It is an infamous historical irony that the post-independence Congolese leader Mobutu Sese Seko’s Riviera palace was located next to that of the exploitative founder of the colonial Congo Free State, King Leopold II of Belgium. This coincidence speaks to a broader theme — the rift between African colonial authorities and their strongman successors has often proven illusory.
As Zimbabwe’s political, social, and economic crisis builds to a crescendo in light of the contested March 29 presidential elections, policymakers and commentators outside the former breadbasket of Africa continue to labor under the assumption that Robert Mugabe is a genuine post-colonial hero, albeit one who has, through his isolationist anti-Western policies, brought subsequent ruin to his nation. This narrative, which assumes a considerable amount of legitimacy with respect to Mugabe’s post-independence policies, continues to distort global diplomacy concerning Zimbabwe, and is direly in need of correction. After all, the Mugabe regime has far more in common with its colonial predecessors than is typically acknowledged.
At the time of the 1979 Lancaster House conference, which brought an end to the apartheid state of Rhodesia and gave birth to modern Zimbabwe, Lord Carrington expressed his qualms about the rise of Robert Mugabe: “I viewed it with the greatest possible horror. One felt he was a Marxist and one wondered how awful he was going to be.”
Mugabe surprised many observers in his March 4, 1980 election night broadcast when he proclaimed the virtues of reconciliation. “I urge you, whether you are black or white, to join me in a new pledge to forget out grim past, forgive others and forget, join hands in a new amity and together, as Zimbabweans, trample on racism.”
This rhetoric marked Mugabe as a tolerant, progressive hero of the African independence movement, but only served to mask the ensuing enormities that were to prove Lord Carrington entirely correct.
A PARTICULAR CHILLING example is provided by Mugabe’s early crackdown in Matabeleland. Having consolidated power in the aftermath of his electoral landslide, Mugabe in August of 1981 endeavored to import 106 North Korean military advisors to aid in the formation of the so-called Fifth Brigade, which was unleashed against the residents of Matabeleland in a series of massacres known in the Shona language as Gukurahundi, or “wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains.”
The Fifth Brigade is known to have killed around 3,750 civilians (though the number could well be higher). Far more were tortured, and innumerable starvations resulted from the military chaos. Though Mugabe insisted that “you can travel the whole length and breadth of Matabeleland and you won’t find a single mass grave,” the British journalist David Blair notes in his chilling account of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Degrees in Violence, that “hundreds of mass graves have been found all over Matabeleland. There is barely a village without one.”
The crimes of the Fifth Brigade, committed so early in Zimbabwe’s post-independence history, it must be noted, are not wholly dissimilar to the actions of the Smith regime’s counter-insurgent commandoes, and could even be said to be even more brutal.
Further enormities with colonial echoes were committed only a year after the Gukurahundi, in the aftermath of the passage of the Communal Land Act of 1982. Despite the very real grievances of the black population stemming from the Rhodesian Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951, the Land Tenure Act of 1969, and the Tribal Trust Act of 1979, the Zimbabwean Communal Land Act continued colonial policies by perpetuating the concept of state control of communal land and providing district councils with the authority to allocate and authorize the use of land.
The Communal Land Act paved the way for forced dispossession from land, the demarcation of linear villages (often far from reliable water sources or transportation routes), and the burning of prior habitations — all based on the recommendations of district authorities or the central government. In the colonial era, rural farmers had asked, “How can we stay with our ways? The Europeans came and forced us into lines. We used to live here, there, over there, way over there, scattered all about. Now we’re all crowded together, and have to give up our customs.”
Post-independence, the depredations became even harsher. In the fertile Kaerezi region of Zimbabwe, for instance, the Resettlement Scheme sites are now known as maline, “the lines,” the same punning term that was used for the colonial settlements.
THE RHODESIAN AUTHORITIES had based their land allocation policies on a myth propagated by colonial anthropologists who blithely reported that, as J.F. Holleman put it, in Zimbabwe “land is not property (cinhu), it is something you use for a time and then abandon.”
When land disputes arose, British courts ruled according to this received wisdom. In Re: Southern Rhodesia, the English Privy Council found that a contract between Cecil Rhodes and the Matebele Chief Lobengula could not have been valid.
After all, the Court reasoned, “some tribes are so low in the scale of social organization that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with the institutions or legal ideas of civilized society… Such a gulf cannot be bridged. It would be idle to impute to such people some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.” It is a cruel irony that these outdated policies continue to be put into practice by the supposed champion of Zimbabwean independence and African autonomy, Robert Mugabe.
Equally tragico-ironic is that these communal land policies, which have led to the ruination of significant parts of Zimbabwe’s society and economy (indeed the parts which were not otherwise affected by the more recent white farmer land seizure policy), are based on a fundamental mischaracterization of Zimbabwean culture generally. Holleman himself observed that in Buhera, cash compensation was often paid from those inheriting a plot of land to those abandoning it, undermining his own influential thesis of the non-commodity (and thereby central control) of land in Zimbabwe.
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