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Zimbabwe at 37: Betrayed aspirations or ‘total emancipation in progress’?

On 18 April 2017, Zimbabwe celebrated Independence Day, marking 37 years of self-rule. Steady social and economic progress in the early years after independence was followed by challenges and setbacks, social and political instability, economic woes and corruption, which slowed down the development agenda. Malvern Mkudu reflects on the difficult road the country has travelled.



For Zimbabweans spread across the different strata of society, 18 April 1980 brought varying expectations. To those living on communal lands, where land was limited and resources scarce, people expected the government to parcel out productive land to them. The workers in urban areas expected jobs, better wages and the improvement of their working conditions. In general, the population hoped for a peaceful country, one that respected human rights, equality, freedom and justice for all. Now, 37 years later, some of these aspirations have been met, while others feel that their independence aspirations have been betrayed.
For many Zimbabweans, their dreams and hopes have been deferred. Some are hoping that life will begin when the country turns 40, as the popular saying goes. While the political elite has accumulated wealth over the years, the majority have painfully watched the erosion of their wealth. Their hopes for a better life remain but a dream, if not a fallacy.

A polarised society
There is no consensus on what the legacy of the liberation struggle means to the highly polarised Zimbabwean society. The rural community, which makes up 70% of the population, expected equitable land redistribution, justice and the advancement of their economic rights. They remain solidly behind the ethos of the liberation struggle, which is credited for bringing independence. A significant number of rural dwellers remain supportive of what they perceive as the gains of independence.

In urban areas, many Zimbabweans have been victims of a decaying economy characterised by job losses, poor social security, poor service delivery and the current acute cash shortages.

In urban areas, where the people expected an improved standard of living, measured by access to decent employment, education, housing and education, and an improvement in their civic-political rights, there is a sense of disappointment over the meaning of independence. The Zanu-PF government has sought to restrict and curtail the rights of political opponents and civil society, much to the disappointment of some urban dwellers, who view the government as worse than the colonial regime of Ian Smith. Laws that restrict the democratic space and criminalise politics have either been kept intact or they have been strengthened. The agenda of those in power remains power retention at all costs.

A supporter of Zimbabwe Opposition Party Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai faction (MDC-T) throws back a tear gas canister as protesters clash with police during a march against Police Brutality on August 24, 2016 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo: ANP/AFP. Wilfred Kajese

For the youth, the majority of whom had not been born at the time of independence (generally and ironically referred to as ‘born-frees’) are largely indifferent to the trajectory the country has taken. Many of them face a bleak future. Urban youth have resorted to alcohol abuse, particularly in the high-density areas where economic opportunities have been restricted. The government claims it has empowered them through the informal sector, but jobs in the informal sector are neither secure nor do they offer reliable income.

Read: ‘Capital’ and Inequality in Zimbabwe


Many young people are ignorant of the hopes the previous generation harboured before independence and their ever-decreasing political consciousness makes them aloof to the political, social and economic environment they occupy.

For the Zanu-PF party ‘chefs’ and their business associates, the fruits of the liberation struggle are being reaped, and they look back with a sense of achievement, although critics argue that the celebrations are misplaced. Now fully in control of the most fertile land and other means of production, the political elite have occupied the space they once coveted. The ruling elite has moved into the ‘manor house’ in the same way as the pigs in Animal Farm and they are enjoying all the trappings of the ruling class.

Reconciliation gone awry
President Robert Mugabe initially embarked on a reconciliation policy, announcing that the disputes of the past would be forgotten and guns would be turned into ploughshares. While the lofty reconciliation message seemed to work for a while, it all went awry when the government embarked on a policy of radical economic transformation, which was more about dispossessing the white minority than empowering the black majority.

There is no consensus on what the legacy of the liberation struggle means to the highly polarised Zimbabwean society.

The legacy of independence in Zimbabwe has been that of racial segregation. The country is as divided along racial and ethnic lines as when the current government inherited the country in 1980. Speeches at Independence Day celebrations have historically been punctuated by hate speech against minority groups. Zimbabwean society remains intolerant of homosexuals, who the President has described as being ‘worse than pigs’ on numerous occasions.

Unjust patterns of land ownership continues
What was supposed to be inclusive radical transformation of the economy has only resulted in the means of production changing ownership by colour. The revolutionary rhetoric that characterised the country since independence has resulted in the self-enrichment of a few individuals who have political and military power while completely impoverishing the majority of the people. Industry has been operating between 20% and 60% capacity since 2008, resulting in massive job losses for many Zimbabweans. Unproductive farms mean the country has been reduced to a basket case, often begging for food or importing from neighbouring countries such as South Africa and Zambia.


Read: The cold truth about land distribution in Zimbabwe

In the rural areas, the fruits of independence have been mixed. Over 300 000 families have been resettled on land forcibly taken away from former white commercial farmers. Some of the beneficiaries have become tobacco farmers. These smallholder farmers are revelling in their newly found fortune. The government often brags of its achievement; that it has transformed tobacco farming by turning the sector into a USD2 billion dollar industry that is controlled by smallholder black farmers.

Rural farmers in Binga, northern Zimbabwe, welcome the AusAID Program team into their village. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/Flickr

However, not all of these new farmers share the government’s sentiments that land is now in the hands of the black majority. Many black farmers have been evicted from their farms by powerful politicians who have become multiple land owners, so preserving the same unjust system that allowed white commercial farmers to own large and multiple tracts of land; the very system government claims to have abolished.

The plight of the urban poor
In urban areas, many Zimbabweans have been the victims of a decaying economy that is characterised by job losses, poor social security, poor service delivery and the current acute cash shortages. Pensioners lost their savings in 2008, when the country suffered record levels of inflation. Young people who have failed to secure jobs feel betrayed by the government as most of them face a bleak future.

Zimbabweans protest against the proposed introduction of bond notes in the capital Harare. Photo: Arthur Chatora

Some observers argue that there have been gains in the political sphere. The Lancaster constitution of 1978, which has been amended 19 times, was eventually replaced by a more liberal constitution in 2012, which includes a Bill of Rights. However, not everyone believes that the constitution was people-driven and continue to criticise it for being elitist. Many laws that are inconsistent with the new constitution remain in full force and continue to be used to crush any form of civic, social and political dissent.

One form of bondage replaced with another
The independence legacy of Zimbabwe is therefore a contested affair. It depends on where one is positioned in the social, economic and political strata of society. Those who control the levers of power, along with their supporters, who have benefitted from a system of patronage, have a romanticised view of the independence legacy. Those on the outside, who have been shut out from economic and political opportunities, tell a tale of betrayal and disappointment. Many see a society where some animals have become more equal than others. The ideals preached by nationalists have long been abandoned.

To outsiders, particularly former colonies, Zimbabwe’s independence represents a consolidation of economic gains and the restoration of national wealth to its rightful owners. For those inside, one form of bondage has simply been replaced with another. The independence legacy 37 years later is that of a fragmented society in need of regeneration and healing.