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Mugabe perpetuates Smith's legacy

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By Joram Nyathi

THE story of Rhodesia has been told and retold many times by historians and those who seek to understand the country’s dramatic history. Former Rhodesian premier Ian Smith, who died on Tuesday, features prominently in that story.

The history of Rhodesia spans colonial invasion, repression, exploitation, suffering, rebellion, war and independence.

It is also a story of economic prosperity at one time, greed and corruption by a white ruling elite that monopolised the economy while marginalising the black majority. After independence, efforts to transform the economy led to the enrichment of a clique of the political and business elite, while impoverishing the masses.

But it was Smith’s UDI rebellion against Britain in 1965 which propelled the then colonial backwater led by parochial racists on to the world stage.

Rhodesia under a hardnosed Smith became a long tragedy punctuated by melodramatic events – fierce clashes between rival armies, confrontational rhetoric and false promises, secret meetings and negotiations, angry encounters on ships, sham elections, and eventually the final resolution.

Smith, whose colonial regime could not and would not see beyond white supremacy, fashioned and presided over a violent and repressive state. He crafted draconian laws and put in place a repressive state apparatus used to dominate the oppressed and maintain power at all costs.

His arsenal of autocratic legislation was so formidable that it could easily quash the opposition and stifle liberties. There was institutionalised discrimination and terror.

Those opposed to Smith were frequently arrested and detained mostly under the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act and Emergency Powers Act. Curfews were commonplace. The reliance on military and police repression and the neglect of civilians’ hearts and minds was most pronounced, especially in rural areas, the principal theatre of war during the 1970s. That was Smith’s Rhodesia.

However, there is an interesting irony we cannot escape about President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Mugabe inherited a colonial legacy in the form of a violent state, repressive laws and political intolerance. He also inherited a strong economy from Smith, which he is destroying with reckless abandon.

Instead of transforming the repressive Rhodesian state, Mugabe kept its key institutions largely unreformed, including military and security personnel. For instance, Peter Walls remained commander of the army, while Ken Flower headed the CIO, a largely unreformed Rhodesian creature. The Rhodesian era Joint Operations Command remains up to now.

Smith’s repressive laws were later used by Mugabe to arrest and detain his former liberation struggle allies, mostly Zapu leaders. The bitter irony is that Mugabe used Smith’s laws and jails to deal with Zapu leaders — the same laws used against him and them during the liberation struggle.

Gukurahundi atrocities were largely perpetrated through the Fifth Brigade and Rhodesian state security structures and laws. The brutality under Mugabe during the 1980s was in some respects the same as the repression under Smith if not worse.

Ordinary people who did not agree with Mugabe’s one-party state agenda also fell victim of the laws inherited from Smith. Up to this day, the repressive apparatus put in place by Smith is still being viciously used to arrest, detain and silence Zimbabweans – the same people who supported Mugabe on his way to power.

This reminds me of Frantz Fanon’s insightful book, The Wretched of the Earth. From here onwards Fanon takes over: "The people who for years on end have seen their liberation leader and heard him speak, followed his contests with the colonial power, put their trust in this patriot.

Before independence, the leader generally embodies the aspirations of the people for independence, but soon afterwards the leader will reveal his inner purpose: to become the general president of that "company of profiteers impatient for their returns.

In spite of his frequently honest conduct and his sincere declarations, the leader loses contact with the masses. The leader asks the people to fall back into the past and to become drunk on the remembrance of the epoch which led up to independence.

From time to time, however, the leader makes an effort; he speaks on the radio or makes a tour of the country to pacify the people.

The leader is all the more necessary in that there is no party. The party has sadly disintegrated; nothing is left but the shell of a party, the name, the emblem and the motto.

Opposition parties are liquidated through beatings and stonings. The opposition candidates see their houses set on fire. The police increase their repression.

This party, which used to call itself the servant of the people, hastens to send the people back to their caves.

It becomes, in fact, the tribe which constitutes itself into a party. This party which proclaims to be national, and which claims to speak in the name of the totality of the people, sometimes degenerates into a tribal dictatorship. Ministers, ambassadors and civil servants are chosen from the same ethnic group as the leader, sometimes directly from his own family. This imposture and intellectual and spiritual poverty does not cause anger but shame.

Such leaders are the true traitors in Africa, for they sell their country to the most terrifying of all its enemies: stupidity."

It’s Fanon speaking, not me!


Nyathi is the deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent
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