For the overwhelming number of its African citizens, Zimbabwe has been a living hell ever since it was “discovered” by Cecil Rhodes’s imperialist plunderers in the late 19th century.
Rhodes’s gang of privateers stole the land outright from its African inhabitants in a series of bloody, one-sided wars, and once they had occupied the entire territory, calling it Rhodesia, they immediately began turning it into a mini-version of apartheid South Africa. The tiny number of white settlers soon transformed this lovely part of Africa into a European’s paradise. When I lived there in the 1960s, the capital Salisbury (now Harare) boasted more swimming pools per capita than anywhere on Earth, save Beverly Hills.
I knew many young whites who had never made a bed or washed a dish in their lives, but were expert at treating the servants as barely human. And virtually all whites, even poor ones, had servants, sometimes three or four. Beyond a small group of white progressives, most whites were flaming racists and felt not a qualm about it.
Of course it’s true that the whites had earned their success, as they were swift to assert, and that their farms especially were remarkably productive, creating the capital for development. Sure, the land had been stolen from its African inhabitants and sure, it was worked by these Africans’ descendants. And sure, virtually all development catered to white needs. The country’s budget for schools and health facilities overwhelmingly privileged the tiny white minority.
But the winds of change were roiling Africa. In country after country, freedom or liberation movements were demanding their independence from colonial rule. Both France and Britain “gave” their colonies some form of independence, real or not. But not in southern Africa, which had too many white settlers to capitulate so easily. In my day, two new liberation movements, significantly ethnic-based, had formed in Zim, however feebly at first.
In truth, neither ZANU nor ZAPU was much of a threat to the white government and its ruthless security services. Robert Mugabe was a minor actor. Realizing the severe limits of the freedom movements – not least because they hated each other more than they hated their white oppressors – a small group of us faculty at the lone university decided we had an obligation to protest loudly against the white government. We believed Rhodesia/Zimbabwe had the capacity to provide a just society for all and were confident the new freedom-fighters could deliver it. Call it extreme wishful thinking.
Resorting to various forms of civil disobedience, our small band was as troublesome as a mosquito to a camper. Still, the government decided to jail and then deport our little band of the futile, now declared persona non grata. But the liberation movements learned fast, and through the late 1960s and 1970s a brutal civil war consumed Rhodesia. The tiny white elite faced vast casualties and inexorable defeat. It was now Mr. Mugabe’s turn.
Life is strange. For some years, Mr. Mugabe became the heartthrob of many whites around the world, as his government began introducing schools and health facilities. At the same time, he also began systematically wiping out his opponents, real and imagined, often in the most hideous ways imaginable, sometimes guided by ruthless North Korean troops. As Western diplomats in the new Zimbabwe found themselves toasting “good old Bob” over their daily sundowners, ethnic opponents were being burned to death, women political adversaries were raped wholesale, and all suffered as the economy imploded. The unemployment rate may well be 95 per cent, the highest in the world.
So over the agonizingly long decades, good old Bob betrayed everyone in sight, save for his steadfast allies – the heads of the country’s armed forces, security services and ex-fighters. These he rewarded with diamonds from Zimbabwe’s own mines and, according to Africa-wide gossip, some of the diamonds slipped to him by the President of the Congo in return for military assistance in the African wars of the 1990s. His rivals are as crooked and vicious as he is.
That’s why the events of the past week are really nothing more than the changing of the venal Zim guard. Zimbabweans can be certain that, as of the moment, nothing about their wretched lives will improve when the coup succeeds and Mr. Mugabe is gone. Rhodes’s old imperialists may have won after all.