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Britain’s colonial crimes in Zimbabwe

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As Mugabe’s henchman Emmerson Mnangagwa takes the reins of the Zimbabwean state, Tomáš Tengely-Evans looks at how the crimes of imperialists shaped Zimbabwe's history
Issue 2582
Young people resist being called up to the Rhodesian armed forces in the 1970s
Young people resist being called up to the Rhodesian armed forces in the 1970s

Theresa May claimed that Britain was “Zimbabwe’s oldest friend” after Robert Mugabe’s downfall.

But with “friends” like Britain, Zimbabwe would not need enemies.

Zimbabwe suffered more than a century of British colonialism and white minority rule. It only won independence in 1980, much later than many of Britain’s other African colonies.

Before that a minority of 225,000 whites ruled over 5 million black people through repression and murder.

Black people were locked out of political power by racist legislation and forced to work for white capitalist farmers and mining bosses. A year before independence 5 percent of the population still owned 70 percent of the most fertile land.

This apartheid-style set up was no accident.

Until 1980 Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia, named after the racist and imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes made his money from diamonds in South Africa in the 1870s.

At the time South Africa was made up of two British colonies and Dutch settler “Boer republics”. Rhodes bought up the mining rights on the De Beers farm in the Boer Orange Free State.

Through brutal exploitation of African workers and industrial sabotage of rivals, Rhodes’ De Beers Corporation became a world monopoly. It retained its position until the 2000s—and still plagues the region.

Rhodes was determined to increase the profits of De Beers and South African capitalism and extend British imperialism’s reach.

He founded the British South Africa Company (BSAC), a corporation with its own paramilitary force. This was a vehicle for Rhodes’ imperialist ambitions throughout southern Africa.

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Dripping blood from every pore—why Rhodes must fall
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It turned its gaze to the area north of the Limpopo River, modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia. In 1888 the Ndebele people’s king, Lobengula, sold mining and land rights to Rhodes, known as the “Rudd Concession”.

Rhodes used this as a pretext for invading the lands in 1893.

Armed with a murderous new invention—the Maxim machine gun—BSAC troops swept through the territories.

They were “mowing them down literally like grass” according to an eyewitness to the Battle of Shangani, where 1,500 Ndebele were murdered with just four deaths in the BSAC.

Rhodes wrote a racist rant to the Cape colony’s prime minister Sir Gordon Sprigg after the battle. “The shooting must have been excellent,” he fantasised. “It proves the white men were not only brave, but cool, and did not lose their heads, though surrounded with the hordes.”

Some British MPs were worried at the scale of the atrocities and argued Rhodes had unnecessarily provoked the Ndebele. Lord Rippon, the Liberal Party colonial secretary, made sure Rhodes and BSAC were exonerated in an inquiry.

Zimbabwe was caught in the crossfire of Rhodes’s ruthless ambition and the “scramble for Africa” by European powers.

Rhodes was an adventurist and often clashed with the British government. But when Zimbabwe was colonised their interests coincided.

In 1890 the vast majority of Africa was still ruled by Africans. Britain, France and Portugal had African colonies that hugged the coast, and would often buy local ruling classes instead of imposing direct rule.

But by the late 19th century rival European powers, such as Belgium and Germany, had caught up with British capitalism. Competition for overseas markets, particularly in Africa, increased sharply. Britain needed to grab more land.

Historian Thomas Pakenham, whose father was the penultimate British colonial secretary, described the process in The Scramble for Africa. “Africa was sliced up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations—Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain,” he wrote.

Britain and the white settlers were facing a growing wave of resistance from the black majority

Zimbabwe was colonised and ruled by BSAC until direct rule in 1923. Rhodes brought in the brutal “compound system” for black workers, effectively a prison camp for workers.

White settlers from the Cape moved to Rhodesia during the 1900s slump and BSAC grants encouraged them to stay. This meant that there was a white settler ruling class, not just British colonial officials.

The whites wanted to maintain apartheid rule without any reform. Britain was sometimes willing to make concessions if its imperialist interests were protected. But those interests also pitted Britain’s rulers against the black population.

And the racist ideology of British imperialism includes support for its white “kin and kith”.

BBC Radio Four presenter John Humphreys said last week, “This sounds almost racist but… some of the white farmers who owned a lot of land knew what to do”.

But after the Second World War the tide was turning against British colonialism.

Britain was a bankrupt, declining power and reliant on the US, which wanted the African market for itself.

This caused a crisis for the imperialist patricians of the Tory party, who seemed more and more out of touch both at home and abroad. Sections of the establishment, such the previously Tory supporting Observer newspaper, came out for African decolonisation.

And, crucially, Britain and the white settlers were facing a growing wave of resistance from the black majority.

From the 1930s Rhodesia pushed through a programme of rapid industrialisation. White capitalists’ profits grew. But so did a black working class with the power to overthrow them.

Throughout the period workers set up trade unions and looked for their own political representation. In 1947 railworkers’ leader Joshua Nkomo set up the Southern Rhodesian branch of African National Congress.

By 1960 Tory prime minister Harold MacMillan was forced to tell a stony-faced crowd of South African MPs that “the wind of change is blowing through this continent.

“Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact,” he said.

Southern Rhodesia’s white rulers didn’t like it one bit.

They looked to the Rhodesian Front of Ian Smith, an open racist and friend of the queen mother. It came to power in 1964 promising to resist the British Labour government’s call for majority rule.

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Robert Mugabe—how an anti-colonialist hero became an authoritarian nationalist
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Black opposition groups were banned and suppressed. Their leaders, including Mugabe, were thrown into jail.

And the following year prime minister Smith unilaterally declared independence as the Republic of Rhodesia.

Britain again played a shameful role, not wishing to sabotage its interests. The black opposition leaders had looked to Harold Wilson’s Labour government for help—and Labour did nothing apart from talks with Smith.

With South African help, Smith’s regime survived. Half-hearted UN sanctions were imposed. But British oil companies continued to secretly pump cash into Rhodesia’s economy through South Africa and Mozambique.

More radical opposition organisations, such as Mugabe’s Zanu, grew and launched a guerrilla war against the white regime.

Smith responded with terror. In 1974 he launched a mass “counter insurgency” campaign, based on US tactics used against the Vietnamese national liberation movement.

Bulldozers and flamethrowers defoliated 54,000 square miles of Zimbabwean countryside. Troops set up “free fire zones” in these areas—where anyone could be shot on sight.

And it combined with a terror campaign against the black population through martial law, internment and resettlement. Some 10,000 freedom fighters and 8,000 black people were murdered.

The turning point came in 1974 when Mozambique overthrew its Portuguese imperialist rulers. The Zimbabwean national liberation organisations Zanu and Zapu could use it as a base.

Smith was forced to the negotiating table at Lancaster House and agreed to free elections.

Still the British, now under Margaret Thatcher, hoped to regain control of the situation by backing moderate black leaders. But Mugabe won because he had promised not to compromise with white rule.

And when Mugabe took the land of the white farmers in 2000, Tony Blair sided with the white farmers. Even Tory Max Hastings responded that the whites were not the hard done by party.

Mugabe turned from independence hero to dictator, and the British opportunistically point to his crimes. They have not forgiven Zimbabweans for winning independence.

The biggest crimes of all in Zimbabwe are British imperialism and white rule.


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