More than perhaps any other African country, Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy appears to live on in the tortuous and violent process of land redistribution, the rhetoric of its politicians, and the Anglophone character of its population.
Zimbabwe, (then called Rhodesia) gained independence from the British government in 1965. However, power controversially went to a minority government of settler Europeans, under Ian Smith and his party the Rhodesian Front, in what was known as UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). Smith’s legitimacy to rule was not recognised internationally, and this precipitated a period of international ambiguity, in which the Smith regime was vilified by many, accepted by some, and fought by its internal opponents.
The United Nations applied economic sanctions on Smith’s regime as it was simultaneously fighting two internal wars against the Black Nationalist movements ZANU and ZAPU by 1979. In 1980, at the Lancaster House Agreement, Smith finally conceded and signed in favour of majority rule on condition that, for at least a decade, there would be no compulsory redistribution of white-owned land. Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU, became Zimbabwe’s first majority Prime Minister in 1980, though Smith continued as a politician until 1987 and made substantial efforts to encourage international investment in Zimbabwe and facilitate the peaceful transfer of power to the majority government.
The ten year protection of white farms expired and from the late 1990s Mugabe began the forced redistribution of white owned-land (70% of the whole country.) And so began the country’s economic decline. Drought and lack of political planning in the transfer of land caused rapid decline in Zimbabwe’s agricultural output. Squatters took over under-utilised (white and black owned) farms for subsistence. However, agricultural export levels fell due to massive inefficiencies in production leaving a shortage of hard currency which stimulated rapid hyper-inflation. Chronic food shortages and increased poverty are reflected in the numbers. Life expectancy has dropped from 60 in 1990 to 46 in 2010. 2008 saw the deepest drop in living standards, especially when cholera broke out in December of that year. A political coalition emerged, after 2008’s controversial and violent elections, with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change promising to come together to rebuild Zimbabwe. The economy now appears to be levelling out but the jury is still out as to whether Zimbabwe is on route to recovery.