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Lessons for Mthwakazi from postcolonial Africa

Zimbabwean politics, like the rest of postcolonial Africa, is a dehumanising experience for African masses who are victims of the transferred executive powers from the colonial governments to black elites (that is to say, people in important positions in society such as political leadership, business, finance, religion, or the military). There are valuable political lessons for Matabeleland movements from the postcolonial Zimbabwe. The problem for modern Zimbabwe has not been only poor economic performance but a breakdown in the legitimacy and political viability of the country.

Zimbabwe of today: An overview

It is imperative for Mthwakazi politicians to pay attention to history to understand why postcolonial Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, remains no closer to independence today than it was at least four decades ago, and understanding why its politics has not delivered better conditions and opportunities for many people is fundamental to the future of Mthwakazi.

Alberto Pecoraro (2012) argues that the failure of Africa’s states originates from the adoption, at independence, of an oppressive political structure, the colonial state, by an alliance of elites during a period where African polities had been completely new to the concept of a modern sovereign state.

Understanding The Colonial State

Comprehending the politics of the territory’s colonial predecessor – Rhodesia – is fundamental to our understanding of the behaviour and failure of the ZANU PF government and the subsequent state failure. Rhodesia was effectively a military and administrative entity which focussed, almost exclusively, at extracting resources for the economic development of the metropolitan area. It was an exclusive entity that sealed off the black majority from corridors of power – black people were not allowed a vote. Significantly, the state exhibited an institutional system of accumulation of executive power in which unaccountable colonial bureaucrats held both decision-making and implementation roles.

Rhodesian state’s preferred system of indirect rule meant its involvement with the mostly rural confined African society was very minimal, in turn rural masses rarely dealt with the state. That absence of effective interaction oversaw the development of a state based on domination rather than legitimacy and an authoritarian political culture that considered violence, patronage and corruption as normal tools of maintaining control over the masses.

On gaining independence, Robert Mugabe the leader of ZANU PF, head of state and admirer of a one-party state inherited the Rhodesian structures. This meant keeping intact the structures of coercion and administration with subsequent outcomes being the suppression of pluralism, a flawed electoral process and evident lack of progress in the way of decentralisation of power. A major event of the time was the state-sanctioned Gukurahundi genocide in which tens of thousands of Matabeleland/ Mthwakazi unarmed civilians were tortured and/ or murdered by a specialist military unit – 5th Brigade between April 1983 and April 1984.

Britain paid a blind eye as Mugabe remained their important link to their economic activities in the former colony. While the government attempted to improve access to public services in rural areas, the central government system retained its exclusively extractive nature in which the extraction of revenue for the benefit of a restricted group of privileged individuals continued unabated.


We must emphasise the elitist component of the leadership of the movement for independence; this was a small group of educated (Westernised) Africans, who had been kept away from good jobs and political power by the racist bias of the colonial state (Gordon, 2007 cited in Pecoraro, 2012). In Zimbabwe’s case, the majority of Africans who engaged in subsistence farming were not initially involved in the struggle for independence but followed later when they were mobilised by the elite. This was arguably a collaboration of convenience with superficial understanding of what independence would mean for the different groups.

We note with concern similarities with the Mthwakazi movement where the majority of the leadership is urban based and policies biased against rural masses. The only convergence in interests is opposition to ZANU PF but it is not clear if there are agreements or whether there are shared interests in what the different constituencies expect of their Mthwakazi. We cannot afford a repeat where national policies are nothing but impositions of a privileged small group.

Postcolonial leadership: Zimbabwean Experience    

As expected, there were winners and losers in Zimbabwe’s independence; winners were the often urban-based African elites who enjoyed access to the sources of political power and economic wealth. The losers on the other hand were the non-westernised rural masses who were left on the margins during the process of independence. Zimbabwe of today with its apparent dealings with the West and China recently has been privatised by the elites for their own means, thus continuing a tradition of plunder and injustice.


Pitfalls of Zimbabwe’s process of independence are apparent for Mthwakazi to learn from. In this article we highlighted the colonial predatory state structures that have been inherited without alteration by the ZANU PF government and the unaccountable Zimbabwean elites who have succeeded the European administrators after independence. Excluding masses from real power leaves a country open to the whims of the elites and stunts progress. The Mthwakazi movement must be rid of elitism and be run by the people for the people. Executive power must be decentralised for the movement to be a true reflection of national interest.

READ MORE: PECORARO, A (2012) What are the Political Causes of Failed States in Sub-Saharan Africa?


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