IT is perhaps unfortunate but undeniable that when the name “Zimbabwe” is mentioned even in passing, an almost automatic mental association with abject poverty and a failed state is evoked. For at least the past two decades, the southern African state has degenerated into such a dire situation, thanks primarily to the megalomania of one man who happens to be its “founding father” and who has ruled the erstwhile fertile and productive country since its “foundation.”
Therefore, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that the country once (albeit involuntarily) played an important role in maintaining the rapport at least among the elites of the British Empire and later arguably its successor, the British Commonwealth, as well as those of the United States, which was also a British colony. For the former name of Zimbabwe is Rhodesia (and Southern Rhodesia even further back), and it was styled after the British tycoon and colonialist politician Cecil Rhodes, who made the bulk of his enormous fortune in the mines and ranches of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe.
Among the more benevolent deeds which Rhodes left for posterity was a college also named after him at Oxford, as well as the famous Rhodes scholarships, which enable many top students from the Commonwealth and the US to study at Oxford. Many of these Rhodes scholars later become members of the ruling political and business elites in their respective home countries, and thus bring even closer the ties between the United Kingdom and these countries. To mention only a few, former US President Bill Clinton and current Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were both Rhodes scholars. There are of course Rhodes scholars from, appropriately, Zimbabwe as well. Cecil Rhodes’ remains are also buried in Zimbabwe.
Like its neighbor South Africa, when the British colony of Southern Rhodesia achieved its independence, it became a racially divided country (Rhodesia) ruled by a white minority. The black majority understandably agonized over such a seemingly unfair regime, and with the support of foreign powers they formed armed guerillas to try to topple the Rhodesian regime.
One of the Rhodesian black resistance leaders of the time was none other than Robert Mugabe. He was actually not a military man, but more of a scholarly type, with a talent for delivering rabble-rousing speeches. When Mugabe was jailed by the Rhodesian regime, he apparently made extremely efficient use of his jail time, according to some accounts, enrolling in at least a dozen or so correspondence courses offered by the University of London, and obtaining diplomas in all of them.
By the late 1970s, the Rhodesian regime showed signs of exhaustion, having had to face both a civil war and unrelenting international sanctions. Some readers may recall the famous South African film which obtained international acclaim, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” which depicted the many comedic instances instigated by a Coke bottle dropped from a plane and picked up by members of a southern African tribe. In it, the liberation of Rhodesia to become Zimbabwe was one of the themes, though presented somewhat lightheartedly.
In any case, the white minority Rhodesian regime caved and disintegrated, paving the way for black majority rule. The country’s name was changed to “Zimbabwe” and Mugabe became the first black president (hence the quotation marks above around “founding father” and “foundation,” as technically the country had ditched colonial rule quite some time before the change of power).
Mugabe came to power with high hopes and encouragement from the international community. But these hopes were quickly dashed and replaced with astonishment at first, as Mugabe engaged in both a purge of his political rivals within and outside his ruling party, and the nationalization of major businesses, for it was then (some may even argue even now) “trendy” for newly “independent” developing countries to embark upon a socialist national policymaking spree. Human rights abuses became routine, and the economy went from bad to worse. Mugabe was increasingly seen as yet another textbook case of a ruthless African dictator.
I met Mugabe a decade ago when he came to Malaysia for an anti-war forum. He read off his prepared speech and showed no sign of his firebrand oratory, which he perhaps reserved for audiences back home.
By the turn of the last millennium, Mugabe faced both increasing internal political resistance as well as an economy teetering on collapse. He responded by encouraging his party members to occupy and confiscate white-owned ranches which have been the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy, so as to shore up his support among the poor. These often violent takeovers caused worldwide disgust, and crippling sanctions were imposed mostly by the Western powers. But Mugabe and his wife carried on with their lavish lifestyle even when the inflation rate was skyrocketing. Even when he was forced to share power with a prime minister from the opposition, he incessantly stripped the latter of real power and even physically harassed him. Zimbabwe effectively became a bankrupt state, while Mugabe became the world’s oldest dictator.
Last week, the Zimbabwean military finally took matters into their hands, like so many of their counterparts in other African countries, and apparently is in the process of finally deposing Mugabe. If the process is indeed completed, it would be good riddance, and perhaps a breath of fresh air for Zimbabwe.