Zimbabwe at 35

35 years ago on a mild April evening I sat behind the podium at Rufaro Stadium in Harare along with tens of thousands and watched the Rhodesian flag come down and be replaced by the new flag of Zimbabwe. Just in front of me was the President of India and to her left was the new Prime Minister of the country, Mr. Mugabe. On my right was a journalist from the Wall Street Journal in New York and further over was Prince Charles who was doing the honors for Great Britain.

It was the culmination of some 800 years of our history, starting with the arrival in the country of people of Bantu origin who emanated from Central Africa, then the Ndebele under Mzilikazi in 1835 followed soon afterwards by missionaries and hunters from Europe and South Africa and then the first white African settlers in 1893. After several years of armed conflict the local tribes were subdued and 90 years of while rule began.

The years of white domination were by no means a walk in the Park; they came to a country without roads, railways, hospitals and schools. There were no urban centers and no system of government or law. Malaria was endemic and mortality from every sort of malady was common. But the majority of the settlers were from hardy stock and they survived and quickly established themselves and their way of life.

For the first 70 years not a shot was fired in hostilities until the early 60’s when the nescient struggle between the whites and the emerging Nationalist Parties in the form of Zanu and Zapu began to intensify. In 1965 the whites declared unilateral independence from the United Kingdom and mandatory UN sanctions were imposed in 1967 supported by an armed blockade of the Port of Beira. The smoldering guerilla war burst into flames in 1972 and by 1976 the white regime under Ian Smith was forced to concede power in favour of “One Man, One Vote”.

Four more years of conflict and negotiation followed and in turn led to the ceremony that I was witnessing that night in April 1980. It was deeply moving to see representative units of the armies that had recently been in combat, parade and bear witness to the changes under way on the podium. To sense the excitement and anticipation of the people, weary after years of conflict and hardships.

Most of the whites elected to leave the country of their birth and were encouraged to do so by the new regime. By 1985, the white population was down by two thirds and a smooth transition to a Government dominated by the majority Shona population had taken place. The genocide of the minority Ndebele people was under way and would continue until 1987 when their leadership conceded defeat and accepted assimilation into Zanu PF.

The elevation of the Prime Minister to President would take place at the same time and he consolidated his grip on power using the now well recognised tactics of brute force and coercion. Using the resources made available to him by the remnants of the Rhodesian economy and generous support from the international community and global financial institutions, the State rapidly expanded education and health services. A disciplined and well trained army was created out of the multiple groups who had been combatants in the war of liberation.

By 1995 the country was in the grip of a widely recognised contagion that had afflicted many other emergent independent African States, the President had assumed dictatorial powers in a highly centralized administration. He and his cronies were in the process of using the instruments of the State as their personal fiefdom and the Reserve Bank as a source of “free” funds. Corruption was becoming endemic and the country, after living well beyond its means for the previous decade and a half was deeply in debt and unable to support its new social infrastructures.

The World Bank and the IMF intervened and tried to steer the country onto a new path that was more sustainable and growth oriented but to no avail. Attempts to get a sensible land reform programme under way also failed – not because of a lack of international will or commitment but a growing reluctance on the part of the Mugabe led regime to accept limitations on its activities and powers.

Faced with an accelerated fiscal and economic crisis and draconian measures from an increasingly embattled State, a new opposition movement, the MDC, emerged and confronted the regime with demands for change. Initially the challenge was dismissed but when the State lost a referendum in early 2000 and was almost defeated in the elections that same year, the ruling Party shifted gear. Not reforming or attempting to correct any problems but just lashing out at perceived enemies of the State and in the process destroying the commercial agricultural system that was the backbone of the economy.

In 2003, an appeal by the South African President that Mr. Mugabe should not destroy agriculture, because “that would destroy the economy, destroy Zanu PF and in the process threaten the ANC grip on power in South Africa” was just brushed aside. The first attempt to remove Mr. Mugabe followed in 2004 and then again in 2005 following which the South Africans gave up and retreated to watch the crisis in their northern neighbor escalate.

Eventually in 2007, concerned about the growing evidence of an imminent collapse, they intervened and with the support of the global community, forced the Mugabe regime into a GNU with the MDC. However they failed to follow through and in 2013 they allowed Mr. Mugabe to once again take back total control of the State and resume their destructive policies and activities.

The consequences have been immediate and catastrophic – 40 per cent of the banks have closed their doors, billions of dollars have fled the country for safer climes and investment has dried up and the country is now sliding back in economic terms, fiscal revenues are shrinking rapidly and political and social pressures are deepening daily. Deflation has taken a grip on the country and shrinking incomes and a very poor agricultural season is again going to plight the country this year with hunger and even starvation in many areas.

Unlike the crisis in 2008 when the shops were empty, this time the shops are full of imported goods with no one to buy them. Hungry people looking into the windows of those stores and watching the politically connected and corrupt elite spending their money on themselves is not going to be easy to handle.

Certainly we have nothing to celebrate on the 18th April 2015. Our political rights and freedoms secured at such cost in the previous century are lost, our people poorer and cowed. All the gains made at such cost in the first decades of Independence are in tatters. This year, unlike the last, we commemorate our Independence against the backdrop of a struggle for power and control within Zanu PF that for the first time threatens our stability and peace. Let’s all pray that next year will be better.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo 18th April 2015