The Magazine

How Tyranny Came to Zimbabwe

Jimmy Carter still has a lot to answer for.

Jun 18, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 38 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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In April 1979, 64 percent of the black citizens of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) lined up at the polls to vote in the first democratic election in the history of that southern African nation. Two-thirds of them supported Abel Muzorewa, a bishop in the United Methodist Church. He was the first black prime minister of a country only 4 percent white. Muzorewa's victory put an end to the 14-year political odyssey of outgoing prime minister Ian Smith, the stubborn World War II veteran who had infamously announced in 1976, "I do not believe in black majority rule--not in a thousand years." Fortunately for the country's blacks, majority rule came sooner than Smith had in mind.

Less than a year after Muzorewa's victory, however, in February 1980, another election was held in Zimbabwe. This time, Robert Mugabe, the Marxist who had fought a seven-year guerrilla war against Rhodesia's white-led government, won 64 percent of the vote, after a campaign marked by widespread intimidation, outright violence, and Mugabe's threat to continue the civil war if he lost. Mugabe became prime minister and was toasted by the international community and media as a new sort of African leader. "I find that I am fascinated by his intelligence, by his dedication. The only thing that frustrates me about Robert Mugabe is that he is so damned incorruptible," Andrew Young, Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, had gushed to the Times of London in 1978. The rest, as they say, is history.

That second election is widely known and cited: 1980 is the famous year Zimbabwe won its independence from Great Britain and power was transferred from an obstinate white ruler to a liberation hero. But the circumstances of the first election, and the story of the man who won it, have been lost to the past. As the Mugabe regime--responsible for the torture and murder of thousands, starvation, genocide, the world's highest inflation and lowest life expectancy--teeters on the brink of disaster after 27 years of authoritarian rule, it is instructive to go back and examine what happened in those crucial intervening months.

To understand the genesis of that oft-forgotten 1979 election, it is necessary to revisit Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, when the British colony joined the United States as the only territory in history to separate successfully from the British Empire without its consent. Five years earlier, in a speech to the South African parliament, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had warned that the "wind of change" was blowing through Africa. "Whether we like it or not," Macmillan said, "this growth of national consciousness is a political fact." Rhodesian whites would not stand for the British policy of "No Independence Before Majority African Rule," however, and in 1964 they overwhelmingly elected Smith premier. When the Rhodesian government reached an impasse with the British over conditions for autonomy, Smith, widely supported by the country's whites, declared Rhodesia independent. And so, on November 11, 1965, the sun abruptly set on another outpost of the British Empire.

The move was immediately condemned as illegal ("an act of treason") by the British government, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations. Independent Rhodesia was not recognized by any country; even apartheid South Africa sent no ambassador to Salisbury, the capital. Britain and the U.N. imposed economic sanctions, and many Rhodesians worried that an oil embargo would cripple their landlocked country.

Over the next decade there followed a series of failed negotiations between the two sides. The British demanded majority rule, but would consider at most a phased plan that would gradually bring a black government to power. Smith, whose Rhodesian Front party was consistently reelected, would have none of it. He spoke of Rhodesia's defense of "Western, Christian civilization" and out-maneuvered a succession of British prime ministers, who all had to contend with the embarrassing "Rhodesia problem." Somehow, this tenacious little former colony held out against the world's once-great British Empire, busting sanctions, increasing white immigration, and keeping domestic black political opposition at bay with a succession of authoritarian laws that effectively banned political dissent.