The Elephant in the Room: A Critical Reflection on Race in Zimbabwe’s Protracted Crisis

Zimbabwe Institute - logoBy James Muzondidya, Research Manager – Zimbabwe Institute

One of the fundamental problems with both domestic and international efforts to resolve Zimbabwe’s protracted political question is their failure to appreciate the significance of race in the whole question. Preoccupied with highlighting the ruling ZANU PF’s governance failures, its authoritarianism, violation of human rights and lack of respect for democracy as well as ascertaining the party’s culpability for the economic collapse of Zimbabwe, domestic and international opponents of ZANU PF have both failed to grapple with the racial complexities of the Zimbabwean crisis and to understand why Zimbabwe’s seemingly straightforward political challenge has taken so long to resolve. At the same time, both critics and admirers of ZANU PF have not managed to explain why ZANU PF has remained in power for so long when all the political and economic odds seem to be against it.

Coercion or Consent or a Mixture of Both: The Resonance of Race in Zimbabwe’s Politics

In their attempt to explain ZANU PF’s prolonged stay in power, most analysts have argued that that the party’s hold over power, especially from 2000 onwards, has been achieved simply through coercion and not consent because ZANU PF had completely lost all forms of popular support (Blair 2002; Meredith 2002; Makumbe 2009). According to these written critiques of ZANU PF’s populist politics, the party’s violence against the population, especially after its near electoral defeat of 2000, demonstrates this lack of popular support for both ZANU PF and its ‘exhausted racial nationalism’ which, according to these accounts, has lost both popular legitimacy and appeal in contemporary Zimbabwe (Bond 2001; Bond and Manyanya 2002; Campbell 2003 & 2008; Scarnerchia, et. al 2008). Others have suggested that while ZANU PF’s political support inside the country has been maintained through executive lawlessness and mobilization of violence, its support abroad has been sustained through the misreading by its supporters of the relationship between the current populist politics and the older ideologies of pan-Africanism and race-defined liberation politics (Scarnerchia 2006).

Whilst it is undeniable that ZANU PF’s prolonged stay in power, particularly after 2000, has been maintained through authoritarianism, violence and coercion, many other factors, including the weaknesses in the domestic opposition movement, explain its continued hold over power. Also significantly important in explaining ZANU PF’s continued hold over power as well as shaping the nature and form of Zimbabwe’s political conflict, especially its protracted nature, is the failure to deal effectively with the questions of race, particularly the unresolved legacies of racial polarisation and inequalities in this former white settler colony. First, although political and economic problems around issues of governance, democracy, authoritarianism and the economic meltdown of the 1990s helped to spark the Zimbabwe Crisis, the unresolved racial inequalities in the economy, especially in land ownership and utilization, partly contributed to the crisis. Second, once Zimbabwe started experiencing political and economic upheavals in the 1990s, the crisis assumed racial dimensions mainly because there were unresolved issues of race in post-independence Zimbabwe. Third, because of the unresolved colonial legacies of racial prejudice and inequalities, it was easier for the incumbent government to use both land and race for political mobilization and scapegoating when it found itself confronted with mounting popular pressure. At the same time, by both projecting the Zimbabwe Crisis as a racial problem and casting the opposition as ‘stooges of local white farmers and the imperial West’, the incumbent government has been able to occidentalize an internal problem while simultaneously positioning itself as an African nationalist government defending Zimbabwean national interests at home and black people’s rights and dignity across the globe. By projecting the crisis in this manner, the incumbent government has not only been able to win ideological support from some quarters of the marginalised world but also to retain some level of political legitimacy both internally and externally.

More fundamentally, Zimbabwe’s political crisis has become protracted mainly because the ruling ZANU PF has successfully utilized the emotive issue of race to mobilize support internally, regionally and internationally, while both the opposition and external critics of ZANU PF have underestimated the power of race in building support for ZANU PF and in polarizing political opinion on Zimbabwe. Opportunistically capitalizing on the power of race in the post-colony, particularly in a former white settler state such as Zimbabwe which, like the other former settler colonies of South Africa and Namibia, had not managed to resolve the legacies of racism and racial inequalities in the economy and land ownership, ZANU PF has been able to articulate the Zimbabwean political crisis as a racial issue whose solution can only be found in addressing issues of racial domination and inequalities.

Also conscious of the historical and contemporary contestations around postcolonial redress and the native-settler dialectic in postcolonial Africa in general, from the late 1990s ZANU PF slowly began to redirect popular anger towards its government and capital [foreign and white-dominated] by focusing on the unresolved questions of belonging, citizenship and economic rights and appealing to notions of exclusive black nationalism. It skilfully shifted the political debate about Zimbabwe into a more complicated ‘native-settler question’- a debate that has proved difficult to resolve in many other African countries with large numbers of non-autochthonous immigrant groups, such as South Africa; Rwanda, Angola, Uganda, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Mamdani 2001; 2005; Nzongola-Ntalaja 2004; Malaquis 2000; Sall 2004; Habib and Bentley 2008).

The ZANU PF mobilization strategy of shifting the debate about Zimbabwe to the ‘native-settler question’ and deploying the discourse of nativism has helped it to connect with some segments of the population, especially the older generations with fresh memories of colonialism. The 2004 Afrobarometer survey of political opinion in Zimbabwe, for instance, found out that while MDC was attractive to the younger voters, ZANU PF tended to draw the old (Chikwanha, Sithole and Bratton 2004). ZANU PF, to a certain extent, has also managed to win the hearts and souls of many Zimbabweans across the political divide by locating the land question within its discourse of postcolonial redress. For a large proportion of the Zimbabwean population in overpopulated rural areas and living adjacent to large commercial farms owned by whites, the ZANU PF rhetoric about the ‘return of the land to its rightful owners’ has a popular resonance (Scoones 2008; Moyo 2009; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2009).

Indeed, the politics of nativism increasingly articulated by ZANU PF from the late 1990s onward are rhetorical politics designed to conceal the party’s own policy shortcomings, authoritarianism and elite accumulation project (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2009; Raftopoulos 2006; Scarnechia et al 2008; Hammar 2009). However, such rhetorical, racial politics has enabled ZANU PF to connect with broader sections of the Zimbabwean population inside and outside the country, particularly the many Zimbabweans who recognize the unfair balance of ownership of land and other important economic resources between blacks and whites. The voting patterns in all the national elections from 2000, especially the March 2008 election, which was relatively free compared to all previous elections since 1980 (ZESN 2008), to a large extent, show some correlation between the ZANU PF rhetoric about land and its popularity. While most urbanites consistently voted against ZANU PF from 2000, most rural residents, particularly resettled peasants, have voted ZANU PF (Alexander and Raftopoulos 2005: 4-23; ZESN 2002; 2005; Zimbabwe Peace Project 2008).

ZANU PF’s post-2000 electoral victories among rural residents have indeed been achieved partly through electoral fraud and the deployment of violence and coercion in the rural areas, easier to police than the urban areas and also suffering from the legacy of a concentration of Zimbabwe’s electoral violence since independence in 1980 (Moyo 1992; ZESN 2002; 2005; 2008). However, ZANU PF’s electoral victory in rural areas has not been achieved through intimidation alone. Anecdotal evidence from opinion polls and discussions with rural residents suggest that some of its support in these rural areas is based on voluntary support.

Even in the urban areas, where ZANU PF’s political legitimacy has been increasingly questioned from several fronts since the early 1990s, its ‘essentialist race’ message has managed to develop a broader appeal to some workers experiencing the negative effects of Zimbabwe’s colour-coded capital. Despite its dramatic loss of support among urbanites after 2000, reflected in its poor showing in all the elections between 2000 and 2008, ZANU PF has retained some significant levels of support among various urban social groups, including workers, musicians, students and intellectuals, who have bought into its politics of nativism and empowerment of the workers. Through their own initiative or the support of government, popular urban musicians and actors, for instance, have popularised ZANU ideologies and politics by composing and performing songs in praise of ZANU PF and its fast track land redistribution programme- the ‘Hondo Yeminda [War for Land/Fast Track] musicians(Chikowero, forthcoming). The ZANU PF message about racial politics has also been provided the much needed ideological backing by urban intellectuals, including university lecturers, independent researchers, writers and journalists, whose motives for supporting ZANU PF vary from ideological beliefs to the party’s patronage system which guarantees benefits to its supporters. These intellectuals, dismissed by critics as ‘patriotic intellectuals’, have become the party’s vital organic intellectuals who defend and rationalise its nativist politics and ideology inside the country and abroad through their writings and conference addresses.

The ZANU PF message on race and Zimbabwean supra-nationalism has also resonated strongly among Zimbabweans living abroad, especially those in South Africa, Europe and America who, like other African migrants, have to deal with being black in countries where issues of race and racism are still serious problems and have to develop defensive nationalism as a coping mechanism (Muzondidya 2010). This defensive nationalism, triggered by a combination of discrimination and the emotional void created by being away from home, has led some Zimbabweans abroad, even those who did not support the incumbent government, to develop a positive image of Zimbabwe and everything Zimbabwean and to be defensive about Zimbabwe and its government, especially when outsiders make generalisations about their country. It has also led others to embrace (temporarily or permanently) ZANU PF’s politics of race.

The resonance of the race message among Zimbabweans has even been felt within the political opposition, characterized by Mugabe and ZANU as a foreign white creation (Raftopoulos 2006). Having initially committed itself to the politics of non-racialism and having embraced whites in its structures and activities at its inception, the issue of race created strains within the MDC as some activists began to complain about the predominance of whites in certain leading positions (MDC 2005). It was therefore not surprising that the MDC, when confronted with the problematic legacies of racism and racial inequalities in post-settler society, began to adopt a much more cautious and sensitive approach towards issues of race and white representation in its activities (Raftopoulos 2005). Under the strain of trying to find its own space and voice within a context where it was characterized as an extension of foreign white forces, the MDC has thus not only had difficulties dealing with issues of representation of Zimbabwean whites and other minorities in the party’s leadership position (Raftopoulos 2006) but also maintaining an open relationship with its donors and supporters in the West (Makunike 2008).

Race and International Responses to the Zimbabwe Crisis

The language of race and anti-imperialism has played particularly well on the African continent and other parts of the Third World where ZANU PF has received support partly because it has managed to articulate the political conflict to a broad anti-imperialist audience by mobilizing the language of subalternism both to define the conflict and to mobilize support (Raftopoulos and Phimister 2004; Raftopoulos 2006). Conscious of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments among marginalized people across the world, ZANU PF ideologues have tried to conceal their authoritarianism and responsibility for the crisis by appealing to the language of postcolonial redress, black nationalism, anti-imperialism and pan-Africanism to project their government as a victim of an imperialist, Western plot designed to punish black Zimbabweans for having stood up to the interests of white capital and racism. The party’s propagandists deployed inside and outside the country have also skilfully tried to link every problem in Zimbabwe to international sanctions by the European Union and the USA (Phimister and Raftopoulos 2004).

The West’s ‘clumsy reaction’ to the Zimbabwe crisis has helped to bolster ZANU PF’ claims that it is a victim of Western hegemonic designs. The West’s ‘clumsy’ response to the Zimbabwe crisis has manifested itself in the British government’s abrasive denial of responsibilities for colonial injustices in Zimbabwe, the imposition of targeted sanctions on the government of Zimbabwe by the US, Australia, Canada and the European Union, and offering of open support to the opposition in Zimbabwe (Phimister and Raftopoulos 2004; Makunike 2008).

At the same time, the Western governments’ repeated verbal attacks on the Zimbabwean government, delivered in the arrogant language of imperial hegemony, has helped to divide international public opinion on the Zimbabwe crisis in a way that has complicated international intervention efforts in Zimbabwe. In Southern Africa, for instance, all the powerful regional actors, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, partly resentful of Western attempts to dictate orders, have solidly supported the ZANU PF government while countries like Botswana have taken a more critical but cautious stance. The reasons for this support are indeed complex, ranging from economic interests at stake to historical ties and solidarities forged during the anti-colonial struggle (Phimister and Raftopoulos 2004). However, the resentment to Western attempts to dictate positions on African leaders, in a region pregnant with memories of racial domination and supremacy, has led many African governments to support the Zimbabwean government, even though they disagree with some of its repressive and partisan politics.

Though increasingly unpopular and repressive at home, through some orchestrated articulation of racial politics, the ZANU PF government has somehow managed to develop a populist appeal among some marginalized groups around the world by successfully mobilizing the language of race and positioning itself as the champion of ‘mass justice.’ The same posturing has enabled it to maintain ideological backing among some Zimbabweans who, in spite of their continued economic suffering under the crisis, cannot disagree with its articulations on racial inequalities and prejudice. As scholars like Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros, Ian Scoones and Mahmood Mahmood Mamdani have all correctly observed, Mugabe’s land reform measures, however harsh, has won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa, particularly among those who see his government’s action as an attempt to deal with unresolved long term historical grievances (Mamdani 2008; Moyo and Yeros 2007; Scoones 2008).

Explaining the Power of Race in Post-colonial Zimbabwe

What has helped to make race a powerful tool for mobilization in post-2000 Zimbabwe are not simply the visible and salient racial inequalities among Zimbabweans but the concerns about the legacies of colonialism and racialism in the region as well as Third World grievances about the continued dominance and marginalization of the South under globalization. The mobilization of race as a legitimizing force or mobilizing idiom in Zimbabwe occurred against a background of unresolved long term historical economic grievances which included racial inequalities in the control and ownership of land and the economy (Hammar and Raftopoulos 2003; Mlambo 2005; S. Moyo 2000). Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, white farmers had been reluctant to relinquish their colonially inherited control over land and there had been little radical reform or structural change in the Zimbabwean economy which had remained in foreign hands, especially British and South African-based multinational corporations, and some local whites (Stoneman 1988). The predominance of foreign-owned companies in the productive sectors of the economy meant that locals continued to be excluded.

In the absence of concerted pressure for justice and economic reform from the impoverished masses in the 1980s when the economy was performing well and social obligations were being met, both government and privileged whites were lulled into a false sense of political and economic security and did not do much at all during the first decades of independence to address the inherited racial imbalances in wealth between blacks and whites. The government’s indigenisation policies were not coherently defined and were implemented half-heartedly (Raftopoulos 1996; Raftopoulos and Compagnon, 2003), while many privileged whites, acknowledging their loss of political primacy, focused on maintaining their economic status (Huyse 2003).

The behaviour of many white Zimbabweans continued to be influenced by what both Ranger and Mandaza have described as the legacy of ‘settler culture’- a standardised mode of behaviour and thought which tenuously held the position of the white community’s predominance over blacks and perpetual domination of natives by white settlers through settlers’ virtual monopoly over political and legal institutions, coercive control over the labour and livelihoods of Africans (Mandaza 1986; Ranger forthcoming).

Influenced by the legacy of settler culture, many white Zimbabweans made no efforts to reform their political attitudes towards their black compatriots or to contribute to nation building (Godwin 1984; Godwin and Hancock 1993). Notwithstanding the significant role played by many whites who remained in Zimbabwe after independence, many whites had withdrawn into their ‘racial enclaves’ (Godwin 1984). While some whites, especially the younger generation, were socially proactive and integrated, many maintained their isolation and ‘largely abdicated from actively engaging in the process of nation building’ (K. Alexander 2004). As Selby has written in respect of white commercial farmers, ‘The white community’s visible affluence and continued social isolation, which amplified during structural adjustment, provided a target and a catalyst for anti-white sentiment. An independent consultant identified the racial exclusiveness of the CFU [Commercial Farmers Union] as their biggest weakness and greatest threat. Racism among some whites was still prevalent and mounting scepticism among farmers towards government was often explained through condescending cultural perspectives (Selby 2006).

Two decades after independence, there had been little integration in schools, sports, residences and other spaces of social contact. In the urban areas, for instance, some responded to black suburban encroachment by creating alternative spaces where they continued to keep to themselves, ‘retreat[ing] from public life into the laager of sports club, home entertaining and the video’ (Godwin 1984). In Harare, affluent whites reacted to the post-independence movement of blacks into previously white-only areas such as Mabelreign and Avondale by withdrawing to more exclusive suburbs like Mount Pleasant, Glen Lorne and Borrowdale; their counterparts in Bulawayo acted similarly by moving into areas like Suburbs (Kilgore, 2009: 19-30, 92-105; Pickard-Cambridge 1988: 1-13; Financial Gazette, 30 December 1999). In clubs, diners and restaurants, separation was enforced through practices such as membership-based admission. In the educational sector, some white parents responded to the government’s de-racialization of education and the admission of blacks into formerly white-only (Group A) schools by building new, independent schools whose fee structures were designed to exclude the majority of children from middle- and low-income black families. Lack of social integration was similarly experienced in sport, especially in the formerly white codes of rugby and cricket, where issues of transformation continued to be a problem through to 2000 and beyond.

The above social and economic context, in a way, provided ZANU PF with the space and opportunity it needed to turn race into a powerful mobilization idiom when it found itself against mounting pressure from the masses. The organization was able to mobilize on the basis of race partly because of Zimbabwe’s failure to deracialize the economy and society following the end of colonial rule. As in the colonial period, race had continued to shape and influence the economic, social, and political life of post-independence Zimbabwe. Race had continued to matter for most Zimbabweans, mainly because it remained embedded the social, economic and political structures of the country. Though removed from the country’s legal system, it remained the modality through which life was experienced. This is the basic point that explains how and why ZANU PF was able to mobilize successfully on the basis of racial politics at this particular point in time- 20 years after the dismantling of colonial rule and its racialized structures of power. Regrettably, this fundamental point has been missed or skirted by the plethora of analyses of post-2000 Zimbabwean politics and critiques of ZANU PF’s racial politics.


I have argued that the failure to resolve the colonial legacies of racial divisions and inequalities helped to shape the nature and character of the Zimbabwe crisis as well as prolong its resolution. First, the continued existence of deep racial inequalities and racial prejudice in Zimbabwe, two decades after the end of colonial rule, enabled the incumbent ZANU PF to mobilise the political idiom of race to defend its control of the state by blaming all its weaknesses and failure to deliver on social and political demands on white control over the land and the economy. Opportunistically mobilizing on the rhetoric of race and land, ZANU PF has been able to articulate the Zimbabwean crisis as a racial issue whose solution could only be found in addressing issues of racial domination and inequalities. While repression and coercion have been important aspects of ZANU PF rule, the rhetoric on race and land has been its political draw-card. Second, by mobilizing on the basis of race, an increasingly repressive and waning ZANU PF has not only been able to rally a significant proportion of the masses in Zimbabwe behind it but also to build its political legitimacy inside the country and abroad. Third and most imporatntly, the insensitivity to, and inability to deal with, issues of race and racial domination within both the domestic and international opposition movements has helped not only to internationalize the Zimbabwe crisis but also to prolong its resolution as the issue has polarized regional and international opinion. The above observations, regrettably, are some of the disconcerting but greatest lessons of the Zimbabwe crisis which have been avoided or silenced by most intellectual and academic debates on the crisis.

A full version of this argument is found in my journal article- ‘The Zimbabwean Crisis and the Unresolved Conundrum of Race in the Post-colonial Period’, in Journal of Developing Societies, Vol. 26, 1, 2010, pp. 5-38.


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Wed, October 13 2010 » Zimbabwe Review

4 Responses

  1. Nevison Bara October 14 2010 @ 9:51 am

    This is quite an interesting read though I still find traces of apologetic submissions from one so aware of the racial injustices that still dominate the present socio-economic Zimbabwe. There could have been excesses in the Zimbabwe administration but still I have not found any one scholar who has made an effort to explain why this Country’s economy still grew at 8% mid to late 1990s (if Robert and Company were so bad)and why the history of Zimbabwe becomes very loud from 2000 and later. Simply because the ZANU PF dared to touch the nerve centre of the white hegemony. The West and white community in a sense could still have loved the status quo and continued as if nothing was amiss had the likes of Kwame not raised ire about the settlerism on Africa. The same segment could still have continued as if nothing was amiss had the like of Robert not realized that they would not have released any acre of land on free will. A study (in which I was a research assistant)in 1994 on Land Utilization and Productivity on Large Scale Commercial Farms in Zimbabwe showed that there was only 30% utilization of land on these vast tracts of land held by only a few. Can any one tell the Nation and the World at large why the current discoveries of rich mineral deposits are only being found now that the masses have gone on to the formally white held farms? (Do I smell a clear cut hidden conspiracy?)Can any one dare tell the Nation why with such underutilization of land the same farmers were prepared to pay any amount of land tax on unproductive land instead of releasing it to the deprived masses. The land and race questions are not rhetoric my Brother; they are for real and someone had to ask that question unless you are saying Robert should just have lulled into the comfort of leadership and the riches that go with it just like the rest of the African leaders would do and did for fear of rocking the cradle. African intellectuals know the truth but we would rather bandwagon to fit into the fashion of things.

  2. Bertha Chiroro October 14 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    I think the power of race in the internal and external legitimisation of the Zanu Pf regime has been well articulated in this article, congratulatons to the author. A great many analysts have outlined most of the factors that have contributed to the resilience of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe ranging from , violence, patronage, a weak opposition, but the essentialism of race explains further why even some of the serious critics of the regime remained ambivalent and others even failing to go and vote in as much as they recognised Zanu pf governance failures. The authors’ observations of the dilemma’s of those in the diaspora and especially those living in South Africa to unwillingly embrace the “politics of race” and at the same time dissociate themselves from the human rights abuses and the disregard of the rule of law of the Zanu pf government is very incisive. A number of individuals, faced with racism, discrimination and xenophobia have found themselves painfully using “defensive nationalism” in order to survive and remaining positive that one day they will go home and most of these injustices will be history. And yet the leadership of the GNU continue to gamble with the lives of many Zimbabweans by putting their interests first rather than that of the people in the implementation of the GPA. South Africa and Namibia need to to keep the racial debates open and the intellectuals to assist in the search for innovative ways of dealing with the legacies of racial divisions and inequalities that make the idea of a rainbow nation idealistic.

  3. siphamandla zondi November 20 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Brilliant and immaculately argued call for re-centering race and identity in the discourse on the Zim crisis. I like the sobberness that JM demonstrates in an analytical field dominated by parochialism and partisan analysis. Well done, my brother!!!

  4. Farai Masvingo January 7 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Thanks JM for your interesting analysis. While I agree that race plays a critical and pivotal role in understanding the Zimbabwean dynamics, I still think that we may run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water by trying whether intentionally or by implication to absolve mukoma RG and his ZANU PF cohorts of a real role and function they did play in the construction of the economic mess as well as not resorting to their political and other resources to change the situation. They surely clearly had and very much still have the capacity to do so not at the expense of the poor rural folk in Zaka, Mwenezi, Chipinge, Gandachibuva, Murehwa ( for example) and even in the shanty surburbs of the ones glorious towns and cities of Zim. I just would like to put caution to the wind and say as a patriotic Zim who lived through the liberation war and thereafter, we should be wary of the what our dear African sister Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls: THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY – namely forever reciting the rhyme and chorus of white racism. Don’t get me wrong. I do not for a minute condone it but neither do I condone the ongoing and everlasting black-on-black exploitation in Zimbawe. Let’s begin to think outside the box! Continue your useful analysis but hey brave it man and call a spade a spade and broaden your critique so you can maintain your academic bouyancy!

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