The southern African state of Zimbabwe is rarely out of the news these days. On the one hand, Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe is portrayed as a madman who brutally represses his political opponents. On the other hand, the British government is happy to forcibly deport victims of Mugabe’s regime seeking refuge in this country. In all this furore, little or no attention is paid to the history of Zimbabwe and its struggle for national liberation.
The country emerged out of an authoritarian racist state, established by the British and handed over to the imperialist adventurer Cecil Rhodes in 1890. Rhodes controlled the area for his British South Africa Company, which was established in the face of wave after wave of popular resistance. This culminated in the creation of Rhodesia in 1898.
Thousands of Africans were driven off their land and herded onto communal “reservations”, or into forced labour in mines and factories. A racial land division prevented Africans from owning farmland in white areas.
They were also denied basic rights, and votes.
Rhodesia’s rulers forced through an industrialisation programme from the 1930s onwards. But as industry expanded, so did the African working class.
A huge strike wave hit the Rhodesian cities of Bulawayo and Salisbury in 1948. This provided the impetus for the formation of the country’s first national liberation movement.
The African National Congress was led by Joshua Nkomo, with trade unionists as its main source of support. This group was banned in 1959, leading to Nkomo forming the Zimbabwe African People’s Union.
Rhodesia’s colonial rulers reacted by backing the Rhodesian Front, led by the thuggish and openly racist Ian Smith. The Rhodesian Front won power in 1962 and Smith declared “independence” from Britain in 1965.
Smith’s move was a reaction to resistance from below, at home and across the continent. The white minority sought to ensure its supremacy by backing Smith and emulating apartheid South Africa.
Nkomo sought help against this decision from the British government. But Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, refused to intervene. This encouraged more radical nationalists, including Mugabe, to break with Nkomo and form the Zimbabwe African National Union.
By the 1970s the fight against white minority rule was led by a left wing influenced by Maoism and Stalinism. A guerrilla war involving around 40,000 rebels was fought across the countryside. The national liberation movement failed to win a decisive victory — but Smith was forced to negotiate. Mugabe accepted the Lancaster House agreement in 1979 and Zimbabwe became independent the next year.
Millions of people celebrated the end of a century of the white minority’s oppressive rule. Mugabe won a landslide victory in the elections. But his government inherited an economy that had been deliberately wrecked by the departing white regime.
Nevertheless, black rule initially saw significant improvements in ordinary people’s lives. Between 1980 and 1985 infant and child deaths fell by about a half. Education spending more than doubled between 1979 and 1990.
The first years of independence also saw an upsurge of strike action, which helped to ensure that the Mugabe government implemented a number of radical reforms.
But independence had come at a price. The 1979 agreement guaranteed the property of the small white population. Mugabe and Nkomo adopted a new constitution that prevented the forced expropriation of white farms for ten years. The white farmers watched with suspicion and hoarded their privileges. None of them were called to account for their crimes under the racist regime, and none of them lost an acre of land.
From the mid-1980s the international bankers were urging Mugabe to change policy. They wanted to see a sharp shift to market reforms and an end to all talk of socialism. In 1990 the country was opened up to the IMF and economic disaster followed. Mugabe still uses the anti-imperialist rhetoric to divert attention from the failure of his regime. But it was his concessions to the white land owners and to neo-liberalism that laid the basis for Zimbabwe’s present predicament.
Since 1995 a series of mass struggles have rocked Zimbabwe, threatening Mugabe and the interests of Western imperialism. It was mass struggles that led to Zimbabwean independence and the defeat of the racist Smith regime. And it is those same mass struggles that offer a solution to the crisis faced by Zimbabwe today.