Sharing Discussing Understanding

Commonwealth Journalists' Association

Here follows the prologue to the revealing new book, ‘Catastrophe: what went wrong in Zimbabwe?’,  by CJA member Richard Bourne, published by Zed Books (London).

More information here.

- Author Richard Bourne

On 21 February 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in the Kutama Mission, a Roman Catholic mission in Zvimba, in what was then Southern Rhodesia. His father was a carpenter, born in Malawi, who deserted the family when Robert was ten; his mother, Bona, to whom he was devoted, brought up the family. He would have had no expectation as a child that he might become executive president of an independent African country.

Just over two years later, Princess Elizabeth was born in Bruton Street, in London’s smart Mayfair district, on 21 April 1926. Her father was Duke of York, second son of King George V. Although she was third in line for the throne occupied by a King-Emperor, it was not until her uncle Edward’s unexpected abdication a decade later that there was any likelihood that she herself would be a Queen of the United Kingdom.

These two iconic individuals, both entering their eighties as the 21st century got under way, symbolise some of the conflicts which underlie the decline and fall of Zimbabwe. At their birth the British Empire was at its apogee[1]. It seemed indestructible, and part of the mental furniture for inhabitants of the British Isles and of much of Africa. But in his lifetime Mugabe was to be a guerrilla leader, leader of the Front Line States confronting apartheid South Africa. He was to walk out of the Commonwealth in 2003, having hosted its Harare meeting to applause in 1991.

Queen Elizabeth’s controversial decision, as Head of the Commonwealth, to attend the Commonwealth summit in Lusaka in 1979, ignored security anxieties voiced by the Conservative press in London. There was, after all, a civil war raging just south of the Zambian border, and the Rhodesians had attacked targets in Lusaka. But her presence made possible the start of negotiations which brought the war to an end, and the conversion of Rhodesia into an independent Zimbabwe ruled by its black majority.

A glance at the press at the time of these two births illustrates the extraordinary distance travelled during these lifetimes. The Rhodesia Herald, whose front page boasted that it was “The Oldest Established Newspaper in Rhodesia”[2], naturally ignored the birth of another black boy to a carpenter’s family. Its front page was filled with advertisements for cattle sales, furniture and general merchandise, of interest to a small, agriculturally-biased settler community.

But behind the sense of security lay a whiff of concern, captured in the editorial printed three days before Mugabe’s birth, which discussed the decision of the South African parliament to enfranchise mostly white women. The fact that some coloured voters in the Cape retained a vote could lead to “thorny problems”. General Smuts, supporting the bill, stated that it would create a bad feeling among coloured people if they gave the vote to white women, but not to coloured ones. The more reactionary General Hertzog said he could not support the bill “on account of the colour difficulty.” It has been our experience, he added, that when we have given the coloured man an inch he has demanded an ell[3].

In London, by contrast, the birth of the new princess two years later was big news. Her parents had been staying at the London home of the parents of the Duchess of York, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and the King and Queen were woken up between 3 and 4 am to be told the happy news. The Court Circular issued from Windsor Castle stated, “The King and Queen have received with great pleasure the news that the Duchess of York gave birth to a daughter this morning.” Following what was then the custom for royal births, the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks was summoned to Bruton Street for the birth, and informed the Lord Mayor of London by special messenger. The Duke of York, replying to a telegram from the Lord Mayor, asked him to convey to the citizens of London “our sincere thanks for their kind congratulations”. The King and Queen were cheered in the street when they came to see the baby[4].

What follows seeks to describe how Zimbabwe came to be what it is today, in a story which starts with conquest, and the arrival of the earliest white settlers, before either Mugabe or the Queen were born. For what went wrong in Zimbabwe is not just a tragedy made possible by Robert Mugabe, or the British, or the international community. It has its roots in Africa and the rest of the world’s attitude to Africa; it is about race, land and nation-building; few of those involved down the years have entirely clean hands; and this account aims to show how easily the social fabric of a promising state can be destroyed.

[1] Following the Treaty of Versailles, the British Empire was given several League of Nations mandates; it also had informal control of countries such as Iraq, Transjordan and Egypt; it was at its maximum extent.

[2] It was founded in 1891; as The Rhodesia Herald it fought the censorship of the Smith regime after 1965; today, as The Herald, it is the voice of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.

[3] This information comes from the 22 February 1924 weekly edition of The Rhodesia Herald, kept at the British Library, Colindale.

[4] Reports from The Times of London.