Magazine | December 18, 2017, Issue

Zimbabwe’s Trauma

Robert Mugabe was a symptom

One of the more poignant moments in the story of African decolonization was the small riot staged in Havana by a group of Congolese teenagers who had been sent to Cuba to study medicine at the Castro government’s expense. They had been selected by the authorities in Brazzaville more for their political connections than their academic records, with the result that very few among the hundreds of prospective doctors and nurses who landed in Cuba in 1966 had any knowledge of basic science; some could barely read and write. Nevertheless, they expected to be turned into doctors with a minimum of delay, for there were fewer than ten civilian doctors in the whole of Congo-Brazzaville at the time and most of them were foreigners. Whatever it was that the Cubans told the Congolese to explain why their med-school studies could not possibly begin immediately, it did not go over well.

But what could the Cubans have said? How do you explain to a suspicious Congolese who thinks he is ready for medical school that he is not even ready for university? He thinks you are trying to cheat him or disrespect him, and he doesn’t much care that as a Communist anti-imperialist you are on his side. You might try catching him out with some basic questions such as “Can you tell me what blood does?” or “Read aloud from this textbook,” but he may well fail to see the relevance. The Congolese students had probably never seen a doctor perform anything more complicated than an injection or an amputation, and it is hardly self-evident that it should take much time or much reading to learn doctoring of that sort. To them it must have seemed that the Cubans were setting needless obstacles in their path, most likely for self-interested reasons.

There is an analogy to be drawn between these Cubans and the country of Zimbabwe, previously Rhodesia, where for 15 years Prime Minister Ian Smith fought to prevent his country from electing someone like Robert Mugabe. Smith, too, had to explain to suspicious Africans why they were not prepared for something they believed to be no more than their due. But to make the analogy truly apt, the stakes in Cuba would need to have been higher. Never mind certifying their medical credentials. The question for the Cubans would need to have been: Would you let this Congolese doctor perform your appendectomy?

Now that Mugabe has lost power, there is a temptation to make the celebration a big-tent affair. As with Stalin, disillusionment with Mugabe set in piecemeal over several decades. Some turned against him with the genocide of the Matabele in the early 1980s, others not until the land invasions at the turn of the century. No doubt for some his homophobia was the deal-breaker. On this occasion, though, there is an understandable urge to set aside these differences, these expectations dashed or all too terribly fulfilled, and raise our glasses in a common toast: Thank God the bastard’s gone at last.

As appealing as such a moment would be, there is something dishonest about allowing mournful appraisals of Mugabe’s record to emit unchallenged from the very people, or types of people, who installed him in power in the first place. Partly it is the evasion of responsibility. Partly it is the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, when anger would be so much more appropriate. But more than anything else, these obituaries are hard to stomach because the story of Rhodesia is full of so many turning points when the Mugabe disaster could have been averted that it seems deliberately evasive to moan about that disaster without nailing your colors to at least one of them.

Reflecting in the late 1970s on the prospect of a Mugabe election victory, the conservative historian Robert Blake commented placidly, “The right to misgovern oneself is as valid as any other political right, and it is exercised more often than most.” After 35 years of ethnic cleansing, political murder, intimidation by rape, economic suicide, and massive depopulation from famine, emigration, and AIDS, this fatalism has not worn well. Those who would join in moral condemnation of Mugabe now that he is gone should have to come up with a better answer to how things could have gone so wrong than to shrug with Lord Blake that democracy wants what it wants, tant pis. Even divine-right monarchies had their tactful regencies and pragmatic sanctions. Modern democrats should be able to display at least as much imaginative flexibility as people who believed their rulers were ordained by God — if not in time to do any good, then at least in retrospect.

The most inviting answer to the question of what should have been done differently, which beckons like an oasis in the desert, is to blame the colonial regime. If only Rhodesia had been governed better, its oppressed native population would not have presented such an easy foothold to Marxist guerrillas. Alas, this particular oasis is a mirage — not because conditions for Africans were so splendid under Ian Smith and his predecessors, but because no amount of peace, prosperity, and good government has ever been a prophylactic against violent nationalism when other factors have made it an advantageous ideology to embrace. If nationalism were a function of oppression, there would have been a Mau Mau revolt in Hungary under the Soviets and rather less of one there under the Hapsburgs. Nationalism, like a contagious disease, does not discriminate.

It was, for precisely this reason, a waste of breath for Rhodesians to defend their regime on the facts — and, to be fair to them, they had no shortage of facts on their side. Secondary-school attendance among black Africans was higher in Rhodesia than anywhere else on the continent in 1960. Spending on African education tripled in the seven years before Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965. A quarter of the students at the integrated national university were black. Apart from its anomalous neighbor to the south, Rhodesia was the only sub-Saharan country where manufacturing accounted for more than 10 percent of GDP — one reason that, in the 1950s, real wages for black Rhodesians rose 40 percent in just five years. A booming economy meant that fewer blacks were willing to resort to the poorly paid domestic work that had long been a social flashpoint (and, it must be said, a magnet for politically reactionary white immigrants eager to live the grand colonial lifestyle on the cheap). Prosperity also produced such fashionable black suburbs as Marimba Park and Pelandaba, which observers admitted “compar[ed] very favorably with the best that can be found in England anywhere.”

Those who set material prosperity at naught compared with dignity and justice found Rhodesia equally ready with answers. The franchise was, and had always been, colorblind: Fifty Africans qualified for Rhodesia’s first election in 1923; 500 in 1953; and 65,000 under the two-tiered system in 1962, including 5,500 on the “A” roll (the more exclusive in Rhodesia’s two-tiered voting system based on property, income, and education). Racial discrimination in wage negotiations was abolished in 1959. Post offices and public swimming pools were integrated around the same time, and by the early 1960s white liberals in Salisbury were privately complaining that movie theaters and restaurants were abandoning the color bar faster than they could plan their sit-ins.

When Englishmen first arrived in Mashonaland in the 1880s, the civilization they encountered there had not developed currency, written language, irrigation, beasts of burden, the plough, or the wheel. Comparing that condition with what had been achieved by the time of independence, one is impressed not so much by how many modern improvements the Rhodesians had brought — anyone could have done that just by showing up — but by how successfully they had navigated some fairly momentous transitions. They had turned a subsistence economy into a market economy, where Africans were willing to work for wages, without passing through an intermediate stage of forced labor as most other civilizations had, Europe included. They had staged an industrial revolution without creating the overcrowded slums and Gin Lanes that had attended urbanization in their own country. They had replaced the caprice of a cruel Matabele despot, for whom the murder of entire families was a tool of policy, with the rule of law. All of this in 80 years — within the lifetime of one man.

Could it have been done better? Undoubtedly, but Western liberals always overestimate how easy it would have been to improve on the colonial standard of governance. The United Nations discovered this when it high-handedly expelled the Belgian teachers who had stayed on in the Congo after independence, for the teachers it found to replace them were both too few and far less adequate to the task than they expected — as in the case of the poor Haitian teacher who proudly told his hosts in Kasai that he was a full-blooded Luba by descent, at which point they, being Lulua, chased their hereditary enemy all the way back to the U.N. mission. The Africans of Rhodesia had shunned white doctors for years and then, almost overnight, began to swamp them. Obviously, more hospitals should have been built, but when? When they would have stood empty for God knows how many years at God knows what cost? Philip Mason, an old colonial hand, noted the same irony in the interwar years when demand was heard for more schools to be built in West Africa. It was odd, he wrote, to see “Nigerians from the North reproach the British with withholding the schools which their grandfathers had stipulated should not be introduced.”

When Terence Ranger, later the dean of southern-African historians, first arrived in Rhodesia to take up a position at the university in Salisbury, one of the first things he did was try to join up with the local African nationalists. “The problem was to find an African organization preparing to fight,” he wrote in his memoir. “In mid-1957, there was no militant or radical African organization.” There was a group in Harare calling itself the City Youth League, which in August 1956 staged a bus boycott to protest an increase in fares, and they were militant enough to punish a group of women who refused to participate, by assaulting and raping them. Less violently but not always less radically, the African press had undertaken various political and moral crusades since the founding of the Native Mirror in 1931, beginning with a campaign against Bulawayo merchants who marketed luxury goods to blacks. “How much did you spend last year on rubbish?” the editors scolded in 1934. “On things that were of no use? On concertinas? Gramophones? Cheap boots that were too small? Hats that didn’t fit?” This too-many-gramophones line was not pursued by later nationalists.

But certainly no one was thinking in terms of violent revolution. A few years earlier, Thompson Samkange had assured the annual convention of the Bantu National Congress that “no sensible African would wish that the Africans take over the Government of this Colony from Europeans, even after a hundred years or even a thousand.” (Not in a thousand years — fateful choice of words. Ian Smith would later use the same phrase, and be tagged with it forever after as proof of his intransigence.) Yet within a decade of Ranger’s arrival, the bush war had begun, and a decade after that, white rule was practically at an end. What had made the difference?

Several factors, not least of which were Ranger and his friends. It is fashionable now to say that the nationalists were radicalized by the prolongation of white resistance, that if the minority regime had only surrendered earlier, power would have gone to the moderate instead of the violent. Peter Godwin said exactly this in his otherwise sympathetic Guardian obituary for Ian Smith. When we examine the words and deeds of white liberals at the time, however, it becomes clear that they were slavering to hoist barricades from the word “go.”

“All hope of a constitutionalist, gradualist career for [the Southern Rhodesia African National] Congress is over. It might be worth Congress’s while to start formulating policy on long-term and revolutionary lines” — so wrote John Reed, a university colleague of Ranger’s, in January 1958. He had been in the country for less than a year. He later fled the country after authorities discovered he had been smuggling grenades in from Lusaka “so that effective protest against the declaration of UDI could be made,” as Ranger delicately puts it. The liberals of the Capricorn Africa Society were likewise hasty in declaring constitutional options exhausted in 1960 and — no doubt with the greatest personal reluctance — throwing their support behind glamorous violent radicals. When revolutionaries such as Joshua Nkomo flew to London, they were received by statesmen; when tribal chiefs of far greater local standing did the same, the British government barely acknowledged them. Events did not choose the terrorists; powerful white people did.

Among the external factors contributing to the rise of violent nationalism, there was first of all the death of Stalin, a boon in most respects but not to the Third World. It had been Stalin’s policy not to give money, arms, or training to anti-colonial rebellions, but Khrushchev shrewdly reversed this policy, with the Czech arms sale to Egypt in 1955 sounding the starting bell. Throughout the Sixties, AK-47s, RPG-2s, and East German uniforms found their way to revolutionaries all over Africa. This may be what made the difference between the interwar period, when Wilsonian talk of self-determination raised anti-colonial hopes in Asia and Africa, and the post-war period, when those hopes were finally satisfied: The earlier generation had fewer guns.

Second, there was the wave of African countries that gained their independence after 1957. However, one should not exaggerate the importance of the so-called Winds of Change. True, the new African states provided money for the guerrilla campaign. It was by threatening to cut off his funds that Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah forced Nkomo to boycott the pivotal 1962 elections, even after Nkomo had publicly endorsed the new constitution as a fair concession to African political aspirations. But it would be highly anachronistic to credit the flurry of new nations with creating a momentum behind decolonization that could not have been resisted. It is too easy to imagine a counterfactual where the dismal record of the newly independent nations sets the cause of anti-imperialism back a generation. The total implosion of the Ghanaian economy, Nkrumah’s cult of personality, villagization in Tanzania, the Biafra war, Idi Amin, not to mention Algeria and the Congo — we could not possibly grant independence to any similarly situated colony after such lessons as these, the British could have said, if they had wanted to.

The history books might well have taken just this line, had it not been for a third development: America’s endorsement of the anti-imperial crusade. Suez sent a strong enough signal, but in 1957 a certain Massachusetts senator gave a speech in favor of the Algerian rebels that had even Adlai Stevenson begging for a little less idealism. From the moment JFK was sworn in, every guerrilla group south of the Sahara figured it was in with a chance, as indeed they all were. Soviet arms may have helped prolong the bush war until the diplomats could finish the job, and government sinecures from the frontline states — e.g., Herbert Chitepo, Tanzanian director of public prosecutions — may have helped the nationalist leaders keep body and soul together, but in the post-Suez world, the decisions that ultimately determined Rhodesia’s fate were made in Washington, D.C.

What should have been done differently, then? Many have fixated on Reverend Abel Muzorewa, the moderate nationalist who served as prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979 and who, it is generally agreed, was egregiously betrayed when Jimmy Carter refused to recognize his government or lift sanctions even though his election was entirely democratic. But the Muzorewa government was weak, and a weak government would have ended up falling to Mugabe, or a Mugabe equivalent, sooner or later. Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, believed that handing power to Mugabe was the only way to stop the fighting — strangely, he considered this a reason Mugabe should be elected — and the fact that he was probably right under the circumstances is the last word on the Muzorewa option.

Any moderate solution, to have worked, would have required an America not wedded to the claim that one-man-one-vote, instituted immediately, is the only legitimate form of democracy. To posit such an America is not quite as absurd as simply to posit a Mugabe who doesn’t deploy North Korean–trained death squads. In 1956, when the career diplomat George Allen was asked by a French counterpart about the likely American attitude toward the Algerian pieds-noirs, he speculated that his country’s frontier history “would evoke sympathy for a white community settled for many generations in a non-European country, exposed to the attacks of the natives, who organize themselves for the defense of their hearths and homes.” The frontier comparison certainly made more sense than fitting ZANU and ZAPU for powdered wigs.

Any idea that liberal reform on the part of the Rhodesian state could have saved it is a non-starter, because the anti-imperialists were implacable and — I do not know a gentle way to put this — they were quite happy to lie. I do not mean just the professional liars of the Soviet propaganda shop, or the pundits who lazily referred to the Rhodesian system as “apartheid,” or the guerrillas who told Shona villagers that ZANU had successfully dynamited the Kariba Dam, or the foreign journalist who scattered candy around a garbage bin and captioned the resulting photo “Starving children searching for food in Salisbury.” Ralph Bunche had a doctorate from Harvard, a Nobel Peace Prize, and a co-author credit on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and when it came to imperialism, he lied.

“Colonial authorities like the noted Englishman, Lord Lugard, doubt that the African race, whether in Africa or America, can develop capability for self-government.” When I first read that in Bunche’s 1936 pamphlet “A World View of Race,” I felt a lurking suspicion that I had read a sentence of Lord Lugard’s beginning with the very words “The method of their progress toward self-government lies . . .” I had. His next words are “along the same path as that of Europeans.” Even making allowances for CTRL-F’s not having been invented yet, Bunche’s remark is plain slander. With Harvard Ph.D.s pulling stunts like this, it is hard to summon much indignation at a garden-variety diplomatic lie like the U.N. claim, by which sanctions were justified, that Rhodesia had committed an act of aggression by maintaining its status quo.

It is therefore difficult to say what steps might have prevented Mugabe from coming to power. The most promising juncture was probably Britain’s Pearce Commission inquiry of 1972, which might have asked the democratic equivalents of the basic medical questions that should have been directed to the Congolese students with whom we began. Americans assume that the answers to questions such as “May I sell my vote for cash?” are self-evident, but the colonizing powers never did succeed in convincing ordinary Africans that obtaining a bureaucrat’s services through gifts is a form of corruption. Is the case against vote-buying more obvious? Why is voter intimidation enough to invalidate an election and not just the continuation of democracy by other means? Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda used to run around claiming that Arthur Creech-Jones, the Labour colonial secretary, wanted to give Africans their freedom, but Churchill had locked Creech-Jones in prison. A country with an overwhelming electoral majority willing to believe such things about the way democratic leaders treat the opposition is a country that is not ready for democracy.

Next, they might have taken a page from U.S. Border Control’s refugee protocol and given Ian Smith a “credible-fear interview” — i.e., what exactly are you worried will happen to you, and on what grounds? Here we have a test that the Rhodesian leaders could have passed where George Wallace, say, could not. Smith’s fears were not based on century-old horror stories about Reconstruction. If he believed that white minorities would be run out by the new regime in spite of all prior reassurances to the contrary, it was because that’s exactly what had happened in Algeria. If he worried that the country’s economy would be knocked back to subsistence, with famine following, it was because post-colonial Africa (with the exception of oil-boom Nigeria) had seen negative per capita economic growth in the 1970s. By the time of UDI, the world already had before it the examples of Ghana (Afro-fascism), Tanzania (police state), and the Congo (civil war). Instead of asking why Smith thought Zimbabwe would go the same way, we should ask why anyone thought it would be the exception.

Smith’s preferred course would have been for the country to continue along evolutionary lines. The Rhodesian constitution was designed so that black and white political power would converge as more and more Africans met the income and education qualifications, and eventually the desideratum of one-man-one-vote would be achieved. Britain itself had taken centuries to arrive at a universal franchise. The last property qualifications were abolished only in the 1920s. If the evolution had not been so gradual, Britain might well have had to endure dictatorship and revolution as the French did, and they might now be on constitution number 17 instead of the same one they’ve had since 1688.

Gradual evolution toward full democracy was the best that could have been hoped for under such difficult circumstances, and maybe the best that could have been hoped for, period. To find an alternative, one would have to follow the timeline all the way back to the beginning and imagine a world where the British never came to southern Africa at all — which is no alternative, really, since if the British had not ventured there another European power would have. From the moment the British and King Lobengula met, a colonial relationship was inevitable. Any relationship between two civilizations of such disparate attainments will be colonial, almost by definition. The best option, from that point, is for the relationship to be made as benign as possible, which is what Smith was asking permission to try to do.

Alas, none of his gambits could possibly have made the slightest difference, because the only players with any power in the crisis did not give a fig about Rhodesia, at least not compared with their own interests. The metropole will always sell out the colonies. This has been the rule since Rome. In the fifth century, the citizens of Clermont begged Rome to protect them from the barbarians or at least permit them to mount their own last-ditch defense, but the capital ordered them to surrender as part of a bargain with the Visigoths to protect the more important cities of Arles and Marseilles.

For Edward Heath, the more important city was Brussels. A strong line on Rhodesia was the price of Liberal support for his Common Market push in 1973; thus was the outcome of the Pearce Commission determined. Later PMs were driven by a need to make the UDI experiment fail in order to keep Belfast from getting any bright ideas. American politicians from LBJ onward used Rhodesia-bashing as an inexpensive way to win black votes. South Africa’s policy was decided according to whether Prime Minister John Vorster’s priority that month was wooing Henry Kissinger or fending off a third-party challenge from the right. There are two things no politician will give up before he has to: an issue and a bargaining chip. Rhodesia was both.

As for Arles and Marseilles: When the Visigoths got around to them, they were not saved.

Ian Smith was only “a farm boy from Selukwe” (in the contemptuous phrase of his predecessor Garfield Todd) and thus not quite as saturated in Roman history as the Englishmen across the negotiating table. But he could hardly have been ignorant of the basic outline of the parallel, staple that it was of English and French imperial rhetoric. “Like you, our ancestors resisted courageously a foreign invasion,” Napoleon III told a crowd of Arabs in Algiers in 1865, “and yet the vanquished Gauls assimilated with the Roman victors and from this was born, in time, the French nationality.” Lord Lugard, the man who apparently did not believe in African progress toward self-government, wrote that “as Roman imperialism laid the foundations of modern civilization and led the wild barbarians of these islands along the path of progress, so in Africa today we are repaying the debt.” The mission civilisatrice was not a doctrine; it was a precedent. (And one that Africans grasped perfectly: “When the English were subject to the Romans, if the Romans had segregated them, they would not be what they are today” was the argument of one Joseph Hlubi at a hearing on Transvaal land policy in 1918.)

The framers of the comparison spoke better than they knew, for Zimbabwe’s fate today is that of Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans. With the fall of that earlier empire, coinage disappeared and barter returned. Wheeled pottery was not seen again for 300 years. British roofs devolved from tile to thatch — perishable, flammable, insect-infested — and their floors reverted to plain earth. The very cattle shrank with the return of primitive methods of husbandry. Now that Mugabe is gone, we may be lucky and get for his successor a Zimbabwean King Arthur. But it is sobering to reflect, especially with China hovering in the wings, that the ruler for whom Britain had to wait before history could begin again was William the Conqueror.

– Helen Andrews is a Robert Novak Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.

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