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Understanding colonialism in Zimbabwe

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BY Gwinyai Regis Taruvinga
WHEN Zimbabwe gained its independence from British rule in 1980, citizenry was hopeful for a better future. Colonialism which had come to the fore in 1890 had marginalised the African population and the attainment of independence meant that life was going to change for the better.

Forty-two years after majority rule, Zimbabwe has seen little benefits for the average citizen. Many would argue that the country has reversed the gains of independence with only the political elite being the beneficiaries of a “new” Zimbabwe. The perceived lack of progress by the current Zanu PF regime has led some to believe that life was better under the Rhodesian government as opposed to the current regime.

Various studies on the impact of colonialism on post-colonial states have been produced by authors such as Mahmood Mamdani. For Mamdani, colonialism thrived due to a dual system which effectively meant that there were separate development systems for the urban areas and rural areas. In areas where the white minority resided, there was infrastructure which was meant to fuel the colonial economy. In the rural areas, very little development took place. In essence, the very nature of colonialism was based on the notion of marginalisation.

To fully understand colonialism, one must take into consideration its genesis which dates to the Berlin Conference which was held in 1884. This event was led by Otto von Bismarck to divide the African continent among 13 European nations which included Germany, France and Britain, among others. During this conference, there was not a single African country that was present proving the exclusionary nature of the system. By the end of this event, the African continent had been divided into territories for the colonial powers.

One of the key drivers of colonialism was the desire to plunder natural resources and this was best epitomised by Cecil John Rhodes’ British South African Company (BSAC). It is believed that one of Rhodes’ desires was to build a railway line from Cape to Cairo to extract natural resources. The desire to accumulate wealth at all costs would be at the heart of colonialism.

In Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa he argues that European countries deliberately set Africa on a negative trajectory that continues to affect the continent today. He also argues that while Europe was making gains, the opposite was happening on the African continent.

In Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson’s widely acclaimed Why Nations Fail the authors argue that colonial institutions, which again were extractive, were the same institutions that were inherited by post-colonial leaders, thus meaning African leaders were already on the backfoot from when they assumed leadership positions. This is, of course, not aimed at exonerating African leaders from wrongdoing but the colonial inheritance played a major role, especially in the formative years of African States.

One of the key points when discussing the African continent is that it has an abundance of natural resources. Even though this is largely true, very little economic development has taken place due to the plundering of these natural resources. Colonialism was meant to only benefit a few sectors of society; this has manifested within the post-colonial State. The institutions and laws that were used by the colonial government were the same ones that the post-colonial States would use after assuming leadership positions.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, the colonial government implemented a state of emergency in 1965 which was only repealed by the post-colonial government in 1990. The state of emergency had been introduced to thwart nationalist movements’ drive towards fighting for majority rule. Under the leadership of the late former President Robert Mugabe, that state of emergency remained in place for a decade after attainment of independence.

In current Zimbabwe, many citizens believe that the current government  has failed to deliver on the promises that were made. As Mamdani would argue, post-colonial Zimbabwe has seen a political elite rise to the fore. This political elite are seen as the beneficiaries of Zimbabwe’s resources at the expense of the country. The challenge in Zimbabwe stems from the failure to govern, and post-colonial Zimbabwe has a litany of examples to prove this point.  There have been various cases of corruption ranging from the Willowgate Scandal to the present Pomonagate. These corruption cases have been twofold, the beneficiary being the political elite whilst the citizenry is at the receiving end.

The post-colonial State in Zimbabwe also inherited Rhodesian institutions which, as mentioned before, were extractive. When summing up this inheritance Jefferey Herbst stated: “To a great extent, the politics of independent Zimbabwe centre on coming to terms with the vestiges of the past.” The country effectively is intrinsically linked to its past and this is also noticeable in countries such as South Africa where the legacy of apartheid is widely debated.

The various sectors of society that argue that colonialism was a far much better period than what we are presently witnessing ought to analyse its nature. Post-colonial Zimbabwe has faced considerable challenges since 1980, however, these challenges do not automatically mean that Rhodesia was a better system. What is required is a broader debate on the governance challenges that post-colonial Zimbabwe has faced under both Mugabe and President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regimes.

  • Gwinyai Regis Taruvinga is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies

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