Zoe Samudzi provides some excellent answers to the question of why President Robert Mugabe has had such staying power despite the many political and economic upheavals that have beset Zimbawe since the late 1990s.
Here is an excerpt:
Throughout the course of his thirty-six years in office, President Robert Mugabe has used coercion and violence to clear the Zimbabwean political arena of opposition and dissent and consolidate his political power. He has singularly blamed the deteriorating economy on western sanctions rather than responsibly attributing it also to his own inadequate planning, mismanagement of both capital and resources, his allowance of economic liberalisation and structural adjustment, and political corruption. Yet, contrary to the singularly critical narratives that tend to dominate, he enjoys some earnest support beyond what western reports about stolen elections indicate.
Most critically, the land issue – an issue of indigenous sovereignty, and perhaps the most unifying politic of Black resistance to colonial rule – went unaddressed. President Mugabe’s refusal to resign or allow regime change is justified, in part, by an idea that the revolution was stalled, and there must be consistent leadership in its continuity. It is no mistake that the ongoing process of land repossession and reform is characterised as the Third Chimurenga, and it is no accident that such vehement western critique has been levelled at state policy (genuine or otherwise) seeking to regain land sovereignty.
Remember that around independence in 1980 some 6,000 European immigrants, nearly all of whom defended the apartheid-lite (Southern) Rhodesian regime, owned 42% of Zimbabwe. Given the importance of land in an agrarian economy such as Zimbabwe’s, this was always going to be a politically untenable situation — regardless of the race of the landowners. Zimbabwe was on a path to significant land redistribution, one way or another.
So why didn’t Zimbabwe deal with the land question before independence in 1980?
The answer has to do with the the relative political power of the European settler community, especially after UDI. Since 1923 the group had enjoyed effective self-government with significant autonomy from London. And it is precisely because of their political power that Zimbabwe never had a “Swynnerton Plan” akin to what happened in Kenya in response to the Mau Mau anti-colonial insurgency.
Zimbabwe’s landowners failed to appreciate the need to make deals when they had the (political) upper hand. And by so doing set themselves up for very costly reforms/expropriations thirty years hence.
Why they made this choice is an interesting and open question.
Perhaps they trusted that Zimbabwe would continue to rely on Western aid in a manner that would have incentivized property rights protection by the government (under the threat of aid cuts and sanctions). They may have also thought that the government would not be crazy enough to jeopardize its commercial farming sector and risk total economic collapse. Another reason might have been the comfort of knowing that any land reform efforts in Zimbabwe would elicit reaction from South Africa (then under apartheid) in defense of property rights.
Apartheid, of course, ended in 1994. And the first two considerations did not stop President Robert Mugabe, at great cost to Zimbabweans of all stripes.
Given the complicated history of Zimbabwe and the wider anti-colonial struggle in eastern and southern Africa, I expect Mugabe’s legacy to be sanitized as soon as he passes on, especially outside of Zimbabwe.