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Blinded by Nostalgic History: The False Rhodesia-ZANU PF Comparison

Occasionally in different spaces such as salons, beerhalls or these days, Twitter, people meet up to discuss issues that on the surface may seem trivial but in fact speak to a deeper truth that needs to be interrogated. This has been the case over the last couple of weeks on Twitter where an issue that has been topical is whether Rhodesia’s Ian Smith was better than Zimbabwe under ZANU PF. Farcical as it may be to some, this topic has brought to light the difficult relationship Zimbabweans have with race, the economy, and having lived under a dictatorship of one sort or the other for the last 130 years since colonialism began. To be clear, Ian Smith was no better than ZANU PF and the nostalgic historical comparison occurring in the Twitter public square needs to be nipped in the bud if we hope to ever have true freedom in Zimbabwe. Let me explain why…

Hopewell Chin’ono is probably the most vocal, consistent critic of ZANU PF on Twitter. His journalism has transformed Twitter into a space where the ruling government shakes in fear over what news will be released on a weekly basis to show their inept governance. One tool that Hopewell has used is comparing ZANU PF governance to Rhodesia. The intention is to clearly show the incompetence of ZANU PF governance. This has most likely been necessitated by the fact that Zimbabwe bar the Government of National Unity (2009-2013) has always been under ZANU PF rule. Hopewell regularly provides examples of the stark differences between working street lights, clean streets, road maintenance, and working industry and how Ian Smith managed to do all of this despite crippling international sanctions.

On the surface, backed up by pictures from the 1960s and 70s, this seems correct, but this is a classic example of a false comparative and misinterpretation of history. Arguing that Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front ran the economy well ignores the fact that the economy was specifically designed to work in that manner on the backs and sweat of millions of black people. This created economic enclaves that only white people could benefit from. It is not by mistake that many of the pictures of Rhodesia that are available only show ‘White Rhodesia’ and ignore ‘Black Rhodesia.’ Poverty in Black Rhodesia was equal (and according to some metrics worse) to what we have now in Zimbabwe, but Ian Smith and company actively silenced that history.

The economy of Ian Smith was designed in the same manner that our current Zimbabwean economy is designed, for the few and elite. In white Rhodesia, the clothes made at David Whitehead were worn by whites, the gold at Fidelity Printers worn by their white wives, and their white children went to the Grade A schools like Prince Edward. The only difference is that the economic enclaves in the 1960s and 70s were based along First Street in Harare but now our economic enclaves fund elite lifestyles in Borrowdale, Victoria Falls, and Sandton in Johannesburg.

Another important misnomer that needs to be corrected is that Ian Smith was able to bust sanctions and still run the Rhodesian economy successfully. This is factually incorrect. Sanctions progressively destroyed the Rhodesian economy which was at the mercy of South Africa which is why when Vorster pulled out his support for Rhodesia, Ian Smith could not sustain the white Rhodesian dictatorship. Ian Smith holding onto power for another fifteen years after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence was not a testament to his economic credentials but to the reality that the world globally was (as it is today) fundamentally racist. If Zimbabwe had a white race majority, the way our democratic fight would have been treated globally would have been different as shown by how German unification was supported during the Cold War by Anglo-Saxon nations and the more contemporary support for Ukraine in the war against Russia.

It is intriguing to note that such conversations about Ian Smith on Twitter reach President Mnangagwa’s desk. So much so, the President found it to be important to mention in one of his public speeches this week that the Zimbabwean youth had been “misinformed and misguided.” Depending on how much political momentum this catches, ZANU PF seems prepared to use it as a political tool to re-invent the argument that anyone against ZANU PF (like the Citizens Coalition for Change) supports racist white people. Although this is not the opposition stance at all, work needs to be done to show that this is not the case. As is often the case in politics, your enemy can paint your character. Moreover, a significant proportion of the rural, older generation as well as Born Frees influenced by the growing global notion of racial equality and Black excellence, care deeply about liberation struggle ideals of black freedom. Using Rhodesia as a mirror to argue against ZANU PF is detrimental to the cause of aiming to gain the rural vote and empathy amongst the race-conscious electorate.

On a fundamentally psychological level, the Rhodesia-ZANU PF comparison is detrimental to the ideals that black people can lead themselves and lead well. Ian Smith is famous for saying that blacks would not be able to govern effectively if they took office. Displaying an argument that exalts Rhodesian governance to be better than ZANU PF governance implicitly argues that white people are better at governing than blacks. This feeds into the notion already prevalent in Zimbabwe that white businesses, owners, landlords, bosses, and customers are better than their black counterparts. It's seeped into the colloquial language to the extent that a black person in a position of authority or wealth is called “Murungu” which means “white person.” That narrative needs to change, and the ill-informed Rhodesia-ZANU PF comparison is damaging. As Bob Marley preached, to blacks, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

The point I have been driving is that comparing Ian Smith’s UDI government to the ZANU PF government does little but provide an incorrect historical understanding of the Rhodesian economic dictatorship, alienate rural and black-conscious voters, provide ZANU PF with unwarranted political ammunition, and lastly bolsters the social mental slavery that black Zimbabweans consume. David Coltart’s book, “The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe” aptly shows how Rhodesia and ZANU PF rule is very similar. This is because dictatorship, and oppression, combined with oppressive capitalism do not care whether one is white or black. Living under Rhodesia was death by drowning and living under ZANU PF is death by fire. Even though it is difficult to show political nuance in 140 characters, it is important to see history as it was and create a direct line to our present. The sad reality is that Ian Smith birthed Robert Mugabe and ED Mnangagwa and that is the reality we need to break.

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