Zimbabwe is set for another set of controversial elections on 31st July, as President Robert Mugabe used a presidential degree to set the election date, despite opposition from Prime Minister, and his supposed coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
It is quite hard for one who has never been to Zimbabwe to describe the parlous state of the country and the degradation of society and economy brought about by Mugabe’s kleptocratic rule.
Zimbabwe was no paradise before Mugabe’s reign. Under its former name of Rhodesia, it was a white-minority ruled state where the majority black population was politically restricted in a manner not completely disimilar to Apartheid South Africa. Whilst not carrying the same menacing racial undertones, the government of Ian Smith (Prime Minister from 1965 to 1979) was aimed at preserving the superiority of the white former British colonists.
That said, Rhodesia was a relatively prosperous nation under Smith. It had a strong agricultural base and, despite international sanctions brought about by Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain, its leading entrepreneurs had significant economic ties with their European homelands and other Commonwealth countries. Like with South Africa, there were always ways around the sanctions imposed by the global community.
This relative prosperity naturally had a trickledown affect that somewhat alleviated the destitution and poverty now experienced by many black Zimbabweans. Backed to election by Britain in 1983, Mugabe gradually dismantled any notion of a multiracial society by employing anti-white rhetoric and economic policies before, eventually, sanctioning violent takeovers of white-owned land as part of land reform. In less capable hands, many prime agricultural estates have been laid waste and abandoned.
Massive inflation (running to thousands of percent), chronic unemployment and food and fuel shortages, exacerbated by more effective international sanctions than were employed against Rhodesia, has seen Zimbabwe reduced to a state of underdevelopment more typical of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, Mugabe has failed to seize the initiative in exploiting Zimbabwe’s natural mineral resources. Instead of encouraging foreign and domestic industrial production, he has embarked on a determined policy of nationalisation, whilst preferring to take cuts and kickbacks from unlicensed and uneconomical mining activities.
In a bid to divert attention from his idiotic economic and fiscal mismanagement, Mugabe has increasingly relied upon populist rhetoric, his role in the struggle to end white rule and fearsome press censorship, to maintain power.
Failing that he has shown willingness to back Zanu-PF militias against his political opponents, such as happened against Tsvangirai’s MDC party during the 2008 elections, and has been linked with the assassination of rivals.
Whether Zimbabwe’s black population is satisfied to forgo basic social services and human rights as a stipulation for African rule is unclear. Certainly, Mugabe retains a strong support base amongst the working class.
It remains ironic however, that, as in South Africa, the ending of white minority rule, distasteful as it was, has created the condition whereby black Africans in Zimbabwe live in a state of greater poverty now than ever before. The blind support shown to liberation leaders and a determination to right the wrongs of the past as a matter of principle has proved a toxic combination to state failure in yet another resource-rich African country.