Zimbabwe at 36 Years Old

36 years ago on the 18th April 1980, I sat next to the podium in Rufaro Stadium in Harare along with 25 000 people and watched as the old Rhodesian flag came down and the new Zimbabwe flag was raised. Just in front of me was the Prime Minister of India, Mrs Gandhi and just to her left was the Prince of Wales who was officiating for the British Government. Next to me was a journalist from the New York Times.

Just 87 years before, a tiny group of white settlers had come to the country and taken occupation of what was to be called Southern Rhodesia after a short war with the indigenous people. This came to be known as the first Chimurenga. There were no roads, no railways, no means of communication except by a man on a horse or a runner. They had no international power behind them and their only source of funding was a coterie of remarkable eccentric magnates who had made their money on gold and diamonds in South Africa.

Never more than 4 per cent of the population, 40 per cent from Scotland and perhaps another 20 per cent of Dutch or Afrikaans origin, the settlers soon discovered that Rhodesia was not another gold or diamond rich State. They had to contend with diseases that had not been conquered anywhere else, they had to build roads and railways over tough terrain with their bare hands. They established a Police Force, the rule of Law and a Judicial system. Slowly they learned how to farm in this harsh environment. Couples staked out farms and lived in crude mud huts until the farm buildings were completed, they cleared virgin land and brought in crop varieties and trees and shrubs that gradually transformed the country.

In 1923 they opted to remain independent from the new Union of South African States, choose Dominion status under British tutelage and as an integral part of the Sterling zone; became a supply depot for Britain. Citrus, beef, maize and tobacco, chrome and gold, nickel and steel all became established industries under the cloak of incentives and free access to the UK market.

In the Great War and then in the Second World War, no country in the Commonwealth made a greater sacrifice for the Empire and for Britain than Rhodesia, it was the only country in the world that had to conscript men for essential duties at home, rather than volunteering to fight in Europe or North Africa.

At the end of the War a new wave of migration came out to the country. Many of the new settlers were highly qualified men and women who had fought in the War and now sought to make a new life far away from the hunger and depravation that gripped post war Europe. Then came the Federation and when, upon dissolution of the Federation, the UK failed to give independence to the country, the settlers simply took it themselves. This resulted in 15 years of UN sanctions and a second war that took tens of thousands of lives and led eventually to negotiations and Independence from Britain on the 18th April 1980.

But the sanctions era coupled to the entry of Britain into the European Union, finally cut the umbilical cord that had created the baby State of Rhodesia. Industry expanded until 95 per cent of what we bought in a supermarket was made locally, we drove locally made hybrid motor cars, we became the second largest exporter of white maize in the world, the second largest flue cured tobacco producer, the largest producer and exporter of cotton in Africa and self sufficient in just about everything except liquid fuels. At Independence in 1980, despite all the pressure and conflict, the local dollar would buy two US dollars.

If the birth of Zimbabwe, like all births, had been bloody, the new child was hardly ready for independent life and mistakes were inevitable. The first was the effort to deal with the Ndebele. Almost like a specter from the distant past, the Shona leadership, remembering the carnage wrought by Ndebele Impi’s in the years from 1835 to 1893 when they rampaged across the region killing all adult males and taking cattle and women at will and resenting their continued spirit of independence from the rest of the country, sought to crush their spirit and mounted a genocidal campaign they called the “storm that washes clean”. By 1987 that was achieved and a broken and humiliated Zapu bowed to mammon and accepted integration into the Zanu led State.

Although the white settlers had made the country their home, they seldom bothered to learn the local languages, did not understand the political and social cultures of the people among whom they lived and dominated. Instead they automatically took it that they were a superior race and that they had a divine right to rule.

So when the Shona leadership of Zanu PF took control of the country after independence, although they had been living together for 87 years, neither side really understood the other and deep seated hurts and legacies were never dealt with. Despite the savage liberation war there was no “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and these painful legacies were left in the ground to fester.

On top of that, the short sighted white leadership had not prepared any sort of succession plan, they simply stuck to the outdated mantra that they knew best and would remain in charge despite their tiny minority status. As a result, men and women who had never managed anything more sophisticated than a cash box in a bush camp, suddenly found themselves in charge of a small, but quite sophisticated economy. Because of the harsh conditions imposed at the Lancaster House negotiations with the help of the “Front Line States” the new leadership had to compromise with the retreating white minority.

However as soon as this mantle had been thrown off by time and Mr. Mugabe was in firm control of all aspects of the State, the delinquency emerged; an unsustainable budget deficit was maintained, the State simply printed money to bridge the gap. Remaining white control of the private sector and especially commercial agriculture was left alone, the commercial farmers, thinking they were secure, kept to themselves, stayed out of politics and went on farming. For 20 years, the one sector that carried on growing on a consistent basis, was agriculture.

Then in 2000, the first real opposition emerged and said that the monopoly of power in the State was no longer acceptable. The people demanded real change and the fight with the MDC began. The Zanu PF leadership, knowing only that they had taken power by force of arms in 1980, reverted to the one game they knew well. In the subsequent 16 years, the country’s population has declined by a third, incomes have crashed to the lowest in Africa and malnutrition and poverty have become endemic. Thousands have died, millions have fled the conflict and the great majority of the white Rhodesians who had made the country their home, have emigrated to greener pastures. Many are destitute as all they owned was invested in the country of their birth.

But for me at Independence at 36, it has not all been negative. We have survived the holocaust, as a nation we have all suffered and in a very real sense have begun to feel and think like a nation – not whites and blacks, Shona and Ndebele, Ndau or Tonga. We now know what does not work and that is a great foundation for building the future. The past year has been the last year under Mr. Mugabe’s rule and hopefully we can at last start to rebuild our broken country with new, younger leadership no longer bound by the shackles of our past.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 17th April 2016