The Shadow of Rhodesia

By: Cooper Stewart

Oftentimes when one looks back on the period of decolonization in Africa, one tends to focus heavily on the indigenous independence movements that arose from the wave of anti-imperialist fervor that swept the continent. Yet out of all of the new countries that arose in Africa throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, there is one major outlier that exists among them. Because many new governments came to power on the promise of black majority charting their destiny, the short-lived nation of Rhodesia stands out for its opposition towards this premise. Instead, Rhodesia declared independence in 1964 largely on the basis that the government would be ruled and controlled by the substantial white minority that resided in the former British colony. Yet despite its significance in post-colonial Africa, Rhodesia is usually seldom mentioned when discussing Zimbabwe today. Considering the important ramifications that Rhodesia’s existence had on both the politics and economics of Zimbabwe, I believe it is paramount to take another look at the legacy of Rhodesia.

First, it is key to understand what the situation in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa is like today. In the case of Zimbabwe, it has become infamous for its dire economic and political situation. The new president as of 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has not led Zimbabwe in a more democratic direction as many observers had hoped, but instead has repeated some of the authoritarian behaviors of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe. In 2019, it was reported that Mnangagwa was utilizing the army and the police force to crack down on opposition parties critical to his government. Zimbabwe’s economic woes are perhaps best represented by its ludicrous rate of inflation—in August of 2019, the country had an inflation rate of 300%, the highest in the world. Drought has further exacerbated the economic crisis, which coupled with food shortages has left many facing starvation and malnutrition. Zimbabwe’s economic woes have also increased tensions with their neighbors, most notably South Africa, who has recently erected a 40 km fence on its border with Zimbabwe to deter undocumented Zimbabweans from fleeing from their homeland into South Africa. All in all, the situation in Zimbabwe is chaotic, to say the least, and it’s this chaos that has stressed Zimbabwe’s relations with their neighbors. But how does this relate to a past government who ruled almost 50 years ago? The bridge between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe’s woes today can largely be attributed to one man: Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe has a long list of offenses, including corruption and misguided policies. He initially rose to prominence as a revolutionary when he helped found the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963 and was arrested when Rhodesia came to be in 1964. When he was released in 1974, he teamed up with former rival Joshua Nkomo to co-lead the Patriotic Front (PF) of Zimbabwe, which fought a guerrilla war against the Rhodesian government throughout the 1970s. In 1979, when the war ended with an agreement for open, majority elections in 1980, Mugabe’s party, now called ZANU-PF, won in a landslide and he was regarded as a national hero. However, by 1982, his relationship with Nkomo deteriorated and he kicked Nkomo out of his cabinet. This was the first step in Mugabe’s long slide into corruption and authoritarianism, where he accumulated more power over the government as Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated. Everything came to a head in 2008 when the country’s economy completely collapsed during the global financial crisis, which spelled the beginning of the end for Mugabe; he was ousted just nine years later in a coup.

When looking back at Mugabe’s reign, it is critical to look at his experiences in dealing with Rhodesia and how his most controversial (and disastrous) policies were more or less a reaction to those implemented by the white-minority government. Mugabe’s legitimacy as a leader stemmed entirely from his opposition to Rhodesia as a freedom fighter for the black majority of the country. Mugabe’s revolutionary, anti-Rhodesian ideas, especially when it came to economic decisions, hurt Zimbabwe when it came down to implementing laws and decrees. This revolutionary mindset can be seen in what is widely considered as Mugabe’s most damaging decisions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1997, he decided to give in to the demands of Zimbabwean veterans and implement large pensions for those who fought against Rhodesia during the Bush War. The decision reflected Mugabe’s revolutionary mindset as he wanted to handsomely compensate his fellow rebels for their service. Despite Mugabe’s intentions to help veterans, this policy failed miserably and caused the Zimbabwean dollar to fall 72% in value relative to the U.S. dollar. Mugabe’s intervention into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the Second Congo War further intensified the crisis, as Mugabe was reported to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support the expeditionary force he sent to back up the DRC government. All of this builded up to his most infamous economic decision, which was when veterans of the recent Congo War and the Bush War started to occupy white farmers’ land when their pensions became worthless. Against the wishes of his cabinet, Mugabe characterized these occupations as “demonstrations” against the inequality in the agricultural sector and barred anyone from forcibly removing the “demonstrators” from their land. What followed was the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, which resulted in the economy further plummeting while food shortages began to occur. The final nail in the proverbial coffin was Mugabe’s 2009 decision to force all whites and foreigners to sell “51% equity stakes” in any kind of business or investment they held in Zimbabwe that was worth more than $500,000 U.S. dollars. Needless to say, foreign investment dried up considerably after this, destroying any chance of an economic recovery.

One recurring theme throughout these decisions is seemingly Mugabe’s desire to give back to those whom he believed were marginalized under the Rhodesian rule and to prevent those same people from becoming marginalized again under white or Western power. The problem with these noble intentions, and with the “revolutionary mindset,” is that basing policies off of ideals rarely works given the complex situations that exist in reality. For instance, while Mugabe wanted to handsomely reward his fellow veterans for their service, he neglected to take into consideration the wider economic ramifications his actions could have. That lack of consideration for the long-term consequences of actions appears again in his decisions to reform white-owned lands and businesses in the 2000s, as Mugabe’s wishes to prevent white or Western domination in Zimbabwe and allow blacks to control key aspects of the economy again resulted in a major economic downturn and ironically made them more dependent on the West for food imports and financial aid. Mugabe’s failure to embrace a pragmatic, reasoned leadership style in favor of his idealistic, revolutionary leadership style ultimately made Zimbabwe economically worse off than Rhodesia. Ultimately, the shadow of Rhodesia still looms large over Zimbabwe’s economic woes because of Robert Mugabe’s continued attempts to try to be a revolutionary rather than pursuing sound economic practices.