When I spoke with Zimbabwean political scientist Shingirai Taodzera, one of the visiting fellows at the Freedom Project, on his birthday last Friday, it was the first birthday he had celebrated under a new leader of his home country.
Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe served as its prime minister until 1987, and then went on to become president. On Nov. 15, he was placed under house arrest by military officers following the removal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa was viewed as a likely successor to 93-year-old Mugabe, and by removing him, Mugabe improved the chances that his wife Grace would ultimately inherit his position.
After Mugabe’s formal resignation, the military supported Mnangagwa’s assumption of power as he became the new prime minster. For Taodzera, however, ‘new’ is a term met with some hesitation when describing the country’s political landscape and leadership. After all, what novelty is there to a coup that empowered a man who, as he put it, has “been by Mugabe’s side for over 50 years [and] is Mugabe’s prodigy?”
Still, Zimbabwe has seen little action in the name of a revolution. The country’s politics reflect decades of oppression under an interconnected network of elites, and has evolved very little beyond the influence of British colonialism. Experts are expecting a return to partisan politics instead of the environment of unity and reconciliation that characterized the anti-Mugabe movement. The burden now falls upon the common individual, looking towards an uncertain future as they face severely crippled economic and social service sectors.
Taodzera, whose research focuses on mineral extraction in Zimbabwe, describes the colonial government as prioritizing the “extraction of resources above the provision of social services for the people.”
After all, as Joshua Settles of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville describes in his study, “The Impact of Colonialism on African Economic Development,” “the aim of colonialism is to exploit the physical, human and economic resources of an area to benefit the colonizing nation, [which] arrested the natural development of the African economic system.” The impact of British colonialism has similarly disturbed the political institutions that were already in place in Zimbabwe and supplanted them with self-serving dynamics of power-sharing and patronage that catered to the interests of the ruling elite.
The reality is certainly harsher, given British policies in what was then Rhodesia, like the Native Affairs Amendment Act of 1959. This legislation was one of many authoritative expressions of colonial disregard for the native population of the region. It criminalized any action on the part of Rhodesians that was “likely to undermine the authority” of British officials, effectively stripping them of any rights to communication regarding how their homeland was being handled, or rather, exploited. Even after independence, given frequent government involvement in corruption scandals and Mnangagwa’s own unpunished theft of $80 billion over 37 years in political office, it seems as though only the color of the oppressor has changed.
Although many Zimbabwean leaders came to power after their efforts during the independence movement, they are still influenced by this colonial power structure. Similarly, Taodzera notes that some individuals in the new government have a history of involvement with the natural resources industry, which reduces the likelihood that they will push for the transparency needed to build the people’s trust in government as a force for social and economic change.
Taodzera concluded that “the average Zimbabwean hoped that once Mugabe went out of power, the political system would guarantee civil liberties, public goods and a vibrant economy that would improve human livelihoods.”
Mnangagwa has already demonstrated what may be a response to public outcry by removing two controversial ministers in his cabinet only hours after their appointments. His obligation to the people is then to determine whether he will step outside of Mugabe’s shadow, along with the shadow of the imperialists that preceded him and his nation.