An unmitigated disaster, or a product of his context?
We recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Mandela’s release from Robben Island. It’s hard to believe that was as recently as 1990. Not many independence heroes remain from the wave of Sub-Saharan liberations, though that wave spanned more than 30 years. The leaders of the independence movements which started with Ghana in 1957 and spanned the 1960s remain cultural and political touchstones for Africa: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (so famous his name is recognized by my MS Word spell-check); ‘Mwalimu’ (Teacher) Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; ‘Ngwazi’(Hero) Hastings Banda of Malawi; Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia; Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. In the mid 70’s more difficult, violent independences were won: Mozambique through Frelimo in 1975; Angola’s, so wonderfully evoked by Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life. And in 1990 Mandela’s release led to his election.
I’ve missed out many leaders, but by far the most obvious is Robert Mugabe, the only one still in power. Zimbabwe / Southern Rhodesia suffered the indignity of ‘independence’ in 1965 declared by white settlers, aiming to head off managed decolonisation by the British, so their privilege could be maintained through a restriction of the franchise to whites. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF was one of two leading lights of a guerrilla war for independence against white minority rule that ran until 1980, when true independence as defined by franchise for the black population of Zimbabwe, was won. It was a war won by the young – when it ended, two-thirds of the guerrillas who went through demobilization were 24 years old or younger.
It’s difficult for Westerners, particularly those who have come of political age in the last ten or fifteen years, to understand it, but Mugabe remains popular. Almost everyone accepts he has overstayed his welcome, but still hold affection for him. Malawi inaugurated a Robert Mugabe Highway just a couple of years ago; similar roads are found in most major African cities. Yet, in the West, his name is a by-word for economic mis-management, suppression of rights, and all that is wrong with governance in Africa. This is despite the fact that other, much loved, African leaders did similar things to Mugabe without incurring the same poor reputation. Nyerere seized property from Tanzanian Asians and forced socialization of villages in Tanzania, yet is still rightly revered as the father of modern Tanzania. How do we reconcile these views?
At root, these questions derive from selective memory on both sides, and differing readings of the land question. The first point to make is about the source of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic economic decline. Many in the West make the lazy assumption that Mugabe precipitated economic collapse through the land seizures. This is not true, though they certainly have in many ways contributed to the continuation of suffering. Economic collapse predated the land settlements. The ultimate source was structural adjustment. To quote from Africans:
Even more damaging was the [structural adjustment] programme devised in 1991 for Zimbabwe’s relatively successful economy. By opening its industries to South African competition, structural adjustment reduced manufacturing output by 21 percent in four years, exports declined, unemployment rose, debt increased sharply, and when world tobacco prices also fell at the end of the decade, the regime took refuge in an expropriation of surviving European farms, which devastated agricultural production.
However, this reading of the land question is also incomplete: it implies that Mugabe seized land because sources of revenues and financing for the complex patronage systems that keep leaders like him in power were devastated by structural adjustment, and therefore land seizures were undertaken as a means to spread patronage. I recently read an old-ish piece by Mahmood Mamdani in the LRB which roots the land seizures much more firmly in a historical moment, both as the culmination of pressures on Mugabe and the response to intense historical injustices.