Socialist Worker

Britain has played a foul role in Zimbabwe

Issue No. 2296

The mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes conquered the land that would become Zimbabwe for the British Empire in 1890.

The state he set up was named Rhodesia after him—until black people got enough control to change it in 1980. Rhodes was a vicious racist. He said, “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

White settlers, who eventually made up 5 percent of the population, dominated the country.

Even as Britain was forced to withdraw from its colonial empire, the settlers would not concede majority rule. Successive British governments would not impose it.

Rhodesia declared itself independent in 1965.

Allied with apartheid South Africa, the racist state fought a guerrilla war against Africans demanding independence.

African guerrillas under Robert Mugabe defeated the state, gaining independence in 1980.

Mugabe called himself a Marxist and promised radical change.

Indeed, contrary to the empire romance spouted by historians like Niall Ferguson, things improved dramatically for most Zimbabweans—particularly in education and healthcare.

But the British had brokered a peace deal in 1979 that left white landowners in place. Zimbabwe was stuck with Rhodesia’s debt and became part of the African debt crisis.

The International Monetary Fund demanded structural adjustment and privatisation to maintain its loans. Bankers hailed Zimbabwe as a model for how cuts could be achieved across Africa.

The plan stripped away most of the economic benefits of independence and made Mugabe a poster boy for free market capitalism. Eventually it led to mass demonstrations and strikes.

Mugabe forgot those who had fought alongside him in the bush and were now living in poverty. Instead he gave farms to his new rich allies.

The neoliberal role was one he relished for a number of years, though he and his former allies choose to ignore the fact these days.

In 1994 the queen gave him an honorary knighthood at the behest of John Major’s government for “significant contributions” to relations with Britain.

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