Thursday, 20 January 2011

God's President: Mugabe of Zimbabwe

"We know the size of the world we know the total extent. Africa is still lying ready for us it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race more of the best the most human, most honourable race the world possesses." (Cecil Rhodes, "Confession of Faith", 1877)

I've just been catching up on my listening, and have heard the excellent play "God's President: Mugabe of Zimbabwe", which was broadcast in early December. It was a Friday Play specially commissioned by Radio 4 to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe:

Kwame Kwei-Armah's play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe's Independence.

On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day. On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. Margaret Thatcher's government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.

The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.

Robert Mugabe....Lucian Msamati
Edgar Tekere...Danny Sapani
Bishop Muzorewa ...Chuk Iwuji
Lord Carrington ...Richard Cordery
Robin Renwick ...Tony Bell
Joshua Nkomo ...Jude Akuwudike
Ian Smith ...William Gaminara
Sir Shridath Ramphal...Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kenneth Kaunda.. .Ben Onwukwe
Bob Marley ... Lloyd Thomas
With Sean Baker, David Seddon, Alison Pettit
Directed by Jeremy Mortimer.

The play was focused on the events at Lancaster House, but also had time for flashbacks, in order to let us see the background of Robert Mugabe, and how he come from a background where he had witnessed the slaughter of men, women and children under the oppressive regime of Ian Smith. It explained why he was suspicious of Lord Carrington, and why he was so focused on releasing his people from what he saw as a paternalistic colonial regime under which they had be second class citizens. The struggle had been a violent one, and its escalation - coupled with trade sanctions by Britain against Ian Smith's government in Rhodesia impacted on the economies of neighbouring countries, so that Kenneth Kaunda of neighbouring Zambia was also putting pressure on Mugabe to resolve the situation.

The story ends with independence, and a new hope for the country, as it symbolically loses the colonial name of Rhodesia and become reborn as Zimbabwe. But, as Lord Carrington says in the play, no one knows what the future might bring. In the event, Zimbabwe moved steadily towards a dictatorial police state. In a way, the story of Mugabe coming to power, and then using the same kind of repressive apparatus as Ian Smith to maintain his power, is akin to that of a victim of child abuse, who himself grows up to be a child abuser.

How does President Robert Mugabe see himself? In 2009, he saw himself as a hero rather than a dictator:

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, in a rare interview, depicted himself as an African hero battling imperialism and foreign attempts to oust him rather than the widespread perception of a dictator clinging to power at the expense of the welfare of his people and country. The 85-year-old Mugabe, the only leader of Zimbabwe since it became independent from Britain in 1980, rejected repeated assertions by CNN's Christiane Amanpour that his policies have driven the nation once known as Africa's breadbasket to virtual economic collapse. Instead, Mugabe accused Britain and the United States of seeking to oust him by imposing economic sanctions, the effects of which he said were worsened by years of drought. He denied that his country is in economic shambles, saying it grew enough food last year to feed all its people, and defended policies that have driven white farmers off their land as properly restoring that land to indigenous Africans.

"The land reform is the best thing (that) could have ever have happened to an African country," said Mugabe, a former revolutionary leader who came to power when white-ruled Rhodesia became black-ruled Zimbabwe. "It has to do with national sovereignty."

"You don't leave power when imperialists dictate that you leave," he insisted. "There is regime change. Haven't you heard of (the) regime change program by Britain and the United States that is aimed at getting not just Robert Mugabe out of power but get Robert Mugabe and his party out of power?"(1)

Mugabe clearly still frames any criticism of his regime through the filter of "imperialist interference", and has called South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu a "little man" who "doesn't know what he's talking about". On the subject of white-owned farms, he argued that this was restoring what had been stolen by colonial rule:

"Zimbabwe belongs to the Zimbabweans, pure and simple. They [white settlers] occupied the land illegally. They seized the land from our people." "They are British settlers," he said, later calling them "citizens by colonization, seizing land from original people, indigenous people of the country."(1)

But what is indigenous? There can be no doubt that the while settlers did take over the country, and Cecil Rhodes saw it almost in terms of a divine duty. Yet the country has seen many waves of settlers, and some significant ones altered the make up of the country by also coming in and taking over from the indigenous natives of that time.

It appears that Kalanga speaking societies first emerged in the middle Limpopo valley in the 9th century before moving on to the Zimbabwean highlands. The Zimbabwean plateau eventually became the center of subsequent Kalanga states. The Mapungubwe were the first migrants to this area from South Africa. They spoke Bantu, and inhabited the Great Zimbabwe site from about AD 1000 displacing earlier Khoisan people.

These peoples settled and merged with the native population, and were first termed the Shona in the 1920s.

The Shona gradually developed gold and ivory trade with the coast, and by the mid-15th century had established a strong empire, with its capital at the ancient city of Zimbabwe. This empire, known as Munhumutapa, split by the end of the century, the southern part becoming the Urozwi Empire, which flourished for two centuries.(2)

It is from the time of the Shona empires that we get the word "zimbabwe": Zimbabwe - a word in Shona, the local Bantu language, meant literally "stone houses', and these became the characteristic dwellings of chieftains. Around 100 hilltop ruins survive, of which the most famous and impressive is the group known as Great Zimbabwe. In the 13th century this location succeeds the Mapungubwe as the main centre of Shona power.

But the most significant change came just before the colonial West made its mark on Africa, when another displaced people came and conquered. These were a tribal group of warriors and cattle-breeders - the Ndebele - who easily subdue the agricultural Shona.

In 1834, the Ndebele people arrived while fleeing from the Zulu leader Shaka, making the area their new empire, Matabeleland. In 1837-38, the Rozwi Empire along with other Shona states were conquered by the Ndebele, who arrived from south of the Limpopo and forced them to pay tribute and concentrate in northern Zimbabwe.(3)

By the time the British began arriving in the mid-19th century, the Shona people had long been subjected to slave raids. The once-powerful Urozwi Empire had been destroyed in the 1830s by the Ndebele, who, under Mzilikaze, had fled from the Zulus in South Africa.(4)

The Ndebele were, in turn, displaced by the British colonists.

After the decline of Great Zimbabwe, which had begun in the 13th century, the fragmented Shona tribes allied themselves and created the Rozwi state and encompassed over half of present day Zimbabwe. This state lasted until 1834 when it was invaded by Ndebele warriors and came under the rule of Lobengula. Lobengula soon found himself having to deal with Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and signed a contract giving up mineral rights to his land in exchange for guns, ammunition and money.(5)

But it is against this background of different ethnic groups that the internal dissent between Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe can be understood:

Following independence, Zimbabwe initially made significant economic and social progress, but internal dissent became increasingly evident. The long-simmering rivalry erupted between Mugabe's dominant ZANU-Patriotic Front Party, which represented the majority Shona ethnic groups, and Nkomo's ZAPU, which had the support of the minority Ndebele.(6

Who has claim to land? What is the "native title" to land? At what point does claim to a land become "ancestral"?

Was it the Khoisan people who were displaced by the Shona?
Was it the Shona who were displaced by the Ndebele?
Was it the Ndebele who were displaced by the White Settlers?

By not really considering the problem of how to resolve land rights in a peaceful and equitable manner, the Lancaster House agreement laid up trouble for the future. Moreover, by framing the issue in terms of colonialism by Robert Mugabe, the broader nature of the question of indigenous rights is thereby avoided. But the same kind of land grab that took place after Rhodes has happened elsewhere in Africa and across the world, where tribal groups are displaced by other governments. For example, in Kenya:

Violations of land rights, including the rights of the generations of Kenyans displaced through historic and recent evictions, are one of the key unresolved issues in Kenya, which former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged in the aftermath of Kenya's electoral violence in 2007-2008

In the last decade there have been several attempts at comprehensive land reform that would allow for final and fair determination of land ownership and create a system to restore land to those unlawfully evicted or to compensate them...While the adoption by the government of a new land policy in August 2009 marks a significant step forward, it still needs to be translated into effective protection on the ground for Kenya's most marginalized.(6)

In Botswana:

Botswana's Government must step up efforts to tackle the challenges faced by many indigenous communities, such as land rights, according to a new report by a United Nations independent expert.(7)

And in Peru:

President Alan Garcia of Peru has refused to sign a law that would give indigenous people more power to stop oil and mining projects on their lands. The law was approved by Congress, but Mr Garcia said he could not let indigenous communities stop development that would benefit all Peruvians. (8)

And Nicaragua

Since the early 1990s, Awas Tingni community members had experienced increasing incursions into areas they consider to be theirs, most dramatically in the form of a government concession of logging rights to a multinational company. They pursued remedies inside Nicaragua to no avail.(9)

What is happening is that the claim of subsidiary group of peoples native to a locality is put aside in place of national interests, and this leads to conflict over the land rights. This is an issue which is gradually being resolved in by international legal judgments in favour of smaller ethnic tribal groups, where the incursions of governments are relatively recent, and the identification of the group can be particularly clear in terms of culture and genetic identity, but the problem remains, and Robert Mugabe's framing of the narrative purely in terms of colonial domination only creates a blind spot and a dead end.


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