Monday, April 22, 2024
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From White to Black Rhodesia: A Case of Inherited Oppression 



The legacy of colonialism in Africa has largely affected the idea and nature of the post-colonial state. It is in the wake of decolonization (with all its attendant meanings) that discourses of Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Afropolitanism, Marxist Socialism, Neo-colonialism among others took root. In the efforts to re imagine and reinvent an Africa which did not privilege European ideals at its center, new ideologies and policies were crafted and promulgated.

By Patson Dzamara

Colonialism in all its forms and with all its multi-dimensional ills was to be done away with and replaced with Afrocentricism. However, the experience soon turned sour; military coups, failed economies and failed social experiments like Ujamaa led to criticisms of the failed states.

Chief among the explanations of failed states was the legacy of colonialism. It was argued that developing countries were in a perpetual neo-colonial exploitative core-periphery relationship with the metropoles of the ‘developed’ world, hence their underdevelopment.

Notwithstanding the exploitative and extractive relations, African political philosophers began to engage with a different legacy of colonialism. Scholars like Mbembe in his seminal work, ‘On the Postcolony’ argues that post-colonial state heavily borrowed from the colonial state especially in the way that violence has come to under-gird rule.

What is statehood?

A state has 8 attributes: territory, population, sovereignty (indivisible and autonomous), power (and accumulation of power through legitimacy, custom and/or fear), law, nation/nationalism (image of civil society as natural), state as international actor, and state as an idea (can be hero or villain).

However, the colonial state lacked the attributes of sovereignty, sense of nation and was not an actor on the international scene but was rather an appendage of the metropolis. Some African countries although considered states, have to some extent failed to make a nation out of the different ethnic groups within their borders. Many have also existed as client states to outside interests; this pseudo-sovereignty also hampering their development into true nationhood and bringing a host of issues with it.


Onto the stage of this historical debate, enter Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, like other former settler colonies, occupies a unique position in that the country was administered by both direct and indirect rule. The sheer power of the relatively small number of settlers and their economic interests made for exploitation and control which was in general a notch above peasant or labor exporting economies, and it can be argued, something close to an economy based on slave labor.

That coupled with the cold war context of the liberation struggle meant that on the eve of independence, the Rhodesian government, like South Africa was heavily armed and merciless towards its enemies.

The present history of Zimbabwe is best situated in the nature of the colonial state, the transition from the colonial to the post colonial state and how the post-colonial state chose to continue the institutions and practices which buttressed the colonial state. It is safe to conclude that what transpired on the 18th of April in 1980 was merely a transition in terms of color rather than systems or modus operandi.

Oppressive similarities between the two dispensations

  1. Civic Society

The colonial state did NOT permit the politico-economic space or social foundation for civil society politics; this derives from a colonial regime’s exclusive ideologies and practices they employed to secure and maintain control. The cutthroat nature of administration employed by and during the colonial state ensured that anything deemed a threat to their oppressive agenda was ruthlessly annihilated.

Accountability was not a part of the colonial state’s modus operandi. They superimposed their whims and fancies on everything and everyone. Borrowing from the colonial state, the Mugabe government has stifled free speech and dissenting voices at every turn.

Under the ZANU PF government, a weak civil society is generally preferred and once civil society seeks to make the government accountable, it is labelled an enemy of the state. It is only those organizations whose mandate is apolitical or those who sing praises to the ruling party that are welcome.

The clamping down on civil society was not so apparent when the economy was on firm ground, not many people worried about political liberties. Marx’s analysis turned out to be true (not Lenin’s), the economy is the superstructure – once livelihoods were disrupted, it became difficult to hide an oppressive political agenda. The existence of a strong civil society is anathema to the ideals of ZANU PF.

This explains why some organisations under the civic society banner have been infiltrated by ZANU PF elements.

  1. Violence

White rule in Southern Rhodesia was characterized by violence. Charles Van Onselen succinctly captures the violent nature of white rule in Chibaro. The colony was founded on violence. Africans were beaten up in their places of work, small tort infractions were often punished with the sjambok and claims like breaches of contract were made criminal.

Violence and the threat thereof was the life blood of the colonial state – it was the only way in which a small minority could control the majority.

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Though ubiquitous, the state needed to maintain a facade of legitimacy therefore violent acts were often softened by the threat of force rather than use of it, something which became increasingly useful as the possible repercussions for violence escalated with the rise of black nationalism.

Fast forward to the post-colony: the ZANU PF government has a monopoly on violence. Election violence, human rights violations and everyday abuses in everyday situations characterize the lives of many ordinary Zimbabweans.

Morbid and atrocious acts such as Gukurandi and Murambatsvina are an apt accentuation of the ZANU PF government’s violent nature.

Those who never tasted violence, live in fear of it. The present leaders who lived through colonialism understand the potency of violence and the threats thereof as a means of rule and control. They have borrowed the same colonial tactics of intimidation to rule.

3. Institutions of oppression

Oppressive institutions were not disbanded after independence – in some ways, they were actually buttressed. At the end of the Federation in 1963, Rhodesia inherited its heavy artillery, state of the art aircraft and military airbases. These were used to perpetrate mass terror.

It was not only the military that could mete out violence; the police were equally empowered to deal ruthlessly with African subjects. The anti-riot squadron were actually created for that specific purpose.

After independence, freedom fighters (mainly the Shona ones) were absorbed into the national army and like the Rhodesians before them who answered to Smith, they too answered only to Mugabe. The army which is meant to protect citizens is usually let loose to punish dissenters which in the past have included opposition party supporters and even college students.

The budget for defense is the least affected by economic austerity even though Zimbabwe faces no outside threats. It is not a coincidence. The huge army exists largely for the suppression of any internal dissent and thus to keep the Mugabe regime in power.

Not only does the ZANU PF government rely on the uniformed forces to silence the masses and to mete out violence. It also relies on a well regimented and bastardized social system. Almost all the chiefs and village heads are an appendage of ZANU PF. They campaign and work for ZANU PF. If any of their subjects choose not to conform, they find themselves on the receiving end of violence and alienation.

In order for any form of oppression to thrive, it must be institutionalised. The people were oppressed under colonialism through the use of uniformed forces and pseudo social systems; the people are still oppressed in the post colony by means of the uniformed forces and pseudo social systems.

  1. The law

The law is yet another instrument that was used for political and economic control by the colonial state. The post-colonial state also similarly relies on the law for political and economic control. Acts like the Land Apportionment Act, Masters and Servants Act, Pass Laws etc were used to disenfranchise and control Africans.

The colonial state crafted draconian laws earmarked at furthering their oppressive agenda. The law was meant to bring about the idea of statehood semblance and yet it was merely a medium of oppression.

In the same despicable manner, the law has been used as an instrument of furthering ZANU PF’s agenda. From lobbying for a One Party State in the 1980’s to Land Reform and the various Acts that proscribe freedom of speech and movement, such as AIPPA and POSA. In fact many of these acts are recycled versions of earlier Rhodesian laws earmarked at oppressing the masses.

  1. Resources

Despite socialist leanings inherited from the liberation struggle, the Zimbabwean government did not challenge the ownership of critical and strategic resources by foreigners and whites at and after Independence until their own power was threatened. Until 2000, ZANU PF sought an accommodation with white capital and in the process, became a rentier state of sorts – thus continuing the legacy of white ownership of resources despite empty political promises of nationalization.

Whilst the government pursuing a hard-line anti-Western and populist rhetoric in public they remained beholden to, and profited from foreign industrial interests.

After 2000, white capital was replaced by a coterie of nouveaux-riches connected to or actually in ZANU PF, who then took up land and equipment which they never intended to farm but pillage. For the ordinary Zimbabweans, the benefits of independence in terms of ownership of resources is yet to be realized as ZANU PF bigwigs continue to plunder the country.


Zimbabwe is endowed with mineral resources including diamonds, platinum, gold and many others

White capitalism was by nature extractive and most of the proceeds were repatriated to foreign countries. In spite of that, at the very minimum, jobs however menial were created and infrastructures set up to support that extraction. In the era of ZANU PF landlords, those slim benefits have collapsed, formal jobs belong to a bygone era and despite the immature and bogus celebrations of indigenization, the country is more than ever dependent on foreigners to the point of many reduced to surviving on handouts from aid organizations.

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The GDP continues to shrink and corruption is ubiquitous. The post-colonial state has by far outdone the colonial state in terms oppression, maladministration, malevolence, and pretty much every vice they share.

  1. Ethnicity

While ethnicity was not created by white rule like in other places, it was further entrenched by white practice and colonial conceptualizations. The Ndebele were identified as war like while the Shona were said to be docile. Even the delimitation of provinces was along tribal lines: Manicaland, Mashonaland, Matabeleland.

National identity cards cemented and classified one’s ethnicity which in some places had been fluid. The division of peoples into different tribes was instrumental to divide and rule. The Mugabe government made no efforts to foster nation building in terms of identity, an otherwise doable process. Rather, they rode on the foundations of white tribal misclassifications and radically divided the country by slaughtering Ndebele-speakers, largely ordinary citizens, under the pretext of combating ‘dissidents’ in the early 80s.

A Zimbabwe unified along national lines rather than divided by tribe was a threat to ZANU PF hegemony: the person of Joshua Nkomo being the centre of such a threat. Nkomo was a better man than Mugabe, had been a freedom fighter longer than Mugabe and commanded the respect of more people within and out of the Zimbabwean borders. Ethnicity became the trump card by which the younger, lesser known teacher could elbow out the veteran ‘Father Zimbabwe’.

The Mugabe government has deliberately done little presently to channel development funds and projects to Matebeleland, further disenfranchising citizens economically along ethnic lines. All that is deliberate and meant to protect their control of power.

  1. Class

The colonial state created distinct classes out of whites and blacks. One of the aspirations of the Africans pre-independence was to become part of the citizenry and cast off the yoke of subjecthood. This was done in name only. We have become citizens with no attendant rights, just like we were in the colonial era.

In fact, classicism has replaced racism and ZANU PF elites are the ONLY real citizens like white Rhodesians were. As such, subject-hood in the post-colonial state still exists, although it wears a different face.

Under the ZANU PF led government, anyone who is not connected to the oligarch is treated as a second class citizen. The privileges and rights of those who are connected to the oligarch and those who are not are not on the par.

  1. Propaganda

We still live in a country which prioritizes propaganda above truth. Propaganda was a weapon of choice of the Smith regime during the liberation struggle and of other white governments before Smith. Freedom fighters were turned into communist terrorists and claims of independence were rubbished. Mugabe has used similar tactics.

Threats, opponents and nonconformists, like Nkomo, became the subject of propaganda which was disseminated by institutions like ZBC, just as Mugabe’s predecessors had targeted enemies using national institutions. In the 2000s a Ministry of Information i.e. a propaganda ministry was created for the very purpose of dispensing lies, like the colonial state before it.

Anyone who dares to take a stand against the failure of the government to administer its duties automatically becomes a target for character assassination and propaganda. They are portrayed as cousins of the devil and traitors of the diluted nationalist project.

Mugabe – the black Smith

I therefore, argue that the Mugabe regime did not seek to disband the instruments of oppression when it came into power. It fully understood the risk of losing power in a truly democratic setting and so avoided truly democratic institutions and systems.

Joshua Nkomo, a nationalist par excellence was considered a threat at independence. With time, other opposing voices joined the choir of the disgruntled, Tekere with ZUM and later Morgan Tsvangirai at the helm of the MDC.


Police used teargas and water cannon to disperse protestors in Harare on Wednesday. Pic Credit: LOVEJOY MUTONGWIZA @263Chat

As such, the institutions and systems of oppression were needed in order to deal with any threat to ZANU PF hegemony. It may seem at first glance that it was unintended that colonial institutions and systems were left intact, for simple convenience, but in fact it was calculated machination and scheming that led to the retaining of the practices and institutions of oppression.

Ours is a case of inherited oppression under an indigenised façade. And just as Zimbabweans had to liberate themselves from the colonial regime, today we must liberate ourselves from its successor, the black Smith, Robert Mugabe.

The black Smith, Robert Mugabe and his minions, must fall.

Patson Dzamara is a leadership coach, author, human rights activist and political analyst based in Zimbabwe. 

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