Metal, Monopoly and Mugabe: Zimbabwe and Its Legacies

The simple way to think about sub-Saharan Africa is as an unhappy result of European colonisation and nothing more. Most of the borders you can see today were drawn along the borders of old dominions, for a start. Most countries still use a European “business language” and a fair few still use their old colonial names. The African Commonwealth even have their own version of Eurovision, and if that’s not a grisly reminder of a Europe-dominated past I don’t know what is. But history, like nature, romance or War and Peace, resists any attempts to make it simple. History works on a sort of reverse Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer isn’t just incomplete, but incorrect, obtuse and even harmful. Much like being hit over the head with War and Peace. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the things that break the stereotypes – those places and events that prove that an area’s history is more than the two-dimensional cut-out that non-holistic thinking makes it into. And that’s why today, we’re going to talk about some zimbabwes.

A zimbabwe, for those of you who are shaking your fists at the screen and saying that I can’t use proper nouns, is a specific type of stone fort found in southern Africa. But I admit, you got me, because I’m going actually to talk about the country they give their name to, and the centuries of history behind it. But ironically, our story – like so many of the best stories – begins in Nigeria.


Light Green here represents the Bantu cultural group. They’re putting the Celts a little bit to shame.

Nigeria is a pretty relevant place in the world today, with its 174 million people and all, but in 400 BC they were the freaking place to be – well, along with that other tourist hotspot, Niger – because they had that luxury resource everyone was talking about…well, talking about or getting killed by. Nigeria had iron, and like the Etruscans, Celts, ancient Indians with whom they shared the discovery they used that technology to spread across huge areas very, very quickly. The Bantu culture, originally from the area around Niger and Nigeria, spread and diversified across hundreds of thousands of miles, conquering the stone tool-wielding natives of the southern jungles and savannahs and slowly assimilating them into the 250-odd Bantu ethnicities there are today. When they came to the Highveld of Zimbabwe (Highlands, but think less Scotland and more The Last King of Scotland), they were able to dominate it for over a millennium.

It’s difficult to know much about the early Bantu in Zimbabwe – being a culture that, for all its early technological advancements, had no written language to brag about them in – but contact with Arab traders on the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes gives an impression of a pretty cohesive kingdom there in the 9th century. Zimbabwe is rich in gold and diamonds, something that would propel them to great heights pretty quickly with the northern kings and sultans who deemed their palaces insufficiently blinged out. Thus, the Zimbabweans got rich trading with…well, whoever had the ships to take their goods: first the Arabs and then the Portuguese, who enthusiastically claimed in that oh-so-European way that they had “discovered” the settlements.  But what the Portuguese found might have looked rather familiar. Because the first Bantu’s descendants still had one technological advancement up their sleeves, and it was a surprising one. They had invented, independently of Europe and probably of the Middle East, the castle. To be precise, they had invented the zimbabwe.


The entrance as it stands today. You can see the Dan Snow documentary coming a mile off.

All the wealth they got back from ports in what would later become the ironically un-wealthy Mozambique had to go somewhere. The zimbabwes that still dot the Highveld show just what that wealth could do. Curved fortresses that housed every major family for a whole region, often built just from fuck-off huge chunks of limestone without mortar. The largest, the Great Zimbabwe, whose keep alone would have housed 300 local leaders and their families in a sort of “Well, your mansion is nice so I’m going to build mine literally on top of it” sort of fashion, is surrounded by farmland that fed a desmene around 30,000 people strong. The people of the area – now named the Shona, although that name started out as derogatory (they’d get along with the Iroqouis) – abandoned it in time, spreading north to better farmland safe from the desertifying effect of climate change and better, safer trade. But it’s a testament to that interim between Iron Age invaders and modernity like those castles found in Europe. It’s still standing.

I’ve talked before about what happened in Africa in the late 1800s, and that’s how long the Shona survived in their latest and greatest independent country, Matapa. From there, they started a slow decline– they didn’t take up guns or develop their own invader-bashing technology. Some southern tribes did, and that’s probably why you’ve heard of the Zulu. From there, the decline got a little faster. They also didn’t count on the invaders bringing machine guns, gold and frankly ridiculous shipments of tea, and so it was that the area that is now Zimbabwe became one of the southernmost points of the British “stripe” across Africa. This, unfortunately, is where the tragedy begins. Britain weren’t terrible colonial masters. While they lacked the tolerance and spending on education that the French Empire had (although that tolerance was frequently lost with horrible consequences – see Haiti) they ruled with at least some consent from local rulers and under the unwritten “British constitution”. In Zimbabwe, this was not the case. Because Zimbabwe wasn’t run as a colony. It was run as a company.


You even put a pickaxe on South Rhodesia’s emblem. You subtle British bastards.

There have been few privately run countries in history. The British East India Company had one in India, the Dutch equivalent in Indonesia, and Leopold II of Belgium used one to justify owning the Congo personally as a dictator – the Congon Free State conveniently had only one shareholder. Newly renamed Southern Rhodesia was, de facto, run by the British South Africa Company under the leadership of a man called Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes and Rhodesia. Before you say anything, not a coincidence. The BSAC was a mining company, and the wealth that had once built Great Zimbabwe now built Rhodesia, finding diamonds, gold, silver – all with cheap Boer (Dutch-come-White-African) and black labour, whom they kept “honest” by imprisoning them literally within the mines themselves. For the record, while the BSAC doesn’t exist any more, it basically merged into the Rhodes’ De Beers mining cartel – you know, the one which currently make up 50% of the world’s diamond market. Zimbabwe’s history, in the process, was often forgotten or even actively suppressed – the colonial government went as far as to claim that Great Zimbabwe was the work of early white Christians, the acolytes of the mythical “Prester John”, because what Bantu could build something like that? So British farmers settled, using what was essentially perfect farmland for their European crops, and British politics emerged. Not even a struggle for independence could rid them of that, and Rhodesia emerged as an independent white-minority-led nation in 1965. It was a democracy in the loosest sense, and was widely denounced as a “racist state” along with its southern neighbour South Africa. When a black man won the 1980 elections, it was denounced as a Shona takeover. Unlike its equivalent in South Africa, this time it sort of was. Rhodesia had just elected Robert Mugabe.


This protest is happening in Britain. It sure as hell isn’t going to happen in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s sort-of-socialist, sort-of-fascist government changed a lot of things in Zimbabwe. They justified it as returning the country to what it used to be – so it was renamed Zimbabwe, given a flag that incorporated treasure found in its largest fortress, and declared 16 Bantu languages to be the official languages of state. It also took over the land of white farmers by force. It also started a massacre of Mugabe’s political opponents called the Gukurahundi. It translates from Shona as “the rain that blows away the chaff”. In Zimbabwe today, the moral questions aren’t easy. Whether the country had the right to take away the land that had been taken from it before with force is debatable. Whether Mugabe is a better leader than men like Ian Smith and Cecil Rhodes were before him is debatable. Whether the government is really motivated by revanchism is debatable. But Zimbabwe remains a country ingrained in and affected by its powerful, vibrant and interesting history, in its mines and forts and trading posts. But by doing that it’s also defining itself by its colonial history, and maybe in doing so creating a situation if not worse then just as bad. A saying about Mugabe from a the white Rhodesian government days sums up Zimbabwe’s trouble best. “The problem is…he thinks too much like us”.

The White Man’s Burden: The Sad Story of the Scramble for Africa

So it turns out it’s pretty difficult to write about Africa. That’s not because of a lack of subjects to write about, obviously: 130,000 years of human settlement (three times as long humans have lived as Europe, ten times as long as in the Americas – crazy, right?) tend to throw up a few interesting stories. The capital city of an empire that spanned of three continents.  The most extraordinary and far-flung colony of the aboriginal Australian navigators. The king who started a religious movement by accident and the richest man who ever lived. Africa is a really difficult place to write about mostly because its lasting legacy – what it is known for now and what people think about it now – is almost entirely the result of a span of about thirty years in the 19th century with a situation called the Scramble for Africa. In brief, it was a rush of sudden colonialism that put almost the entire continent under European rule and it’s the pivotal moment you need to understand to understand Africa today. It was when the stereotypes about the continent were made, and also when some of them started to come true. It was when the shape of almost every country was determined, along with many of the economic and societal problems Africa is infamous for today. African history isn’t just the story of colonialism – calling it that is like calling British history the story of Tony Blair – but it was an event that affected every single acre of the continent, and for that reason you have to understand it before I feel I can move on to better, more positive views of African history.

blank africa

Africa in 1805. A century later, it would be almost entirely under European control.

The weird thing about Africa – sub-Saharan Africa, at least, because the North has seen more masters than a marathon of Doctor Who – is that it remained untouched by European influence until very late in the colonialism game. While Spain powered through Central America like a knife through resilient and angry Mesoamerican butter, while the Netherlands traded their way to the East Indies and invaded what they couldn’t outsell, even while the British attempted to turn Australia into HM’s biggest prison camp, Africa remained the “Dark Continent” – inaccessible, unknown and mysteriously wealthy. What contact the Europeans had with Sub-Saharan Africa was limited to buying, selling, and occasionally making ports on uninhabited islands to make their journeys around the Cape of Good Hope easier. The only real attempt to create a western colony on African soil was a half-arsed attempt by America to create a country for their few freed slaves in 1847, a sort of back-to-Africa initiative supported by the likes of Lincoln and Monroe because it meant freedom for slaves without them dirtying up their fine white country (This is, unfortunately, a genuine belief expressed by Lincoln, although I’m making assumptions about his motivations. For the record, Liberia still exists). Africa was just too difficult to conquer – unlike easier targets like the Americas, it was densely populated, used to vicious warfare, full of debilitating diseases like malaria that could stop adventurers in their tracks and…well, really not worth it in terms of natural resources. In short, Africa was a little too like Europe at the time to colonise. But then, in around 1880, the status quo suddenly changed. And the Scramble for Africa began.

The Berlin Conference – you can count the number of African delegates on no hands.

The Industrial Age provided a motive and a means for European colonisation of Africa. To be fair, Europe didn’t really need a means – they’d already got used to their “white man’s burden”, the desire to educate and convert the “uncivilised masses” of the world which conveniently manifested itself as invading the third world and taking its stuff. But the growth of industries that needed iron, cotton and rubber encouraged many countries to go out and seize those resources to secure trade, and you can probably guess where in the world those were most prevalent. The brand new means of colonising Africa? That lay with scientific advances like a vaccine for malaria, the invention of a mode of transport that could pass quickly across Africa – the steamship – and the grisly invention of the Maxim Gun, the first machine gun and one that tipped the balance of power firmly in the hands of…well, whoever was behind it. Almost overnight, colonies sprung up and wars were fought and one with Africa (famously, the British Empire fought a war with Zanzibar that lasted 38 minutes). A conference called in Berlin (called the Berlin Conference…damn, this bit of history has dull names) essentially declared the whole continent fair game, and by 1914 all but two countries in Africa were actually independent. Of those two, one was Liberia – essentially an American colony, if you remember – and the other was Ethiopia – which would later be invaded and almost conquered by Italy in 1936. When I say that colonialism affected every country in Africa, I really meant it.

A diamond mine in South Africa – when the black miners weren’t working they were locked up “to stop them stealing gems”.

As it turned out, African colonialism was not the shining pinnacle of “white-man-civilising-the-natives” it was made out to be. It was horrific, deadly and corrupt. In Southern Africa – the British bit – men like Cecil Rhodes carved out empires from blood and diamonds, enforcing de facto slave labour (miners were locked up when not working “to stop them sneaking the company’s gems out) and monopolising the precious metal and ore trade. In Namibia – the German bit – the very first extermination camp was built to surreptitiously dispose of Namibian ethnic groups (35 years before the Holocaust, and largely forgotten in its wake) And in the Congo – the Belgian bit, a huge chuck of Africa that had been cleverly turned into a corporate-run “Free Trade Zone” in which King Leopold of Belgium was the only shareholder – conditions were debatably worse: an importer famously realised that while the Congo was exporting rubber, coal, iron, gold, everything Africa was famous for, it was only importing guns and ammunition. A thorough investigation into the conditions revealed that the residents were being extorted into working for the King, and the death toll of this system – thought to be around 10,000,000 in only 23 years – is now enough to class it as an act of genocide. The bloody system had crippled Africa’s economy and dragged it kicking and screaming into the western world, and when decolonisation came – in the 1940s and 50s, imperialism thoroughly discredited by the imperialistic ambitions of Germany, Italy and Japan and nationalism made heroic by figures like Mohandas Ghandi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the British Raj, Herbert Macaulay in Nigeria and Soekarno in Indonesia – it left Africa depleted, with poor infrastructure and reliance of trade with its former imperial partners – a new kind of colonial rule.

Herbert Macauley, Nigerian nationalist, democrat, journalist, engineer, musician, moustache visionary.

Africa suffered under colonialism for a good part of its history, and that’s something that we have to remember when we look at the continent today. If you see a country deep in civil war, remember that the boundaries between countries were essentially made up by European officials during decolonisation in the 20th century. If you see a country destroying its rainforests to fuel its failing economy, remember the roots of that failing economy in European exploitation. If you see a seemingly backwards country filled with intolerance and zealous religion, remember whose actions caused that intolerance and instilled that religion. I wish I could now say that understanding this is the first step towards solving Africa’s problems, but it’s not. History doesn’t give us all the answers, because a) the future can’t be studied like the past can and b) Africa’s never going to be pre-colonial again.  The only thing we can viably do is learn, understand and support as an entire continent strives to find a safe place in the modern world. And that’s probably for the best.