Rhodesia, commonly known from 1970 onwards as the Republic of Rhodesia, was an unrecognised state in southern Africa from 1965 to 1979, equivalent in territorial terms to modern Zimbabwe.
Today’s southern African country of Zimbabwe, now infamous for its land invasions, state repression, and erratic rule by its de facto dictator Robert Mugabe was until 1980 a country with white minority rule. However, economic sanctions and guerilla warfare led to the transformation of power from the whites to the majority blacks, which in the recent decade meant a mass eviction of white farmers and also their exodus from the country as a whole.
In 1965 Rhodesia, led by its leader Ian Smith, declared independence from United Kingdom. The country was run by a minority of approximately a quarter million whites, who had both the political and economic power. This illegal declaration of independence led to economic sanctions against the new country, first from the United Kingdom, later from the United Nations. 1972 saw the beginning of a seven year long guerilla war between black nationalists and the Rhodesian security forces.
The sanctions continued and the political pressure against Rhodesia increased as the 1970s progressed. Negotiations concerning a transformation to majority rule came about in 1976, and the first multiracial elections took place in 1979, an election where the guerilla factions ZANU and ZAPU were banned from participating. After renewed pressure from the UK and the US a new election was held in 1980, this time including the two guerilla factions. Robert Mugabe (ZANU) won an overwhelming victory, and Rhodesia had now changed its name to Zimbabwe. AND THE REST IS HISTORY
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1. Destroy the engine of productivity
The Harare Sports Club, a Rhodesian throwback, sits kitty-corner from Mugabe’s private residence. I was told ahead of time by locals that the patrons would be mostly white ex-farmers “crying into their beer.” Inside, towering, bull-necked men lined the bar. Most were chain-smoking, and they did seem quite wobbly. A television hanging from the ceiling played reruns of Tim Henman’s latest Wimbledon tease. At the entrance to the club is a sports shop, which sells squash rackets and cricket bats. The place is Old England in a capsule, and yet the paint is chipped, the tabs are unpaid, and the lively chatter, once about crop yields and rugby scores, now focuses on court dates and emigration plans.
In July of 2001 about fifty people who lived in the nearby town arrived on his land. Most were miners, and they were led by three officials from the Mugabe government. The group began surveying Ashton’s property and marking out plots for homes. The next six months were a constant battle. The settlers returned and erected makeshift thatch huts in the middle of Ashton’s maize and tobacco fields. They dug up his maize crops, beat up his farm workers, and removed and bent his irrigation pipes. Still Ashton hung on, living in his farmhouse and planting and harvesting what he could. In January of 2002 four trucks arrived, containing youth militia and men claiming they were veterans of the liberation war collecting their reward for service. This time the invaders attacked Ashton, with steel rods and an ax, cutting him in the forearm and badly damaging his pickup truck as he tried to escape. They held two of his sons hostage for a day, threatening to execute them and making them chant songs in praise of the ruling party. As the invaders carted away all the Ashton family’s transportable belongings—from crockery to toilet seats—the police watched with amusement and then decided to join in.
Pat Ashton, a stocky, white-haired fifty-five-year-old farmer, stops in at least twice a month. Ashton grew up in Cheshire, England, and moved to Rhodesia in 1971. Trusting Mugabe’s moderate rhetoric, he made a down payment on a farm the year after independence. It took him two decades to pay back his loans, but in 2001 he finally did so. The Ashton farm grew mangoes, tobacco, maize, and flat peas, grossing about $800,000 annually. His workers didn’t earn enough to buy their own land (“I probably could have done more to make them self-sufficient,” he admits), but he did build them a village of some ninety houses, a social hall, a football field, and a medical clinic. Ashton reinvested virtually all of his surplus in the farm.
Mugabe decided on what he called “fast-track land reform” only in February of 2000, after he got shocking results in a constitutional referendum: though he controlled the media, the schools, the police, and the army, voters rejected a constitution he put forth to increase his power even further. A new movement was afoot in Zimbabwe: the Movement for Democratic Change—a coalition of civic groups, labor unions, constitutional reformers, and heretofore marginal opposition parties. Mugabe blamed the whites and their farm workers (who, although they together made up only 15 percent of the electorate, were enough to tip the scales) for the growth of the MDC—and for his humiliating rebuff.So he played the race card and the land card. “If white settlers just took the land from us without paying for it,” the President declared, “we can, in a similar way, just take it from them without paying for it.” In 1896 Africans had suffered huge casualties in an eighteen-month rebellion against British pioneers known as the chimurenga, or “liberation war.” The war that brought Zimbabwean blacks self-rule was known as the second chimurenga. In the immediate aftermath of his referendum defeat Mugabe announced a third chimurenga, invoking a valiant history to animate a violent, country-wide land grab.
Ashton is more sympathetic than many other farmers, but the story of his eviction is fairly typical. In 2000, about 4,000 large-scale commercial farmers owned some 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s arable land. Nearly two thirds of these farmers had bought their farms after independence, and thus held titles issued not by Ian Smith or the British colonial regime but by the Mugabe government. Mugabe had long pledged land reform as a way of redistributing farmland to black peasants and dismantling what many saw as the country’s “mini-Rhodesias.” But he had delayed action for two decades, generally taking farms only on a “willing seller, willing buyer” basis.
Initially, the farmers held their ground, but it became clear after several white farmers were murdered that they were too few and Mugabe’s regime was too determined. Of the 4,000 large-scale commercial farmers in business three years ago, all but 500 have been forced off their land. Most Zimbabweans (including white farmers) say that land reform was both necessary and inevitable. The tragedy of Mugabe’s approach is that it has harmed those whom a well-ordered, selective redistribution program could and should have helped. Generally the farms have not been given to black farm managers or farm workers. Indeed, because of their association with the opposition, more than a million farm workers and their dependents have been displaced, and they are now at grave risk of starvation. In fact, the beneficiaries of the land seizures are, with few exceptions, ruling-party officials and friends of the President’s. Although Mugabe’s people seem to view the possession of farms as a sign of status (the Minister of Home Affairs has five; the Minister of Information has three; Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and scores of influential party members and their relatives have two each), these elites don’t have the experience, the equipment, or, apparently, the desire to run them. About 130,000 formerly landless peasants helped the ruling elites to take over the farms, but now that the dirty work is done, many of them are themselves being expelled.