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“”We were promised change – but corruption and brutality still rule in Zimbabwe... The violent police clampdown is just the latest action in a tale of unbroken state repression that continues from Robert Mugabe’s era.
|—Fadzayi Mahere, Zimbabwean lawyer and politician, 2019.|
The Republic of Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, is a landlocked country in southern Africa which is currently best known for being one of the most poorly managed countries in the world. The capital and largest city, Harare, is where Zimbabwe's leaders plot on how best to further ruin the entire nation. The country's population is predominantly Protestant Christian, with Catholics as the largest religious minority.
It wasn’t always this way. Zimbabwe was once home to several African civilizations, the most notable of which was the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. The Kingdom of Zimbabwe rose about 1000 CE and left behind some magnificent stone ruins in their capital city. Ultimately, the Zimbabweans came into conflict with expansionist Portugal during the Seventeenth Century; these wars left the region in shambles for centuries after. Further disturbances shook the region, such as the rise of the Zulu Empire and the influx of Dutch colonists further south.
Finally, Zimbabwe itself fell to colonialism, being conquered by Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company (BSAC) in the name of the British Empire and with the help of newly-invented machine guns. Rhodes, like any good imperialist, named the territory after himself which is where we get the name Rhodesia. The British encouraged mass settlement from white Europeans, who naturally decided to enforce a racial hierarchy which benefited themselves. This white minority suffered increasingly strained relations with the British Crown due to its harsh racial policies and eventually decided to unilaterally declare independence in 1965. It was the first British colony to do so since the American Revolution.
Things went downhill from there. Rhodesia suffered sanctions and international isolation, and then black Africans rose up to fight a protracted guerrilla campaign against the white supremacist regime. This culminated in a peace agreement in 1980 which theoretically turned Rhodesia into a multiracial democracy called Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, the country's first elected leader was Robert Mugabe, who turned himself into a dictator, massacred ethnic minorities, confiscated land from white people on behalf of his incompetent cronies, and did a truly memorable job of completely annihilating Zimbabwe's remaining economic capacity.
Mugabe suffered a coup in 2017, having singlehandedly ruined any chance Zimbabwe had of a prosperous and peaceful post-colonial era. Mugabe's political party appointed Emmerson Mnangagwa as the new president, who decided to continue Mugabe's oppressive style of rulership. Despite abundant natural resources and a resilient population, it seems Zimbabwe's potential will still be crippled by misrule for the foreseeable future.
- 1 Historical overview
- 1.1 Early history
- 1.2 Kingdom of Zimbabwe
- 1.3 Decline and destruction
- 1.4 British colonization
- 1.5 Rhodesia colony
- 1.6 Independent Rhodesia
- 1.7 Civil war
- 1.8 Mugabe regime
- 1.9 Nothing changes
- 2 Human rights
- 3 Gallery
- 4 See also
- 5 References
Archaeological evidence indicates that humans have inhabited the Zimbabwe area for at least 100,000 years. Arrowheads and other artefacts point to San people being the first inhabitants of the area; they mainly lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Like most of south Africa, Zimbabwe was impacted by the Bantu expansion, which occurred about 2,000 years ago. Peoples from further north in the continent, called the Bantu ethnic group, migrated southwards and had firmly established fixed settlements along the Zimbabwe river.
Around the Early Middle Ages, the people of the Zimbabwe region came into contact with Arab traders, and the subsequent influx of money helped trigger the establishment of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. This was one of the first centralized states in the region, and it became one of the building-blocks which would form the later Kingdom of Zimbabwe.
Kingdom of Zimbabwe
“”Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them.... This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high.
|—Vicente Pegado, Portuguese colonist, 1531.|
The Kingdom of Zimbabwe, of which Great Zimbabwe was its capital, was formed by the Shona, part of the Bantu group. The state and its fortress capital thrived thanks to agriculture, gold deposits, and a trade network which reached the Swahili merchant cities on the East African coast. The Zimbabweans easily acquired gold from shallow surface deposits, which they then traded in exchange for salt and other needed products. Meanwhile, the region was a breadbasket, with farmers able to grow an abundance of sorghum, millet, pumpkins, and watermelons.
The crown jewel of course, was Great Zimbabwe, the great fortress city that served as the kingdom's capital. Modern archaeologists think that the city would have housed about 18,000 residents. It also seems to have served as the hub of the kingdom's trade, as archaeologists have uncovered glass beads from Persia, porcelain from China and coins from Arabia.
The point here, of course, is that the peoples of Zimbabwe got along just fine before colonialism. They built their own civilizations, established their own economies, and enjoyed their own cultures. Unfortunately, it all went to shit once the Europeans showed up.
Decline and destruction
Like all civilizations, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe faded into obscurity. Around 1430 CE, a disaffected prince of the Zimbabwean dynasty established his own dynasty and state called the Kingdom of Mutapa. Back home, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe's gold mines ran dry and its economy weakened to the point where it was eventually overshadowed by its younger neighbor.
The Kingdom of Mutapa also flourished, but only for a time. For much of the early Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Portugal began ransacking its way across the eastern coast of Africa in the hopes of seizing control of the lucrative Swahili trade network. First Portugal destroyed the great Swahili cities along the eastern coast in what is now Kenya and Somalia. Around 1530, the Portuguese moved inland to interfere with Mutapa itself, sending Jesuits and traders to convert people and attempt to cause disruption.
When subversion didn't work, Portugal tried force. They began a series of wars which left Mutapa in ruins. Portugal also intentionally sparked civil wars by backing rival claimants to the Mutapa throne. Under constant pressure, the Mutapa collapsed, and the Portuguese were only too happy to fill in the gaps. However, they soon lost interest in the new territory once they discovered that the Zimbabwe region's gold mines had largely been depleted and didn't put up much of a fight when the natives pushed them back out.
Mutapa was succeeded by various other kingdoms, but none of them reached the heights of what had come before. None of them were powerful enough to resist the new big European kid on the block: the British Empire.
“”I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. ... If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible.
During the Scramble for Africa, the British colonized their way up South Africa and into Botswana, which they called Bechuanaland. That gave the British a border with the German Empire's colony in Namibia, and the need to defend southern Africa led the British to become increasingly aggressive towards any remaining non-European territory in the region. The British decided to privatize the remainder of the southern African colonization effort, leading to the creation of the British South Africa Company (BSAC). The Company was led by the ruthless businessman Cecil Rhodes.
Cecil Rhodes was one really bad hombre. Rhodes was a rabid supporter of British imperialism who wanted to fold the entire world, including your house, into a global British Empire. He once said, "I would annex the planets if I could". If Rhodes had his way, Mars and Pluto would play cricket and fly the Union Jack. The Rhodes Scholarship? He established it to promote civic-minded leadership among "young colonists" for "the furtherance of the British Empire, for the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire".
Rhodes got his start as the governor of the Cape Colony in South Africa; he proved himself to be a jolly ol' racist by denouncing the blacks as barbaric and ruling them as a "subject race." His policies contributed greatly to the formation of the South African apartheid regime. After that, he moved on to spearhead the colonization of Zimbabwe and Zambezi. These two territories together became Rhodesia, with Zimbabwe as "South Rhodesia."
During the colonization effort, Rhodes waged war against the natives alongside some disgruntled native allies of his own. He introduced the machine gun to African warfare by bringing five Maxim machine guns and using them to mow down about 10,000 people in his first battle. Rhodes' victory in this battle completely destroyed any remnants of Zimbabwean civilization, allowing BSAC to completely take over.
BSAC initially focused on gold-mining, but quickly realized that they needed to diversify operations in order to make the colony profitable. That's why they decided to begin a great tobacco farming effort, which could only happen by seizing native land and encouraging huge amounts of white settlement. As happened all over the world in colonies, the white settlers got the best land while the black natives got shoved into smaller and harsher places over time. The company imported a truly massive number of white people into Rhodesia. By 1927, there were nearly 40,000 whites in Rhodesia.
Rhodesia participated in the Boer Wars, and about 40% of its eligible population fought in World War I. In 1917, many of the white settlers in Rhodesia sued for responsible government, which had previously been granted to Canada and Australia. BSAC opposed the measure, but caved once a court case transferred unallocated land in Rhodesia to the Crown, which removed much of the colony's profitability. The colony held a referendum among its white population, and 60% of the eligible voters favored responsible government.
After World War II, Rhodesia experienced an economic boom, which drew many more white settlers to the region and raised the white population to about 600,000 by 1976. There were still many, many more black people in the territory, but they still didn't exercise any rights. However, the colony started drawing negative attention from abroad concerning its horribly racist white minority rule. In the 1960s, the British government adopted the NIMBAR policy: "No Independence Before Majority African Rule". In 1962, the whites retaliated by forming the Rhodesian Front, which had the primary goal of preventing the sharing of power with blacks. When Labour came to power in the UK, Rhodesia decided that the differences with its mother country were irreconcilable. In 1965, the Rhodesian Front declared independence unilaterally.
“”Having let slip one chance after another of reaching an accommodation with more moderate black leaders, Rhodesia's whites seem to have made the tragic choice of facing black nationalism over the barrel of a gun rather than the conference table. The downhill road toward a race war in Rhodesia is becoming increasingly slippery with blood.
|—Rand Daily Mail editorial, May 1976.|
International condemnation was swift, and the UK successfully convinced the United Nations to sanction its rogue colony. Not a single member of the UN recognized Rhodesia, and even apartheid South Africa turned its back in order to prevent more negative attention from falling on itself. Rhodesia had become a rogue nation.
White minority rule became increasingly intolerable for the black majority, and the blacks became increasingly militant when their calls for equality were ignored. Petrol bombings by radicals became increasingly common, with the Zimbabwe Review observing in 1961, "for the first time home-made petrol bombs were used by freedom fighters in Salisbury against settler establishments." White Rhodesian nationalists retaliated by massacring black civilians. As if that wasn't enough to exacerbate tensions, the white government banned the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress in 1959, which was the first and only black political organization at that time. It also raised fares on public transportation for black people, keeping them in poverty by forcing them to spend as much as a third of their income. The government, in doing all of this, apparently hadn't considered that whites were badly outnumbered in Rhodesia. Open rebellion from the black population was just around the corner.
A guerrilla war subsequently ensued when Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), supported actively by communist powers and neighbouring African nations, initiated guerrilla operations against Rhodesia's white government. ZANU was leftist and pan-African; its leader Mugabe was an avowed Marxist who favored Mao Zedong's mobilization-of-the-farmers strategy. ZAPU was also leftist but leaned towards Soviet Union alignment rather than the People's Republic of China like Mugabe.
Government forces, while outnumbered, were still a force to be reckoned with. Rhodesia had evaded international sanctions successfully enough to build itself a professional military. The cold-hearted core of the army were white professionals, but the majority of the government's enlisted troops were black Africans. Rhodesia also had an air force, which was a massive advantage against their guerrilla enemies. All of these forces were supplemented with mercenaries and foreign volunteers. Most notable were the Crippled Eagles, a company of war veterans from the United States who had gone a little crazy in the Vietnam War.
In their increasingly desperate efforts to suppress the guerrillas, the white Rhodesians deployed a variety of rudimentary WMDs against both combatants and civilians. Although Rhodesia deployed multiple chemical agents, the war is most notorious for the regime's deployment of fucking anthrax. If the Rhodesian sources are credible, their chemical and biological effort at times inflicted more guerrilla casualties than the conventional military operations did. That is perhaps to be expected since Rhodesia's conventional forces struggled to counter the guerrilla's hit-and-run tactics. It's also notable that the Rhodesian government very blatantly gave zero shits about any international outcry; after all, they were already under heavy sanctions.
The guerrillas tried to attack cities, but they were too weak to expand their efforts past raiding farms and government installations. The economic effect of the war was catastrophic, and the impacts were most harshly felt by Rhodesia's impoverished blacks. Both sides committed atrocities in their attempts to intimidate civilians; massacres and torture were distressingly frequent.
Disgustingly, Rhodesia received significant international aid against the black rebels. Many Western nations feared that a free black Zimbabwe would turn to communism, so nations like the United States and Portugal traded strategic resources with the white regime. Rhodesia's most important ally, though, was apartheid South Africa, which provided oil, guns, and ammunition. The black guerrillas, for their part, received aid from China and the Soviets.
Luckily, the tide of the war turned against Rhodesia, largely due to international developments. First, Henry Kissinger in the US decided that failing to come down on the side of the black rebels might radicalize most of southern Africa's black people into siding with the Soviets. Even more important was the collapse of Portugal's African empire in 1975, which turned Mozambique from a European colony into a refuge for the black militias. South Africa, meanwhile, was experiencing its own international pressure and decided to dump its support for Rhodesia to take some of the heat off.
The war had become unwinnable. So, the negotiating table. Rhodesia allowed itself to be overseen temporarily by the British, who brokered an agreement for a truly democratic election among all of Rhodesia's races. Robert Mugabe, the most prominent black leader, naturally won in a landslide. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Salisbury became Harare.
Fifth Brigade massacres
Robert Mugabe was of the Shona ethnic group, and his rise to power was seen by other ethnic groups as a Shona takeover. Unrest started immediately in the Matabeland region, which takes up much of Zimbabwe's western region. Opposition to his rule was unacceptable to Mugabe, so he responded by assembling his Fifth Brigade in 1981. The Fifth Brigade was a unit of war-hardened ex-guerrillas trained by North Korea who answered only to Mugabe. They were essentially a death squad.
From 1983 to 1987, Mugabe allowed the Fifth Brigade to rampage around the Matabeland on an indiscriminate killing spree. Brutality was extreme. Village leaders were shot in front of their followers, men, young and old, were forced to dig their own graves, entire families were forced to stay in their huts which were then set aflame.
All in all, the Fifth Brigade murdered about 20,000 people. The massacre only ended after Mugabe successfully forced local Matabeland leaders to form a political union with him. This union created Zimbabwe's current ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF).
“”You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.
|—Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, founding father of Tanzania, in comments to Mugabe.|
Despite years of civil war and brutal racist oppression, Zimbabwe at the time of its true independence had a chance to become a shining example of what Africans could do for themselves. It had good infrastructure, a manufacturing sector, good agricultural production, and solid currency. Under different leadership, Zimbabwe could have been a prosperous country based on racial equality. Unfortunately, Mugabe screwed everything.
First, Mugabe started handing out unbudgeted cash payments to his cronies and supporters, which resulted in the market value of the Zimbabwean dollar crashing by 72%. This, combined with more international sanctions in response to Mugabe's massacres, completely trashed Zimbabwe's economy. But Mugabe wasn't done yet. He then decided to get involved in the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ordering 11,000 soldiers into the region to fight Congolese dissidents. This intervention was costly, coming with a price tag of about $1 million per day. The state could not afford this lavish spending on war, and Zimbabwe's economy further suffered.
Eventually, Mugabe's cronies showed up again to remind him that amid his obsessive pursuits of suppression and war, he had completely failed to address one of the key reasons for the black uprising: land inequality. Thus began perhaps the most infamous chapter in Zimbabwe's history. In 1992, Mugabe signed the Land Acquisition Act, which authorized his government to seize farmland held by whites and hand it off to blacks. While theoretically a good idea to help rectify racial inequality, Mugabe conducted the program in the dumbest way possible. The government confiscated all of the white-held farmland and handed it off almost exclusively to ZANU-PF party cronies. By 1994, the vast majority of Zimbabwe's land was held by about 600 black politicians, none of whom had any real interest in managing their new farm estates.
As a result of this idiocy, agricultural production plunged. Zimbabwe's manufacturing sector then collapsed in the shockwave, leaving Zimbabwe with basically no economic value at all. In 2000, Mugabe decided to double down on his policies, implementing "fast-track land reform." Under this policy, ZANU-PF party leaders were able to assemble their own personal militias to violently seize land from anyone white and black alike, without compensation and with no limits on how murderous they could be. As you can imagine, this did nothing to improve Zimbabwe's economy. Quite the opposite, actually.
Punishing the poor (with bulldozers)
“”This is your last chance. You messed up when you voted. Next time you vote you must get it right or you will die.
|—Zimbabwean soldier to urban poor in Harare, 2008.|
Despite Mugabe's best efforts at voter suppression, popular backlash made itself known in Zimbabwe's major cities, where almost every parliamentary seat went to the opposition in 2005. Although the ruling party still won a comfortable majority, Mugabe decided that he had more people to crush.
Shortly after, Mugabe announced the commencement of Operation Murambatsvina, or "Operation Drive Out The Rubbish". Mugabe had noticed that a lot of urban poor lived in shantytowns and suburbs, so he decided that it might be a cool idea to get rid of those shantytowns and suburbs. Zimbabwean cops burnt, bulldozed and destroyed tens of thousands of properties around the country, evicting about 700,000 people and leaving them with nowhere to go. With no government compensation, people were forced into the open, forced to pull their kids out of schools, and became even more impoverished and hungry than before. Deciding to help them out, the government launched Operation Garikai, or "Operation Better Living", which put refugees up in tents and tin shacks without running water.
The program was successful in that it destroyed the opposition's voter base and made it impossible to organize any substantive protest action against the ongoing famine and economic crisis. Many suburbs of Harare no longer exist. Mugabe later decided that coercion works pretty well in elections and unleashed ZANU-PF militias to threaten people with AK-47s into voting the right way.
Hyperinflation and misery
The result of all of this is a country that has experienced one of the worst economic collapses in known history. The most well-known consequence of this was the insane hyperinflation of Zimbabwe's currency. As the value of the Zimbabwe dollar crashed further and further, the government had to redenominate it repeatedly throughout the early 2000s. In 2009, hyperinflation became so absurd that Zimbabwe had to issue a $100 trillion note, which was worth about $30 US. In terms of percentages, inflation hit 59% in 2000, inflation then ran at almost 600% by 2003 and, in 2006, it hit the scarcely-believable rate of 1,200%. The following year it hit a rate of 66,200% and, by the end of 2008, it had hit nearly 80,000,000,000% (80 billion percent).
So how did Mugabe respond? In 2007, he banned inflation. No, really. Merchants caught raising prices were arrested, and Mugabe instituted a wage freeze across the entire country. Again, this did nothing to solve the problem. Zimbabwe's GDP shrank by more than half between 1991 to 2008. Gross national income per capita, meanwhile, collapsed from $1,100 US in 1981, the first year after independence, to a miserable $300 US in 1998.
Finally, Zimbabwe had to concede that their currency was basically done. In 2009, they abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar, but in typical Mugabe fashion, that process was fucked up too. In place of the old currency, Zimbabwe adopted no less than eight currencies as legal tender: the US dollar, the Chinese yuan, the Indian rupee, the British pound, the South African rand, the Botswana pula, the Australian dollar, and the Japanese yen. Going to the market became a nightmare, and many banks just stopped lending. Ordinary Zimbabweans largely gave up on currency and instead chose to trade in candy, condoms, or mobile phone minutes. Who can blame them?
“”Right now we literally have nothing.
|—Zimbabwe's finance minister, 2016.|
Even with the military and his party militias behind him, Mugabe's iron fist started slipping as time went on. It began all the way back in 2008, which was hardly surprising given that Mugabe had pissed a lot of people off with his bulldozing-the-whole-country trick. In a surprising moment of not lying at the ZANU-PF party congress in 2014, Mugabe accidentally let slip that the opposition had in fact won the contentious 2008 election by an astounding 73%. And that was after Mugabe had sent his goons to point rifles at people.
As Zimbabwe's government and economy fell apart, people only got more dissatisfied. By 2016, people had become so fed up that they launched massive protests across the country. Zimbabwean civilians organized a country-wide strike through WhatsApp. Mugabe then blamed Western governments for the protests and blocked the app across Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, ZANU-PF became embroiled in a power struggle between First Lady Grace Mugabe and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa over which one of them would succeed Mugabe once he inevitably kicked it. The situation came to a head in 2017 when Mugabe gave his VP the sack for "disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability", paving the way for his wife to become his official successor. Unfortunately for him, his wife was unpopular with the party's old guard, and it was also legally impossible for a woman to become the party leader anyways. Mnangagwa, on the other hand, had wide support among the military.
Shortly after, the military placed Mugabe and his wife under house arrest and seized control of the government. Popular reaction ranged from relief to "who gives a shit?", while the military denied to the international community that it was conducting a coup despite obviously conducting a coup. Eventually, Mugabe sort of conceded defeat. He struck a deal where, in exchange for a $10 million dollar payout and a pension, the Mugabe family would go on a permanent vacation and leave Zimbabwe's presidency. Mugabe died of illness in Singapore in 2019, apparently as a "very bitter" man, according to his nephew.
In the wake of Mugabe's downfall, Zimbabwe held elections in 2017 to determine who would take his place. They pitted ZANU-PF candidate and former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa against reform candidate Nelson Chamisa. Mnangagwa predictably won the election amid fraud allegations, and Zimbabwe's top court ruled in his favor. During his inauguration, Mnangagwa promised to represent all Zimbabweans equally, end his country's isolation, and reduce corruption. He proceeded to do none of that.
Things went south again very quickly in December 2017, when Mnangagwa sent in the army to attack informal vendors in Harare and seize their wares. One distressed person said, "Mugabe in a way was better, he never sent soldiers to take away our goods." Then the president decided to randomly hike fuel prices by 130%. When people protested this move, Zimbabwean police responded with lethal force, killing at least 17 people, raping at least 17 women, shooting and injuring 81 people, and arresting over 1,000 suspected protesters during door-to-door raids.
Zimbabwe's economic crisis has also deepened under the new regime's watch, with Mnangagwa making erratic decisions with no consultation. Chief among them was the decision to ban usage of the US dollar and revive usage of the Zimbabwe dollar, which you'll remember was suspended due to being absolutely worthless. Zimbabwe is also experiencing its worst energy crisis in decades, with rolling blackouts running for 18 hours per day. This makes business extremely difficult there.
Food insecurity and poverty are still omnipresent. Zimbabwe is last in the world alphabetically. Thanks to Mugabe and his cronies, it's last in the world in just about everything else too.
Zimbabwe's ruling party is guilty of a litany of crimes against humanity. Most recent were massacres across the country in response to fuel price protests, when security forces fired assault weapons into crowds and took advantage of the confusion to rape many women and steal from people. Following the protests, security forces rounded up and detained hundreds of people, many of whom were brought before courts on charges of public violence and criminal nuisance. Outside observers have uncovered evidence that Zimbabwe's security forces tortured many of those people.
Security forces also kidnapped Dr. Peter Magombeyi, a government employee and leader of the doctors’ union that had organized a series of protests to demand better salaries for government doctors. They tortured him for four days and then dumped him on in the street in Harare, likely to serve as a warning to others.
Freedom of expression and assembly
Zimbabwe's government routinely shuts down the internet during protests or times of unrest. Security forces arrest people simply for voicing criticism of President Mnangagwa, which is a crime in Zimbabwe. Protests are banned in Zimbabwe, and are met with lethal force when they occur. The leading opposition party also has its leaders harassed, arrested, and charged during protests, ostensibly for failing to prevent them.
During 2019, Zimbabwe’s Parliament debated a marriage bill, which seeks to outlaw child marriage. This is great. However, the bill does not give women any divorce rights, which means that they can still be left homeless by vindictive exes. Women also don't have property rights when their husband dies, meaning that the husband's family gets everything while the woman is left destitute.
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