We had pulled over on the side of the road minutes after crossing the border into Zimbabwe. The cab of the truck was surrounded by police who were collecting a fine from our driver for an infringement. Except there was no infringement and this was a bribe not a fine, something that everyone including the police were well aware of.
As we waited nervously I looked at a large dusty lot of cars that had been seized by Zimbabwean police. Some genuinely looked beyond hope but others were in fairly good shape so I presumed their owners either couldn’t pay a bribe or had somehow disappeared. In the middle of the lot was a sign that I was too scared to take a photo of but it said something along the lines of ‘Corruption is not tolerated. Report corrupt police’. These police were bribing us within sight of the sign which says a lot about the state of Zimbabwe today.
We turned onto the main road to Victoria Falls, one of Africa’s major tourist attractions, where saw large billboards erected by the government denouncing corruption and presumably placed especially for tourists to see. It might have been laughable but the tragedy of Zimbabwe is no laughing matter. As we crossed the border a short while earlier I was remembering good friends from this country who were devastated at being forced to leave for one reason or another over the past few decades and would probably never be able to return without some drastic changes occurring.
We pulled into the Victoria Falls township to find the main street lined with beggars and hustlers. As soon as we got off the truck we were accosted by groups of men trying to sell us old Zimbabwean currency. Robert Mugabe and his government destroyed the economy and at one point they were printing one hundred trillion dollar notes. Eventually they stopped trying to fix hyperinflation and abandoned the Zimbabwean Dollar altogether. Today the US Dollar is the favored currency although much of it is fake to the point that forged US dollar notes often come right out of the ATM machines. The old billion and trillion dollar notes are now souvenirs and knowing how much these hustlers were struggling I paid way over the odds for a set that I looked at sadly.
Whilst many people around the world know that something has gone wrong in Zimbabwe and that the citizens suffer under a terrible dictatorship, very few know the story. Yet it is an important one that warns of how the ego and greed of just one person who was once revered as a freedom fighter is capable of bringing a potentially great country to its knees on the pretext that he is saving his people. His story hasn’t ended and when it does it is very likely that the suffering of Zimbabweans will be far from over. I only hope that one day they end up with the right government in power so the beautiful people of Zimbabwe can finally build the future they deserve. Zimbabwe’s story so far is too complex to explain in detail in this post so forgive me for any oversimplification as I attempt to sum up the key issues in a matter of paragraphs when it really deserves multiple chapters.
Zimbabwe’s problems probably began with European colonization, pretty much the same way the problems of many other African nations did. There were a few key differences such as the fact that the majority population at the time of colonization (the Shona) had been the majority as far back as the 10th Century and from that time the land currently known as Zimbabwe had been a Shona state or kingdom of some form. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to take a crack at taking Shona land but were fought off in a series of wars and skirmishes that concluded in the early-1700s.
Shortly after this the Ndebele settled in the southwest of the region when they were driven north from their homeland after a series of bloody disputes with their own people and Dutch colonists. The British arrived soon after with the intention of exploiting mining in the region. Rather than setting up an official colony they established a territory that was run by the British South Africa Company. This territory that covered the Ndebele lands in the south (Matabeleland) and the Shona lands in the north was heavily settled by Europeans over subsequent years and there were several revolts against increasing white rule from both ethnic groups that were ultimately unsuccessful.
Image sourced from Wikipedia Commons
By 1923 the area was well settled by white farmers. The British drew borders and declared the region a self-governing colony called Southern Rhodesia. The borders still roughly mark today’s Zimbabwe whilst Northern Rhodesia is now Zambia. Things largely progressed as they did for other African colonies of the time until 1953 when the British, already growing tired of managing their colonies in the post-war slump, tried to consolidate Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and what is today known as Malawi into one large colony. They hadn’t counted on the fact that even among whites there was a growing feeling of nationalism in Southern Rhodesia that led to opposition of this plan. This eventually caused Britain to abandon the idea in 1963 so that Southern Rhodesia once again became a separate colony.
Things might have taken a turn for the better at this point but whilst Zambia and Malawi were left with a bi-racial democracy (blacks and whites had equal standing in government), Southern Rhodesia clung on to a white minority government led by Prime Minister Ian Smith. The British were willing to give full independence to Southern Rhodesia but only if they instilled a majority rule government. Ian Smith and his party refused then self-declared independence in 1964, an act that immediately cut off Rhodesia from Britain and resulted in a series of UN sanctions.
In the meantime two key black nationalist groups had formed in opposition to the white minority government. ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) were aligned to Marxist-Leninist ideology, believing in the mobilisation of urban workers. They immediately began to resist Ian Smith’s government and after some internal disagreements part of this group split off to form what is now known as ZANU-PF or the Zimbabwe African National Union. It was this group that was eventually led by Robert Mugabe. He was imprisoned by the government shortly after independence in 1964 for opposition statements he had made. He was released in 1974 and shortly took over leadership of ZANU. In the early days ZANU were aligned with Chinese Maoist ideology which basically meant they believed in the mobilization of rural peasants. In the end the government of Zimbabwe was anything but communist.
Both groups launched a long and bloody guerilla war against the Rhodesian Security Forces who were fighting for Ian Smith’s government. ZAPU were supported by the Soviets and ZANU by the Chinese in terms of military training and weapons, each nation thinking this could lead to a communist nation in Southern Africa. This war lasted until 1979 when all of the key leaders were asked by the British to come to London for peace negotiations. This effectively resulted in Rhodesia once again becoming a British colony and soon after elections were held resulting in Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party taking power. Soon Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe, UN sanctions were lifted and all of this was seen by many as a victory for Africans not just Zimbabweans. Mugabe was revered and praised as a brave leader who beat the rich and powerful whites. This admiration became a major part of Zimbabwe’s problem later on when many African leaders were reluctant to criticize Mugabe for human rights abuses, large-scale corruption and bad government simply because he had been such an iconic freedom fighter.
The first sign of trouble was largely overlooked by the world. The Ndebele were the ethnic majority of what was now called Matabeleland. They were largely aligned with ZAPU who were in opposition to Mugabe’s ZANU party. There was descent against the new government because Ndebele feared the implications of majority Shona rule and were concerned that they didn’t have enough representation in government. In the meantime Mugabe had worked with North Korea to have them train an elite combat group called the Fifth Brigade. They reported directly to him and were there to brutally crush opposition which is exactly what they did in Matabeleland via a series of mass executions and other horrific atrocities. Exact numbers of dead are hard to establish with anything from 10,000 to ‘tens of thousands’ reported and it is often referred to as a genocide.
Image sourced from The Mukiwa
Perhaps the true downfall of Zimbabwe lies in Mugabe’s mishandling of land reform. After he took power the best land was still owned by white farmers thus preventing black Zimbabweans from using it to become self-sufficient and to generate income. White Zimbabweans owned a large percentage of farmland despite making up a very small portion of the population. This also created issues with overcrowding as huge tracts of land were uninhabited due to white farms leaving the rural population to crowd into villages or to seek work in the cities. Redistribution of this land had been a key message of both the ZANU and ZAPU groups during the guerrilla war.
At first Mugabe assured white Zimbabweans that they would be able to live peaceably alongside the rest of the population and Britain provided massive amounts of financial aid to enable him to buy land at good prices. It is thought that a lot of this money was effectively stolen by Mugabe and his circle but whatever the reason was he only managed to secure a small amount of land, something that upset the wider population who were expecting to be resettled onto white land in much greater numbers. He then introduced a series of new measures and to make a long and sorry story short, all of these failed to acquire the land that he wanted so by the early 2000’s it was being taken forcibly and often violently from white farmers with several being killed along with their workers.
What is perhaps most astounding is what happened once land was reclaimed and redistributed. Despite having decades to carefully plan and prepare for land takeovers during which time Mugabe and his people could have come up with ways to train people in farming techniques and ways to ensure it was more peaceful and allowed white landowners to retain farms whilst being incentivized to train new landowners, Mugabe simply gave the farms to people he favored who in turn hired people they favored to run them, none of whom knew the first thing about farming so the majority of them were run into the ground. This nepotism along with the squandering of international aid money led to a spectacular economic slump that was mismanaged in an equally spectacular way. Any funds coming into or produced by Zimbabwe were effectively stolen by the people running the country and much of this was sent to secret overseas bank accounts so that it was taken out of the economy altogether. As a result almost every aspect of society began to crumble from a lack of investment in things like healthcare and job creation along with the simple fact that not enough money was circulating within their own economy. Famine became a reality, diseases spread and poverty worsened.
As Zimbabweans began to realise what was happening they protested thus beginning an escalation of human rights abuses that continues today. People were beaten and imprisoned for opposing the Mugabe regime. Elections were held in an attempt to pacify citizens along with an increasingly critical global community but they were almost certainly rigged so that Mugabe retained power with virtually no consequences coming from other countries. Despite talking a lot about supporting freedom of press a leading opposition newspaper was bombed and several foreign news organizations such as the BBC and CNN were banned from the country for several years. This ban was lifted in 2009 although there are reports that international news crews continue to be harassed.
The international community has continually refused to intervene despite confirmed reports of human rights abuses and rigged elections. When hundreds of thousands of people protested the invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the basis of human rights abuses by Saddam Hussein and possible weapons of mass destruction, many in the UK asked why nobody was invading Zimbabwe when there were equally good reasons to do so. The general agreement was that there was nothing there worth invading for. Zimbabwe holds very little in terms of natural resources such as oil. The cost vs reward analysis simply doesn’t stack up for foreign governments so the Zimbabwean people were abandoned.
Image sourced from Wikipedia
Other African nations continue to turn a blind eye. Sometimes for the same reasons or sometimes just because they are reluctant to criticise such a well-known African freedom fighter, even though for many years he has spent more time fighting against freedom than for it. Other African leaders are critical but feel that the best course of action is to wait for him to die, something many people have resigned themselves to do now that he is in his early 90’s. Just this week (as I write) a pastor has been charged in Zimbabwe for predicting the date of Mugabe’s death. That date was 17th October 2017 in case you are interested.
It is difficult to estimate the true cost of Mugabe’s tyrannical rule. There is no doubt that tens of thousands have died as a result of his actions but I am unable to find any concrete estimates. It is certain that he has stolen millions of dollars from his country for himself and his circle to pay for overseas shopping trips in private jets, to build and furnish mansions and to throw lavish parties. Meanwhile millions of his people are facing poverty, famine and disease due to a shortage of funds that he somehow manages to blame the British for. Press stories about the regime are less frequent as journalists focus more on ISIS and the incoming US President but the situation continues today even though you don’t hear about it so much.
Later in my trip I ran into a foreign couple who sponsored a Zimbabwean child via a charity and had visited them in a rural area. I was anxious to hear what they had to say and could probably dedicate an entire blog post to their story. For now I’ll just mention a few interesting observations they made. The first was that they had a government escort the entire time who were touted as tour guides but were clearly police or from some kind of security organisation. They caught them writing down things that they said. The drive there and back showed that people were struggling in rural areas. They said there was nothing growing and hardly any farm animals, those they did see seemed to be starving.
Image sourced from CISA
There was plenty of food when they arrived as the village had come together to slaughter an animal and had laid on a welcome celebration. At one point they found themselves out of earshot from their ‘tour guides’ and were pulled aside by a family member. There was less than a minute to talk but in that time they quickly explained that this was all for show, there was no food but the ‘guides’ had notified them ahead that they had to pool resources from the village to make it seem like food was plentiful, they were not to talk politics even if asked and if they did there would be grave consequences, the nature of these weren’t elaborated on.
I too had an eerie experience in Zimbabwe. I had been warned to not talk politics when there but somehow forgot about that. One night I was at a restaurant with my group and decided to step out for some air where I found an empty table to sit at. Immediately two wealthy looking Zimbabweans sat down with me and started up a conversation with the usual things like asking where I was from and how long I was staying. Within a few minutes they were asking what people in my home country thought of them, what I thought of the political situation and whether I knew anybody from Zimbabwe.
I began to answer truthfully when my senses kicked in to tell me that something was wrong. Why had they sat with me when other tables were vacant? Why did they look so expensively dressed when none of the other locals did? And why were they so quick to delve into politics when usually that is something left until much later in a discussion with strangers? And why was my instinct telling me to shut up when normally I’m happy to talk non-stop?
I’m not suggesting that I was about to be arrested if I said the wrong thing but I had a distinct feeling that I was being cased out by two fairly inept spies. I have no idea what their motive was but it could have been to get me to identify opposition supporters I’d already met. Perhaps it was to see if I was somehow working for the opposition. Or maybe just to score a free meal and some nice clothes for themselves out of Mugabe’s pocket. I’ll never really know as I quickly turned the conversation to rugby then beat a hasty retreat. When I went outside again half an hour later they were gone even though they said they were staying for dinner.
Imaged sourced from Amnesty International UK
I am at a loss to explain why the whole world isn’t outraged at Zimbabwe’s situation. My only thought is that perhaps it is because Zimbabwe is in Africa. As I mentioned in my first African post, the world in general seems to have a view that Africa is a war-torn and disease ridden continent, almost beyond hope and reason. And as I’ve also said before this is simply not true. I often wonder how much more hope there would be if people in the West realised that throwing charity at the continent won’t help it as much as recognizing Africans as capable, smart and ambitious individuals will. So instead of figuring out how we can help free them from corruption and tyranny then giving them the space to catch their breath before finding their own way forward, we seem to instead want to ‘fix’ them by imposing our own religions or economics or ideas of democracy.
Whenever our own governments intervene it seems to be with a caveat such as a trade deal (trade with China and China will help out) or support for a specific cause (help America flight Islamic extremists and America will help out). Nobody seems willing to help out for the simple reason that the more stable and prosperous nations there are on this planet the more stable and prosperous our planet will be.
Whilst everyday citizens in the West are rightly concerned about African animals such as rhino, African people seem to be written off as beyond any real hope so that all we are ready to offer them is our old clothes, old books and maybe the $1 per day it takes to sponsor a child. Occasionally we sponsor groups to go build some houses or paint a school then consider our jobs done. Politically we seem to stay silent and seem to have given up on understanding the actual issues.
What countries like Zimbabwe really need is for the West to be educated, to understand their plight and that the population are willing and able to solve it themselves but can only do that if they are given the breathing space to do so. They need the whole world scrutinizing their governments as well as threatening or actually taking action against tyrannical regimes but with no caveats because over time these ultimately prove to breed more corruption or favor one ethnic group over another, eventually leading to more bloodshed and poverty. This needs to be unconditional support.
If you personally want to help Zimbabwe and any other country like it then my advice is to firstly get educated, secondly try to educate others and thirdly exploit every opportunity you can to let your own government know you want action without conditions and to let their government know that you and millions of others are watching them.
Please note that my cover image was sourced from Wikipedia Commons.