Zimbabwe history and politics

During the 19th century, the British Empire took control of land stretching from the Cape (of Good Hope) to Cairo, fulfilling a vision of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. In 1947 Britian granted independence to India, its most populous colony. The following year the National Party of South Africa (which had been pro-nazi in WW2) won an election victory and severed its ties with Britain, embarking on a path of Apartheid ("Separation"), i.e. the forced separation along racial boundaries under white domination. In 1964 the colony of Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia. Southern Rhodesia, located between Zambia and South Africa, a country with a significant white population, was set to follow. It would take many years and a lot of bloodshed before that.

In 1966, a white minority regime under farmer Ian Smith took power, unilaterally declaring independence from Britain and preventing the colony from being released into indpendence under a government representing the black majority. The settler regime named their new country Rhodesia. It was only ever recognized by Apartheid-era South Africa. When the Rhodesian government banned all political activity by the black nationalist opposition, ZANU-PF and ZAPU decided to turn to guerilla war as their only alternative. The civil war ("Chimurenga") cost numerous lives and eventually wore the white minority down, especially after the Salazar-dictatorship in Portugal collapsed under the weight of a similar guerilla war in its colonies of Angola and Mozambique. From 1976 Black nationalist forces operated not only from Zambia but also Mozambique to the East. More and more white farmers emigrated to South Africa, Britain or Australia.

In the late 1970s the goverment finally agreed to negotiations, which eventually led to the country coming independent as Zimbabwe. In 1980 ZANU won an election victory and Robert Mugabe became the new leader of the country.

The country was not to enjoy freedom for very long: Rivalries between ZANU (dominated by ethnic Shona from the North) and ZAPU (based mainly in Matabeleland in the South) escalated into a low scale guerilla war. The government responded brutally, torturing and murdering many ZAPU-supporters and suspects. ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo went into exile in the UK. Later he returned to make a deal with Mugabe and ZAPU merged with ZANU. Peace had returned, but the country had become a de-facto one party state. When I visited in 1988 and 1989, there was still talk about the suppression of the rebellion in Matabeleland. I remember going through a police roadblock coming into Matabeleland at night, where all of the police were Shona from the north.

Mugabe had always had questionable friends, such as North Korea or Yugoslavia's Tito and later Milosevic. When the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Meriam was overthrown, he was granted asylum by Mugabe, who later rejected calls for his extradition. When Rwanda erupted into a bloodbath and that conflict spilt over into Zaire, Mugabe took sides against the Rwandan government that was pursuing the genocidal Hutu militias into eastern Zaire. He sided with the Kabila-government that protected the Hutus, because that would let Mugabe and his generals loot mineral riches from Zaire, while the war was bankrupting his country.

When I visited in 1988/89. the economy was sliding. Tourism had picked up with peace, but the mining industry suffered from falling mineral prices. Government policies were not pro-market. There were rigid foreign exchgange controls, just like in Eastern Europe in the bad old days. This provided the government with artificially cheap dollars while denying imports to businesses and individuals alike. This naturally bred a black market for Dollars, Pounds and Rands as well as many imported goods, which in turn bred corruption. Many ZANU-politicians were involved in the "Willowgate"-corruption skandal involving a domestic car assembly plant. I saw many brand new black Mercedes limousines Mugabe had ordered for his government officials, while on the other hand many old Renault cars were driving around at daytime without any headlight assembly - which had been smashed in accidents and could not be repaired because no one was given hard currency to buy spare parts. Once the Zimbabwean railways received a loan from Canada to buy turbo-diesel locomotives, but as turbo-chargers burnt out, they couldn't use the trains any more as there was no foreign currency allocated to purchase spare parts, etc.

As if the bad policies and corruption weren't enough, a big drought hit the country. Things went from bad to worse. After the corruption scandals, there were attempts at building a viable opposition, but Mugabe managed to swing the situation his way, with increasingly unscrupulous means. There was widespread fraud in the most recent election in the spring of 2002. Thugs employed by ZANU-PF intimidated, tortured and even murdered opposition supporters. Mugabe even used famine as a weapon, denying food to those who supported the opposition. One after another, independent judges were forced out of office.

Trying to portray himself as an anti-colonialist, Mugabe initiated an unlawful redistribution of land. Granted, in the 19th century white settlers had stolen the best farmland from the black population. But that injustice is no excuse for using violence to steal land from present lawful owners, many of whom are Zimbabwean citizens, and in the process evicting hundreds of thousands of farmhands and employed on those farms and their families. The proper way would have been to use money provided from Western donors, above all Britain, to purchase the land. That did not happen, because this would have prevented Mugabe from giving choice pieces of land to his cronies and his family.

Robert Mugabe has become a cleptocrat, a disgrace to those Zimbabweans and all Africans who gave their lives for freedom and equality. It is time for him to go, before even more people are tortured, impoverished or starve to death.

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