A venerated house

Making and breaking Zimbabwe

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe was finally forced to resign on November 21. What remains of the world that built him and the country he broke?

Supporters of Zimbabwe’s former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa await his arrival in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Schooled from a young age by a kindly Irish priest, Robert Mugabe both was and wasn’t a likely candidate to liberate his country from the white man, expropriate its fair-skinned farmers, and preside over a vast reorganization of its land and economy, mostly for the worst.

Yet after finally being expelled from power this week after 37 years, it is worth taking a step back to consider the context in which Africa’s now most detested man (seen from the West) rose to power.

Mugabe was born in 1924, 41 years before independence from Britain and 55 years before the end of minority white rule. Though Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia, ceased to be ruled by London in 1965, it remained under the thumb of a small white land-owning ruling class much later than anywhere else on the continent (1979); only South Africa’s Apartheid state and its Namibian protectorate lasted longer (1990).

Though first penetrated by Christian missionaries in the 1850s and later scouted for mining concerns by Cecil J Rhodes’ British South African Company (BSAC) in 1889-1890, the history of the “bread basket” of southern Africa has mostly revolved around who gets what land.

To be sure, Rhode’s BSAC had two goals upon receiving its Royal Charter, modeled on the East India Company, in 1889: to seize the gold of the Afrikaner-inhabited Transvaal and secure exclusive mining rights over Mashonaland in present-day Zimbabwe. At the cost of tens of thousands of lives, it would achieve both.

The first rouse in what later became known as “the Rhodesias” (Northern Rhodesia in present-day Zambia and Southern Rhodesia in present-day Zimbabwe) was the Rudd Concession (1889), in which the BSAC secured 25-year exclusive mining rights in Matabeleland, the home of Zimbabwe’s majority Shona people, to which Robert Mugabe belongs.

Within four years of signing the concession, King Lobengula had been deposed after 700 company troops defeated 3,000 Matabele warriors at the Battle of Shangani (1893), the former suffering seven casualties to the latter’s 1,500, a skirmish in which the novel Maxim gun came in most handy.

In the following decade the most fertile land in Southern Rhodesia, as it was called from 1895 onward, was awarded first to the company’s “Rhodesian” troops and second to European veterans of the two world wars.
The rest, as they say, is history—until it’s not. But more on that in a moment.

All in the family

Like India from 1757-1858, the British South African Company would directly rule the twin Rhodesias from their soft conquest in 1890s until 1923-4, when both were incorporated into the British Empire as self-governing colonies.

An autonomous British colony for the next 40 years, in 1965 the leadership of Southern Rhodesia’s 200,000 whites (ruling over some 4 million blacks) declared a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain.

Resisting impertinent calls from London to enfranchise its black population in whatever postcolonial arrangement might befall it, Prime Minister Ian Smith stoically claimed, “The mantle of the pioneers has fallen on our shoulders to sustain civilization in a primitive country.”

Since Northern Rhodesia had been granted full majority-rule independence in 1964 and renamed itself Zambia (after the Zambezi river, “River of God”), Southern Rhodesia dropped the “southern” and remained that way until 1979.

Practice makes perfect

Thus began the country’s half-century experiment with the international sanctions regime, which began in 1965, and now, after a several decade pause and under somewhat different circumstances, is still ongoing.
With the honor of being the first country in the UN’s then-21-year history to be sanctioned by the Security Council, Rhodesia had an international embargo placed on 90% of all its exports.

In a spirit of cooperation not often seen in the 21st century, all 122 member nations agreed not to sell oil, arms, motor vehicles, or airplanes to the white supremacist state. Even London froze the assets of the biggest Rhodesian players and forbade the consumption of Rhodesian goods in the home market.

Against all odds, the renegade state not only survived but, in a fashion, thrived, becoming the second-most industrialized country in Sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1970s.

It was the bush war from the ground up, rather than the sanctions from the top down, that eventually brought Smith to the negotiating table at Lancaster House in London in 1979.

During that most fateful year, in which China went capitalist, Iran Islamist, Nicaragua socialist, Afghanistan jihadi-Leninist, and Britain neoconservative, Rhodesia concluded a brutal struggle in which 30,000 people lost their lives and white rule was finally brought to an ignominious end.

After a brief five-month intermission as Zimbabwe Rhodesia (including a bizarre regression to formal British colonial rule in the several months it took to hash out a final agreement), “Rhodesia” was dropped and the country has remained Zimbabwe ever since.

Terra nullius no longer

A devout Catholic and teacher by training and temperament who had spent over a decade in Rhodesian prisons, during which time he collected degrees in business, economics, administration, and law, Mugabe seemed very well suited to lead the new Zimbabwe.

Mugabe is a member of the majority Shona people, and the name Zimbabwe itself derives from the Shona derivation dzimba-hwe, or “venerated houses” in reference to the archaeological ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an Iron Age stone city in the country’s southeast thought to date to the 11th century.

Though Zimbabwe had gotten its start as a mining colony, land had been the dominant issue in the 20th century and the question of land reform the most pressing at the negotiations in London in 1979.

After reaching a “willing buyer, willing seller” arrangement in which Britain would establish a fund to compensate “willing sellers” for land given to “willing (non-white) buyers,” the country seemed to have reached a compromise that would avoid Algeria-levels of bloodletting and postcolonial expropriation.

For a country in which 6,000 white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of the country’s land (39%), usually the most fertile, whilst 4.5 million black farmers subsisted on 16.4 million arid hectares and another 8,500 small-scale black farmers possessed 1.4 million hectares of middling variety, land reform was naturally the all-abiding issue of the handover to majority rule.

Yet if anything, the transfer was too smooth—with far too few “willing sellers” and a government under Mugabe too keen on protecting the rights of minority property owners than a great many of the veterans of the “liberation” war would have liked.

By the late 1990s, land occupations were at such a pace that Mugabe even put the question of seizing white farmers’ lands without compensation to a national referendum.

That this coincided with Britain declining to refill the “willing buyer, willing seller” coffers—in the justification of then-British Minister for International Development, Clare Short, “My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonized, not colonizers,”—did not much help.

The referendum failed, which Mugabe and the Supreme Court duly respected, but the often-violent occupations continued, regularly clashing with forces from the ruling Zanu-PF party in the process.

Peace, land, and bread—or just land

Under pressure on all sides from war veterans, landless squatters, and an increasingly acquisitive postcolonial bourgeoisie, Mugabe finally capitulated: in 2001 white farms were deemed up for grabs, and in 2005 all agricultural lands were declared the property of the state.

A century after the British South African Company had rewarded the British soldiers who defeated King Lobengula with the choicest plots in Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe finally caved to popular demands and expropriated the white farmers who had done so well during his first two decades of rule.

Almost overnight, 6.5 million hectares of land were taken from 4,000 white farmers and distributed among 200,000 black farmers, with 2.19 million hectares going to 72,000 large farmers and 4.23 million hectares to 127,000 smallholders.

In one of the largest and quickest land redistributions in history, the Catholic schoolteacher had finally wrought a social and economic revolution upon the “breadbasket” of Africa—just not the kind one might have hoped for back in 1980.

In conjunction with widespread droughts and renewed international sanctions, which this time came with much more of a bite, agricultural production in Zimbabwe fell off a cliff.

From a surplus producer in 2000 to relying on food aid to feed half its population by 2002-3, it was not long before Mugabe and Zimbabwe both became synonymous with agricultural mismanagement on a scale not seen since the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Whatever the myriad and ultimate faults of Mugabe’s, as Mahmood Mamdami has painstakingly shown, one of the biggest losers in Zimbabwe after the land reform was the rule of law.

Perpetually cornered by sanctions, inflation, and desperately depleted foreign reserves, earlier this year Mugabe finally turned to Communist China for an influx of much-needed cash.

In a stroke of divine irony, Premier Xi Jinping suggested he first get his house in order with the World Bank and IMF. Scoffing at this advice, sacking his (Chinese trained) vice president, and attempting to make his wife Grace his successor, he was finally forced to resign on November 21.

Whether his 75-year old Beijing-backed successor Emmerson “the Crocodile” Mnangagwa and his “Lacoste faction” can successfully implement the Chinese model—greater economic freedom with stronger political controls—now steers the fate of 16 million souls.