On Saturday voters in Zimbabwe are going to vote in elections that everyone knows will not bring them the change they need. Their leader, like so many of our post colonial presidents, has lost his way, corrupted by the absolute power that is often awarded to our presidents.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe is Zimbabwe’s second president since the country moved to black majority rule in 1980, though he has also served as prime minister.
The country had previously unilaterally declared independence in 1965, which led to a period of minority rule. From this time until the Lancaster Talks in 1979, a group of dissident white settlers were running the country, in contravention with international law.
During the intervening period the leaders of independent African countries tried in vain to get the British government to condemn the goings on in Zimbabwe and bring an end to the illegal regime. Even as these conversations were going on, Ian Smith, with the support of the apartheid regime in South Africa was arresting the leaders of the Zimbabwean struggle for independence; the Robert Mugabes and Joshua Nkomos were being locked up for fighting for their people.
It was not until Margaret Thatcher that the British decided to reign in their former colony and help negotiate a peace between the peoples of Zimbabwe; even then a treaty had already been signed between the settlers and the freedom fighters as Ian Smith realised that the blacks would never stop fighting him and his regime began to slowly crumble.
In 1979, against this back drop, the Iron Lady gathered the warring parties in London with some African leaders as mediators and the Zimbabweans were told that they would be granted independence and black majority rule the following year, with Canaan Banana as president and Robert Mugabe as prime minister. They were however, not to pursue any policies of land reformation, as the British would deal with the reallocation of land.
In order to understand the magnitude of this sacrifice by the Zimbabweans one has to understand the way land is perceived in Zimbabwe and other Southern African countries. In most of the non-nomadic tribes, land has historically been an integral part of ones wealth, without land you cannot feed your family. Even the nomads lay claim to the lands that they return to year after year. Land was passed from father to son, divided according to his oral will upon his death. One could not marry without a one’s own piece of land and no man of substance would be without it.
Given this perception of land, it was truly accommodating of the Zimbabwean freedom fighters to accept the conditions regarding land reform that were placed upon them by the British. What the British were proposing to do was return the lands that were effectively stolen from the indigenous Zimbabweans and reallocate the land so that it was more evenly distributed whilst compensating the white settlers for their loss.
Margaret Thatcher’s government began the slow and highly volatile process, work that was continued by the government of her successor, John Major. When Mr. Blair took over however, the issue was no longer considered a high priority and was put aside. This was 1997, 18 years after the promise to reallocate land was made.
When the colonial powers first came to Zimbabwe, the white men drove the Zimbabweans off their ancestral homelands. It was not a pretty sight and many of the older generations in my own country, Zambia, have remarked that despite the brutality of the recent land reform process, the actions of the so called “war veterans” can not compare to the cruel and inhumane way that men, women and children were driven from their homes, off fertile lands into the wilderness during the land grab.
There is still a deep seated pain that many Southern Africans feel when they think of the way Ian Smith and co, with the support of South Africa, seized the country from the clasps of the freedom fighters. And there were inner smiles when the revenge was taken.
There was still a fury in Zimbabwe against the British, who stood by as this happened and to pour salt on the festering wound did not even implement a land reform process that they proposed in 1979. All this time a tiny proportion of the population owned over 50% of the commercially viable land, making money as many suffered.
This strong feeling of disapproval of the role that the British played in the Zimbabwe saga is why Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition MDC party, and widely seen as a puppet of the British government, has not won an election yet. Yes, Mr. Mugabe may have rigged the elections but Mr. Tsvangirai was simply not popular enough in to have contested in any meaningful way; his association with the British tainted him. In 2001, I watched, quite shocked given the recent goings on in their country, as Zimbabweans resident in Zambia rushed across the boarder to vote for Mr Mugabe; better the devil you know and all that.
I am not telling this story to justify the actions of Mr Mugabe, simply to put them in context that has not been given to many of the readers of the western media who are forming opinions about him. Mr Mugabe’s power and the recent violent land reform process is a creation British inaction. So how ridiculous to see Tony Blair, whose inability to prioritise the Zimbabwean land issue led to violence, self righteously condemning the carnage.
If the so called “New Labour” government had continued the land reform process and as promised intervened to give indigenous Zimbabweans back some of the fertile lands that they had previously occupied Mr Mugabe would not have had the surge of popularity he saw in the early years of this centaury. And placing embargos on Zimbabwe has led to the humanitarian crisis and does not as yet seem to have lessened Mugabe’s grip on the country. The argument I am often given when I point this out is that these things take time. So tell me how long will we have to watch Mr Mugabe stuff his face full of cake during his birthday celebrations while just a stones throw away people die of starvation? Sanctions are simply not the way to wrest power from those that are immune to their impact.
So what will happen to Zimbabwe? I cannot say, we can only wait to see if someone from his own party will be strong enough to rise up and get rid of Mugabe and bring the country back to being the prosperous breadbasket of Southern Africa that it once was.
And as Zimbabwe goes to elect its leader on Saturday, I am personally keeping one eye on South Africa where land reallocation has been slowly becoming a hot topic. I am hoping that the debate there, where the blacks have waited 15 years for implementation of any reform policy, the issue does not explode into chaos and suck all the good that has been achieved during this time into oblivion.