At Large

Mischaracterizing Mugabe

He's a post-colonial Ignis Fatuus, committed to the worst of the colonial era's brutality and ruthlessness.

By 5.2.08

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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.

Furthermore, as the modern anthropologist Angela Cheater has noted, "the Shona language has long identified, as huruudza, a large-scale agricultural entrepreneur, representatives of which category had, by the turn of the twentieth century, expanded and 'mechanised' their production, selling the output to white and Indian traders, farmers and miners." Pre-colonial Zimbabwe was in fact a land of international trade and extensive accumulation of private wealth, enabled by flourishing commerce in grain, tobacco, and livestock.

This wealth is what attracted white settlers in the first place, with grave consequences for the autochthonous population. Yet the policies of the Mugabe regime have only perpetuated, and in many instances exacerbated, colonial iniquities.

ALTHOUGH INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION has tended to focus on the Mugabe regime's perversion of law and justice on display in the white farmland seizures of recent years, which have obliterated the economy of what was once the "jewel of Africa," many of Mugabe's depredations can in no wise be described as part of a post-colonial struggle (however misguided).

The massacres in Matabeleland, the maline, the more recent urban land seizures and daily socio-political repression, are all legacies of colonialism, but not in the way that is usually represented. In these respects, the real Mugabe has more in common with apartheid Rhodesia's Ian Smith than with Mugabe's own post-colonial ignis fatuus.

We are told by, for example, the BBC's Peter Greste that every statement from London or Washington on the present crisis in Zimbabwe "confirms a view of the West as one that still cannot accept the idea that Africans should be allowed to shape their own destinies." We are told by newly-elected UN Human Rights Council member Jean Ziegler (he of the Muammar Qaddafi human rights prize) that Mugabe has "history and morality with him." We are told that in the Security Council, China and Libya (those nonpareils of the non-aligned movement) resent any attempt by former colonial powers to decide Zimbabwe's future.

What we are seldom given any sense of, however, is the extent to which Mugabe's most ruthless policies represent continuations of Rhodesian antecedents. Had this been better understood, Mugabe's misleading anti-colonial narrative would have had a far less prophylactic effect, and the world community (and perhaps more importantly, key regional players) might have heretofore done more than, in the words of the South Africa's Sunday Times, "cosset Mugabe while he raped his country."

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.