Where did Zimbabwe go wrong?

In the intervening period covering some 50 odd years, a great deal has gone under the bridge and a lot has gone wrong. A friend from the early days in Zimbabwe wrote to me the other day and asked, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ I thought that question needed an answer.

Obviously the historical background was the failure by the successive governments after 1923, to recognise that their tenure was limited and that without broad based democratic support, their grip on power was eventually doomed to fail. Had they grasped that reality early on and started to work on the future based on that assumption, the outcome would have been very different.

As Nelson Mandela said in his autobiography, it was the whites that decided how power was to be transferred. In failing to recognise the basic realities, we created the conditions for the armed struggle and in doing so we created the coterie of leaders who would eventually take over power and rule in their stead. In our case, we were ‘saved’ from the worst effects of this short-sightedness and stubbornness by international intervention but as always, those responsible for managing events during that era were unable to totally overcome the effect of our own political behaviour in the previous decades.

At Lancaster House we made further mistakes, imposing on Zimbabwe a British style of constitution and failing to consult the majority. We found ourselves in the aftermath, with a government led by people with no experience of government, few entrenched principles and no commitment to democratic values or basic human rights. They did not like the constitutional dispensation forced on them by the international community and the region but had no choice in the matter.

We compounded these mistakes by ignoring and condoning the subsequent abuses of democratic principles and human rights when the new government was obviously violating these. When Mugabe committed genocide from 1983 to 1987 under the guise of ‘Gukurahundi’, the rest of the world looked the other way and continued to receive him as a respected leader in western capitals. When he violated democratic principles and crushed domestic opposition, there was no outcry or even support for civil society or the fledgling opposition. One by one, successive opposition groups were allowed to suffocate and die.

Growing corruption, nepotism and flagrant violations of all the norms of good governance simply went uncontested, embolden by this and seeing only disinterest and unconcern, the Mugabe regime went on a spending spree, abandoning fiscal prudence and restructuring the constitution to entrench their hold on power. The steady erosion of the legal system and the principle of equality before the law and the independence of the Judiciary followed these developments and still the criticism from international organisations and States and African countries remained muted.

Then, when finally the people of Zimbabwe decided that they had had enough, the MDC came into being and delivered the first democratic defeat on Zanu PF since 1980. Infuriated by this defeat, the leadership of the Zanu PF and the security branches of the regime unleashed a well organised and funded ‘total onslaught’ against the democratic forces that had combined to make the MDC defeat of the regime possible.

They carefully analysed the electoral defeat and found that they had lost the urban areas, won in the rural peasant districts and that the majority of the 350 000 workers on commercial farms and estates together with their families had also voted MDC. This ‘swing vote’ became the key objective. Over the next five years, the regime simply smashed the entire agricultural industry in a brutal effort to crush the opposition forces located on commercial farms.

This marked the next mistake we all made. We failed to see what they were doing and to understand why. Even the farmers did not fully grasp the reality and right to the bitter end the CFU and the ZTA argued for the farm community to be ‘apolitical’ and to ‘co-operate with government’ even while they were being targeted politically and their assets stolen and the industry they had built up at such great cost over the previous 100 years, was being systematically destroyed.

The international community also made the mistake of accepting that this was ‘land reform’ when in fact that slogan was just a smoke screen for their real intentions. African States, including South Africa, made the mistake of taking Mugabe’s claims about the ‘African credentials’ of the MDC and the right of the State to plunder the assets of the white farmers under the guise of ‘land reform’, at face value.

Even though 95 per cent of the farmers affected by the ‘fast track land reform programme’ were Africans in all respects except the pigment of their skins, they were treated as second-class citizens and foreigners. Even though the race issue had dominated the struggle for freedom and democracy in southern Africa for most of the previous century, this outrageous, racially based criminal act went uncommented on in African dialogue. The abuses were simply brushed aside by most as being justified as correcting an historical wrong. This view persisted even when it became known that over 80 per cent of the targeted population had acquired their farms after Zimbabwean independence in 1980.

This failure to call a spade a spade and the inevitable subsequent collapse of the Zimbabwean economy led to the present situation where our GDP has shrunk to 15 per cent of tiny Botswana and the great majority of Zimbabweans are displaced and desperately poor. We have become the quintessential example of how not to do things in the 21st Century; a model that will be used in Universities and Colleges throughout the world to teach what happens when you do dumb things.

But the list of our failures does not stop there. After a bitter and protracted campaign for freedom and justice, the people of Zimbabwe finally saw their votes overcome tyranny in 2008, a victory made even more remarkable by the fact that this was achieved without a stone being thrown or a shot fired. Instead of greeting this victory with the relief and celebration that was due, the region, led by South Africa, allowed this corrupt and brutal regime to hang onto power and forced the MDC into an unholy alliance with their defeated oppressors that is expected to bring forth a new democratic dispensation in 18 months. It’s a tall order.

Eddie Cross is MP for Bulawayo South and the MDC’s Policy Coordinator. This article first appeared on this website www.eddiecross.africanherd.com