Search blog articles


Zimbabwe: The End of an Era?

Robert Mugabe

As Zimbabwe stares into its future after the political demise of Robert Mugabe, it is worth recalling the circumstances which brought him to power in the first place. British decolonization of Africa was generally a smooth process, once the decision had been made to leave, with two very significant exceptions: Kenya and Southern Rhodesia. What united these two territories was the presence of a significant white settler population. While British public opinion may have been generally reconciled with the loss of the country’s colonies, it was not ready to see white settlers abandoned to their fate in countries ruled by an African majority, and politicians in London found it difficult to resolve the ensuing impasse. The situation in Southern Rhodesia took a turn for the worse when the settlers, knowing that patience with their cause was soon to expire in London, took matters into their hands by proclaiming, unilaterally, their independence. They were marshalled politically by the Rhodesian Front and this party, in turn, was led by Ian Smith. For all his bravado, however, Smith would not have dared to break with Britain had he not been assured of a high level of cooperation by Southern Rhodesia’s white-governed neighbours, South Africa and, through its colony of Mozambique, Portugal.

Southern Rhodesia had been, since the 1950s, part of the Central African Federation, an ill-conceived attempt by the British to prolong their control over the region. The Federation brought together the quasi-Dominion Southern Rhodesia, with its significant white minority, and the more traditional colonies of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). Southern Rhodesia’s black majority had opposed the formation of the Federation, which they interpreted – correctly – as a last-ditch attempt to preserve white rule in a country which, they believed, would otherwise soon be theirs to govern. Such opposition turned to anger when the white population greeted the coming end of the federal experiment not by accepting that the colonial era was over, but rather by entrenching their political and economic power. The Rhodesian Front was the vehicle for this unequivocal defence of minority rule and white control of the best agricultural lands in the country. Rhodesians did not speak of apartheid, like their southern neighbours, preferring the term ‘partnership’ (even if, in an unguarded moment, one of their leaders referred to that partnership as akin to the relationship between a rider and his horse).

If Southern Rhodesia’s blacks had a leader at this time it was Joshua Nkomo, head of the National Democratic Party [NDP]; Nkomo believed in an essentially peaceful path to power, trusting that, at the end of the day, Southern Rhodesia’s path to independence would not differ too greatly from those of its partners in the Federation. There might be agitation, even a state of emergency, but at the end of the day Britain would come to terms with the loss of the territory and bend the settlers to its will. It was not to be. Repression in Southern Rhodesia was constant, the NDP being made illegal and coming back to life as the Zimbabwe African Popular Union [ZAPU]. Nkomo’s patient approach eventually led to a split within Zimbabwean nationalism. A new wave of activists, clamouring for direct action, was rising through its ranks. Robert Mugabe was one of them; his education – including a degree earned in South Africa’s Fort Hare University – naturally marked him out for a leadership role. A school teacher, he had worked for a time in Northern Rhodesia and Ghana before returning home. By the time Ian Smith declared UDI, Mugabe, married and a father, had already been jailed for his political activities. He would remain in prison for some ten years, all the time rising through the ranks of another organization – the Zimbabwe African National Union [ZANU].

The ZAPU/ZANU split was at the heart of much of Zimbabwe’s troubles. Nationalists had entered politics in the expectation of a swift transfer of power, as had occurred elsewhere in British Africa; but the settlers had stolen a march on them and imposed a system which grew more repressive as time passed. Nationalists had then resolved to take up arms; but this was not an easy step. Arms, training, funds, and safe havens were needed – but nothing came for free. African liberation movements were caught up in the politics of their foreign patrons, and so ZAPU and ZANU were victims of the Sino-Soviet split. Moscow and Beijing  were jockeying for position in the Third World and southern Africa in particular; its riches beckoned, as did the vital Cape Route (doubly important after the closure of the Suez Canal by Egypt in 1967). Nkomo’s ZAPU, based in Zambia, received most of its support from the USSR. The first to take up arms, it was committed to laying the basis for a conventional military campaign: a tall order against the highly professional Rhodesian forces, backed by South African police detachments. ZANU, based in Tanzania, was backed by China and was accordingly applying Mao Zedong’s revolutionary tactics to the Zimbabwean situation. It met with greater success, thanks in part to the weakening of Portugal’s control over the district of Tete, in northwest Mozambique. There, working alongside the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique [FRELIMO], ZANU fighters established bases from which the infiltration of their homeland could begin – albeit at a terrible price. Alongside this external alignment, an internal alignment was taking place. ZANU came to represent the country’s largest ethnic group, the Shona; ZAPU became the voice of the Matabele, less numerous.

Supported materially and militarily by South Africa and Portugal, Rhodesia was never recognized as a legitimate state by any other country, and was subjected to an economic boycott (with varying degrees of success). Britain, still seen by the international community as the legitimate ruler of the territory, was forced by the Commonwealth to reach a solution that enshrined black majority rule; Ian Smith, eager for international recognition, was willing to talk – but not to make meaningful concessions. Time and time again the British and Rhodesian governments engaged in negotiations; occasionally gestures of goodwill were necessary. In March 1973, as part of this process, Mugabe was released temporarily from jail; he escaped, fled into Mozambique, and set about establishing control of ZANU. The murder, at this time, of Herbert Chitepo, the organization’s most prominent figure, helped him in this task. Mugabe’s timing was perfect. A year later the Portuguese ‘Carnation Revolution’ sounded the death knell of Portuguese colonialism, and ZANU’s ally, FRELIMO, led by Samora Machel, inherited power in Mozambique. Rhodesia’s border was now too long for its small army to patrol: Smith and the Rhodesian Front could only now delay the inevitable. More and more whites left Rhodesia, sure that its days were numbered.

Events in Portugal brought about a change of attitude in Rhodesia’s sole remaining friend, South Africa. Premier John Vorster decided to change tack, betting heavily on diplomacy. Détente was the new watchword. If other African powers hung the exiled African National Congress [ANC] out to dry, and left South Africa to its own devices, then Pretoria would share the bounty of its economic power and technological sophistication with them. As a sweetener, Rhodesia was offered on a platter. Vorster assured the ‘frontline presidents’ – men like Samora Machel, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – that he could bring Smith to the negotiating table and keep him there until a solution was found which enshrined African majority rule. Civil war in Angola (and South Africa’s disastrous intervention in that conflict, thwarted by Cuban soldiers and Soviet arms) focused everyone’s mind on the task at hand. Relentless pressure was brought to bear on Smith as Henry Kissinger – eager to prevent the appearance of another Soviet-aligned state in the region – involved himself, but to no avail. Ian Smith held out, refused to compromise, and embarked on a new course: the ‘internal settlement’. This meant surrendering the foremost positions within Rhodesia – now renamed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia – to African politicians, while economic and military power remained in white hands. If the right formula could be arrived at, not only South Africa, but even Britain – where the new Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, close to attaining power, was sympathetic to the white Rhodesians – might rally around Salisbury. That Mugabe would never agree was clear, but Smith hoped to lure Nkomo back into the fold. It was not to be, and Smith had to content himself with the lesser figures of Bishop Muzorewa and Reverend Sithole to make his internal settlement work.

Ian Smith, Leader of the Rhodesian Front, 1964-

This was, in many ways, the most difficult moment in Mugabe’s career. Elections were held in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and an impressive two-thirds of the electorate participated, sanctioning the new dispensation. But the war continued, and the rest of the world refused to acknowledge the validity of the ‘internal settlement’. By now Rhodesian forces were acting with terrifying violence, entering Mozambique almost at will in an effort to destroy ZANU. The Selous Scouts, the most infamous of their units, became masters in the dark arts of counter-insurgency warfare. Armed action was also undertaken against Zambia, especially after ZAPU shot down two Rhodesian Airways flights, with heavy loss. The situation was untenable for all concerned. Thatcher’s arrival in power changed the dynamic. On the one hand, the Commonwealth once again prevailed, forcing London into yet another negotiating aimed at a lasting solution; on the other, white Rhodesians believed that in Thatcher they finally had a British Prime Minister whom they could trust. As had happened before, South Africa – now led by P.W. Botha – forced the Rhodesians to the table. It was Pretoria’s hope that, unable to make concessions, Mugabe – the man they feared the most – would be frozen out of the process, while Nkomo would come into the tent, giving Zimbabwe-Rhodesia the legitimacy it still lacked in the eyes of the world. That too was London’s hope.

As negotiations stalled in London – Nkomo was not willing to play the West’s game, and Mugabe remained intractable – the war continued. The deadlock was broken by the frontline Presidents who, weary of violence within their own borders, forced Mugabe to make a deal under threat of abandoning his cause. On the other side of the table, Smith, equally intractable, was jettisoned by his closest colleagues, be they politicians, be they military men. They too were eager to reach a deal, especially since there seemed to be an unspoken assumption from almost all participants: whatever happened, Mugabe would not take power. Guarantees were given to the white minority of parliamentary representation, the preservation of their property, and an ordered transfer of authority, especially on police and defence matters. The Rhodesian armed forces and intelligence service would remain in place for a time; ZANU and ZAPU fighters could return, but remain in barracks during the electoral process. A British governor arrived in Salisbury to oversee elections.

Against most predictions, Mugabe’s ZANU not only won, it secured an absolute majority in parliament. Its 62% of the vote guaranteed it 57 seats; Nkomo’s ZAPU secured only 24% of the vote, and 20 seats. Muzorewa, the face of the ‘internal settlement’, attracted a mere 8% of voters, for 3 seats. Ethnic loyalty had spoken loud and clear. Mugabe was warned by Samora Machel that the flight of the white population would be an economic disaster, and, accordingly, made moves to inspire confidence among the remaining settlers. General Peter Walls was kept on as commander of the armed forces; The Rhodesian Front’s David Smith (no relation), was appointed Minister of Commerce; and Denis Norman, President of the white commercial farmers’ union, was named Minister of Agriculture. Joshua Nkomo, became Minister of Home Affairs. The challenges were immense. First and foremost was the expectation of higher standards of living by the black population, who demanded great and immediate strides in education, health, and land ownership. 27,000 had died in the war, and five times that number had been wounded.  How, then to heal rifts, including those that had developed between ZANU and ZAPU? Then, of course, there was the fact that Zimbabwe had become a front-line state, facing Pretoria’s hostility. Just as it had inherited many of Portugal’s covert operatives after 1974, so too did Pretoria now open the door to those who had for years carried on the fight to defend white-run Rhodesia.

Whatever spirit of reconciliation existed was short-lived. ZANU had been organized as a Marxist party; it aimed at total control of the State. Its Politburo – the most important party body – had been appointed by Mugabe, and was completely loyal to him. He, in turn, was reliant on former military commanders and veterans for his authority. In such circumstances, sharing power in any meaningful way with other groups would prove impossible. In July 1980 Mugabe re-imposed Smith’s old state of emergency, and began to settle old scores. Veterans of ZANU’s armed struggle were shaped into a militia, assembled with North Korean support, known as the Fifth Brigade. Over the next few years it would be used to lay waste to the Matabele homelands, in an assertion of ethnic dominance that left thousands dead. The Minister for State Security at this time was Emmerson Mnangagwa, now President of Zimbabwe. While the South African intelligence services, which distrusted Mugabe and wanted Zimbabwe to fail, sowed distrust, the West turned its gaze away from these events.

This violence was designed in part to permit the creation of a one-party state, the norm, at the time, in Africa. ZAPU was slowly hounded into submission. In December 1987, Mugabe and Nkomo signed a Unity Accord, creating a single party (ZANU-PF). This occurred alongside a constitutional reform that did away with the twenty guaranteed white parliamentary seats, which the Rhodesian Front had continued to monopolize. This meant breaking the Lancaster House Agreement, according to which there would be no constitutional change in the first decade of independence. In the late 1980s, and into the 90s, Africans began to question the continued privileged lifestyles of the remaining whites (100,000 by 1990). There had been little shift in the latter’s settler mentality, and they continued to be important landowners as well as players in the commercial private sector. But there were other complaints among the African population. Huge investment had been made in education, especially at second level. The same had occurred with social and health services. The legal status of women had improved. But the economy was not growing sufficiently quickly to provide suitable employment to the thousands of new skilled and educated workers emerging from the schools every year. A troubled economy spelled greater urgency for the trade-union movement, headed from1988 onwards by Morgan Tsvangirai, future leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. And there remained the question of the land settlement – rallying African opinion by taking land away from commercial farmers was Mugabe’s next step. This time the West protested, to no avail.

Emmerson Mnangagwa’s long association with Robert Mugabe, disturbed only by the latter’s desire, late in his life, to establish some kind of family dynasty through his younger wife Grace, suggests that some caution is required when considering that a page has been turned in the country’s history.

Published: 07 Dec 2017  Categories: History, Politics

Share this page

Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses is Professor of History at Maynooth University. A member of the Royal Irish Academy, he is the author of numerous works on Portuguese history from the First World War to the period of decolonization in the 1970s. With Robert McNamara, he is the author of The White Redoubt, the Great Powers and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1960-1980, to be published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.