Robert Mugabe began his tenure as a reasonable head of state after leading Zimbabwe to majority rule in 1980. He understood that Zimbabwe’s relative prosperity, and good economic outlook, were highly dependent on the continued cooperation of white commercial farmers. He did everything possible to reassure farmers who wanted to remain on their farms.
Mugabe accepted a constitution guaranteeing seven white members of parliament. He also named a white farmer’s union head to his Cabinet as Minister of Agriculture. His attitude toward the white commercial farmer was so positive that new white farmers came to Zimbabwe to buy land.
Mugabe was also very strong on education. The number of Africans graduating from high school and university rose significantly during the first fifteen years of his administration.
But underlying Mugabe’s constructive view of power was a deep-seated ideology that would eventually cause him to destroy everything that his administration, and the white Rhodesians before him, had worked so hard to build.
In the ten years he spent in prison under the white Rhodesian regime, 1964 to 1974, Mugabe immersed himself in Marxist-Leninist ideology. He emerged with two very strongly held beliefs.
First, the revolution of the people must be led by a “vanguard party.” In the Soviet Union, it was the Communist Party; in Zimbabwe, it was, and is, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). To Marxist-Leninists, only the vanguard party is capable of bringing about true socialism, and therefore it must always remain in power. It cannot accept losing an election, or existing as an “opposition” party.
Second, private investors are a threat to socialist power and must be discouraged. The Marxist state must be the main capital investor in production facilities. In the Zimbabwe context, the white commercial farmer, an independent business investor, was considered a temporary exception to the ideological rule.
Because of Mugabe’s belief in the supreme authority of the vanguard party, the headquarters of the ZANU party, standing majestically opposite the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Harare, is the center of power – not the Zimbabwe state with its civil service and alleged rule of law. ZANU-PF is a state within a state, and is superior to the state.
The Vanguard Party ideology caused President Mugabe a great deal of difficulty in the second half of the 1990s, fifteen years after his arrival as Head of State in 1980. His success in improving the level of education, and in graduating an increasing number of young people with good diplomas, stood in direct contradiction to his anti-private sector ideology. In the absence of new private investors – who were actively discouraged from investing – young people who left school could not find jobs. This caused Mugabe to lose popularity, both among former students and their parents.
In 1998 and 1999, cries of “Mugabe must leave power” and “we plan to vote against Mugabe” became louder and more widespread. Mugabe’s first reaction to this was to test his popular strength. He decided to hold a referendum on a new constitution designed to give the Head of State greater power. The referendum was defeated. This really frightened him.
He needed to do something that would reverse his declining popularity. There was really only one option that made political sense in that moment: remove the white commercial farmers from their farms, and turn the land over to Zimbabwe Africans.
Mugabe tried to achieve this objective legally. He sent a delegation to the UK to request financial support for buying the white farmers out. The UK government said they wanted guarantees that the farms would be managed for commercial purposes, and would not be distributed to political cronies. The delegation was unable to offer this guarantee, and returned to Zimbabwe empty handed.
With no other options, President Mugabe unleashed a demagogic program encouraging ZANU-PF members to invade the commercial farmers’ properties and install African farmers. His propaganda line was that white farmers had exploited the most fertile Zimbabwean lands for over a hundred years, while African farmers were relegated to the least productive lands. This claim was later proven false. The majority of the white commercial farmers had purchased their properties after Mugabe became President and generated confidence in the investment.
White farmers were pushed off their lands with limited notice and much brutality. As predicted by the UK government, the farms were given to political cronies who had little or no knowledge of farming. In addition, thousands of African employees of the white commercial farmers lost their jobs and went into poverty.
Needless to say, commercial agricultural production went into rapid decline. This was especially significant for the production of Virginia tobacco, the key ingredient of cigarettes. Zimbabwe was the second biggest worldwide producer of this tobacco after the United States. It was also significant for production of the primary food staple for Zimbabwe and the region, white maize.
With the economy going to hell, Mugabe and ZANU-PF resorted to violence and cheating to remain in power. Two million educated Zimbabweans emigrated, mainly to South Africa, which had a major deficit of educated graduates.
Since 2000, the Mugabe regime has been utterly bankrupt in every way. Virtually zero international respect remains. Nevertheless, Mugabe has continued to be considered an icon of freedom fighting throughout Africa, having led ZANU-PF in an insurgency against the white Rhodesian regime from Mozambique between 1975 and 1980.
For the past two years or so, President Mugabe, now 93, has been essentially under the control of his much younger wife Grace, whose ambitions to replace her husband as head of state were clear. She has been admired by some people as a representative of the younger generation who want to come to power and institute reforms. But her methodology has been quite nasty and arrogant, and her ouster by the military has not caused many tears.
Other African leaders continue to believe in the Marxist ideology underpinning the “Vanguard Party.” Let us hope that the Zimbabwe experience will result in some constructive change.