of an impressive regional empire known as the Mwane Mutapa, had been reduced somewhat by age and circumstance to a weak confederation of clans and language affiliates, with no central leadership, no standing army and certainly no viable means to stand up to the centrally governed, highly aggressive and militant Matabele.

The Berlin Conference of 1885

Into this situation the European powers began to drift after the Berlin Conference of 1885, which laid out the ground rules for European occupation of Africa. These in essence required that colonial powers prove genuine administrative occupation before claim to any territory could be generally recognised. This set in motion what became known as the Scramble for Africa, the most extensive land grab in human history. Interest in the annexation of Matabeleland was expressed mainly by the Portuguese, at that time incumbent on the east and west coasts, the British and the Boer occupying separate cantons of what later would become South Africa, and the Germans occupying Damaraland, or what later would become Namibia. Bechuanaland, or Botswana as it later became, was already a British Protectorate.

The British Empire at that time was the dominant force amongst the European powers, and increasingly, territorial expansion was being spearheaded by publicly subscribed companies such as the East India Company, The Royal Niger Company and others claiming territory in east and central Africa. There were, of course, variations of this theme related to all the competing powers, but again those with a British Royal Charter tended to dominate.

Cecil John Rhodes

Onto the stage then stepped British imperialist and capitalist Cecil John Rhodes who sought to establish a right of passage from the Cape to Cairo, linking all the territories in between under the aegis of the British Crown. Other nations had competing plans, but central to all of these was control of Matabeleland and Mashonaland, and central to achieving this was the pacification of the Matabele.

To try and keep a long story as short as possible let it simply be said that the considerable force of Cecil Rhodes’ personality was applied to the manipulation of the Matabele King in order to gain a concession. This was in effect a plea for protection in order that Rhodes could apply for a Royal Charter and enter the territory with his British South Africa Company in order to effectively annex it for the Crown, and moreover to claim it as the private property of the subscribers and shareholders of the Company.

This was achieved with more than the usual sleight of hand and duplicity common at the time, and a dark stain on the tableau of British adventurism in Africa has always been the episode of how the Matabele were duped into signing their country into the hands of an unscrupulous cartel of British businessmen. The result was not only the dispossession of the Matabele through the inevitable war of conquest that followed, but also of the Mashona, who, at that stage, lived or died according to the fates of the Matabele.

The Land

The British South Africa Company raised it’s public subscription on the strength of projected gold production that in the end never materialised. Very quickly as a consequence land became the only viable currency to keep the company afloat, and in due course land was appropriated arbitrarily with absolutely no regard for traditional tenure or usage, and used as a means to attract investment and settlers into the territory in order to secure its survival. That Rhodesia then became a major regional agricultural producer was on the strength of this, and on the strength of increasing and ever more forceful dispossession of blacks whose population flourished under the pax Britannia.

The Rise of Nationalism

It is this fact and this fact alone that underpinned the rise of black nationalism in Rhodesia in the post war period, and even the general relegation of blacks to second class citizenship in both the rural and urban theatres did not really usurp land as the principal grievance held by the majority against the minority settler government.

The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in Rhodesia were characterised by efforts on the part of an increasingly isolated settler regime to wrest from the Imperial Government in Whitehall the right to political independence based on minority rule. Britain, desirous in certain quarters to comply, was nonetheless held in check by what might be termed the fifth column of the Afro/Asian block in the UN and British Commonwealth that lobbied forcefully for majority rule. Into this highly charged political atmosphere stepped the early black nationalist leaders, principal among them being Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, who had cast aside the tendency of earlier organisations and individuals to adopt an accommodationist approach to minority rule, and questioned not only the right of a foreign minority to govern, but questioned the validity of colonial government in its entirety.

The tendency prior to this had been for the Rhodesian Government to be contemptuous and highly dismissive of the moderate black community leadership made up mainly of catechists and chiefs who sought to work within the system for change. This new generation threw down the gauntlet and actively sought to pick a fight with the government in order to bring matters of governance and social inequality to a head. The net result was ever more violent repression, which, in the order of natural selection, ensured that only the most resilient, aggressive and forceful of the black political activists survived. In the mid 1960s almost the entire black political leadership of the nation was imprisoned or restricted, including Mugabe and Nkomo, who then served lengthy prison terms, in Mugabe’s case more than a decade, as political prisoners in a university of politics that did not favour the moderate.

The Liberation War

Mugabe’s release from prison coincided with the fall of the colonial administration in Mozambique. In the new Marxist leadership of Mozambique Mugabe found a natural ally, and in the addition of Mozambique to the club of enemies of Rhodesia he obtained a 2000km front in order to launch an accelerated war. Just as black nationalist expression had invited increased repression, active black military activity invited the response of an iron fist. This fell on Mozambique and the Zimbabwean nationalist guerrilla bases with a ferocity designed to let the message of white supremacy be felt beyond the merest shadow of a doubt. This was the harshest and most bitter phase of the liberation struggle, and it claimed the lives of many thousands of liberation fighters and civilians as the settler regime in Rhodesia fought to the death with her internal enemies.

The Result

All this then was the political nursery of men like Mugabe. How, then, it surprises the world in general that Mugabe is what he is hard to understand. If we are all products to some degree of our environment, then Mugabe is the product of an environment that did not encourage the growth of moderation, or fair play, or any of the tactics of modern politics. These were crushed and beaten out of the blacks of Rhodesia in a manner that ensured that they were unlikely at any future date to be friendly to white interest.

While this is not intended to be in any way an apology for Mugabe, his regime, and the behaviour of all who have allied themselves to him, it might in some way help casual observers to understand it.

The Return of the Land

The bedrock of the current Zimbabwean crisis is land. While those now dispossessed of land deny with understandable ferocity any suggestion that Mugabe might be true to his own claim of redressing historical imbalances, bearing in mind how he has so cynically manipulated the issue for personal and political gain, political gamesmanship and genuine grievance need not be mutually exclusive. The Liberation Struggle was fought on a platform of land, and the reclamation of what was stolen from the people of Zimbabwe at the turn of the 20th century. Of this there can be no doubt, and any student of the period would agree. That the gains of this agrarian revolution have fallen victim to corruption and plutocracy does not within itself completely negate the value of the revolution itself.

A Rough Neighborhood

The last British Governor of Rhodesia, Lord Christopher Soames, commenting on the first elections held under the rules of universal suffrage in 1980, made a comment that might have been misplaced, but nonetheless told the story of African politics in words truer than any had up until then dared utter. ‘You must remember,’ he said, ‘this is Africa. This isn’t Little Puddleton-on-the-Marsh, and they behave differently here. They think nothing of sticking tent poles up each other’s whatnot, and doing filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I’m afraid. It’s a very wild thing, and election.’

The Reality

So it is. Mugabe is a product of the Cold War. His system of rule is rooted in that time, and moreover rooted in the basic tenets of Bantu powerplay. Traditionally African societies have been ruled by the ‘big man’ who is the arch plutocrat to whom all who aspire to wealth and influence owe a dept of fealty. It therefore stands to reason that when the big man falls to a system as incompatible to his own as democracy, it is not only he who comes crashing down, but an entire strata of powerful people. In fact in is conceivable that the entire wealthy elite of the nation will come down with him, and as a consequence lose their access to wealth with an immediacy that cannot be sustained.

In Zimbabwe, if one considers that some 4000 or 5000 wealthy and connected individuals now own large farms for which they do not hold title deed, and occupy these properties by dint only of their association with the centre of power, they have nothing to gain by allowing that power to fall, and these are the people who currently control the institutions of state. There is also the fact that Mugabe and his close circle of confidants and advisors are implicated in the genocide and slaughter traditionally necessary to maintain power in Africa, and certainly they have enough precedent around them to convince themselves that they are in a do or die situation.

The Future

This, therefore, is what we have, and the death of Mugabe as a political force in Africa represents the last breath of the old system of patronage power, and will take nothing less than a revolution to bring it down. Mugabe may very well want to settle down and forget about politics, but he is trapped not only by his own culpability, but by the needs of a large tree whose tap root he is. The current crisis in Zimbabwe is nothing more than those dependent on that system trying to find some way to soften their inevitable landing, knowing as they do with a crushing certainty that they are going to fall very hard indeed. Mugabe is an old man, a spent force no less, and really it makes no sense to focus anger and resentment upon him. He is a victim of a circumstance far bigger than he, as we Zimbabweans all are, and all that we can do is move through the process, hope that we can survive, and look forward to a brighter dawn that is certain to come.