Voting booths in Zimbabwe have closed following what observers call ‘a peaceful poll,’ reports the BBC. Yet the context of today’s parliamentary election could not be more dramatic. President Robert Mugabe has lately shut off humanitarian aid to his starving population, declaring that only members of his own party, the ZANU-PF, will have access to food. And this is just one of his many foul ploys to gain an absolute majority in Parliament, giving him full control over an already lawless country sinking deeper into misery and violence every day.

Below is Part I of an attempt to outline the background of this drama.

Following the conquest of its territory led by British financier Cecil Rhodes, the entity now known as Zimbabwe was established in 1890 as a commercial venture owned and run by his British South Africa Company. In 1923 the white settlers were offered a choice between annexation and self-government within the British Empire, choosing the latter. ZimbabweBetween 1925 and 1980, ‘Rhodesia’ enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical status of an autonomous colony with its own parliament, laws, and police. More than in the London-run colonies, however, the black majority was surpressed and utterly denied participation, causing no small amount of tension with the British Colonial Office.

From 1953 to 1963, Rhodesia formed a union with North Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). This decade saw a massive confiscation of land on behalf of white farmers, which, combined with the winds of independence by now sweeping the continent, provoked the 1961 founding of the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU). Two years later it was followed by a splinter group, the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU). Both were banned.

The white minority also wanted full independence from Britain, but on its own terms – this meaning continuation of the apartheid system. As Britain made independence conditional upon the abolition of the latter, Prime Minister Ian Smith issued what would be known as the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. This was rejected both by the Brits and the international community. The UN imposed economic sanctions on Rhodesia, which became an international pariah state.

Listen to PM Ian Smith announcing unilateral independence on radio (Real Player). From the BBC series The Story of Africa.

Government garden party, 1966, Salisbury (now Harare). Photo: Marion Kaplan.

Pressure intensified during the 1970s, and not least from within. The ZANU, led by the Marxist Robert Mugabe, was based upon the Shona people, representing 75% of the population. Perhaps because of its leader’s ideological hue, it received military aid from China. The ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo, had its base in the Ndebele people of the South-East, representing 20% of the population. Through effective guerrilla struggle, the two movements forced the Smith regime to accept majority rule ‘in principle’ by 1976. Further negotiations led to independence in 1980.

It was settled that land reform would only take place by agreement and in return for compensation at market price, paid by the British government. Whites were encouraged to stay; the new coalition government stressed reconciliation and included all ethnic groups. Mugabe, whose ZANU won 57 of 89 contested seats in Parliament, took office as Prime Minister while Nkomo became Minister of the Interior. All appeared to be well.

However, that illusion was shattered already the next year as Mugabe accused ZAPU of plotting a coup, firing Nkomo. When ZAPU supporters launched a local revolt in response, Mugabe unleashed a feared army brigade upon the ethnic Ndebele, slaugthering thousands in an act of genocide that his followers have described, chillingly, as Gukurahundi – ‘the rain washing away the chaff.’

This occurred in the mid-80s and allowed Mugabe to strengthen his grip on power after his 1985 reelection. In 1987 the ZAPU was absorbed into the ZANU, renamed ZANU-PF, ushering in a de facto one-party system. That same year, he assumed the title of Executive President with additional powers. Robert MugabeA final ominous event of 1987 was the expiry of the treatise which, based upon the so-called willing seller/willing buyer principle, outlawed farmland confiscation.

Ever since taking power, Mugabe had continued the Smith regime’s economic interventionism. Yet he had shied away from land reform, hesitant to meddle with the 6-7000 white farmers whose estates, located on the most fertile land, yielded most of the national exports. Instead he quite successfully bettered the living conditions of the rural blacks in other ways: building schools, creating infrastructure, and supporting small-scale black farmers, boosting their productivity. Infant mortality dropped and the proportion of children attending school sky-rocketed from 20% in 1980 to 80% in -88. Economic growth was a respectable 3.2%.

But alas, this was not to last: Toward the end of the decade, the World Bank and the IMF, worried about Zimbabwe’s mounting national debt, saw fit to demand a ‘structural adjustment program’ of economic liberalization. Combined with severe drought, this sent Zimbabwe spinning into a spiral of negative growth, hyper-inflation, and rampant unemployment, worsening throughout the 1990s. Increasingly, outright starvation made itself felt on the countryside, undermining Mugabe’s popularity. In 1997 he decided that, rather than drowning in this wave of discontent, he would try to ride it.

Part II to follow.

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