Rhodesia was the last of Britain’s colonies in Africa to gain its independence when it became Zimbabwe in April 1980.
There were a number of reasons why independence came so late to Zimbabwe.
It wasn’t because there was a particularly large population of whites in the country. In the final years of its colonial status, in the mid 1970s and during a fierce, guerrilla, national liberation war, the ratio of white to black was something in the region of 28 black Zimbabweans to one (white) Rhodesian. The white population barely superseded 250,000 at a time when the black population was around seven million – although just before independence that had fallen to around 100,000, many having taken the so-called ‘chicken run’ to either South Africa or back to Britain. This difference in ratio was similar to what it had been in other British colonies in other parts of Africa in the pre-WWII era – an area of extreme white privilege. (This contrasts with South Africa which had a white population, at about the same time, which was around 10% of the total.)
A significant part of that white population were white immigrants who were among the many workers who left Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s for a new life in the pink bits on the map of the world. Leaving the devastation that was the country following the war these workers, many merely skilled workers who would have had a reasonable lifestyle in Britain, were now living the life that only the truly wealthy experienced in the UK – there were more swimming pools per square mile in Salisbury (Harare) than anywhere else in the world; a tennis court was also the norm; and the vast majority of houses would have had at least one black servant, often more, to care for the house and garden. These were workers who, in Britain, would have lived on a Council estate or in small, privately-owned terraced houses.
And the climate in Salisbury (Harare), for most of the year, was like a perfect late spring/early summer in Britain.
Further to that Rhodesia had an economy which was able to provide a luxurious lifestyle for a small section of the population with the vast profits being exported and going into the pockets of the shareholders of the transnational (multinational) companies that dominated the industrial economy of colonialist Rhodesia.
When it came to agriculture the best and most fertile (and more importantly with access to secure irrigation) land was owned exclusively by the white farmers who had stolen huge tracts of Zimbabwean land from the indigenous people since the late 19th century land grab. Black ‘Rhodesians’ had to make do with the poorer land (in terms of fertility and also prone to drought) on which to grow the staple food – maize.
When it came to education the white children (and a few scholarship black children) had a level that was similar to the ‘public’ (that is, private) education in Britain. Schooling in the townships (the black residential areas on the outskirts of the towns) and the rural areas was minimal and decent education for the majority was one of the most important calls of the national liberation movement.
These circumstances presented any majority ruled and directed, independent Zimbabwe with huge difficulties.
Industry – this was controlled by hostile forces that could, and did throughout the 1980s, threaten to withdraw all their factories from Zimbabwe and re-locate in other, more ‘compliant’ sub-Saharan African countries. The leather shoe manufacturer Bata always hung this over the heads of the leather workers union in the early years of independence.
Agriculture – by not challenging the control of this important aspect of Zimbabwean society by the large white farmers (as was agreed at the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement) Robert Mugabe and ZANU lost the momentum of the national liberation war and the support of many Zimbabweans who expected a redistribution of the land soon after independence. This was an issue which would become a festering sore for decades, also boosting the arrogance of the white farmers who began to consider themselves invulnerable.
Education – keeping this promise would require a huge diversion of resources at a time when there were countless demands upon the public purse. Despite the problems involved this was one of the commitments the new ZANU led Zimbabwean government did keep.
Links from this page will, hopefully, be able to fill some of the knowledge gaps when it comes to these aspects of the early days of Independent Zimbabwe.
Most of the material is from the 1980s and 90s – probably the time when the country was closest to any significant benefit from the independence from Britain.
The history of Zimbabwe
A Zimbabwean archaeologist reimagines the story of a momentous African civilization. Great Zimbabwe should be a ‘symbol’, not just of Africa’s power and potential, but of how outsiders have too often told Africans’ stories—and got them wrong.