Socialist Worker

A long history of British betrayals in Zimbabwe

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2095

The news of Robert Mugabe’s humiliation at the hands of Zimbabwe’s people will no doubt be cheered on by the imperialists in Downing Street and the White House.

But nobody should believe their cynical claims to care about democracy or human rights in Africa or anywhere else.

The history of Western intervention in Zimbabwe has been a history of brutal and bloody imperialism.

In the 1890s British imperialist adventurer Cecil Rhodes annexed Zimbabwe by force. The country was named Rhodesia and incorporated into the British Empire. White settlers took all the best land.


In the 1960s, to head off the anti-imperialist resistance sweeping across Africa, white settlers unilaterally declared “independence” from Britain.

The mainstream African opposition looked to British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson for assistance – but the British did nothing.

The white regime fought a savage colonial war in which 30,000 Africans died. By the mid-1970s there were 40,000 rebels fighting – and the whites were forced to negotiate.

As the former colonial power, the British oversaw independence negotiations in 1979. It made sure the interests of white settlers and big business were put above those of black peasants and workers.

Around 4,000 white settlers owned 70 percent of the best land. None were called to account for their crimes. None forfeited any land. None had to pay a penny in compensation.


Rebel leader Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party won a landslide victory in Zimbabwe’s first free elections in 1980.

Despite the compromises, the new government massively improved ordinary peoples’ lives. Infant mortality was halved and primary school enrolment doubled.

But his government inherited an economy that had been deliberately wrecked by the departing white regime. The new government was left with debts of nearly $700 million.

In the early 1990s Zimbabwe accepted a World Bank “structural adjustment programme”. Living standards for ordinary Zimbabweans plummeted, yet Mugabe was praised by the West for championing neoliberal policies that benefited the rich.

Mass strikes in late 1997 and the beginning of 1998 involved a million workers. Townships exploded in urban uprisings.

It was to head off this resistance that Mugabe switched back to “anti-imperialism” and remembered the plight of landless war veterans.

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