6 December, 2022


Zimbabwe: Remembrance Of Things Past & Future Prospects

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The First-Cause Of Zimbabwe’s Downfall Was Tribal Conflict In The 1980s: Remembrance Of Things Past And Future Prospects

“Every beast of the earth and every fowl of the air, and everything that creepeth upon the air, wherein there if life . . . and it was very good” ~ Genesis 1; 30-31 (Abbreviated)

If you ask my family what was the happiest period of their lives you may get varied answers; but if you were to insist on a collective view, the three years (July 1980 to July 1983) in Zimbabwe will come out the consensus winner. Climate, environment, ambience, the high (4500ft) Southern African Plateau, it’s the nearest you will find to the Garden of Eden. It was a breadbasket. Its corn harvest, plentiful in Rhodesia and early Zimbabwe days, fed its people with food to spare for its northern and eastern neighbours Zambia and Mozambique. Its dairy products were abundant and the choicest beef was smuggled on rogue Rhodesian flights to Europe throughout the UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) period.

UDI (1970-1980) was a when white power prevailed. Blacks through disenfranchised and excluded from government were not illtreated or beaten as in apartheid South Africa next door. They were second class but healthy, well-fed and treated tolerably. A kind of modern feudalism prevailed. Blacks were mostly poor farmers or workers, whites the boss-class. The relationship was akin to that between a benevolent master and a loyal domestic helper in a British Raj household.

Sathiyagnams – circa 2003

The source of exploitation was land. The white settler community owned the choicest lands; blacks were agricultural labourers, farmed marginal plots or worked in mines. It was on this semi-feudal latifundia (great landed estate) model that Rhodesian farming and animal husbandry thrived. Whites argued that locals were too backward to farm efficiently and if lands were fragmented output would collapse. The devastation of the breadbasket was not because land was redistributed to small farmers; no, the best was grabbed and stripped by crooked ruling-party cronies.  Marginal unirrigated land went to peasants but withered for want of support structures. Land reform is now irreversible; new ways to go forward have to be worked out. Indigenisation in business and employment, like bhumiputhra a pseudonym for discrimination in favour of locals, is also here to stay.

The irresistible call of Africa

Yesterday a majestic canvas devoid of life

Today, overflowing, a palette gorged with colours rife

The cycle begins anew; the Serengeti awakes to thrive. ~ Adapted from The Rain by Trisha Sugarek

Harlens (late 1970s)

I was the first black employed by the prestigious Faculty of Engineering of the University. My letter of appointment, on elegant University of Rhodesia letterhead, arrived soon after the Lancaster House settlement granting Rhodesia independence and majority rule. When we landed, the country was Zimbabwe; Salisbury was Harare; and Mugabe was prime minister. ZANU had won the February 1980 election by a landslide. We did not face a trace of hostility – there were already a few staff members of Indian origin in the university who were excellently integrated. Professor Richard Harlen, my head of department, a charming fellow, and warm-hearted Logan Pakkiri in Economics and their lovely families befriended us. Then Sathi (Gnapragasam Sathiagnam) – what a character – a Ceylonese planter in Mutare (three hundred miles away) turned up one evening.  His family too have remained lifelong friends.

Sathi, Logan and Richard are firmly etched in my memory, but the good die young. All three are gone and of the quartet I alone am left to ponder the vagaries of fate. Sathi’s daughters Jasmin and recently Mary Anne, Logan’s wife Devi and daughter Priya and Richard’s daughters Victoria and Charlotte, spread in far corners of the earth, keep in touch thanks to the Internet. It would be incomplete if I left it at that; Rohini and I had loads of other friends who helped make Zimbabwe joyful. The children Asela and Anusha (adults now – how time flies) made chums of their own. The youngest, Amrit, was a toddler; his best friends were Zaris the dog and Lucia the housemaid.

Were I to write a personal memoire, I could fill it with remanences of friends – Asian, white and black – wildlife parks, elephants and lions, the glorious Zambesi, stunning Victoria Falls, the lovely houses of those who had been settled long, swimming pools, gin and tonics, wine and barbecue. The life of a sahib you might say. The happy holidays on Sathi’s tea estate, jaunts to lodges in wildlife parks with Logan’s family, and beers with the Harlans are memories enough for a lifetime. But I must draw up my paper and turn to affairs of state before I get carried away and overrun my permitted wordcount.

Paradise Lost

Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven ~ Paradise Lost: Milton

So thought Robert Gabrielle Mugabe! But Zimbabwe’s original sin runs deeper. It starts prior to the old despot becoming altogether idiosyncratic, and coincidentally reaches a crescendo at the same time as Sri Lanka plunged into purgatory, July 1983, and for much the same reason; tribal strife there, racial strife in here. Maybe JR and Mugabe share a common lagne. Relations between Ndebele (10 to 15%) and majority Shona (80 to 85%) had been deteriorating even when they were united in the independence struggle of the 1980s. After that, Mugabe resorted to the abuse of state power and in 1983 sent in the military in to kill, maim, murder and rape – a familiar story? Conflict, and totalisation of power in his hands in the resolution of conflict, left Zimbabwe a chronically failed state. Estimates are that 20,000 died at the hands of Mugabe’s dreaded battalions.

I had an advantage. Witness to the racial calamities of Sri Lanka I could see that history was tracking a similar trajectory; the writing was on the wall. There you have my reason for abandoning Zimbabwe and moving elsewhere. My instinct proved right, though family and friends could not comprehend it at the time.

Mugabe’s tribal massacres created chaos, the mayhem was fertile ground for a reckless land grab which in turn underwrote economic collapse. Then, desperate, the regime switched to money printing. Inflation, at the worst, reached 500 billion percent (you’re not misreading) and in 2009 the Z$ was abandoned and the country switched to the US$. The rest is well known; a prosperous African country with a splendid (I am not embellishing) prospects, ended up a ruined hunting ground for a mad-hatter dictator. Currently unemployment stands at a staggering 90%.

Paradise Regained; perhaps

A moment comes, that comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. ~ Nehru – The Constituent Assembly; Midnight August 14-15, 1947.

The coup that pretends it was not a coup is the outcome of three factors; economic catastrophe, conflict within ZANU-PF and fears in the military about succession. The doddering devil was planning to plant his crafty second wife Grace in power, when he croaked. Her gang was hostile to vice-president (now president) Emmerson Mnangagwa, an obstacle to her ambitions. He was driven out three weeks ago, but remained the military’s blue-eyed boy. The brass was petrified that years of corruption and rights abuses would come to light if there was change at the top. A broken country was a necessary condition, a sine qua non, for this oddly constructed coup. Mnangagwa, known as the crocodile for his cunning, is cut from the same cloth as Mugabe. As security minister he directed the 1983 Ndebele massacre. He has looted farms, attacked workers and was Mugabe’s henchman in the bloodbaths. It was self-defence when he sang the old dotards praises in his inaugural address!

Pakkiris (circa 1990)

But one has to be pragmatic; the vice-president is the natural constitutional choice for interim-president, though technically, there had been a brief break in his tenure. However, the ball game has changed. There is an awakening; democratic activists and human rights fighters are alert; Mnangagwa clings like a limpet but he will have to tiptoe. He will be allowed to remain in office but his power and that of the military will be circumscribed.

Cassandra voices of gloom bemoan ‘Nothing will change’; ‘Africa will never improve’, but Zimbabwe must shun despair and dedicate itself to the uphill tasks ahead. A transitional coalition with a mandate to prepare the country for a new order, reverse ruinous economic policies, and conduct fresh elections, is desirable. However, Morgan Tsvangirai, though stricken with cancer, may prefer to keep his hands free for a presidential bid at next year’s election. He was Prime Minister under Mugabe from 2009 to 2013, then, fired and the post abolished. He won a plurality (48%) in the 2008 election to Mugabe’s 43%, but Mugabe and Mnangagwa unleashed fire and fury before to the runoff forcing him to cut and run. He was roundly defeated in the 2013 presidential election; his 2009-2013 prime ministerial stint with Mugabe may have been read as self-serving opportunism.

A disadvantage attending the overthrow of Mugabe is that the initiative was a military coup, not a people’s uprising. Having taken power on the backs of the military can Mnangagwa function as an independent president? The dynamic is evolving; he and the military must be put on a short leash by public vigilance and the de facto one-party state and its repressive institutions dismantled. Even if Mnangagwa ducks accounting for 30 years of crime he must be held to his promise of untrammelled democracy, free and fair presidential elections next year when they are due in any case, and bold economic reforms taking the country into an investment climate beyond exclusive reliance on China.

Wendell Phillips thought ‘only the people’s vigilance can prevent power from hardening into despotism’ and Jefferson added ‘there is no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society than the people themselves’; all familiar clichés, but there are times when it is useful to recall them.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    This is all western propaganda. Why one leader is not good as he learns day by day. why it is all good for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, UAE countries. I think Some former USSR republics friendly to USA also doe snot have any elections or so-called democracy. Sri lanka’s problem was Mahinda Rajapaske allowed his extended family, his cronies and his people to steal while every thing else go to dogs. See what happened to Sri lankan air lines, Mihin air,. Avant guard, there are so many examples which bond Scam Ranil di dnot think about cacthing. . See Ranil can not do it at least for two years. Within the first 50 days he became a Looter. that is Western lackeys.

  • 0

    Is China not involved ?

  • 0

    Thank You Professor David for sharing these interesting memories, and for your take on the Zimbabwean condition.

    The reality is that Zimbabwe will have to wean itself off its tribal past, and reinvent itself as a modern African nation. Its people have suffered much, and perhaps it is out of that suffering that will rise one day to enjoy the bounty of its potential.

    Give thanks to God for sparing us in Sri Lanka a presidential tenure of 37 years. As if we lack enough talented people.

  • 0

    Thanks for this write-up. I sat through this whole morning reading through The Life and Times of this remarkable man Cecil Rhodes of Rhodesia fame. Within a short span of life,he died when only 49, he did so many things,honourable and not so honourable.

    Robert Mugabe and J. Richard.J not only share a common lagne but also a common number. 1983.
    Ramanujams number[ @ a noble and higher plane] was 1729.

  • 1

    If Tamils keep chanting the July 83 mantra , we will remind them that they are from across the ocean –

    Ethnic Unrest in Modern Sri Lanka:
    Haraprasad Chattopadhyaya – 1994 – ‎
    Others have assigned dates of the Tamil settlement in Ceylon ranging from 3rd century BC to 10th century ad. The earliest inscriptions and Pali chronicles attest to the presence of the Tamil traders in Ceylon in or about 2nd century bc. Between the 2nd century Be and 11th century AD when the Cholas annexed Ceylon to their South Indian empire, there were several Tamil invasions on the island, most of which resulted in short periods of rule by the Tamil adventurers.

    Contested Lands –
    Sumantra Bose – 2009 –
    Tamils were now doubly beleaguered as a minority, as a community that had arrived in Sri Lanka only a millennium previously as a result of Tamil “invasions” from south India, and as a group that had allegedly been unduly privileged under the colonial dispensation.

    Psalms of a Saiva Saint –
    T. Isaac Tambyah – 1985 –
    Ceylon history shows the Tamils as conquerors and colonists

    Extract from Seaports of India and Ceylon – Page 405
    Allister Macmillan – 1928
    And so the Tamil invasions began: and thenceforward for many centuries the history of Ceylon centres round the royal city of Anuradhapura, taken by invaders, retaken by heroic Sinhalese

  • 0

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  • 2

    To explain conflicts in tribal terms is to oversimplify. There was rivalry between Mugabe and Nkomo. But that was not tribal, although tribal rivalry between the different groups comprising the Shona and the Ndebele goes back a 150+ years. Much of it was created by colonial intervention.
    The armed conflict between Zapu led by Nkomo and Zanu-PF by Mugabe had other roots as well. The origins are not simply Mugabe trying to suppress Nkomo. There was partnership before Nkomo finally broke off in 1982 (but to patch up later in 1987)
    South Africa and the White minority in Zimbabwe played a major role and even supported Nkomo.
    While the scale of the killings in Zimbabwe are unacceptable, although it was a civil war.
    Linking it with North Korean Training of the Fifth Brigade by the media is mischief.
    The wrecking of the economy (once dominated entirely by a White minority) was not because of Mugabe’s failures.
    The country was punished for what he did for his people. Zimbabwe was the only country to redistribute wealth (land in this case) possessed by the colonial regime or foreign investors, who accumulated wealth by foul means. Naturally, others who had it good during the era of White control of wealth too resented it.
    Attempts to subvert the economy and totally bankrupt Zimbabwe failed. Zimbabwe recovered around 5 years ago.
    Mugabe won the elections by fair means against a group heavily funded by imperialism.8
    Mugabe’s failure was that his was a one man mission and politicizing the masses was weak, despite his personal popularity.

    • 0

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  • 0

    I lived in Zimbabwe for 25 years from 1982 during the best of times (as described by Kumar David) and in the worst of times during which I decided to relocate to Sri Lanka.

    The comments of Kumar David giving a tribal slant about the situation in Zimbabwe in the 80’s is entirely false and misleading. And to further extrapolate it to Sri Lanka’s history is indeed ridiculous, if not mischievous.

    What is true is that during the liberation war and after independence there were deep-seated political differences between Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. While Mugabe was latently anti-imperialist, Nkomo for reasons best known to him was less passionate and pursued his own agenda.

    Clearly there was no tribal element in their differences. Nkomo, however, misdirected himself and threatened to form a separate state in Matabeleland where his Ndebele tribe was predominant. This attempt was brutally crushed by Mugabe, but a few years later Nkomo returned to the fold and was made Vice-President of Zimbabwe, which position he held till his death.

    I lived in Zimbabwe for 25 years and developed a wide network of contacts from all sections of the local tribes. My personal observation is that by and large the average Zimbabwean is non-tribal and this was abundantly evident in my professional and personal interactions.

    The primary reason for Zimbabwe’s economic decline was unfair international sanctions imposed 2 decades ago driven by Tony Blair. Additionally, there was rampant Kleptocracy by the ruling elite which denied the people the benefits from its abundant mineral resources. Mugabe turned a blind eye to this theft of Zimbabwe’s resources for political expediency. That is a different story and merits telling in the correct perspective so as to explain the ignominous ouster of Mugabe who is recognised even by his detractors as one of the greatest heroes in African history.

    • 0

      Thank you Mohamed for giving a fuller picture.
      It is the very elite that deprived the people of the benefits of massive mineral resources that has grabbed power.
      For survival they are likely to make a deal with imperialism and further impoverish Zimbabwe.

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