As Cecil Rhodes' boots settled into the rich, fertile soil between the great rivers of Zambezi in the northwest and Limpopo in the southeast, the Oxford-educated Englishman knew that he had struck gold. Literally.
His foray was preceded by kith and kin – David Livingston, with his “discovery” of Victoria Falls, and Robert Moffat, with his missionary credo to deliver the indigenous people of Zimbabwe “from their present awfully degraded condition.”
The stage was all but set for imperial expansion.
Turning blind eyes to the ancient stoneworks at Khami, Great Zimbabwe and Dhlo-Dhlo, or the Mutapa Empire, The British South Africa Company was certainly lock, stock and barrel in with their fellow countryman. A billboard produced by the colonization enterprise read, in part: The advantages of Rhodesia (the colonial misnomer for Zimbabwe) to the man with moderate capital are: Good climate; Cheap land on easy terms; Immense mineral resources; Light taxation.
The sales pitch fitted Rhodes’ quest like hand in glove, “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies.” No justification was needed to embark on his pursuit, indulging his compatriots with, “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”
In effect, Rhodesia became another arm of occupied land comprising the British Empire, so vast in global tenancy that it bore the nickname “the empire where the sun never sets.” For the Indigenous population, however, it meant where signs of hope withered like worms beneath raging sun rays, delimited to life in shanty towns and dust bowls, far removed from their traditional homelands.
When asked by a British reporter why he decided to take up arms, Mugabe prefaced his response with an explanation as to why a sour taste lingered among the majority Black population in the first place. It started, he said, “through stories that our parents used to (tell) us - 'how the white man came to the country, how he grabbed the land' - and in a society where you have a class whose main purpose and accepted privilege is to exploit others you naturally get revulsed.” Circumscribed to such, he concluded that “You can’t avoid, if you have any moral principles at all, the call to do something about it.”
Mugabe also recollected that “there was a whole history of having tried nonviolent methods” all of which “had failed completely.”
But almost a century would past between British boots on the ground and the Chimurenga's second coming - revolution against imposed segregation favoring white settler families.
Birth of a Revolution
The First Chimurenga (a Shona word meaning to fight or struggle) was put down in 1896. Mbuya Nehanda, a woman, and Sekuru Kaguvi, leaders of the revolt and spirit mediums, were captured by colonial forces and promptly executed, dangling by their necks between the heavens and earth.
Over half a century of British colonialism followed.
Then, in 1965, Ian Smith, the president of Rhodesia's white minority government, unilaterally seceded from the crown, relinquishing all amenities that came with being loyal servants of her majesty. The occasion, nevertheless, was accompanied by staple braggadocio as he assured an all white crowd that white rule in Africa would endure for “1,000 years.” Roaring cheers, joy and optimism peaked among Smith’s lot that evening.
Zimbabwe's African People's Union, or ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo, and all other Black opposition political parties were outlawed. Hordes of activists, Mugabe included, were imprisoned without trial. The Guardian recently published a video prior to the full on state repression with a young, debonaire Mugabe speaking to a crowd of supporters, titled, “Life of a Dictator.” He'd remain locked up for over a decade. Some fellow inmates who participated in the growing resistance received the same fate as Nehanda and Kaguvi.
Mugabe and others would eventually break away from ZAPU to form the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU. The two revolutionary groups, operating in and outside prison, formed a hitherto pact, the Patriotic Front. Though harrying Rhodesia from opposite ends of the country – ZAPU from Zambia and ZANU from Mozambique – their objective was the same, to, once and for all, end the litany of malversations practiced by a regime representing less than six percent of the population.
While in prison, Mugabe became grief-stricken when authorities refused to grant him permission to leave so that he could bury his 3-year-old son, Michael Nhamodzenyika Mugabe. As his first wife, Sally Hayfron Mugabe recalled, their child was suffering from “malaria and convulsion and we couldn’t save him.”
Apart from this tragedy, less we discount physical and mental torture on the part of prison guards, Mugabe spent his time behind bars as he did as a child, studiously. As an inmate he earned a bachelor of administration, masters in economics, and two law degrees through correspondence courses at, oddly enough, the University of London.
At Sikombela detention center, he taught basic literacy, math and English classes to fellow prisoners. His reputation, in no uncertain terms, grew to an extent that black warders, becoming less inured by the invader’s power, began smuggling messages from ZANU's executive committee, almost all in prison, to supporters on the outside.
Upon his release, the Smith’s administration prohibited Mugabe from leaving the country. With security officials tracking his every move, it is said that Sister Mary Aquina, a white nun, assisted him in his escape to Mozambique where he would go on to help lead the successful bush war against the Rhodesian government and its gang of lickspittles, vis-a-vie Black skin(s) in White masks.
Shortly after independence was achieved in 1980, the country began to address the poverty and backwardness imposed by colonialism. As of 2015, just to mention, Unesco reported that Zimbabwe's literacy rate was just under 90 percent.
While Mugabe chose a dignified, conciliatory tone with the sons and daughters of British colonialists turned Rhodesians in the lead up to presidential elections, he never swayed from the guiding principles which breathed new life in the Chimurenga. “The whites who are in the country needn’t fear us, if they are prepared to adjust they will be regarded on the same basis as everybody else.” The response came not long before he was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, when asked by a British reporter if white people will be left with “any sort of vestige of the standards of living to which they’ve been accustomed to in the past,” Mugabe offered a prescient response: “If those standards of living have been based on color they must forget about them.”
Also, in 1980, Reggae icon Bob Marley landed in Harare. The singer who provided a soundtrack to Marcus Garvey’s message, composing “Zimbabwe” in honor of the long freedom struggle, had come to perform as part of the country’s independence celebrations. So inspired was he, that he declined a fee offered by Zimbabwean officials, instead, covering all travel expenses for his equipment, band and entourage from Kingston to Harare and back.
Zimbabwe, albeit independent, was not free of critique or troubles. There was the crackdown on ZAPU members during and after the revolution, detainment and deaths of Ndebele in Matabeleland in the 1980s, as well as Mugabe's rants on people's sexual orientation. While this history cannot and should not be ignored, it also shouldn't be corralled to cherry-picked brochure assessments, skirting broader implications such as: the legacies of colonization; the vacuum of power left during and after the 13-year-long revolution; AIDs, an abrupt, deadly epidemic with which far too little was known as it swiftly spread across several nations in Sub-Saharan Africa; and the fervor of those not just reminiscing but actively plotting for a return to the old days charted by The British South Africa Company.
The latter point, indeed, begs a more fundamental question: Why was there ever a belief that Zimbabwe, and other nations of indigenous inhabitants, needed to be colonized by Europeans? The radical disruption of those traditional societies, their cultures, customs, mores and world views can still be felt today.
Dennis Brutus, a South-African poet who was born in Zimbabwe and a former political prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, also chimed in on the matter as he talked with journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now about Mugabe's disparaging remarks on people's sexual orientation. Though sharply criticizing his stance, Brutus reminded listeners that the heart of the matter is another. “If Blacks are deprived of land, if Blacks are killed, if Blacks are victims there is not this agitation about protecting human rights and respecting the rule of law.”
“Free The Land”
Mugabe would come under fire from Western countries for supporting the revolutionary war veterans as they spearheaded land reform, setting about the countryside in 2000 reclaiming poached land by 4,000 white farmers. The goal, to redistribute it more equitably among the indigenous, majority Black populace.
The United States and European Union imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The measures led to a major trade deficit, adversely affected the country's healthcare system and other vital sectors of society.
In an article published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, British Secretary of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson decried former Prime Minister Tony Blair's "betrayal" of the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which, in recognizing Zimbabwe's independence and plans to redistribute land, promised a white farmers compensation package to be financed by Britain. The deal was also endorsed by the U.S. government.
“Let no one who is negative want to spoil what we are doing for ourselves in order to unite Africa,” said Mugabe in response to European sanctions at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. “We don't mind having and bearing sanctions banning us from Europe. We are not Europeans. We have not asked for any inch of Europe or any square inch of that territory. So, Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”
By 2013, despite the British withholding of the white farmer's compensation, Mugabe had lived up to his end of the bargain, expropriating or confirming for redistribution most of their land. The resettlements resulted in 200,000 Black commercial farmers.
British colonialists who had violently seized the land were inexperienced in farming. As a result, the Rhodesian government had no choice but to provide them with training and low-interest loans to rev up their homesteads. While it took them 20 years to become commercially successful, it took resettled Black farmers, despite drought and sanctions, a decade to reach the same level of production.
“If you are a successor to a legitimate government of Britain, you don't only secede to assets, you also secede to liabilities,” Mugabe told a rambunctious crowd of over 1,000 people packed into Mount Olivet Baptist Church in the historic Black neighborhood of Harlem. He had come to New York City to participate in the U.N. Millennium Summit in 2000, amid the final stages of the land reform.
Rebutting criticisms, Mugabe concluded that “We, as a government, have a responsibility to recognize and honor” the cause of the Chimurenga and also to “empower our people economically.”
Long Live The Chimurenga!
Proving its worth is the chrysalis of this tireless African front that has belted and deflected western imperialism time and again. And Mugabe, 93, soon to be 94, showed not a hint of discomfiture as he candidly rallied the new guard in his last televised speech as president. Flanked by military officials to his right and government officials to his left he said, “We are a nation born out of a protracted struggle for national independence,” and the goals and ideals of the struggle against “those who occupied and oppressed us” continue to “guide” our “collective legacy across generations and times.”
A twinkle in his eyes and voice, Mugabe closed his speech unabashedly, breaking into a low tone as he sung the old Chimurenga mantra, “Iwe neni tine basa” (we all have work to do).
Shortly after his resignation and Emmerson Mnangagwa was confirmed as Zimbabwe's new president, Venezuela's Foreign Ministry wasted no time in releasing a public statement saluting the life and time of Mugabe, his full on resistance against “the permanent aggression of the former colonial powers,” namely Britain and its ally, the United States.
The Venezuelan government "will continue to recognize Robert Mugabe as a friend and ally of the Bolivarian Revolution and the cause of all people who fight for their freedom and independence,” the statement read. "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reaffirms its permanent commitment to solidarity with the brotherly people of Zimbabwe and wishes it the greatest success in the path of peace with social justice."
After the mainstream media smoke had cleared surrounding Mugabe's departure from the presidency, Mnangagwa said the military operation, codenamed “Operation Restore Legacy” was carried out to preserve the ethos of the country's “struggle against British colonialism,” which couldn't have been achieved had it not been for "Mugabe's immense contribution," along with that of his former wife Sally Hayfron Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Josiah Tongogara and so many others.
While Mnangagwa has called for presidential election polls to be held as early as March, he recently declared that the land reform program is irreversible, that the mere notion of returning massive estates and farms to the descendants of British colonialists is something that “will never happen.”
More recently, he stated that big, underutilized farms will be slated for downsizing to allow even more people to benefit from land redistribution, according to AllAfrica.
And so it goes. Zimbabwe's independent mill keeps churning the grist of western imperialism almost four decades on and counting. Of the historic event Brutus said people who had been “deprived of land, and what is more, deprived of land by force” held dearly to the belief that some thrust, some force would take the stage to “redress the injustices of the past.” It’s a message that echoes far beyond Zimbabwe, far beyond Africa in our lives and times.
One of the greatest stories of resistance and social justice in the 20th century will replay in celebrations on Feb. 21, Robert Gabriel Mugabe National Youth Day.
On that day, thousands will chant "Pamberi ne Chimurenga," translated as "the struggle continues."