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On the passing of Ian Smith and Africa’s post-independence challenges

Posted by CM on November 25, 2007

Not at all surprisingly, a central theme of the many features on Ian Smith’s death has been comparisons between his time in power and the situation today under Robert Mugabe.

A New York Times report said, “Zimbabwe’s troubles only fed Mr. Smith’s unwavering white supremacist views, his unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.”

Black Africans, Mr. Smith said, were not ready for self-government. He and his followers justified their repression by saying they were “resisting the chaos” of newly formed black nations.No African rule in my lifetime,” he said. “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”

Mr. Smith never apologized for leading the country into war and never came to terms with what he depicted as inevitable decline under black majority rule. “We gave Rhodesia 15 wonderful years extra.” he said in 1983. If he had not declared unilateral independence in 1965, he said, “then this sort of scene would have come earlier.”

Indeed, as Zimbabwe slid into corruption and decline under Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Smith sensed events had vindicated his refusal to dilute white dominance. “There are millions of black people who say things were better when I was in control,” he said in 2004. “I have challenged Mugabe to walk down the street with me and see who has most support. I have much better relations with black people than he does.”

And on Altermedia, which features “World wide news for people of European descent,” there is Zimbabwe: Racist whites wanted back in charge.


…many ordinary black Zimbabweans wish that they could get back the white racist government that oppressed them in the 1970’s. “Life was easier then, and at least you could get food and a job,” said Solomon Dube.

Makupila Muzamba said that hunger today is worse than ever before in his seven decades or so, and said: “I want the white man’s government to come back. … Even if whites were oppressing us, we could get jobs and things were cheap compared to today.”

Firstly, it is an indication of how what is considered politically correct has so radically changed in recent years that the New York Times can lead a story with a reference to Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

There was a time when this would have been placed in a different, more subtle context than to appear to almost give open credence to such revisionism. That it is no longer considered controversial to start a story with a quote that will get lots of people upset is a sign of the attitudes emanating from the public and not so public discussions taking place about the general state of Africa.

On one hand this shows a welcome new open-ness about honestly tackling the issue of why Africa continues to fail to work for the general benefit of its people. On the other hand, an unspoken/unwritten but very much lurking addition to the line used by the Times’ summation of Smith’s philosophy about African majority rule is the implication that Africa “has not worked” principally because whites are no longer in charge.

Most people have their minds already made up about this thorny question. To those who think like Smith, it is obvious: Africa “does not work” because Africans now run the show! Nor is this thinking limited to African-despising racists, as quotes attributed to some Zimbabweans in despair about the country’s present condition show.

On the other side are the many who would give a litany of all the reasons they attribute to Africa “not working”: colonialism and its lingering effects, previous and present exploitation and so on. They rail in outrage at Smith’s bold assertion, now increasingly implied in many other circles, that the central problem is a basic deficiency in African ability and character.

Whatever one’s opinion, this has become a hot discussion topic because Africa has not lived up to the high hopes of majority rule. Those hopes, the time span given to them and what was required to bring them to fruition may have been unrealistic, but they are still the parameters by which African and non-African alike judge the continent’s performance in the post-independence era.

The doubts about basic African ability expressed by the likes of Smith, and by some Africans disillusioned with the post-independence era, will not go away until Africa steps up to the plate by providing its own models of successful countries. No amount of justification about the reasons for Africa’s state will do as much, or as effectively, to counter the thinking expressed by Smith than having many such models of African success.

This success need not be defined by Smith’s idea of workability. If there was broad agreement that Zimbabwe was clearly working today for the benefit of the majority of its people, rather than a small elite, it would not matter if it resembled or met the “standards” of Rhodesia. But what is more important and tragic is that by most indices of well-being, Zimbabwe is not functioning to the benefit of the ordinary people by what should be its own standards, let alone those of bygone Rhodesia.

The likes of Smith, as well as those who bitterly oppose his views, tend to focus on the visceral racial elements that excite a lot of emotion on all sides, but contribute nothing to solving Africa’s very real problems.

In examining “what has gone wrong,” particularly in a country with the promise of Zimbabwe, the fault is usually put on factors such as corruption and mismanagement, with those of Smith’s ilk going on to claim that these qualities are endemic to African character, and that therefore post-majority rule decline is inevitable. More recently the reasons for the country’s failure to thrive have been placed on everything from occasional drought to the current official mantra, “illegal Western sanctions.”

What is not discussed often enough is whether the many examples of post – majority rule decline were not also largely because the models that most African governments have tried to follow were simply inappropriate, and needed more and better kinds of modification than any country has so far successfully done. Trying to answer this question must surely be part of Africa’s learning from mistakes to try to find new ways forward.

Rhodesian society and economy were not just a result of the technocratic application of laws, technologies, rules and procedures to be merely copied by a new set of post-independence administrators. These were in turn merely the manifestations of a Western-based, Rhodesian-modified cultural framework built up over decades. That cultural framework is a whole mix of group influences that go much deeper than can be reduced to its elements, such as “how to run Rhodesian farming or industry.” So even if the desire had been to essentially continue “Rhodesia” under the name of Zimbabwe, with just white to black personnel changes, it could not have simply been a matter of things working as before by applying those same laws, technologies, rules and procedures. Just the fact that the personnel applying them came from a different social and cultural orientation would have made the result different, even if many other things ostensibly remained the same.

In the current realm of how the world is dominantly structured, there are many basic rules of how to successfully run a country that no nation can avoid mastering. But we have also seen that successful emerging countries are those that are able to find the right mix between learning and adhering to what have become the “rules” of the dominant world economic paradigm, and modifying them to their particular situations.

In Zimbabwe, and arguably in much of Africa, our early post-majority pride was not in finding our own successful middle ground between these “universal” rules and our unique situations, but in being seen to be copying the dominant reigning system “as is.” According to this model, the success of Zimbabwe was to be judged by how well we simply copied and continued Rhodesian systems of administration, technology, farming or whatever, but particularly of consumption. To people like Smith, as well as to many Africans in the early excitement of independence, this was a large part of what “maintaining standards” was all about.

But there was no reason to expect that “standards” that served a tiny, wealthy minority steeped in a Rhodesian-modified Western cultural framework would work un-adulterated in an African, non-Western social, cultural and political framework that was also required to serve a much larger group of not so wealthy people.

So there was the basic problem of running a new country with a once successful but no longer workable model. To that was added the problems of political cynicism, repression, corruption and all the others that have brought Zimbabwe to its present pass. But even if we were somehow able to miraculously get rid of these maladies today, we would still be faced with the fundamental issue of coming up with a model of successfully running Zimbabwe’s affairs that could not simply be a copy of the one that served Rhodesia’s peculiarities so well.

While a person like Ian Smith could not be expected to spend any time thinking about this, having already dismissed Africans as incapable of self-rule anyway, it is strange that the new African nations themselves paid scant attention to such a critical issue. The tragic result was that for many of the rulers, living in the presidential palace, being ferried to and fro in expensive cars and even the power to rigorously enforce colonial-era symbolisms were sufficient signs of “independence” than whether the country’s systems were benefiting the people or not. It was to put more emphasis on the forms of nationhood, and often embarrassingly inappropriate ones, than on the substance of whether the nation was structured to serve the people’s needs.

Africa’s inability to even seriously pose this question to itself may be a greater failing of the post-independence era than the usually focused-on issues of why pre-independence “standards” have not been maintained. All the effort at initially trying to run Zimbabwe exactly on a once-successful, but no longer applicable Rhodesian model meant little effort beyond the cosmetic was put into conceiving of a fundamentally new model.

As a result, the “standards” that were focused on were the relatively easy ones of consumption patterns. “Doing well” was according to the model of how many more elite Africans had access to the “European lifestyle” in terms of the houses they lived in, the cars they drove, the work perks they enjoyed and so forth.

No attention was paid to whether this could work for Zimbabwe, and at what eventual cost, and whether this shift in the composition of the elite represented enough of a difference to justify what the whole struggle for a new society had been really about. Little attention was paid to the less glamorous, more important concomitant elements of increasing overall national production in order to, for a time, continue to fund an economic model that was simply inherently unsustainable in many ways.

Everybody now blames Zimbabwe’s present state on Mugabe’s populist, self-preserving method of land reform. But even without it, there had to be an eventual crash, perhaps many years later than Mugabe brought on, because of how Zimbabwe largely continued to try to operate on the old Rhodesian model. It might have worked “well” in its time and for its stated narrow Rhodesian purpose (Smith’s clear cut, “The white man is master of Rhodesia and he intends to keep it.”), but it could not work for long without radical modification in Zimbabwe. The new nation was an environment of vastly increased expectations from a much larger number of participants expectant of the “good life” of increased consumerism, but on a stagnant or declining production base.

But “production base” goes far beyond the dry, technical issues that the term may imply. It is not enough for a national unit to merely adhere to basic global rules of production like efficiency, yield, competitiveness, good infrastructure, effective bureaucratic organization and so on. It must do all these things while taking into account its own peculiarities, and their positive or negative influences. Without doing so, then an adopted system of organization that might work very well somewhere else, or in the same place under different conditions, can flop miserably.

By “new model” I do not mean to imply re-inventing the wheel, rejecting Rhodesia’s functionalisms or romanticising pre-colonialism African customs. I simply mean looking for a fresh template of how to run the country that took into account old and new, different and more comprehensive concerns than was necessary in a Rhodesian dispensation that was mainly intended to serve a tiny group. This would have meant a mix of elements that would have very much included the many lessons and successes of Rhodesia, but thoughtfully incorporated in a new social, cultural and political reality. Only then could they have had a chance to work in the in many ways vastly different-from-Rhodesia landscape of Zimbabwe.

This unavoidable, still necessary task is a difficult process partly because it involves moulding the new out of old elements that do not necessarily easily or comfortably fit together. It involves some trial and error. When it doesn’t work very well, it means being ridiculed for trying something new in rejection of an older tried and tested model, even if that model simply could no longer work unchanged in the new situation.

Looked at from this view, the on-going problem with economic transformation in Zimbabwe is not so much the discarding of an old system whose continued existence threatened future stability. The flaw has been to throw out the old without any real holistic vision of a new system. The picture that has emerged is one of haphazard, day to day national management by crisis.

Africa simply has no choice but overcome these difficult, uncomfortable challenges and to create systems that work for it. This is necessary primarily for the benefit and future stability of Africa, but it will also be the only really effective argument against Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

All the scholarly articles about why Smith is wrong, racist and should have been hung long ago are largely a waste of effort in countering his assertions as long as Africa has so few examples of national organizational models that serve its people well, even if they are quite different from any other models. But the picture now is of a continent that does not effect imported or colonially inherited models well, and has all sorts of reasons for why not, but then also fails to come up with its own successful models, again with a whole litany of excuses for why not.

Actually Mugabe, even if for cynical self-serving reasons, has shown unusual boldness for an African leader in daring to question and upset the old colonial system, and much of the thinking that underpins it. But he has then confused the issue by seeking to simply and ineffectively re-apply most of the elements of the old system to new beneficiaries, rather than to present something well thought out and essentially new! The result has been a throwing out of many of the lingering positives of the Rhodesian system of doing things, but without a better, or even merely minimally functioning, Zimbabwean system in its place.

The current mess could be seen as a golden opportunity to conceive and effect a new system, but too many things have gone too horribly wrong at the same time for that to happen in the short term. And it would need a completely different type of thinking by the group at the helm of the country than is likely among the stuck, unimaginative, panicked and tired old ruling team in place now. Whatever gifts they may have, it is not apparent that they would even be interested in the kind of contemplative work required to conceive a fresh model of a successful Zimbabwe. Threatening, beating, jailing and impoverishing people they may be proven masters at, but deliberately planned nation-building does not appear to be their strong point.

Large parts of Asia continue to seemingly be very effective at finding blends of indigenous /imported, old/new, pre/post-colonial systems to deal with challenges of today in a way few, if any, African countries have put effort into doing.

The effects of the failure to deliberately think about these issues may be most starkly in display in Zimbabwe because of how Mugabe has seen it fit to turn everything upside down with no cohesive alternative plan in place. But it is an Africa-wide phenomenon, particularly evident in countries under-going the most recent and rapid transformation.

For example, in both Namibia and South Africa land reform is also a hot issue, with increasingly Zimbabwe-like complaints that its pace is too slow, although both countries are eager to avoid comparisons with their mutual neighbour’s reform process. But where it has been implemented, in both Namibia and South Africa are disturbing reports of a high incidence of failure: low productivity, abandoned farms, greater poverty after receiving land than before, denuded landscapes from poor land management, etc.

Smith would have had an easy answer to why this is: to him, that is just one would expect when an African takes over, end of story. But those of us who are required to contribute to Africa’s progress must dig deeper to find what is so commonly wrong and try to fix it.

The reasons for so many new farmers’ failure are complex, of course, and many of them are common to emergent farmers under similar circumstances anywhere. But let me just pick one example from Namibia to illustrate my point. Largely desert, the country is more suited to rearing livestock than to cultivation. But the parcels of land that many new farmers are getting are too small for them to sustainably graze enough sheep or cattle to be economically viable. This means even before you factor in issues of management skills, capital, markets, efficiency and prices, many of these new farmers are almost destined to fail.

So why parcel the land into pieces that are too small for commercially viable livestock rearing? Why not encourage and assist these small farmers in other more realistic areas of agriculture, or find a different livestock model more suitable for the new reality?

The answers are as complex as the questions, but basically, it comes down to failure to appreciate that the farming model that worked for the white farmer with thousands of hectares of grazing land cannot be applied to a new farmer with a miniscule proportion of it, and with no capital, experience, infrastructure and all kinds of other supports. Also, his whole cultural orientation to keeping cattle may well be vastly different from the white farmer’s.

Simply put, he is being presented with a cultural-economic model of farming that is not suitable for him, and that in all but a few limited situations, no longer fits the new Namibian reality. Part of that new reality is that it is no longer politically tenable for a few farmers to own vast tracts of land, even if some would argue that it makes more macro-economic sense for a few such experienced, “super-productive” people to be allowed to do so.

All these issues have to be taken into account in creating a new model of agriculture for Namibia. My point is that thinking about all the angles of issues like this is key to Africa finding new models that work for it. The off-the-shelf models from the pre-independence era, or from the World Bank, have not worked very well for Africa for many reasons, including the fact that their application has not been properly modified for the new situations in which they are to be applied. The blame for this lies more with the Africans who fail to see the need for these modifications, than it does with those who present such models as they have seen them work elsewhere in very different economic, technological, political and cultural contexts.

It may be understandable, but the practice of eagerly applying various models of organization based more on anxiously wanting to be considered “just as modern as anybody else,” rather than on the basis of modification for suitability, has been disastrous for Africa.

We know all the things about Rhodesia we detested. But even in looking back in nostalgia at the ways in which it was also a highly functional society, it was naive to think Zimbabwe could be a merely modified version of it. When Smith said, “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it” he was talking at a much deeper level than the obvious one of harnessing Rhodesian-modified Western technology and cultural organization, along with African labour and resources, to create an exclusive island of prosperity primarily for a small, identified group of people.

Rhodesia under Smith was unapologetic about the society it sought to be. It was also ruthless in mobilising the available mix of resources required to bring about that vision for its primarily target audience. Zimbabwe never quite went through a similar process of deciding exactly what kind of society it sought to be, how to bring it about, what human and material resources were required to do so, and what factors promoting or impeding that vision had to be dealt with.

Instead, there was the amorphous, general wish for things like “universal health and education” and other desires which it is impossible to fault, but which without a specific model of national organization in mind cannot be achieved or sustained. They can also be mis-directed. For instance, by “more education” do we have in mind more degree holders (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have another vision of universal education more relevant to our needs and current reality?

By “health for all” do we mean the greater availability of pills (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have a definition of health that is more in keeping with not just bodily state, but that encompasses social, cultural and other indicators of well-being; of what it means to be “healthy.”

Because the idea of Rhodesia was largely steeped in Western principles of orientation, “health” would have largely entailed the use of pills and technology, although today even many Westerners are questioning the appropriateness of this orientation. And because the society was geared to primarily serving a small target audience, even if there was spillover to non-target groups, the society could have been organised to ensure any target group member had access to any pill they desired.

But if Zimbabwe had then simply taken on this philosophy of health, how would it meet “the pills/health technology for all requirement” of a vastly expanded target audience? In this example, the real failure may not be so much in not being able to supply pills to everyone who wants them, but in an approach to health that unrealistically, unsustainably emphasises pills over prevention, for example. It is another example of a prescription that might have worked in one particular situation, but can no longer do so in a vastly changed one.

If one extrapolates this practice of trying to force square pegs into round holes without the necessary modifications to all across Africa, then we can see one important reason why Africa never seems to measure up. A part of political maturity must be the ability to say “this particular thing worked very well in the unique environment of/for the requirements of Rhodesia, but in order to get similar benefits in the very different scenario of Zimbabwe, these are the changes we will need to make.” Part of this process could be even to selectively forgo some of those Rhodesia-era “benefits,” on the basis that their costs in the new dispensation out-weigh their advantages.

Perhaps Zimbabwe’s current mess is its own way of dispensing with the old that served another time and purpose well, but is no longer suitable for a new situation with new needs. But apart from all the many indications of early failure, the current mess is at the very least surely an inefficient, expensive way of trying to mould a new model of national organization. What is required of us is the hard job of applying thinking to problems, than the easy one of sloganeering and political intrigue that so much more effort has been expended on in Africa in the last 50 years.

Smith’s criticism that Zimbabwe failed to live up to the “standards” of Rhodesia is not the worst criticism that can be made of the post-independence era. If anything, there are many ways in which in hindsight we should now be embarrassed that we tried to continue the old Rhodesia, just as we should be ashamed that we have failed to maintain so many of its functionalities.

The more serious shortcoming of Zimbabwe, and of Africa, that still needs to be addressed is the failure to articulate a new vision of nationhood that does not ignore any part of our history or world realities, but that is tailored to maximising the opportunities of creating an Africa that serves our interests and works for us.

As regards the lessons of Rhodesia for Zimbabweans, therefore, it is not for us to pine for a bygone reality and national model that could not have worked for us. We can instead take a leaf from Smith’s Rhodesia, on the importance and benefits of carving out our own vision of what would be a successful Zimbabwe, just as he was quite clear and focused on what a successful Rhodesia meant for his target group.

Doing so would not mean all the current problems would disappear or that the conditions for realising that vision would suddenly materialise. But without that clear vision of what kind of society we want to work towards, taking all the many influences on us and present realities into account, we are a rudderless ship. We condemn ourselves to being forever compared unfavourably to a Rhodesia that will never return, but will always haunt us as an oppressive but “successful” past, in contradiction to an “independent” but “failed” present.

The pining of some Zimbabweans for an unsustainable, oppressive but functional Rhodesia is an expression of frustration at not just present hardships, but at the lack of any articulation of a new vision of nationhood that those hardships can be said to be leading us to, and how we hope to get there.

Zimbabweans have previously stoically endured hardship during the war of independence because it was not only clear what was being fought against, but because of a generally shared hope of what life would be like when that fight was won. Today’s Zimbabwean reality is a very far cry from that hoped for vision. And rather than suggestions that this is because we are in a difficult but transitory phase, there are instead too many signs suggesting that we are now completely lost and directionless; the rulers cynically raping the land rather than leading us to anywhere but further decline and hardship.

There is not only the absence of a new hoped for vision by which the present hardship can be explained and endured, but the current rulership simply no longer even has the credibility and moral authority to mobilise the population into working for one.

The pining for Rhodesia by some is simply because it is the country’s “last known working configuration.” It is Africa’s main challenge to find new working configurations for itself, mixes of many of the elements of success others have used to overcome oppression and exploitation, but put together in ways that fit the times and the environment. It is a shocking indictment of us all that no modern African society has yet been up to this challenge.

The reminders on Ian Smith’s death of his view of Africans, and other kinds of racist revisionism increasingly being heard, tell us that this unfinished task will not go away. It will remain until we and the world see Africa overcoming all the many obstacles and excuses to build examples of societies that need not be duplicates of anything else, but that clearly work for the benefit of the mass of people in a way we have not yet seen in modern Africa.

The naked, provocative racism that Smith so proudly and unapologetically wore all his life unfortunately enjoys currency from the poor state of the Zimbabwe that has emerged from his Rhodesia. If Africa is forced by the sting of the attitude of people of the ilk of Smith to think hard about what we have had to endure under both the Smiths and Mugabes, we will eventually develop our own models of success that need no explanation, and that speak for themselves. We would then have salvaged something positive from all the many decades of bitter and on-going lessons that Zimbabwe has to offer about the challenges and pain of transformation.

Chido Makunike

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