Zimbabwe: Freedom with Strings

Zimbabwe is the product of an anti-colonial struggle, but the legacy of colonialism continues to plague it.

The area now known Zimbabwe was colonized in the late nineteenth century by British diamond trader, Cecil Rhodes. As with India, the colonization of this part of Africa was done gradually by taking control from many local leaders and went under the British South Africa country before going directly under the British crown. The land was named Rhodesia, in honour of the British agent Rhodes.

Following the Second World War, there was a wave of migration of white settles to Rhodesia. Many of the migrants were from the military who fought in World War II, and were considered inferior to the earlier white settlers and colonists, as they did not have an aristocratic background typical of colonists. Many of them were middle class and working-class white people who were looking new livelihoods after World War II and Rhodesia’s booming economy was attractive.

In the 1960s, there were movements for greater autonomy in the region and the result was a partition of Rhodesia into two independent Black lead nation, in parts of Rhodesia where the white population was low (becoming in time Malawi and Zambia today), and a greater autonomy for a white led African nation of Zimbabwe. The white-led country retained the name Rhodesia.

The transition was turbulent especially in 1965, when Rhodesia declared independence. This state did not have international recognition and was led by a former air force pilot, Ian Smith. Internationally, the British were still considered the rulers of Rhodesia. In the decade that followed, many communities in Rhodesia began to take to militancy, leading to war. The War was called either the Zimbabwean War of Liberation or the Rhodesian Bush War. The sides included the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). The ZANU was led by Robert Mugabe and was support by the Shona speaking people, who represented nearly two-thirds of the country. The Shona people were primarily drawn from the rural peasantry of the country, and were mostly landless and demanded land redistribution.

The ZAPU was led by Joshua Nkomo and was supported by the Ndebele people, who were a prominent minority group in Rhodesia, constituting almost one-sixth of the country. The ZAPU got international support from the Soviet Union, and the ZANU people got international support from the People’s Republic of China. As the war continued, it became embroiled in many similar conflicts in neighbouring countries, but the war finally ended with the setting up of the Zimbabwe Constitution in 1979. This was called the Lanchester Agreement, where the British met with the revolutionary forces to broker a peace settlement. The agreement reserved 20% of the new country’s parliament seats for the white population. There was also an understanding that land reforms from white to blacks would not be pushed for.

These policies remained a barrier for any post-liberation socialist reforms to take place. Nearly 40% of the land in Zimbabwe was owned by a few thousand white families, and the remaining white population felt that their time in the new Zimbabwe was over, and began to migrate to other countries in Africa and Europe. Western powers also would impose sanctions on the country on the grounds of land seizures, civil unrest and human rights violations.

This put the new nation into a difficult situation. To put a nail into the coffin, the gold standard, a commodity that Zimbabwe was rich in, was being replaced. The Soviet Union, an ally in the struggle, was coming towards collapse. Zimbabwe became reliant on support from Western Powers and International Aid to continue. The public debt of Zimbabwe steadily rose, going from 20% of its GDP at the time of independence to nearly 100% in 2008. It hovered around 60% for much of the 1990s.

Being a poor country, Zimbabwe fell into old colonial relations, with energy resources, like oil, constituting most of its import and tobacco and mining products constituting its exports. The losing ground in trade, high public debt, and the inability to implement proper socialist reforms held Zimbabwe in place, both politically and economically.
Politically, this led to tensions between the ZANU and ZAPU parties. The ZAPU accused the Mugabe-led government of ignoring the needs of Western Zimbabwe and leaving them to recurrent famine. Some struggles resurfaced and became militant, leading to low-level warring, where estimates of tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the government. Any half-measured attempts by the Mugabe-government to attempt reforms led to an international outcry of anti-white racism by the government.

The 2000s and 2010s were the worst effects on the Zimbabwean economy. Inflation grew to astronomical levels, from 7% per annum in 1980, to about 112% in 2001, and 8 thousand crore percent in 2008. Hyperinflation made government regulation nearly impossible, and there was a growing black market. Poverty rates and unemployment rates became the worst in the world, estimated to around 80% poverty and 95% unemployment.

In 2009, the Zimbabwe government decided to give up on the Zimbabwe dollar altogether. Debates occurred as to whether to adopt the Chinese yuan, but ultimately, they were made to adopt the US dollar. In 2015, Zimbabwe demonetized their dollar in favour of the US dollar. Only recently, has the Zimbabwean dollar come back into circulation.

Coverage on Zimbabwe mostly focuses on the moral character of its 40-year long leader, Robert Mugabe, and even sympathetic international media coverage sees him as a principled revolutionary turned corrupt and tyrannical politician, but often ignores the economic and political context of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is the product of an anti-colonial struggle, but the legacy of colonialism continues to plague it.


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June 2024


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