From Independence to Authoritarianism: The State's Role in the Rise and Fall of Zimbabwe 1980-2000
by Sarah Topps


In this article, we consider the ascent to power of Robert Mugabe and the subsequent decline of Zimbabwe as a state. A relatively brief period of the two decades between 1980 and 2000 is examined for sociological changes in the state and how it is managed. Zimbabwe is addressed as a negative case study of a descent from democracy into despotism. During its decline, the Zimbabwean government implemented racial policies, land reforms and seizures, disintegrated the free press, and kept tight controls on the national food and fuel supply. These are among the many factors which have eroded the ‘jewel of Africa’.

Zimbabwe has the potential to be one of the most successful countries in Africa, and indeed many times in the past it has been viewed as the ideal sub-Saharan country. In fact it is one of the few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa which has not undergone some violent change in government (Adedeji 1999). Unfortunately several factors contributed to its decline, and this paper aims to explore that decline with regards to the role of the state.

This paper will address the role of the state in development and look upon Zimbabwe as a negative case study of the descent from democracy to a despotic state under the same government. It could have important consequences for policy-making, lawful governance and the way in which development issues could be approached in similar countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Due to the constraints of this paper, I have limited my focus to the 1980s and 1990s in Zimbabwe, and only gone into depth about the particular issues which I believe have had the greatest impact on the country’s decline. These include racial policies, land reforms and seizures, the slow disintegration of a free press, the bullying into submission of all political opponents and the iron-fist grip on the food and fuel supply of the nation by the regime.

Historical Review of Rhodesia

Allow us to begin the discussion of Zimbabwe with a brief review of the history of the country, although the paper itself focuses mostly on the past half-century. While this is not a historical paper, one cannot help but involve history when talking about the nature of the state in its present form.

Zimbabwe’s true history began with the Bushmen, who lived in its caves some tens of thousands of years ago (Blake 1977). No Bushmen remain today, meaning that depending on your definition, the modern-day Zimbabwe population could be said to be made up entirely of non-indigenous people (Norman 2004). This is of some consequence when you consider the actions taken against whites in Zimbabwe due to the fact that their ancestors were non-indigenous, when in fact, all members of the population could be considered non-indigenous in that sense.

About 10 000 years ago, the Karangas, a Shona-speaking Bantu tribe descended from the North gradually colonizing the area (Blake 1977). By the 11th century, the Karangas had built their royal palace at Zimbabwe, which still stands today, about 300 kilometres south of Fort Salisbury[1].  In the mid-fifteenth century, another Shona-speaking people, the Rotsi, take over the Zimbabwe palace and its mines (Blake 1977).

On March 20th, 1602 the Dutch East India Company was granted a charter in The Hague to colonize the Cape of Good Hope, and fifty years later, the first Dutch colonists arrived. During the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British seized the Cape to prevent the French from doing so (Blake 1977). By 1806, the first British settlers have arrived in the Cape (Blake 1977). In 1833, the British House of Commons passed a law which forbade slavery throughout the dominion of the King (Blake 1977). In an effort to avoid this law, the Boers[2] migrated northwards and established two Independent Boer Republics known as the Orange Free State and Transvaal (Blake 1977). The original Boer republic was declared British in 1943 and the name was changed from the Republic of Natalia to more British-sounding Natal (Blake 1977).

In 1853, Cecil John Rhodes was born in England. Seventeen years later, he moved to Natal where his brother lived as a cotton farmer. The two of them went into the lucrative mining business and Rhodes started buying train tracks, and in 1880 he founded the infamous De Beers Diamond Mining Company (Blake 1977). The year 1880 also marked the First Boer War, where the Boers of Transvaal tried to assert their independence (Blake 1977). In 1888, Rhodes sent his business partner Charles Rudd north to Mashonaland[3] where he met the tribal chief Lobengula who then famously agreed to sign the Rudd Concession; all of the mineral rights to the land for 1000 rifles, 10 000 bullets and a gunship (Norman 2004). Lobengula later realized the implications of this document and angrily he charged his counsellors who had supported it with treason and bribery and had them killed. He also attempted to undermine the document by signing the same rights to a German prospector in the Lippert Concession in the following year. Rhodes managed to buy out Lippert, and so Lobengula’s efforts were defeated (Blake 1977).

Subsequently, Rhodes presented the document to the British government and received a Royal Charter for his British South Africa Company[4]. Rhodes then hired 23-year old Major Johnson to lead 200 pioneers into Mashonaland, promising them gold and farmland for their efforts (Hill 2003). In 1890, the pioneers reached what will become Fort Salisbury, and later on Harare, but they found no gold. The pioneers and those who followed them then turned to farming and they elected to name the new colony Rhodesia, in honour of their patron. In a mere decade between 1890 and 1900, white settlers claimed 16 million acres or about 64 750 square kilometres of farmland as their own (Norman 2004).

In 1896, Dr. Jameson tries and fails to raid Transvaal, one of the Boer Republics, and this results in his imprisonment and forces Rhodes retirement as both the director of the BSAC and the Prime Minister of Cape Colony (Blake 1977). Realizing that the Europeans are not indestructible, both the Boers and the Mashona attacked various parts of the Colony, killing approximately ten percent of the total white population in 1896 (Blake 1977).  After crushing the revolt however, the whites acted as conquerors rather than defendants, and began to move Blacks into the poor farming land of the newly created tribal reserves (Herbst 1990).

The Native Reserves Council, which was created in 1898, started the strong downward trend of racial relations in Zimbabwe (Blake 1977). A year later in 1899, the Second Boer War broke out with the Boers invading Natal and Bechuanaland. Tens of thousands of Boer women and children were interned in concentration camps (Norman 2004). In 1901, Queen Victoria died in England and a year later in 1902; Cecil Rhodes followed his queen, ironically dying of an enlarged heart (Hill 2003).

Three months after Rhodes death, in May 1902, the peace treaty that ended the Second Boer War was signed in Pretoria. By the turn of the century, the European scramble to acquire African territory had left a dozen countries under British control, from Cape Town to Cairo.

By 1914, the land had been apportioned to blacks and whites in Rhodesia as follows: BSAC, 48 million acres; blacks, 24 million acres; individual white settlers, 13 million acres; and private companies, 9 million acres (Norman 2004). Unfortunately for the blacks, although they constituted 97 percent of the total population[5], they were now confined to only 23 percent of the lower-grade land, assigned as native reserves, known as the Tribal Trust Lands, by the Council (Norman 2004). A commission was created to investigate the growing racial tensions invoked by this arrangement, but before any of the problems found could be addressed, World War I broke out in Europe and Rhodesia’s attention was drawn elsewhere(Hill 2003). In 1924, the British South Africa Company charter expires and the settlers vote in support of domestic self-government despite pressures from South Africa (Blake 1977).

Recent History of Rhodesia (from 1924 to 1965)

After the attainment of self-rule in Rhodesia, the whites began to construct a highly interventionist state in order to further their own interests – specifically for natural resource use and extraction, and agriculture; as was common for many African states. Even in the very beginning, the relative size of the state in Rhodesia indicated the settlers desire to develop the institutions in their favour. The government employed 2000 of the original 33 000 settlers in 1923 (Herbst 1990).

In 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is born at the Katuma Jesuit Mission to Roman Catholic parents. Ten years later, Roberts’s father abandoned his family and Robert went to school to be a teacher in order to take on the role of supporting his mother and siblings (Norman 2004). In 1949, Mugabe won a scholarship to the all-black University of Fort Hare in South Africa where he met other black nationalist thinkers. By the time he earned the first of his six degrees and returned to Rhodesia in 1951, he claimed to feel no affinity with his mother nation (Chan 2003).

At the time, Rhodesia was an apartheid state in everything but its name, and as Humphrey Wightwick[6] summarized in the 1950s: ‘To the South of us we have a country which practices a thing called apartheid. Here, in Southern Rhodesia we do not speak Afrikaans, so we pronounce it Land Apportionment Act” (Herbst 1990). Indeed, everything from the cruelly ingenious electoral laws to the racially segregated schools, housing and hospitals, was designed to empower the whites and keep black Rhodesians stifled under Colonial rule.

In 1964, Ian Smith became Prime Minister of Rhodesia, head of the Rhodesian Front – a party which played upon the whites’ worst fears of Black domination and their prejudices against them. Only a small minority of the population were white at that point, with a mere quarter million among 5 million blacks. After being unable to persuade the British government to grant independence to the nation, Smith made his famous Unilateral Declaration of Independence[7] on November 11th 1965. It was an illegal treason to the Crown, and the first notable white rebellion since the Boston Tea Party, but the white population supported their ex-Air Force hero (Blair 2002).

The UDI and International Trade Sanctions

The British government quickly moved to isolate the rogue state, declaring sanctions against it, and convinced the member states of the United Nations to do the same, which they did by declaring Rhodesia a threat to world peace; ridiculous considering the conflicts in Vietnam, Tibet and Northern Ireland at the time (Hill 2003).

Around 1965, Rhodesia had a relatively small economy, consisting mostly of tobacco and some scattered mines around the country. By the 1970s however, Rhodesia was booming; drawing tens of thousands of new white immigrants and hundreds of thousands of blacks to the then second largest manufacturing base in southern Africa (Hill 2003).

The Rhodesian Front’s one-party state became symbolic of the settlers’ defiance as the international sanctions forced them to tighten their grip on a wide variety of issues which threatened their economic security and political dominance. The state formally or informally intervened in every sector of the economy, particularly in agriculture and mining, and notably in foreign exchange and white employment. Due to the earlier heavy establishment of strong institutions which favoured whites, extending the state’s reach was relatively easy because whites thought it could protect them from their increasingly hostile surroundings.

The UN sanctions became somewhat unimportant, as Rhodesia was still exporting and importing many goods, mostly through neighbouring countries, but after the 1972-3 black nationalist guerilla wars had started, Smith closed the border with Zambia (Hill 2003). He also placed over half a million blacks in ‘protected villages’ in an attempt to end popular support for the guerilla movements, and rumours of maltreatment of black Rhodesians spread, which resulted in bitterness which stayed long after the civil war ended (Herbst 1990).

Peace and Electoral Takeover

In 1974, Smith ordered a ceasefire on all the guerilla groups and released black nationalists who had been jailed in the previous decade, including Robert Mugabe (Chan 2003). Violence followed for another five years, but in 1979, an agreement to hold a British-supervised election was reached, and universal suffrage was granted in Rhodesia. In February of 1980, Mugabe won a surprising majority, later found to be due to intimidation by young collaborators across the country, but after fifteen years of trying to rid themselves of the ‘Zimbabwe problem’ the British looked the other way (Hill 2003). On April 18th, the country was renamed Zimbabwe after the ancient ruins, and Robert Mugabe took the oath of office and became Prime Minister, preaching reconciliation between the whites and blacks of the country, (Hill 2003) and even thanking Smith for leaving him with such a strong economy, commenting: “You have given me the jewel of Africa” (Blair 2002).

Believing the worst would follow, a mass emigration of whites lowered their population from 300 000 to 100 000 in the ten years after the election. Fortunately for the Zimbabwean economy, in time the phenomenal investment in the education system would replace their skills with black Zimbabweans. Unfortunately, the future downturn of the economy would leave over 80 percent of those who would remain in Zimbabwe formally unemployed in the coming decades (Coltart 2008).

The Decline of Infrastructure

Infrastructure around the time of the independence movement in Zimbabwe was one of the best in Southern Africa, with relatively modern transportation and communication systems, an impressive set of import substitution industries and decent education and healthcare systems as well. However, these strongly favoured whites; both schools and hospitals being segregated by race. Education for whites pre-independence was compulsory and free at government schools, but fees were charged for blacks at both government and mission schools (Weiss 1994). The health system was also discriminatory – with $144 being spent on each white as opposed to $31 for urban blacks, and only $4 for rural blacks (Herbst 1990). Furthermore, there was a doctor to patient ratio of approximately 1:830 for white patients, while there was no more than one doctor for up to 100 000 black Rhodesians (Herbst 1990).

At independence, the ZANU-PF government promised to bring equality and ensure the continued building of a better health and education system for all. The problem however, was that health and education standards at the time for whites were extraordinarily high, as well as racist and unjust. If resources had to be readjusted to meet these promised improvements, inevitably it would be the whites would suffer.

Robert Mugabe believed strongly in the power of education and healthcare and during the first decade of his reign, the state heavily funded expansions in both sectors. During the first decade of post-independence Zimbabwe, education was the largest item on the national budget (Weiss 1994).

In 1980, when Mugabe came to power, there were only 177 secondary schools in the country, with a mere 66 000 students. Twenty years later, this number had increased tenfold to 700 000 students in 1548 schools (Blair 2002). Literacy in Zimbabwe rose to 82 percent, one of the best records in Africa at the time and still impressive by today’s standards. Unfortunately the overall quality of education was not improved, even when the government abolished “white only” schools and set the attendance by zoning from different neighbourhoods and bussing children in from Shona and Sindebele areas (Weiss 1994).

Primary health care was also improved substantially, which led to child immunization rates going up more than 65 percent in a decade (Blair 2002). Post-independence, hospitals were no longer segregated and medical care became free for patients earning less than Z$150 per month (Weiss 1994). Unfortunately in the late 1980s, AIDS became an increasingly major factor in the health question of sub-Saharan Africa, and costs increased substantially, along with demand.

Unfortunately for Zimbabweans, this was not destined to last. Since 1994, average life expectancy in Zimbabwe has fallen from 57/54 years for women and men respectively, to an appalling 34/37 years, one of the lowest life expectancies in the world (Coltart 2008). Every week, 3500 Zimbabweans perish from malnutrition, HIV/AIDS or poverty-related diseases (Coltart 2008). Since the decline of the economic situation in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, it is estimated that anywhere from two to six million people have died due to the calamitous situation there (Coltart 2008).

Doctors, nurses and teachers were all being trained in the country, but due to the brain drain effect, many of them were leaving for Botswana or South Africa once they received their educations (Weiss 1994). Many of the elite, blacks and whites alike, in the 1990s started to buy their own private services in the health sector – the division was no longer between races but between income groups (Weiss 1994).

Zimbabwe now has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the world, with one-fifth of the population infected, killing more than 1000 schoolteachers since 2004, furthering the infrastructure problems which now wrack the country (Bond and Saunders 2005).

As the land reform program resulted in highly productive farms being seized and turned over to judges, army commanders, government ministers and friends of the state, and being rendered unproductive, the gravity of the problem has increasingly worsened over the last decade. The administration of the Zimbabwean government has also downplayed food crises in the last few years, ignoring warnings from the World Food Program and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network that by 2008, 4.1 million Zimbabweans would need food aid (Coltart 2008).

The regime has tried to control the supply of food in the country because by doing so it is able to use it as a political weapon – coercing desperate people into voting for the ZANU-PF party in rural areas (Coltart 2008). In 2004, the ZANU-PF barred NGOs from distributing food, particularly insisting on controlling the food distribution process in the lead-up to the rigged March 2005 election (Coltart 2008).

The State and its Institutions

The motivation for the state to create strong institutions in Smith’s day was obvious – to assure whites economic and political dominance in a country where they constituted a minority in numbers. The state was used to place the Africans in a permanent disadvantage; limiting their entry into prospecting and mining, cattle farming, and the domestic maize markets. In 1934, the Industrial Conciliation Act was passed, which explicitly excluded blacks from the definition of ‘employee’ for the terms of the law (Herbst 1990). The white state systematically orchestrated economic policies designed to protect the white upper classes. Interventionist legislation in the tobacco market and gold mines in particular was put into place including tariffs, quotas, balance payments, public works schemes, subsidies, administrative protections and new taxes on previously exempt revenue sources (Clarke 1980).

In addition to these controls, the state aggressively developed public enterprises including electrical power stations, the sugar industry, the iron and steel foundries and cold storage. The land reserves provided the “cheapest labour in all of Africa” (Blake 1977) for the farms and the manufacturing industries.

During Mugabe’s first decade in power, the economy grew by 2.7 percent each year (Blair 2002), but with an annual population growth of 3 percent each year, real incomes were actually declining. The state aggressively moved to control everything from public enterprises to land reform to food aid. As Herbst notes: “the state’s role is further heightened in Zimbabwe because part of the political agenda of the new leadership focuses on using the state as the primary instrument for correcting the racial inequalities of the past” (Herbst 1990), but by 2000, Zimbabwe would be sinking fast, with debts of around $500 million and roughly half of the country unemployed (Blair 2002).

Agriculture and Farmers in Zimbabwe

At every stage in the game in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe over the past century, it has been the agricultural policies which have been the arena of state action which has had the greatest effect on the African population. One agricultural ministry official described it as follows: “Agricultural policy was always a weapon of the Smith government. It had an absolutely clear policy of forcing people to grow just enough to be malnourished and prevent them from doing anything more” (Herbst 1990). While white settlers may have been dependent on Africans for food supplies at the turn of the 20th century, by the mid-1970s white agriculture was supplying the Tribal Trust Lands with a substantial proportion of food staples.

In the early years of the 1970s, as the guerilla war intensified, it became a military imperative for the government to keep its white farmers on the land, which only further enhanced the power of the white farmers in the setting of consumer prices (Herbst 1990). The new leverage allowed them to demand further price increases and even to set the prices of crops prior to planting them, which gave them significant bargaining power with the government, because the farmers could simply threaten to ‘not grow crops whose prices were not satisfactory’ (Herbst 1990).

Agricultural price controls are good example of state intervention to protect insecure whites – in the 1930s the government set the maize price and subsidized the farmers so that they could stay on their lands. By the 1950s, this had grown to include many other crops and guaranteed the purchase of crops which went to market.

In 1977, racially biased land laws were amended and white-only reserved land was abolished however, since few blacks could actually afford to buy white farms, the racial division of land was not significantly different by independence in 1980 (Herbst 1990).

When Mugabe came to power in 1980, he assured the white farmers, who at the time numbered 6000 and owned two thirds of the productive land, that he would comply with the verbal agreement reached at Lancaster House that safeguarded them from having their farms expropriated for ten years (Norman 2004). The country’s agriculture and indeed its very economy depended on these farmers, who employed a third of the labour force, or 271 000 Zimbabweans and also accounted for one third of the exports – including 90 percent of the maize, cotton, sugar, tobacco, wheat, and tea.

The new government kept the price-setting process as it was inherited from the Smith regime, although it dropped the pre-planting price negotiations which were established in the 1970s, it now only conducts one set of price negotiations per year and announces the set prices once the crops have been planted (Herbst 1990). This gave the government much greater control over the pricing process, while at the same time insulating it from farmer’s demands.

A surprising announcement in the first year of reign by the new regime was that the price of white maize, the country’s staple food crop, would increase from $85 to $120 per ton (Herbst 1990). The government was keenly aware of the food crises that had faced other African nations and were determined to avoid the same fate. It did increase maize production by nearly double to 2.9 million tons (1985) and was one of the first indications of the government’s determination to guarantee the country’s self-sufficiency.

The land issue was one of the central rallying cries for the liberation struggle in the 1970s, so it’s not surprising that when Mugabe felt pressured, he often brought attention back to the land distribution problem – ZANU-PF patriots felt that there could be no justice while the colonial settlers owned most of the best farmland (Herbst 1990). At the beginning of his reign in 1980, Robert Mugabe stated that Zimbabwe would “never have peace in this country unless the peasant population is satisfied in relation to the land issue” (Herbst 1990).

It is also important to realize the other implications of settler-appropriation of land in the early days of Zimbabwe; roughly 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s population are Shona, who have a spiritual connection with the land which was profoundly disrupted by settler colonialism (Herbst 1990). It is noted in his text that “The imagery of dispossession, of loss, of landlessness, of longing for the “lost lands” to be restored was a constant pulse in the literature, the oral tradition and the rhetoric of the nationalist movement” in Zimbabwe (Herbst 1990). As Chenjerai Hitler Hunzvi, leader of the Zimbabwe War Veterans’ Association, stated on July 15, in 2000: “If the white farmers do not give us what we want, they will bury themselves down six feet” (Blair 2002).

The first land resettlement scheme appeared in April 1980, directly after independence with the new government stating a goal of 18 000 families on approximately 1.1 million hectares of land (Herbst 1990). At that point however, 800 000 black families were facing severe land constraint pressures, and by 1982 the government had decided to embark on a much more ambitious goal of 162 000 families – approximately 20 percent of all the peasants in the nation (Herbst 1990). This implied the purchase and redistribution of over 50 percent of all the white-owned land prior to Independence in a period of only three years (1983-1985) at the approximate cost of $570 million (Herbst 1990). The government fell short of this perhaps overly ambitious goal, but still managed to resettle 42 000 families by 1988 – impressive considering that the original figure of 162 000 families was later revealed to have been fabricated on the basis of not much evidence and even less actual calculation (Herbst 1990).

As Herbst (1990) explains in his book; to understand the land issue and state autonomy, one must look at the state’s ability to act on two separate levels: the structural autonomy and the situational autonomy. The Zimbabwean government could not be said to have been structurally autonomous due to the Lancaster House Constitution which guaranteed white land rights and concessions for land redistribution – which had a major impact on the juridical right of the state to create rules governing how the resettlement program proceeds (Herbst 1990). The political conflict that determined the way in which the land program would evolve were within the state, even though the white farmers were politically powerful, the state could be said to have been situationally autonomous (Herbst 1990).

The Economic Transition in Zimbabwe

If Mugabe demonstrated ruthlessness and cunning when it came to politics, his economic management by comparison was disastrous – taking one of the most prosperous nations in Africa and dragging it down to the depths of inflation and unemployment. By the close of 2008, inflation in Zimbabwe topped 231 million percent – to give some perspective, the next highest rate of inflation is Iraq at fifty-three percent (2009).

After his election, his government ran a budget deficit of 10 percent of gross national product while at the same time hugely restricting foreign investment through price controls, dividend controls and exchange controls (Blair 2002). In the beginning, the economy was growing at a reasonable pace of 2.7 percent per year, but population was growing faster, at 3 percent per year, so real incomes were actually declining (Blair 2002). By 1990, unemployment had reached 26 percent, beginning the long slide into economic recession and out of control inflation – indeed, the worst the world has ever seen (Blair 2002).

Once Mugabe had eliminated the competition from his government, he announced a radical change of course economically; his government had accepted a Structural Adjustment Programme from the International Monetary Fund[8] (Blair 2002) and pledged to enter the free market. In order to secure a loan from the IMF, Mugabe had agreed to float the Zimbabwean currency, reduce import tariffs, privatize major state-controlled industries and remove the plethora of controls which were in place at the time (Bond and Saunders 2005).

Upon receiving the loan from the IMF, ZANU-PF then spent the money and ignored the prescriptions of the loan, keeping the corrupt, loss-making state industries at the fore of the economy, and later blaming the IMF for the economic decline of Zimbabwe in the national press (Blair 2002).

By 1998, unemployment had reached fifty percent and living standards continued to fall month by month, while at the same time payments were being made to so-called ‘war veterans’ which totaled a staggering ZD 4.2 billion – well over US $500 million (Blair 2002). In late January, this provoked food riots in townships of Harare and the army was deployed and ordered to ‘shoot on sight’ (Blair 2002).

Mugabe appeared on television in 1999 claiming a vast conspiracy by the Western world, the British government and white Zimbabweans was hell-bent on overthrowing the state and was the reason for the economy’s plunge into chaos. A fuel crisis followed, and Mugabe continued to rant about the Western conspiracy to undermine the economy. By 2000, the government was openly encouraging black Zimbabweans to take up arms and claim land from white farmers forcefully (Herbst 1990).

From David Coltart’s (2008) executive summary of the nation in its current state, shown below, Figure 1 only serves to emphasize the huge shifts in the Zimbabwean economy from the time of independence to the year 2000 when the land reforms began in earnest, to the present day where the country suffers immeasurably from its economic debts and the restrictions placed on it by other countries in their attempts to control this wayward state.
Developing the One-Party State

Robert Mugabe has always coveted a one-party state. He is famously known to have commented in 1984: “The one-party state is more in keeping with African tradition; it makes for greater unity for the people. It puts all opinions under one umbrella, whether these opinions are radical or reactionary” (Blair 2002). By this, he naturally meant his party, and his unblinking political logic was that all opposition should be swept out of the way. Jonathon Nkomo, the leader of the original black nationalist party ZAPU, had been given the post of Home Affairs Minister during the 1980 elections. He had worked hard to liberate Zimbabwe from the clutches of the white Rhodesians, and was shocked at being fired in 1982 on charges of plotting to overthrow Mugabe (Blair 2002). Nkomo was originally from Matabeleland, in southern Zimbabwe, while Mugabe was a Shona descendant from the North.

In 1982, Nkomo and other former ZAPU members were branded dissidents and Mugabe sent his famous Fifth Brigade[9] down to Matabeleland in 1983 under the guise of finding and fighting so-called ‘dissidents’. In fact, what followed was one of Zimbabwe’s great tragedies, with tens of thousands of Ndebele people rounded up, tortured, raped, imprisoned, beaten and shot (Blake 1977). Following that, in 1984, Mugabe sought to starve his opponents into submission – following four years of drought, the 400 000 people in the area of South Matabeleland were dependent on food aid, upon which Mugabe imposed an embargo for four long months at the peak of summer (Blair 2002). It is unknown how many people starved to death during this time, but there is documentation of people surviving on seeds and grasses (Blair 2002).

In 1985, Mugabe blatantly denied to occurrence of the mass graves which had resulted from the starvation and violence in Matabeleland, stating: “Wherever you have operations, you are bound to have one or two untoward incidents but not mass graves. Where are they? You travel the whole length of Matabeleland and you won’t find a single mass grave” (Blair 2002). In fact, if you do take the time to search Matabeleland, it quickly becomes obvious that there is barely a village without one – there are hundreds of mass graves spread across the state (Blair 2002). Nkomo signed a ‘Unity Accord’ with Mugabe in 1987 which left ZAPU under his control and promptly fled the country, fearing for his life (Blair 2002). In 1988, four years after his ruthless starvation policy in Matabeleland, Mugabe was awarded the Africa Prize for his contributions to a ‘sustainable end to hunger’ (Blair 2002).

By the end of 1987, a series of constitutional amendments had been passed including the change of office from a Prime Minister to an Executive Presidency with sweeping powers, and the removal of the clause which reserved 20 seats in parliament for whites (Blair 2002). While this step was crucial to eliminating racial discrimination and was long overdue, in practice, after absorbing the ZAPU party into ZANU-PF, it was a step which essentially eliminated the final remaining opposition in Zimbabwe (Blair 2002). During the 1990 election, Mugabe enlarged parliament from 120 to 150 seats, with the extra 30 seats being appointed by the President – effectively starting the contest with a 20 percent advantage (Blair 2002).

As the economy disintegrated around them, Mugabe’s regime has resorted to blatant vote-rigging, patronage politics and brutal repression. They have been a reactionary state, using violence to counteract every move by an opponent – especially to control the masses. The latest major demonstration of this occurred in 2005 – the so-called ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ which translates to “clean up the trash/filth” which destroyed the homes of over 300 000 families in urban townships and dumped them in the countryside as an inhumane way of fighting mass urban migration (Bond and Saunders 2005).

Relations between the Media and the State

Amartya Sen, a world-famous development economist argues that “a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have” (Sen 1999). Among Sen’s other arguments, he also points to democracy and political competition as healthy factors in developing states (Sen 1999).

The relationship between the free press and the state in Zimbabwe has always been a difficult one. Ian Smith introduced censorship instantly after the UDI, and propaganda film production became a major operation within the Ministry of Information (Weiss 1994). Control of foreign journalists would prove to be more difficult, and but was achieved to a certain extent through intimidation and deportation – a practice continued after the 1980 takeover by Mugabe.

Due to the fact that the ZANU-PF party had originally been formed as a guerilla group and had been planning to take over the country by military force, it had been primed to rule with absolute authority and without all the fuss over elections, parliament, democracy and especially – a free press which could openly criticize them. (Hill 2003)This was openly reflected in the government’s disdain for the media, and as the years passed, the state slowly tightened its grip on national media coverage. When the government bought out ZimPapers from the shareholders in South Africa in 1980 under the guise of the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust, an announcement was made to all editors and journalists working in the five newspapers that the group controlled which stated: “We will not interfere with the right of the press to report the truth, but journalists will also have to remember that they are citizens of the country and should be wary of issues that may discredit or embarrass the government” (Hill 2003).

During the Matabeleland ‘dissident’ problem, virtually no news reports came through on the region (Weiss 1994). The new elite used the government-controlled media and used it quite effectively in putting out new policies or spreading anti-Western propaganda in subsequent years.

Despite the millions of people who have died in Zimbabwe in the past decade, more people than in Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan (Coltart 2008); the international media seems somewhat uninterested in the gravity of the crisis, and the frequency of its mention in the media is disproportionately much smaller. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is very difficult for foreign journalists to obtain permission to work from the state, and Draconian laws routinely detain and imprison journalists, unlike the aforementioned states of Iraq and Afghanistan where foreign media is permitted (Coltart 2008).

Another aspect of the crisis in Zimbabwe which makes it a hard sell for world news is that there are very few stark images to capture the world’s attention. There are no car bombs, no visible violent protests, no children with sad eyes and distended bellies, no blood flowing. Most Zimbabweans are dying quietly behind the scenes, from some combination of malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and destitute poverty. Indeed, while Zimbabwe has seen its fair share of political violence, torture, mass executions, rapes and murders – most of it never sees the light of day, being suppressed by the lack of free in-country press and government denial of the atrocities it is committing or inciting. People in Zimbabwe know it is happening, but with the average life expectancy hovering around 35 years of age (Coltart 2008), most have never known anything else at this point, and are too afraid to speak out against the regime which oppresses them.


Since the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, Zimbabwe has often briefly and stunningly made the front page headlines of the international media, but has undergone only one, notably non-violent official change of government in that time. Adebayo Adedeji wrote about comprehending African conflicts and stated that paradoxically “many an African government has strengthened and sustained colonial authoritarianism, despotism, bureaucratic centralization and top-down forms of governance” (Adedeji 1999). According the ACDESS[10] statistics in his book, Zimbabwe in 1998 was enjoying a ‘more or less stable political position’ and it was notably in the category of having had no violent changes of government since Independence – a rarity on the African continent (Adedeji 1999).

However persistent Zimbabwe’s economic crisis may be, it is but a consequence of a political crisis which is due to the ZANU-PF regime and it’s manipulation of the state for its own benefit. At the root of the problem lies its highly deficient constitution, particularly the vast disparity between the executive powers of the state and the legislature and judiciary powers that are supposed to counterbalance those executive powers which are destroying Zimbabwe (Coltart 2008).

Civil strife is but a violent reaction to the pervasive lack of democracy in this country, the state denial of human rights and its complete disregard of the sovereignty of its people. Lack of empowerment, free press, transparency and accountability are common characteristics of the despotic state that Zimbabwe has become in the two decades from 1980 to 2000. In such a divided, violent, and conflict-ridden society, justice, equity and an ethical basis of national politics is conspicuous for its absence and such an absence in-and-of-itself leads to instability, violence, and thus inevitably, to bad governance (Adedeji 1999).

Smith’s UDI led to a racist regime and economic sanctions by the UN, followed by a bloody civil war led by insurgent liberation movements. Following independence in 1980, in spite of international skepticism, Mugabe’s new government promoted racial tolerance and reconciliation, the economic sanctions were lifted, social developments showed a strong positive trend and Zimbabwe, despite the nasty bit of violence in Matabeleland in 1980, was welcomed as an African showcase model, with Mugabe as it’s triumphant hero-leader. The economic development over the following decade however, declined and eventually reached a standstill in 1991 when the Structural Adjustment Program was brought in – leading to high interest rates, financial liberalization, further increasing unemployment, inflation and grievances (Darnoff and Laasko 2003).

The private media in Zimbabwe increasingly experienced a hostile environment over the same period – their offices being bombed out, journalists manhandled, imprisoned, prosecuted and deported. The days of racial reconciliation disappeared quickly, and President Mugabe always played the ‘white-settler-card”, and refused to intervene with the ‘war-veterans’ occupation of thousands of white farms throughout Zimbabwe which started just before the elections in 2000 (Blair 2002). Due to this and other factors, farmers in Zimbabwe stopped planting crops, leading to food shortages, as the country refused to allow access to international food aid programs. The value of the Zimbabwean Dollar has plummeted, leading to over 95 percent unemployment (Coltart 2008) which has lead to mass urban migration and even greater national emigration – mostly to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa (Bond and Saunders 2005).

Unfortunately until other African governments act, the rest of the international community can do little to help Zimbabwe. The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has spiraled out of control and there does not appear to be any international political will to deal with it decisively and urgently. Many governments, including some southern African governments, simply do not know what to do and are exasperated by the seemingly intractable problem.

Currently, Mugabe’s regime continues its war on democracy and the free state in Zimbabwe, with terrible consequences for those who remain trapped in the country, unable or unwilling to escape. This paper has focused on analysis of the downwards trends in various areas that make up the state in Zimbabwe to try and find reasons behind the downward spiral in which it is presently trapped. Lack of a free press has made it difficult to find accurate information for the country after around 2000, so the focus of this article has been primarily on the two decades of post-independence reforms in the country. The series of events leading up to Zimbabwe’s downfall have been complex and often times misleading – the most important of which include racial policies, land reforms and seizures, slow disintegration of a free press, the bullying into submission of all political opponents and the iron-fist grip on the food and fuel supply of the nation. I look forward to a future where this regime is overthrown and Zimbabwe can begin it’s slow climb back out of the deep hole it has dug, and hopefully its move towards becoming, in Robert Mugabe’s words: the ‘jewel of Africa’ once more.


[1] known today as Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe
[2] Dutch farmer-settlers
[3] modern-day Zimbabwe
[4] henceforth abbreviated BSAC
[5] 836 000 out of 864 000 total
[6] A local white Rhodesian MP in the 1950s
[7] henceforth written as UDI
[8] henceforth referred to as the IMF
[9] An army unit trained by North Korean military advisors outside of the army command structure which was placed under Mugabe’s personal control
[10] ACDESS Conflict Monitoring System



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