What went wrong in Zimbabwe?
by Professor Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni
THE New Year is a time to reflect on the past with a view to transcending
the murky present and then forecast on the mysterious future.
For Zimbabwe, the past, the present, and the future, are so inextricably
intertwined to the extent that some political forces are even trying to stop
the wheel of history itself from turning so as to immortalize a particular
historical moment as the ‘end of history.’ Simply put, to try and stop the
wheel of history from motion is a futile exercise.
What needs to occupy our minds is to clearly understand what went wrong in
Zimbabwe. Politicians, civil society organizations, and intellectuals as
well as all concerned citizens must strive to come up with a ‘scientific’
and ‘objective’ analysis of the causes and nature of the Zimbabwe problem.
Only from this basis can its resolutions be found consisting of effective
therapies and durable peace settlements.
One of the main weaknesses of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) as a form
of resolution of the Zimbabwe problem is that it suffered from the ‘crisis
of presentism,’ which translates to the common human habit of seeking to
deal with what immediately appeared on the surface of life as reality. In
short, the GPA became informed, framed and driven by the urge to deal with
symptoms rather than causes of the Zimbabwe problem.
The land issue, sanctions, human rights abuses, poor governance, violence,
lack of rule of law, ethnocracy, racism, and other problems that appear on
the surface of the political landscape of Zimbabwe are mere symptoms of
deep-rooted, structural and hidden issues, that require critical minds to
Unless a clear diagnosis of the causes and nature of the Zimbabwe problem is
made, we will live with a catalogue of minimalist resolutions such as the
3rd March Agreement of 1978 that failed to stop the liberation struggle or
to resolve the Rhodesia problem; only producing the anomaly called
Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government that became complicity in the bombings of
liberation movements’ rear bases in Zambia and Mozambique.
Following that we had the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 where the
sacrifices of the sons and the daughters of the soil who perished in
Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and inside Rhodesia theatres of war fighting
for freedom were short-changed and sold out by their petit-nationalist
bourgeois leaders, who succumbed and capitulated to the demands of global
and local white capital to produce a neo-colony of Zimbabwe, where land and
other factors of production remained in the hands of the white minority
And then there was the Unity Accord of 22 December 1987, that became nothing
but nationalist elite accommodation of each other after exposing 20 000
innocent peoples of Matebeleland and the Midlands regions to death, before
finding each other.
Then there was tThe GPA of 15 September 2008, that simply allowed a losing
political formation to continue being politically relevant and to spoil the
democratic political trajectory of the country. We as a people are poised
for more of these flawed conflict resolution mechanism as long as a clear
diagnosis of the Zimbabwe problem does not form the basis of negotiations
and formulation of effective therapies and durable resolutions.
What went wrong in Zimbabwe? I am not the first one to be pre-occupied with
this pertinent question. Intellectuals like Brian Raftopoulos, Jonathan
Moyo, John Makumbe, Ibbo Mandaza and others have worked towards explaining
the problem. The emerging consensus in the various attempts is that the
problem is historical and structural. It is multi-layered and multi-faceted.
What I will try to do is to try unpacking the layers and revealing the
historical and structural nature of the problem in very simple terms.
Zimbabwe is a colonial and nationalist invention of the 20th century. It’s
making involved violence and conquest of the various people inhabiting the
lands lying between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, who otherwise had
No black person consented to be part of Rhodesia as a colonial state.
Rhodesian authorities were content in creating a state but were not eager to
create the nation of whites and blacks as equal and consenting citizens.
Divide and rule was the key style of governance. Black people became tribes
and subjects and whites became citizens and masters.
Strategic resources were allocated to citizens while subjects provided the
needed cheap labour in this colonial matrix of power. However, this
colonially created citizen-subject and settler-native relationship was
unsustainable except through violence and imprisonment.
But violence itself has never been sustainable and successful as a lever of
maintaining asymmetrical power relations and tyrannical governance.
Inevitably Rhodesia imploded into conflict called the liberation struggle in
the 1960s and 1970s. Roots of violence and authoritarianism are traceable to
the colonial layer. Colonial violence begot nationalist violence. This
scenario of conflict takes us to the next layer.
Nationalism confronted colonialism with a view to creating a postcolonial
state led by the black petit-nationalist bourgeois who had imbibed
coloniality and liberal modernity in churches, mission schools and overseas
universities. What became the liberation struggle emerged as a clash between
the established white colonial bourgeois and emerging black bourgeois over
The struggle began when the white colonial states could not accommodate the
colonially educated black bourgeois into its structures of power and
privilege. Black peasants, workers, and other social groups were mobilized
to fight on behalf of the petit-nationalist bourgeois who were struggling
for power. This class struggle was marketed as a liberation war and a
struggle for freedom.
It is not surprising that this struggle culminated only in mere juridical
freedom marked by the ascendency of petit-black bourgeois into political
power that was left by the colonial government and this shift of faces at
state house from white to black, was celebrated as independence for everyone
including peasants and workers.
Because the black bourgeois had attained what they wanted, they were quick
to accommodate the erstwhile white bourgeois through policies of
reconciliation and forgiveness. Besides regular elections marked by
violence, the style of governance continued in the same manner as under
colonial rule with use of emergency powers against opposition, with violence
being celebrated, and democratic spaces being closely monitored and closed.
The petit-black nationalist leadership now in charge of the post-colonial
(neocolonial) state arrogated to itself pedagogical powers and skills to
teach workers and peasants what liberation meant and the meaning of being
patriotic. This arrogance bred the idea of nationalists and war veterans to
claim to have died for all of us and on the basis of this claim to assume
the psychology of being the alpha and omega leadership of Zimbabwe.
The Neo-Colonial Layer
Zimbabwe was born in April 1980 as a typical neo-colony, whereby at the top
political level, were black individuals who called themselves our new
leaders, revolutionaries, comrades, and liberators and at the economic
level, the former white Rhodesians still dominated. Even the land issue
which was one of the main causes of the liberation war remained unsolved and
the so-called revolutionary leaders were not ashamed of this open betrayal
of the core ideal of the liberation struggle.
This scenario portended future conflicts and continuation of violence as a
variable in resolution of conflicts. Zimbabwe, typical of all neo-colonies,
when the time came for it to flex its little muscles, it targeted an
internal black minority (the Ndebele) and its overseas handlers (America,
Britain, and others, together with it collaborators in the continent and the
region) looked aside, as this manufactured conflict rooted in intra-black
bourgeois competition for power mediated by regionalism and ethnicity that
unfolded in 1963 consumed lives of innocent people, because it diverted
energies of those in political control of the state from taking
decolonization to its logical conclusion.
In Matebeleland and Midlands regions any black peasant hungry for land who
trespassed into a white farm was reported as a dissident and a legitimate
target of the Fifth Brigade that enjoyed a close working relationship with
white farmers in the region throughout the 1980s.
Therefore, the resolution of the land question in Zimbabwe was delayed not
only by the clauses of the Lancaster House Constitution but also by
intra-nationalist bourgeois conflicts pitting Zanu PF against PF Zapu. As
this conflict raged on, corruption, clientilism, patronage, nepotism and
kleptocracy reigned supreme exemplified by the Willovalle Car Scandal; while
at the same time the little that had remained of democracy fell into what
the veteran Edgar Tekere termed intensive care unit.
Our Current Situation
We are now back to a similar situation whereby intra-and inter-elite
competition for power is weighing heavily on the Zimbabwe body politic
consuming lives of innocent people and opening the gates for foreign
intervention including sanctions. The energy that Zanu PF and MDC formations
spend opposing each other rather than working together for the good of the
nation is just enormous.
While this is happening, ethnocracy and racism have been normalized as
virtues rather than aberrations that only announce the level of sickness of
our society and the depth of issues that remain unresolved.
What is even surprising is that since 2009, the political leaders of the
dominant political formations, with all the space of meeting every Monday,
have failed to work together amicably. Zimbabwe has since 2009 been run
through SADC communiqués. Real nationalists would be ashamed of this
situation. We need internal consensus in Zimbabwe rather than direction from
What is seriously lacking in Zimbabwe is a positive nationalist spirit that
unites the people and the leaders as well as informing the behavior of those
claiming leadership across political divides. There is a serious nationalist
deficit in Zimbabwe. Nationalism is now abused as a regime security
guarantor rather than unifier of the people. Nationalism is now a private
ideology of particular political actors, rather than a broad sentiment of
All this indicates that there are no real nationalists but lip-service ones,
who only use nationalism for regime security purposes. Pursuit of power for
power’s sake is detrimental to the nation. Vision is the DNA of leadership
not lust for power.
What we need is positive nationalism as a unifying ideology capable of
forming a new basis for re-articulation, re-imagining and re-constructing of
the idea of Zimbabwe in line with the present context. Zimbabwe needs to be
freed from the Chimurenga ideology of the 1960sand 1970s together with
Gukurahundi as its policing agent. We need a new idea of Zimbabwe that is
accommodative of diverse identities and civic spaces where all people will
enjoy equal rights irrespective of gender, region, tribe, race, religion and
Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is a Professor in the Department of Development
Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He can be contacted at:
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