Zimbabwe, or The Perils of Post-Imperial Populism

Posted on August 23, 2010

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Zimbabwe is a country in crisis. You probably haven’t heard much about it. To most mainstream news organizations it’s just another poor, corrupt African country. There is no genocide like in Rwanda or Darfur (or the many others I could name). The colonial legacy is no longer in the form of repressive and racist control by a white minority comparable to apartheid South Africa. Nonetheless it deserves attention, as a lesson in consequences.

Zimbabwe used to be Southern Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes, who got his start in the diamond mines of Kimberly, South Africa, took over the area from the farmers and herders who lived there with a combination of theft, broken treaties, and outright force. Rhodes’s company and later the British government used local people for near slave labor in the mines and fields, making Southern Rhodesia a valuable producer of agricultural and mineral wealth, particularly wheat, beef, and diamonds.

A white minority government declared independence in 1965 with a constitution that was severely repressive toward the black majority, but by 1979 free elections were held, which brought Robert Mugabe to power. He had been an activist against both British and later independent white rule, and has always formulated his policies as attacks against Western and white imperialism.

He never left power, and is in fact still the president, but not because his policies are widely admired. Under his care Zimbabwe’s economy has imploded. Inflation is a sever problem. The official exchange rate in 3,000 Zimbabwe dollars to the US dollar. The real rate is probably more like 800,000 to 1. Mugabe, under the guise of land reformation, of giving land to poor blacks to live on, took productive mines and farmland from whites and gave them to his political allies, who often lack the knowledge and interest to make them profitable. Many other means of production were nationalized. The people are on the edge of starvation and are emigrating as they are able to surrounding countries, Europe and America. Mugabe is still in power because of his ties to the army and internal security service allow him to violently repress political opposition and the media. The presidential election of 2002 was notoriously stolen by him, and he lost the next, in 2008, but refused to give up power. Currently the winner, Morgan Tsvangirai, is attempting to manage a power-sharing agreement, but Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party still hold the most important ministries and control the diamond mines. There seems little prospect for change in the near future.

Most of the suffering can be traced back to the British occupation. Not to excuse Mr. Mugabe. His actions and those of his cohorts have been reprehensible. But he has always been able to excuse them by placing himself in opposition to colonialists. In the eyes of his people and of many governments in the region, even Mr. Mugabe is better than the system that gave birth to the likes of him in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

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