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Reflecting on Zimbabwe

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Picture: Zinyange Auntony / AFP / Taken on August 26, 2023 – A man is grabbed by citizens after disrupting the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) spokesperson Promise Mkwananzi during a press conference in Harare, Zimbabwe on August 26, 2023 as the country awaits for the presidential and legislative elections results.

By Kim Heller

April 18, 1980, was an auspicious day in the liberation diaries of Africa. It was the day that Zimbabwe, the last European colony in Africa, gained her independence. The Washington Post’s Jay Ross wrote “the strife-torn colony of Rhodesia became the independent, black-ruled nation of Zimbabwe today, ending 90 years of white domination and 15 years of illegal independence”.

Ross wrote, “The independence ceremony, presided over by Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, began at midnight when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in an African colony and the new five-coloured Zimbabwe flag was raised”.

The independence ceremony held in Harare was a grand festival of freedom and promise. It was attended by representatives from approximately 100 countries and 35 000 Zimbabweans. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe took the oath of office. He spoke of how the reconstruction and rehabilitation of society and the reinvigoration of the country’s economic machinery was top of his agenda.

Mugabe urged Zimbabweans to unite and help build “a great Zimbabwe that will be the pride of all Africa” Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere said to Mugabe “You have inherited a jewel in Africa. Don’t tarnish it”.

Bob Marley and the Wailers formed part of the historical celebrations. Their 1979 Survival album was a lyrical lament of liberation. Included in the album were the popular tracks ‘Africa Unite’ and ‘Zimbabwe’ both of which had inspired the like of Mugabe and other freedom fighters in their crusade against the white minority Rhodesian government.

‘Zimbabwe’, an anthem of Pan-Africanism reflected the euphoria of the liberatory moment, “Set it up in (Zimbabwe)! Mash it up-a in-a Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)! Africans a-liberate (Zimbabwe), yeah”.

But the wail of freedom soon grew silent as economic failure rather than political utopia became the order of the day in Zimbabwe.

In 2010, the renowned decolonisation scholar, Dr. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni posed a critical question “Why it is that thirty years after gaining political independence, Zimbabweans are still fighting for a ‘New Zimbabwe, A New Beginning’? What happened to the ‘New Zimbabwe’ and ‘New Beginning’ that unfolded on the 18th of April 1980?

Zimbabwe is a nation that should have flourished but never has. What should have been a nirvana became a wasteland. The first four decades of democracy in Zimbabwe have been fraught not only with local conflicts and clashes but with international economic warfare.

The reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reinvigoration that Mugabe had promised, was outwitted, and overtaken by destruction and devastation. Instead of unity, Zimbabweans fought Zimbabweans in long running and bloody ethnic battles just two years into independence.

The imposition of highly punitive economic sanctions caused grave damage to ordinary Zimbabwean citizens. IMF loans were withheld, aid stopped, and Embassies shut down. By all accounts, Zimbabwe was closed for business by the West. Deliberately so.

The West’s justification for sanctions was that it was a legitimate and necessary response to alleged human rights abuses and land seizures. But in truth it was a mechanism to cripple Mugabe and his liberatory agenda. In his Washington Post article on the liberation of Zimbabwe, journalist Jay Ross describes Mugabe as a “guerrilla leader feared by the white-minority community”. Mugabe’s political programme, especially his strong land policy, was seen as a frontal attack on white power and influence in the Continent. His political agenda had to be thwarted.

Sanctions were the death knell for both Mugabe and the fragile Zimbabwean economy which fast deteriorated into junk status. Mugabe’s hopes of creating an independent, self-sufficient, and sovereign wonderland turned into a wander-land of destitution. Not only because of the imposition of sanctions and other punitive measures by Western powers, but because of some major political and ethical lapses by those in power.

The legacy of Mugabe for some is of a heroic African leader who fought valiantly and until the bitter end against western neo-colonialism. For others, he was the epitome of a ruthless, violent dictator whose insatiable hunger for power destroyed a viable economy and currency.

For all his radical speak on black liberation, and his revolutionary ideological stance, Mugabe never attained sovereignty for Zimbabwe. A sovereign nation cannot be brought to its knees by sanctions. A nation build on a vision and diet of self-sufficiency would never see its own citizens battle hunger on a daily basis.

Sanctions have continued to batter and break Zimbabwe. In 2020, political scientist and international relations expert, Dr David Matsanga said “The sanctions imposed by the West on Zimbabwe, are no longer about inculcating good governance and freedoms but a tactless, miscalculated economic warfare, fashioned to ‘kill’ Zimbabwe”.

Today, Zimbabwe is in bad shape. The economy is struggling for a breath of life. According to Gift Mugano, an economics Professor, Zimbabwe’s economic outlook for 2023 is gloomy. Professor Mugano contends that “Zimbabwe is entering a very volatile social and economic period which needs level political minded leaders to handle this with care, but I don’t see [the authorities] having that capacity to think straight in terms of management of the affairs of Zimbabwe”.

With recent statistics showing that only 30 percent of Zimbabweans are formally employed, joblessness is an everyday pandemic for ordinary citizens. With approximately 6.7 million people living in extreme poverty, Zimbabwe is crying out for remedy. The recent, albeit disputed, re-election of Emmerson Mnangagwa is unlikely to be the right medicine, unless he addresses the issue of total sovereignty.

Unless Mnangagwa or any other leader of Zimbabwe completely changes the structure of the colonial economy which cannot in its current form serve the people of Zimbabwe, and block all ports of economic corruption, locally and internationally, ordinary citizens will continue to suffer. The nation will be torn apart by lack of food security, joblessness and mired in ethnic divisions and economic stagnation.

Siphosami Malunga, a Zimbabwean constitutional and human rights lawyer who has worked on elections in Africa wrote in the Africa report this week. His viewpoint is that the recent Zimbabwean election was “usurped by a self-interested ruling party and does not solve the legitimacy crisis or provide a roadmap to save the devastated economy”.

Malunga writes “This stolen election is likely to derail efforts led by the African Development Bank and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano to win international support for Zimbabwe to restructure its $18bn of foreign debt arrears. That support was premised on governance reforms and holding credible elections”.

Malinga foresees the continuation of an insanely high inflation rate (in June the inflation rate stood at 175 percent), the ongoing destruction of the local currency and the appalling level of unemployment which he writes has forced about a quarter of the population into exile.

Emmerson Mnangagwa has spoken often over the past two years of a “new Zimbabwe” which is “open for business.” There have been some gains. Mining investment is dramatically up, as is wheat production. There is also measurable infrastructure repair and construction in place. It is an encouraging development. But a brighter future for Zimbabwe is likely to be a long walk indeed.

Dr Ndlovu-Gatsheni has written extensively about the failure of the decolonisation project in Africa. He contends that the Zimbabwean national project just like that of most ‘early decolonisers’ has not culminated in greater freedom for Zimbabweans.

He writes of how many post-colonial African leaders, including those in Zimbabwe have failed to deal with five critical challenges which are at the soul and engine of decolonisation. The first challenge, Ndlovu- Gatsheni writes is to forge a national consciousness out of a multiplicity of racial, ethnic, and religious groups. The second is to fashion a suitable model of governance relevant to societies and peoples emerging from colonialism and apartheid.

The third is to imagine and implement models of economic development relevant for promotion of rapid economic growth to extricate postcolonial societies from underdevelopment. The fourth challenge is to examine, understand and determine the role of the African postcolonial state in the economy and society. And the fifth is for new African political leaders to establish how they promote popular democracy after this was denied by colonialism and apartheid.

Unless and until African leaders have adequately studied and adequately addressed these fundamental questions, true sovereignty and sustainable liberation will remain a faraway land. As Kwame Nkrumah said, “people can gain territorial independence but not gain economic, epistemic, or cultural independence”. Such is the nature of neocolonialism which still reigns through much of Africa. As long as African leaders participate in this exploitative system, the people of Africa will remain exploited and poor colonial subjects.

In the words of Bob Marley’s song entitled Zimbabwe “soon we’ll find out who is the true revolutionary, cause I don’t want my people to be contrary…and brother you’re right, you’re right … we gon’ fight), … we gonna fight for our rights”.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.