6 December, 2022


Zimbabwe: From Liberation To Dictatorship

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage


Robert Mugabe resigned. What now? would be the question many would raise. The ruling Zanu-PF party of Zimbabwe sacked both Mugabe and his wife ‘Gucci Grace’ from the party. She apparently tried to disempower the war veterans, who have close proximity to power since independence. The Zanu PF Party allowed Mugabe to transform himself from a liberator to a dictator. The same Zanu-PF Party will continue to hold onto power; but what about its responsibility and accountability for moving Zimbabwe from liberation to dictatorship? It has changed its vice-presidents many times according to the whims and fancies of Mugabe. The former Vice-President, Emmerson Manangagwa, was a life time Mugabe supporter and as his enforcer was a ruthless manipulator, until Mugabe wished him be replaced with ‘Gucci Grace’. Could Mnangagwa, the ‘would be President, offer the benighted people of Zimbabwe greater political freedom or economic relief?

Zimbabwe has been in a crisis situation both socially and economically for several decades. The situation has become more complex with military intervention forcing the once powerful war hero and ruthless dictator to ‘voluntarily resign’. Would the military relinquish the new role they have acquired? This is the very same military that protected the authoritarian, crony driven, corrupt to the core Mugabe regime for decades until tensions emerged between Mugabe and the powerful war veterans, with some of them backing a former vice president, Joice Mujuru as successor. The military has been supportive of the status quo due to the economic benefits they receive from the country’s diamond mines and the culture of impunity they enjoy.


People have been grappling with poverty, inflation, unemployment and corruption since the end of the last century. At this moment, outwardly at least, many Zimbabweans appear to be happy and prefer military rule that prevented power being handed over from Mugabe to Grace. However, their response is in sharp contrast to the protests and marches by people in the 1990s and even as recent as 2007. The face of repression in Zimbabwe for the populace has not been the military; it has been the police. The regime used its police with impunity to silence dissent, beat and torture, and in the unaccounted disappearances of Mugabe’s political opponents. So, a pertinent question should be: Is the military intervention for a better, more equal and less corrupt Zimbabwe, or for maintaining the status quo of the privileged elites that the post-liberation regime has sustained for so long?

The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, a pillar of support of Mugabe, was associated with unleashing violence on those opposing the regime. Only when war veterans were affected by his actions, they started calling him dictatorial, manipulative and egocentric. The guerrilla war forged close ties among the independence fighters. Mugabe’s land reform program was aimed largely at placating angry war veterans who threatened to destabilise his rule. However, this land reform policy wrecked the crucial agricultural sector leading the country into economic misery. The surprise revolt of war veterans came after nationwide anti-government protests organised via social media.

As the leader of a successful revolutionary movement, Mugabe was respected enormously. Mugabe initially embraced Marxism, and was associated with many southern Africa’s nationalist leaders including Ghana’s founder president Kwame Nkrumah. Starting in 1964 Mugabe was behind bars for 10 years in a Rhodesian prison before going into exile in 1974. The Rhodesian white regime even denied him attending the funeral of his child. However, as President, Mugabe retained much of the repressive apparatus of the old Rhodesian state. The new state continued to suppress dissent labelling them terrorists and massacring many thousands. Mugabe sustained his rule through violence and repression crushing political opponents, violating the rule of law, suppressing the independent press and rigging elections.


Even though a minority, the Zimbabwean working class was significant in the fight for independence and presented the possibility of a struggle towards socialism. When colonial Rhodesian authorities banned the then African National Congress (ANC) in 1959, Nkomo and his supporters responded by forming the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). ZAPU had strong trade union support. Joshua Nkomo himself was a rail union leader. However, radical nationalists including Robert Mugabe, broke with Nkomo to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). ZAPU was influenced by Moscow, while at least some ZANU leaders like Mugabe were heavily influenced by the Stalinist and Maoist thinking that prevailed at the time. However, rather than mobilise urban and rural workers in the class struggle and a fight for socialism, both Mugabe and Nkomo built strong guerrilla armies. in 1965, the colonial minority, in desperation, unilaterally declared independence from Britain to establish a white-ruled state, led by the ruthless Ian Smith and the white supremacist Rhodesian Front.

After his release from prison in 1974, Mugabe took control of the ZANU and its armed forces. However, one of his early casualties was the partner of the independence struggle, Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the ZAPU. Nkomo was dismissed from government and ministry of home affairs. Mugabe based his support on his ethnic Shona majority, and apparently unleashed troops on Nkomo’s Ndebele minority in a campaign known as Gukurahundi, killing an estimated 20,000 suspected dissidents. Despite the rhetoric of socialism, it was in reality a nationalist struggle tainted with tribal supremacies. The ruthless suppression of Nkomo consolidated Zimbabwe as a one party state ruled by Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The promise of the national liberation movement was being increasingly replaced by a Mugabe dictatorship.

Despite continuing with the same policies of repression and austerity, he posed as an anti- imperialist and ant-capitalist comrade. This shored up his support among the rural population. Faced with the electoral challenge posed by Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe re-discovered anti-imperialism becoming again a champion of land reform. However, the confiscated farms were distributed to his cronies. In 2002, Mugabe defeated the opposition leader of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former mine worker. The election was marred by violence, intimidation and vote-rigging. Since then, Mugabe held onto power combining repression with economic impoverishment.

Poverty of economy

Zimbabwe used to be one of the richest economies in Africa; by the 1930s Rhodesia (territorially equivalent to modern Zimbabwe) was one of the most industrially developed colonies in Africa. In tandem there developed a militant urban working class. In 1948 a huge strike wave hit major cities, Salisbury (now Harare) and Bulawayo, and led to the formation of a national liberation movement. Mugabe was the leader of the liberation struggle against the colonial rule. He came to power in 1980, promising democracy and equity by redistributing wealth and settling thousands of Africans on white settler land within three years. Inequality in Zimbabwean society was massive with foreign capital controlling more than 80 per cent of industrial production and 4000 mostly white farmers controlling 70 per cent of the most fertile land of the country. Many Zimbabweans considered him the father of the country.

He did a lot in terms of raising literary levels and health care of the people during the first two decades since liberation. Spending on education doubled between 1979 and 1990, and infant mortality halved between 1980 and 1985. His declared policy of racial reconciliation and for extending improved education and health services to the black majority was very popular. But this faded quickly with the reforms stalling as the economy stagnated in the mid-1980s. Despite the optimism Zimbabweans had during the initial period of independence after a long struggle against colonialism, the country is now one of the poorest.

Zimbabwe, like many other poor nations, turned to Western financial agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for help. Foreign debt soared, forcing the government to cut spending on health and education. In 1991, Mugabe and his cronies presided over Zimbabwe’s first Structural Adjustment Program, which was disastrous. It resulted in an 11 per cent fall in national output during the first year of its implementation. In 1993 unemployment reached a record 1.3 million, of a total population of about 10 million.

In the 1990s, the lack of safeguards to maintain production after the transfer of ownership of agricultural land from white landowners to blacks led to a drop of almost 50 percent of food production and an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent. Life expectancy is very low by world standards. Healthcare has drastically deteriorated. Agricultural exports have shrunk. The Zimbabwean currency has become virtually worthless. The economic collapse has made it very difficult for workers to protest. If they struck work, they faced heavy repression. Despite, many Zimbabweans having not enough to eat, Mugabe spent almost $1 million on his 92nd birthday bash.

Colonial heritage

Zimbabwe, like many other countries that came out of the anti-colonial struggles in the latter half of the twentieth century had looked to “state capitalist” model of development that Soviet Union pioneered. But the new neo-liberal deregulated world exposed these countries to economic and political pressures with unduly enforced unjust competition, while significant sections of their economies remaining capitalist. Production and services in every field were bureaucratic and authoritarian, lacking the participation of employees in decision making, resource allocation and outcome sharing. Lacking sufficient innovative resources, both human and/or physical, to compete in the world market, most countries that relied on state-capitalistic development model became engulfed in a deep economic and social crisis.

In every colony, the colonial past has become a nightmare, as Marx indicated. Since the 1880s, the British ruled Zimbabwe close to a century. Zambia and Zimbabwe became known as Rhodesia. Rhodesia was a “colonial settler state” similar to South Africa. Africans were forced out of their lands to find land for British agricultural companies, and then forced to work in colonial owned factories and mines. They did not have the right to vote or to own land in white settlements. The colonial divide and rule strategy led to the racist unfair socio-economic and political foundations, which continue to be the problematic issues the Zimbabweans face today.

Lessons that can be drawn

Important lessons that can be drawn from the Zimbabwean experience is that a popular front with wealthy white farmers and middle-class elements, has been a disaster, though it has given Mugabe breathing space and undermined the efforts of the MDC’s support base. The calls for the West to intervene were both seriously misguided and unrealistic. Why would imperialist powers such as the US and Britain, which have killed many hundreds of thousands of people in protecting their vested interests and privileges all over the world, have any interest in democracy for working people?

Western military intervention anywhere will not be welcomed by people, who remember the carnage and suffering wrought by the many colonial powers. However, the new anti-colonial or other forms of leaderships that came to be elected or installed have not been a solution either. Many regimes in the developing world in Asia, Africa and Latin America helped Mugabe like leaders who had become dictators from liberators to stay in power without allowing waves of radical peoples’ democracy emerging at their doorsteps.

Peoples’ mass action led by workers is the best way to bring down corrupt and incompetent dictators like Mugabe. Not coup d’états by the military in tandem with other members of the country’s venal and corrupt political elite. Such regimes have always been most vulnerable when workers and their allies rise up in mass action. These dictators tend to believe that the toxic combination of economic pressures and vicious repression would exhaust the working class making a popular uprising almost impossible. Yet in many parts of the world, people have demonstrated their determination to remove such dictators. In that sense, it has become a continuous struggle to replace a series of authoritarian leaders one after another.

The potential for declaring international working-class solidarity with the struggles of the masses who rise up against dictators such as Mugabe, when they appear, exists. What is needed is the workers and all progressive minded and democratic oriented people the world over, to work towards a total isolation of such dictatorial regimes. For this to materialise the preliminary step would be regrouping civil society into united fronts to launch serious and determined mass action campaigns of civil disobedience. If this does not happen these regimes will continue to cynically manipulate the concerns of the working people, and demonise the forces of their opposition as western stooges. With such a united front and a pro-people and anti-neo-liberal strategy and program, we shall prevail!

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    Credit for the liberation of present day Zimbabwe has been attributed to Robert Mugabe. The contribution by Joshua Nkomo is all but forgotten – Mugabe made sure of that. Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa is credited for this successful endeavour.
    Unfortunately Mugabe allowed Zimbabwe to develop tribal affiliations. Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa are Shonas and Joshua Nkomo Ndebele tribe.
    Emmerson placed his own chosen persons into higher positions in the administration AND in the armed services. The schemer would have used the tribal-divide to ensure loyalty.
    The recent coup indicates that the army must be maintained in good humour and Emmerson knows how!
    Zimbabwians have realised that irrespective of which tribe they came from, they cry alike in hunger.
    The coup unwittingly has unleased ‘people power’. Emmerson will try and guide this into Shona power. If he does, the tragedy will continue.

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