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BSR Independence Special: Lessons from the ancestors

Just another day?

It is not unusual these days for people to react with nonchalance to calls for commemorating Independence Day. The lack of interest arises from the frustration that many people have over the performance of the government. The debilitating economic challenges and continuities in political repression make it very difficult for a great number of people to invest emotionally in the commemorations. It doesn’t help that prices have galloped ahead, while wages have remained stagnant.

Some, perhaps out of loyalty to the ruling party, or in pursuit of some entertainment, will make the annual trek to the National Sports Stadium, where the official celebrations will be held. For many, however, it will pass like any other normal day. There is nothing to celebrate, some might even say, explaining their standpoint.

This desolate perspective is more apparent among the younger generation, born after independence into a parlous life of corruption, repression and joblessness. The term “born-free” which is often ascribed to them seems misplaced. Those born at the turn of the millennium are now adults. Some could be parents already. They were born in a time of hardship, long after independence, and now they are having their own children in a time of trouble. For some young people, the great Zimbabwean dream is to leave Zimbabwe, itself a sad indictment on the country’s leadership.

But the melancholic view is not limited to those less experienced in the rigours of life. It is also evident among the older generation, those who lived through and survived the pain of colonial rule only to find themselves in the throes of repression and economic hardship authored by their supposed liberators. It is not unusual to hear fleeting comparisons between then and now, and even if these comparisons lack historical nuance, the mere fact that they are being made is a further indictment on the leadership. Those fleeting comparisons are an indication of gross failure.

Why the idea of independence still matters

Those who are familiar with the #BSR know that we have always taken a very strong position on the idea of independence. It is a non-negotiable and fundamental foundation stone of a nation that is yet to be fully constructed. We acknowledge the burden of current challenges but, as a matter of principle, we believe the idea of independence is one that must, at all times, be viewed with reverence.

We hold independence in high esteem not only because it is an idea for which men and women paid the ultimate price but also because it forms the foundation upon which our nation is built. Bad politicians come and go; their failures should never obfuscate or undermine the idea of independence. Some things, like ground upon which we walk, seem insignificant until we don’t have them. Independence is like that.

Many nations that have had to fight for independence at some point in their history value and commemorate their victories. They do so across party lines, setting aside their differences. This happens because even staunch political opponents recognise the national institutions that bind nationhood and independence is one of them. No-one has sought to privatise it and exclude and no-one has sought to snub and dismiss it as unimportant. There is mutual respect between parties which recognise that they are political opponents who love their country, not enemies out to snuff vanquish and exterminate each other.

It still matters because the idea of independence reminds us that it's not an event but a long process, which is why many people across the continent are still fighting for freedom, long after their countries attained independence from colonial rule. One thing that we have learnt in the decades after attaining independence is that the colonial condition is more insidious and the oppression is institutional. In other words, a change of rulers is not a guarantee of freedom.

So yes, African countries managed to win political independence, but economically, they remain weak and encumbered and in addition, African peoples escaped the hand of foreign despots but were soon in the grip of local despots. This is because institutions of oppression remained intact. One of Zimbabwe's founding fathers, Joshua Nkomo, put it so well in his autobiography written in 1983, when he was a political outcast, persecuted by his former liberation allies, "The hardest lesson of my life has come to me late. It is that a nation can win freedom without its people becoming free."

It’s all about the money

There is also another important reason to keep the memory of independence. It is that it must serve as an eternal reminder of the ever-present threat of domination by other states and the errors of judgment to be avoided in dealing with others. A brief look at the history of imperialism reminds us that the foremost object of the imperialist project was economic. It was a deliberate decision made at a certain stage in interactions between Europeans and Africans, to promote exploitation and extraction of resources in Africa, for the benefit of European powers.

Colonialism was not the first encounter between Europeans and Africans. European hunters, adventurers, explorers, missionaries and traders had long been in contact with Africans for a few centuries. Arguably the darkest chapter of these earlier encounters was the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade when between the 16th and 19th centuries millions of African slaves were shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean. 70% of the slaves were placed in sugar plantations where conditions were inhumane.

The sugar produced in the plantations was shipped to feed Europe and the sugar capitalists reaped enormous profits. As Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens, the slave trade “was a purely economic enterprise, organised and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.” In fact, private companies involved in the slave trade sold their shares to middle-class Europeans seeking investments.

Imperialism on the cheap

Colonialism was hardly different. It was just another mechanism of exploiting resources and extracting wealth from the African continent. The case of Zimbabwe has some interesting nuggets. The territory that is now called Zimbabwe was actually colonised by a commercial company. That company was the British South Africa Company, granted a Royal Charter in 1889 and controlled by Cecil John Rhodes but with a full board of directors in London.

As historians have noted, for the British government, the company provided an avenue for “imperialism on the cheap”. Rhodes had been attracted by the promise of vast gold reserves in Mashonaland. It was seen as the “second Rand” after the rich find on the Rand. Explorers and adventurers had encouraged the myth that there was an abundance of gold in the area. The reality was rather disappointing.

When Rhodes sent his emissaries led by Charles Rudd, to negotiate a concession with Lobengula, the Ndebele monarch in 1888, it was with a view to opening a gateway to this vast economic fortune. But the Rudd Concession was not the first concession that Lobengula had signed, nor would it be the last. The record of history shows that there was already a flurry of concession hunters at Bulawayo, the King’s seat of power.

When Lobengula realised that he had been deceived and tried to seek redress, even sending two envoys to Queen Victoria, the BSAC had already set sail. The Pioneer Column arrived at Fort Salisbury in September 1890. Three years later, they came for him and not only destroyed the state but also looted cattle and grabbed vast acres of land.

Colonial policies were deliberately designed to support the fledgling settler community and this meant placing disadvantages on the indigenous population. This was no more evident than in respect of wage labour. The colonial economy required cheap labour. But the indigenous community was in no mood to work for the settlers. This led to forced labour (chibharo), where men were forced to work in mines and farms. The hut tax was introduced, not just to raise money for the colonial administration but to force people into the wage economy.

Livestock was looted, taking away a prized source of livelihood. (Much later legislation like the Maize Control Act (1934) was designed to favour maize produced by white farmers while the same produced by black peasants was treated like imported maize. The Land Apportionment Act (1930) formalised racial segregation, giving the best land to the white settler community and pushng the black Africans into poor areas. These things happened less than 100 years ago.)

Against this background, it’s not surprising that when an opportunity arose in 1896, the indigenous population revolted, both in Mashonaland and Matebeleland. The revolt was not successful, but it did inspire a second revolt decades later in the next century, an armed struggle which eventually led to independence in 1980. Commemorating independence is not just about the war in the sixties and seventies. It is also a commemoration of the legacy of those who had tried to resist colonial domination and the dehumanisation that came with it.

Conflicts of interest

There are also lessons from that era which remain relevant today. When concession hunters arrived at King Lobengula’s court, they often came bearing gifts. There was also a lot of deception. Since the monarch could neither read nor write, he relied on Moffat. But Moffat was probably the most conflicted man at the king’s court. A missionary by profession and much respected and trusted by Lobengula, he served as the king’s interpreter. He read and translated documents for Lobengula and wrote his letters. It was a position of trust. But Moffat was also the representative of the British monarch and he was on Rhodes’ payroll. It is impossible to see how he could have served both sides fairly. One had to suffer. It’s not surprising that Lobengula was the casualty.

But this is why we always argue against conflicts of interest. This is why we always point out that situations that present conflicts of interest must be avoided at all costs. When our leaders are signing contracts with their newfound friends in China, Russia, Belarus, etc, one hopes they know what they are doing and that they are not giving away the family silver. One hopes they are not mortgaging the country’s resources in return for a pittance.

The takeover of key assets after failing to meet loan obligations is a technique which China is making use of. Not long ago, it took over a Sri Lankan port for that reason. Zambia has also reportedly fallen victim to the same technique. One hopes the contracts that Zimbabwe has signed with Russian and Chinese companies are not leading down a similar path, mortgaging the country’s resources and leaving generations with a huge burden.

No free lunch

It is quite worrying when President Mnangagwa proudly claims that the luxury jet he used in his most recent trips had been gifted to him by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. That there is no such thing as free lunch is an old adage which must be common cause to anyone in leadership. If they believe the luxury jet is just a free gift, then they are showing incredible naivety. They came with free gifts too in the 19th century, including whiskey and cigars, which they delivered to African kings and their advisers in return for favours.

The imperial project of the 21st century may be different in characters, methods and sophistication but the object remains the same: generating maximum economic gains from the unsuspecting, corrupt and easily deceived Africans. It is probably less brazen and less militaristic. But it is still done through corporations and dubious “agreements”. Nineteenth century monarchs can be forgiven because they could neither read nor write which meant they had to rely on conflicted third parties like the missionaries Helm and Moffat, but current leaders have more counsel at their disposal. If they are naive, they will leave future generations in bondage.

That is why the idea of independence remains fundamental, even to younger generations that are frustrated by their governments’ failure and ineptitude. We must remain vigilant at all times. The new imperialism is more subtle, more gradual and more insidious that you won’t even notice it until you're completely engulfed and unable to break free.


Dedicated to all the men and women who fought but never returned home.

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