Looking back over the past 40 years in Zimbabwe I am quite surprised we are still here! in 1980,
I was playing a small part in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in that I was selected as one of a small group of people who were tasked with the responsibility of training the men and women, identified as being potential cabinet ministers in any new administration elected in the countries second democratic experience. Perhaps because of that, I was privileged to sit just behind the podium at the stadium in Harare when the Rhodesian flag was lowered, and the flag of Zimbabwe raised.
I can remember that event as if it was yesterday. The thousands of people in the stands, the hundreds of troops on parade and more Heads of State than I had ever seen, sitting on chairs around the podium where Prince Charles from the royal family in Britain, sat. Next to him was the incoming Prime Minister of the country, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mugabe was regarded as the most radical of the nationalist leaders which had brought us to Independence. Despite this, he was clearly the choice of the United Kingdom, which had carefully orchestrated the process which brought him to power.
In the next 37 years, Mr Mugabe would become one of Africa’s classical big men. As such he would not tolerate opposition either amongst his own colleagues or from elements in our society which differed with him. The first evidence of this started almost immediately after he moved into Ian Smiths old office. He ordered the creation of a military unit which became known as the 5th brigade. Carefully selecting from his own tribal group and isolating them from the rest of the army, who were trained by the British Military Assistance Training Team.
The purpose of this new unit soon became apparent. They took over the security of the Prime Minister in the country and in 1983, Mr Mugabe launched what he called the Gukurahundi programme. Gukurahundi, in the local language, means the “storm that washes clean”. It was to be a forerunner of several such programmes going forward. At the time I was Chief Executive of a large industrial firm in Harare but given my links with Matabeleland where I had been born and raised, I soon became aware of the savage nature of the programme.
I was sitting in my office when a call came through to me from a Catholic Mission in Lupane District. They claimed that they had hundreds of injured people in the hospital with dozens of deaths. They said that it was the 5th brigade that was carrying out these atrocities. Over the next four years until 1987, the Gukurahundi programme was pursued by the Zimbabwe government with genocidal consequences. Tens of thousands died in the campaign, many more suffered injuries from beatings and worse. The first wave of forced migration took place when approximately one third of the Ndebele speaking people in the Southwest of the country left Zimbabwe for South Africa where their language and culture allowed them to simply be assimilated into local communities.
The campaign included denying local populations access to food aid and even medical facilities. Stories of mass graves and mine shafts being filled with the bodies of the dead began to circulate. The leader of the regional political party ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, who had in many ways been the father of African Nationalism in Zimbabwe, was harassed and ultimately forced to concede to Zanu PF dominance of the political space and signed a unity accord in 1987, which effectively marked the end of the existence of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union.
From 1987 until 1999 all subsequent attempts at the establishment of any opposition to the ruling party were suppressed. Zimbabwe became a one-party State and in 19 amendments to the Constitution which had been negotiated in London during the Lancaster House process that led to Independence, concentrated all political power into the Presidents hands. The media was totally controlled and manipulated, freedom of movement and association harshly restricted and human and political rights violated on a routine basis.
Like so many of the big men that followed Independence in Africa, Mr Mugabe paid little regard to the principals of macroeconomic stability. In the first five years of Independence, international support poured into the country. He was able to increase the availability of education and health services to the great majority of the population and at the same time the economy grew at a steady 3 to 5 per cent per annum. However, there was a cost and the fiscal deficit in the first two decades after Independence, averaged nearly 9% of GDP; three times the sustainable level. As a result, after taking over a fiscus with very limited external obligations, Zimbabwe found itself by 1997 in a situation where it was seriously indebted and unable to service its obligations.
These difficulties were compounded in 1997 by the decision to pay the veterans of the liberation war, Z$3,5 billion in reparations. The following year, this expenditure was compounded by the decision to send the Zimbabwe army to help overthrow the Mabuto regime in the Congo. Three years later, having spent over $1,5 billion and the loss of several hundred lives, the Zimbabwe army installed a new President in the Congo and withdrew back to Zimbabwe. These two unplanned and unbudgeted expenditures broke the back of the Zimbabwean economy and by 1999 the economy was experiencing serious economic and political difficulties.
In 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change entered the political arena and to everybody’s astonishment and shock, inflicted the first electoral defeat on the ruling Party in the form of the referendum on a new constitution conducted in the year 2000. While Mr Mugabe publicly accepted this new challenge and dispensation, privately he decided to unleash a reign of terror on the country.
In the next eight years he nationalised the commercial farming industry using violence and unconstitutional means with many gross violations of basic human rights. In 2005, he unleashed a second national programme of human rights abuse which he called Murambatsvina. This time, the phrase meant to “clean out the rubbish”. In a savage programme during the middle of winter, hundreds of thousands of the absolute poor were forcibly removed from the cities and dumped in the rural areas. The total programme was estimated to have affected more than 1,2 million people.
In my own Church, we carefully monitored one community affected by this programme and over a two-year period we found that half the adult men involved, died. The reason was that they could not defend the rights and welfare of their families and they simply gave up the will to live. The impact on the farm industry and the knock-on effect into the rest of the economy, coming in the wake of the macroeconomic mess created in the lead up to 2000, plunged the Zimbabwean economy into an unprecedented crisis.
Over this period, one third of the national population, or 5 million adults left Zimbabwe for greener pastures. By 2008 the average life expectancy had declined by nearly 50%, child mortality was at record levels and 70% of the population was being kept alive by international food aid. The currency was completely worthless and the savings and accumulated wealth of over 100 years of enterprise, had been destroyed. In retrospect it is difficult to understand how we all survived.
In 2008 the South African government, at long last, woke up to its regional responsibilities and it’s need to ensure that the situation did not deteriorate any further. The government of national unity was negotiated and stabilised the situation for the next four years. However, Mr Mugabe made sure that this brief interlude did not persist and in 2013 he again took back control of the State and immediately resorted to the same mix of bad economics and political control which had characterised his administration up to 2008. The result was that Zimbabwe quickly found itself back in a mess.
It was at that moment in time, in November 2017, that Emmerson Mnangagwa, supported by the professional army, forced a confrontation with the old regime and persuaded Mr Mugabe to go into retirement. In my estimation, the Mugabe era forced millions of our population into exile, dramatically reduced living standards and life expectancies with the premature death, in addition to those associated with violence, of over 3 million people. It must stand as one of the most serious failures of government in post-colonial history.