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Zimbabwe @40: A dream deferred?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrup sweet

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load

Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes)

Life is better understood by joining the dots backwards. Zimbabwe's dots in the last 40 years, with the benefit of hindsight, is littered with missed opportunities and wrong turns at critical junctures that have left the country not only with unfulfilled potential but a serious regression to the promise it held.

The political euphoria of 1980's independence masked some critical flaws by the new rulers who had brought hard-won independence. A leadership that had charismatic Robert Mugabe as it leader and pragmatic Joshua Nkomo in the inaugural cabinet that also had a sprinkle of defeated former colonial regime remnants.

At the dawn of independence, Zimbabwe received a lot of goodwill from the international community, who provided lots of grants for technical and infrastructural development. The cold war between the West and East then, ensured Zimbabwe’s excesses could be ignored by the West as they feared the newly independent republic moving towards the Eastern bloc.

This article would try to dissect Zimbabwe’s four decades of independence starting with the golden decade, seeds of autocratic leadership, short-lived dalliance with Bretton Woods institutions, half-hearted internationalism, the path to destruction, squandered window of opportunity in November 2017 and a return to neoliberalism as the only alternative thereby sealing the fate of the hopes of the majority poor who anticipated a social democratic developmental state.

The Golden Decade

Soon after independence in 1980 with Mugabe’s call to national reconciliation, Zimbabwe was on a path to national development. Both the West and the East poured developmental aid into the country, creating a base for quick social infrastructure development. The country increased the number of hospitals and primary and secondary schools across the country.

In the first decade of independence, Zimbabwe adopted the principle of "Education for all," which benefitted many poor people across the country. Equally, many could afford to receive basic primary healthcare within a ten-kilometre radius of their homes. The country's literacy rate spiked to an all-time high of above 90% and all children below the age of 5 were immunized, creating a healthy nation.

The government then was led by a scientific-socialist ideology as argued by Mugabe. Most social services were provided for free or nominal payments. All shopfloor workers had a state-controlled minimum wage. This enabled many households to manage buying basics and driving them slightly above the datum poverty line.

The country recorded impressive near double-digit Gross Domestic Product figures across all economic sectors – agriculture, mining, tourism and manufacturing industry. It also received direct international budget support thus affording it a good balance of payment. However, the social spending budget was high and soon something was to give as most people received free social services without a corresponding increase in revenues.

Secondly, the economy remained racial with agriculture, mining, manufacturing industry and tourism remaining in the control of the minority colonial whites or multinational conglomerates like Delta Beverages, Lonrho, Anglo-American Corporation and Old Mutual. This maintained the economic dual enclave where the urban centres were growing faster than the poor rural communities, thereby increasing the push and pull factors for rural-urban migration.

Seeds of autocratic leadership

Soon after independence, Mugabe did not waste time to consolidate his political power and was bent to create a one-party state. This was only going to be possible with the decimation of Nkomo led ZAPU that had won all seats in Matabeleland and Midlands in the proportional representative electoral system.

Mugabe looked for a reason to destroy ZAPU and immediately found one – the said acts of banditry by disgruntled ZAPU aligned ZIPRA forces who were complaining about discrimination in the military integration of the three forces that fought in the liberation struggle; ZANU’s ZANLA, ZAPU’s ZIPRA and the colonial Rhodesian forces.

Mugabe waged a military incursion called Gukurahundi that left Matabeleland and Midlands underdeveloped in pursuit of the said dissidents. Whole villages were crushed and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in its report – Breaking the Silence – says some 20 000 civilians were killed in the 5-year state-sponsored atrocities between 1982 and 1987 when ZANU and ZAPU signed a unity accord.

The West looked the other way when Mugabe butchered the Ndebele speaking people and forcing them to abandon their party ZAPU and be absorbed into ZANU through a Unity Accord signed on the 22nd of December 1987 to bring Mugabe’s long-held ambition to creating a one-party state closer to fruition. This dark period may have increased Mugabe’s thinking that he was above reproach and could rule as he wished.

A dalliance with Breton Woods institutions

As has been earlier highlighted, the economy started to stagnate towards the end of the first decade of independence. Mugabe against his good judgment then adopted the World Bank and International Monetary Fund sponsored the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1992. ESAP’s main tenets were a reduction in social spending, privatisation of state-owned enterprises and trade and foreign currency liberalisation.

The economic structural adjustment programme held back the significant gains that had been recorded in education, health and social protection of the poor working class against the vagaries of capitalism. Thousands were thrown off their jobs, social safety nets for the poor were removed and education and health started to be privatised pushing them beyond the reach of many.

Trade and forex deregulation exposed the local manufacturing companies to foreign competition. The declining foreign currency receipts meant many companies were not able to compete against imports and thus scaled-down operation or in worst cases closed operations, sending thousands to join the ranks of the unemployed in a country without social safety nets hence increasing poverty levels.

Half-hearted internationalism

Zimbabwe had the misfortune of having to fight in regional wars soon after independence. It had to send its army to Mozambique to protect the Samora Machel government against the Alfonse Dhlakama rebels MNR and precisely to protect the Beira Corridor – an economic pathway that connected Zimbabwe to the seaport of Beira. The road coming to Mutare and an oil pipe-line were and are crucial to Zimbabwe’s economy.

Zimbabwe during that period also housed some underground and exiled South Africa’s African National Congress cadres. This did not go without repercussions as the South African apartheid regime regularly carried bombings into Zimbabwe.

And lastly, the country in 1998 joined the six-nations civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was an expensive war draining millions of dollars and human resources each month. The country did not come out of the war as heroes, but it came out bankrupt and a tag of mineral resources plunder. Zimbabwe military was accused of plundering DRC minerals in a United Nations report. However, the plunder did not help the country but went into military individuals' pockets.

Path to destruction

At the turn of the century, the ZANU PF regime pushed the country on a destructive path unleashing a violent and chaotic land reform programme that affected agriculture production. While the intention to de-racialise land ownership was not only noble and desirable, its implementation was poorly executed. Agriculture contribution to the GDP dropped from nearly 30% to below 18% - a development in an economy that is largely agro-based and with a declining manufacturing capacity in the aftermath of ESAP.

The Bretton Woods financial institutions and other bilateral funders looked aside and did not put a hand. While some 140 000 families became new landowners compared to the 4 600 white commercial farmers, without technical expertise, equipment and adequate funding the land became dead capital. Production fell and directly affected the manufacturing sector. Many companies closed and thousands were left jobless.

The land reform debacle was further exacerbated by the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act of 2008 (IEE Act) that sort to arbitrarily transfer 51% of all companies to indigenous hands. The decision prompted not only capital flight but also a severe brain drain. An estimated 4 million Zimbabweans now live in the diaspora and the majority of them in neighbouring South Africa as economic migrants. This crippled the country’s capacity to revive the economy even if it printed money to support companies as there was no longer sufficient human capital to do the job.

Squandered windows of opportunity

Twice in the past 40 years, Zimbabwe lost golden opportunities to harness the will-power of its citizens, turn to the democratic path and start afresh with a social-democratic ideology. In 2008 after a disputed and inconclusive presidential election, it formed a Government of National Unity comprising ZANU PF and two formations of the MDC. The GNU while it delivered a new constitution and brought some economic respite post the 2007/8 hyperinflation that killed domestic currency and led to dollarisation of the economy, it failed to implement any democratic reforms.

In November 2017, Mugabe after 37 years in power was ousted in a coup. Many across the political divide supported the coup including the country's foreign supporters. Many hoped that the coup would give Zimbabweans a clean slate to start democratic reforms and reset the economy on a recovery trajectory but this has sorely remained a dream.

Return to neoliberalism

Zimbabwe under Emmerson Mnangagwa is worse off than it was at independence in 1980. Every social and development indicator tells a sad story. Mnangagwa and his Finance minister Mthuli Ncube have set the country direction towards neoliberalism under a sellout campaign dubbed “Zimbabwe is Open for Zimbabwe.” They have approved wholesale privatisation of social services such as health, education, housing, electricity and water. The regime is also busy scouting for investors to buy the remaining state-owned enterprises, but with weak institutions and largely citizens only concerned about where do they get their next meal it is an endeavour that will result in rich and politically-connected engaging in asset stripping and the emergence of oligarchs.


With a collapsing economy, absent social safety nets and wholesale privatisation of social services Zimbabwe is heading for social turmoil. It is a country where people have stopped dreaming and their dreams of independence turned into a nightmare. It may not be far from a socio-political brink but it can be saved if political leaders and the general citizens agree on a new political and economic path – social-democracy. Civil society and other organised groups should go back to the basics, work on making the dreams of independence realised for the majority and not the few. For now, Zimbabwe is a dream deferred and most likely implode.


Paidamoyo Muzulu is a Zimbabwean journalist and political commentator

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