Zimbabwe: Triumphs and Tragedies

“Enough!” (Shona).

A country of complex history and politics, whose story is jaw-dropping with its incredulousness, hand-wringing with its pain, and heartbreaking with its hope and spirit, Zimbabwe is a place whose intricacies I would never to claim to know or understand completely, but what I’ve read fascinates me. Below is a brief summarization of its recent history.*

1899: Named after Cecil Rhodes, Southern Rhodesia is established.   Rhodes, born in England in 1853, was a businessman, a mining magnate, founder of the British South Africa Company, and a zealous believer in British colonial imperialism.  The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship is funded by his estate.

1923: Southern Rhodesia becomes an official British colony.

1930: The Land Apportionment Act is passed.  Approximately 11,300,000 hectares are divided amongst 1,000,000 black Africans.  19,500,000 hectares are divided amongst 50,000 white settlers.

1965: Led by right-wing leader Ian Smith, Southern Rhodesia issues a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in reaction to Britain’s push for more equality for Africans, in preparation for black majority rule like neighboring countries Zambia and Malawi.  Smith famously says, “I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia, not in a thousand years.”  The UDI results in international condemnation and United Nations imposed economic sanctions, but this appears to only strengthen Smith’s resolve.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) is formed, led by Robert Mugabe and with a predominantly Shona membership.  The opposing party, Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), is led by Joshua Nkomo, with a predominantly Ndebele membership.  Tensions are high between these two parties, even as they both fight against Ian Smith.

1966-1979: The years of civil war, known both as the Rhodesian Bush War and the Second Chimurenga (Shona for revolutionary struggle), resulting in black majority rule for the Republic of Zimbabwe.

1979: An agreement is put in place for a mixed black and white transitional government, and Bishop Abel Muzorewa is elected the first black prime minister of what is now Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.  The new government is rife with problems and talks continue with Britain, resulting in the Lancaster House Agreement in September, 1979.  Part of the agreement states that there will be no compulsory land redistribution for ten years. Instead, a “willing seller, willing buyer” program is established.  A ceasefire is declared, the UDI dismantled, sanctions lifted, and a promise is made for free elections to be held in six months.

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe since 1980

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe since 1980

1980: Robert Mugabe is elected Prime Minister of Zimbabwe under the ZANU-PF party.  (In 1987 the role of PM is abolished and Mugabe becomes President.)  For the first few years Mugabe appears to be a fair leader, charming the international community and leading an economic boom in Zimbabwe.

1980: The average Zimbabwean male life expectancy is 60 years of age.

1982-1985:  Mugabe sees the ZAPU supporters as a threat and leads what is known as the Matabeleland Massacres. 20,000 are murdered; thousands more are tortured and raped.  The international community does not intervene.

1980-1990: With the Lancaster House Agreement in place, and despite the Matabeleland Massacres, the first ten years of Mugabe’s rule sees prosperity in the country with an emerging black middle class.  Zimbabwe is known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” producing enough food to feed its population and export the rest all over the southern continent.  It is also a leader in literacy, health care, and banking; serving as a model for other countries.

1990-2000: The Lancaster House Agreement comes to an end and Mugabe is able to enforce his land reform program, passing a constitutional amendment allowing for confiscation of land with “fair compensation” and no right of appeal.  In 1992 the Land Acquisition Act is passed and removes the “fair compensation” requirement, resulting in the confiscation of over 1,500 farms.  At a political rally, Mugabe says, “Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy!”  However, most of the land that is taken from the white farmers is given to Mugabe’s political and business cronies who have no intention of farming the land.  Very few poor, black Africans receive land under this program, and those that do are not given financial assistance to buy supplies or any agricultural training.  The food export leader turns into a food-importing country for the first time.

Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe + Leader of the Movement for Democratic Change

Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe + Leader of the Movement for Democratic Change

1997: Twenty-five percent of Zimbabwe’s population has HIV/AIDS.

1998: Inflation is between 30-40 percent.

1999: Tourism brings in 1.4 million visitors a year.

2000: A new opposition political party is formed, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai.  At the same time, renewed efforts of land confiscation ordered by Mugabe displace thousands and are reported to have caused the deaths of farmers, farm workers, and farm animals.

2000: The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force estimates 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s wildlife has died due to poaching and deforestation.

2002: Tsvangirai is accused of treason by Mugabe (and later acquitted in 2004).   Mugabe wins the presidential election over Tsvangirai.

2006: The average Zimbabwean male life expectancy drops to 37 years  of age and females to 34 years of age – amongst the lowest in the world.

2008: Inflation is out of control – from 900 percent to over 11,000,000 percent, and possibly higher.  Prices double every 1.3 days.  Banknotes are issued in denominations of 100 trillion dollars, and in February of 2009 the Zimbabwe dollar collapses.

2008 also sees another election and Tsvangirai is once again accused of treason.  Mugabe wins the election.  However, in the coming months talks of a power-sharing agreement take place and in September a deal is signed that allows Mugabe to remain President and puts Tsvangirai in the role of Prime Minister.  The MDC also holds the majority of seats in the House of Assembly.  Despite this, it appears the country is still run predominantly by Mugabe.  To address the hyperinflation, the new government adopts the US dollar as the official currency.

2009: Tourism brings in 200,000 visitors a year – an 85 percent decline.  Zimbabwe’s HIV/AIDS population decreases to 14 percent.  A cholera outbreak kills thousands.

2011: While inflation is now under control and goods are back in shops, unemployment is close to 70 percent – down from 90 percent – and the country continues to import most of its food.  Ex-army chief Solomon Mujuru, senior politician and potential successor to Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, dies in a fire at his farm.

2012:  Mugabe, now 88 years old, will have been in power for over 30 years.  There are likely to be elections.

*Disclaimer: In researching this piece I found a lot of conflicting information on Zimbabwe’s history and, especially, its politics.  Many of the sources linked above state that their facts and figures may not be 100 percent accurate; so while some of what’s presented here may not directly agree with all sources, all should still be within an appropriate range of accuracy.

Scroll To Top