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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Smith's obstinacy played a role in emboldening--and radicalizing--his enemies. The refusal of the country's whites to accept black rule created the vacuum in which leaders like Robert Mugabe, of the Chinese-backed Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), and Joshua Nkomo, of the Soviet-supported Zimbabwean African People's Union (ZAPU), emerged. In 1972, these two organizations started a civil war, aiming to overthrow the white regime by force. ZANU and ZAPU viewed Smith as a mortal enemy, but they were hardly more pleasant to each other, in spite of forming an official alliance, the Patriotic Front, in 1976. With rival superpower backers and different staging grounds (ZANU in Mozambique, ZAPU in Zambia), the two groups spent about as much effort fighting for control of the revolutionary movement as they did against the white regime. Both the white government and the guerrillas demonstrated remarkable ruthlessness, and the seven-year Bush war would claim some 20,000 lives in a country of 7 million.

Moderates to the rescue

By 1977, it was clear that change was coming. Aided tremendously by the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger during the Nixon and Ford administrations (Kissinger enticed the apartheid government of South Africa with promises of greater international legitimacy if it would give the boot to the friendly white regime on its northern border), Smith finally came to accept the principle of majority rule, though with major conditions. He insisted that whites maintain control of key government institutions like the army, civil service, and judiciary. He also required that whites have a disproportionate number of seats in parliament so as to prevent any radical constitutional changes. And Smith ruled out serious land reform.

Despite these vestiges of the old regime, Smith's acceptance of majority rule was momentous: It opened the way for a peaceful transition. For years, Smith had tried to negotiate a settlement with several black nationalist leaders who had renounced violence in their campaigns for nonracial democracy. Primary among them was Muzorewa, a small, American-educated pastor who avoided the internecine fighting that had characterized Zimbabwean resistance politics throughout the 1960s. He was a forthright critic of the government's racial discrimination and had supported civil disobedience and mass protest in the past. The United Nations had honored him for Outstanding Achievement in Human Rights. "If religion just means to go to church and pray, then it is a scandal. The gospel is concerned about where a man sleeps, what a man earns, how he is treated by the government," he told congregants. The other black leaders with whom Smith pledged to work were the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, a Methodist founder of ZANU who had been imprisoned for 10 years for opposition activities--including an alleged assassination attempt against Smith--but who had forsworn violence, and Chief Jeremiah Chirau, a tribal elder who had long been amenable to white interests. Smith and his moderate black allies hoped that if a multiracial government could be cobbled together, black African states would withdraw their support for the guerrillas and make way for an anti-Communist black government.

Muzorewa and Sithole, contrary to the patronizing and ugly attacks that would soon come from the Carter administration and the Western left, were not stooges (although Chirau, it should be noted, was funded by the Rhodesian government and depended on it for his status as a recognized tribal leader). Sithole had actually led the guerrilla fight against the white regime until the power-hungry Mugabe deposed him. Muzorewa's speeches regularly drew crowds of hundreds of thousands, and he was widely considered the most popular black political leader in the country. He solidified his antigovernment bona fides when the Smith regime branded him a Soviet lackey (as it did all its opponents) even though he was staunchly anti-Communist. These moderate black leaders were motivated, first and foremost, by a desire to end the bloodshed. By contrast, Mugabe and Nkomo made it clear that their Patriotic Front would not give up the fight and participate in elections unless they were assured of victory. In so doing, the guerrilla leaders removed any doubt that they had no interest in democracy.

African politics, Carter-style