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The Revolt of Zimbabwean Masses

Part I: How Did It All Begin?

by Lorenzo Peña (18 April 2000 -
on the 20th anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence)

Copyright © 2000 Lorenzo Peña

Such as look down upon the masses with disdain or, at best, condescension are amazed by recent events in Zimbabwe and tend to view the whole issue as merely an attempt by aging and increasingly discredited President Robert Mugabe to regain popularity.

Several years ago sundry people blamed President Mugabe for failing to redress the lingering injustices of the colonial era. The authorities in Harare replied that such a dismal legacy could not be reversed or altered overnight. But of course nobody had demanded an immediate overturn of the whole fabric of social relations in Zimbabwe. We had only complained over social immobilism many years after independence.

Now, at last, things are changing. Such an apparently sudden upheaval is portrayed in the media as the outcome of political manoeuvering by the Harare government, which has set its retinue in motion in order to wrench some land from the white owners and thus claim at least limited success in social progressive reforms the Zimbabwe people had, for decades, yearned for.

In fact, though, things are much more complicated. The main actors are the masses themselves. It is the poor people of the Zimbabwean countryside, old and young, female and male, not just the liberation war veterans, who little by little have come to think that enough is enough and that the government's tactics of procrastination and vague promises of future legislation cannot be trusted or relied upon any longer.

But how did it all begin?
In recent precolonial times two main ethnic groups used to inhabit Zimbabwe: the Ndebele and the Shona. According to Shona oral traditions, their priest Chaminuka predicted a white invasion and was put to death by the Ndebele ruler, Lobengula, on account of such a dangerous prophecy. Whether that was true or not, Lobengula -- who was the Ndebele king at the outbreak of the Anglo-Ndebele war of 1893 -- had went to great lengths to appease the increasingly aggressive British imperialists and the white settlers attacking Zimbabwe from the South (the then independent Boer states and, mainly, the Cape British-dominated colony, led by Cecil Rhodes).

Lobengula had mounted the throne in 1870 and already at that stage had granted a mining concession to Thomas Baines of Durban Gold Mining Co. in order to diffuse white intervention.

However, the Europeans grew more and more threatening and covetous in later years, especially after the Berlin imperialist conference of 1884-5, which unleashed the scramble for colonial domination into the whole black continent.

In 1885 the British crown imposed a so-called protectorate on neighbouring Bechuanaland; upon which white settlers embarked on an invasion of the land.

In 1888 Rhodes sent his partner and agent Rudd to compel Lobengula to acquiesce to an important mining concession. This Lobengula did only to realize (too late) that the white invaders had thus driven the thin end of their wedge. Lobengula was thus pushed into reluctant resistance by white greedy rapacity.

Despite the Ndebele king's repeal of the concession, Rhodes -- supported by the British crown -- enacted a charter of the newly created British South Africa Company investing it with an array of rights (rights that of course the British were not legally entitled to exercise or to bestow on anybody): the right to make treaties, to pass laws and to subject the natives to its police force, as well as to make grants of minerals and land to white settlers. Nothing of the sort had been countenanced by the Rudd concession, even before it was revoked by the Zimbabwean authorities.

Thereupon, each settler was given a 3,000 acre farm (plus 15 gold-mining claims) -- by those who had no legal right to give what was not theirs.

In 1891 the London Government officially recognized the Company's occupation and issued the Mashonaland Order in Council. A British governor took possession of the Zimbabwean land on behalf of Queen Victoria. The leader of the white settlers' Column, Dr. Jameson, behaved with ruthless harshness, imposing forced labour upon the Shona populations, which hitherto had almost willingly accepted white invasion as a means of escaping from Ndebele supremacy.

When the whites found out that no gold was to be discovered there, they became more brutal and predatory. Each white settler was then granted a 6,000 acres farm.

Lobengula could not just stand by. He was no valorous patriot, but he could not renounce a feeling of national dignity. He would not become a mere stooge at the hands of the white settlers. Upon an incident at Fort Victoria in 1893, the British troops invaded the whole Zimbabwean territory. Thus began the Ndebele War of Resistance of 1893.

The Zimbabweans were defeated by superior European gun-fire at the two battles of Shangani River and Mbembezi. The conquerors took advantage of the natives' inner divisions, with people of the low castes remaining passive and even some traitors helping the invaders.

The ferocious oppression by the British conquerors became so appalling in later years that it probably outdid most other colonial situations in the late 19th century (barring King Leopold's rule in Congo which killed some 10 million people -- perhaps the greatest genocide in history).

The aftermath of the British conquest in Zimbabwe was that cattle was seized from the natives, their land taken, and such soil plots as were left to them they were often forcibly prevented from ploughing and sowing, since the Blacks were subjected to tax-collection and coerced labour in white-owned farms.

Famine ensued. Three years later, the Zimbabwean people rose up in arms against the colonial yoke.

By March 1899 the whites had seized 15,762,364 acres. Woeful though the predicament of the land labourers was under such a colonialist occupation, the most heart-rendering plight was the miners'. Between 1900 and 1920 18,000 black miners were to die in Zimbabwe, the victims of bad food, flogging, awful dwelling conditions, accidents and disease. After several strikes, a Master and Servants Law was enacted by the British Royal authorities making it a criminal offense to break a labour contract.

The Zimbabwean people revolted against their white masters. In March 1896 huge masses of the population rose up in arms under a variegated leadership, including Mkwati, a shona ex-slave and a Mwari High God priest. That rebellion is called in Zimbabwean history `the Chi Murenga of 1896'.

The uprising was crushed by the British, who to that end resorted to dynamiting broad areas wherein the natives' defensive caves had become militarily unassailable. The battle of Gwindingwi, which went on for two months (August and September 1896), was one of the greatest feats of that war.

Many leaders of the uprising, including the priests Kagubi and Nehenda, were captured and put to death. A huge number of prisoners were executed.

However, after the 1896 insurrection the white colonizers became a little more cautious. (The hut tax was set at 1 pound rather than, as initially planned, 2 pounds.)

New revolts took place in later years, though. Mapondera was the head of a Shona rebellion in 1900-1903. He was also defeated at long last and, mistreated, died in jail.

(Main source: A HISTORY OF AFRICA, 1840-1914, by Michael Tidy with Donald Leeming, London: E. Arnold, 1981.)

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Lorenzo Peña
Director de ESPAÑA ROJA