Volume 5, Number 123
4 June 2005

Editor's Note

The next two issues of The Quaker Economist will focus on Zimbabwe, a state in southern Africa that is now heading into a full-blown humanitarian and governmental crisis. This issue by Jack Powelson sets the stage for our analysis, with a look at the history of Zimbabwe and the recent events leading up to the present crisis. In the following issue we are honored to present an overview of a plan for the reconstruction and recovery of Zimbabwe by Norman Reynolds, the former chief economist of Zimbabwe from 1981 to 1986. This plan has unique (some would say radical) features that will be of interest to readers of The Quaker Economist. — Loren Cobb.

Zimbabwe: Background of the Crisis

by Jack Powelson

Zimbabwe (in red)

Dear Friends,

In order to understand what is happening in Zimbabwe today, it is well to know a bit of history.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the map of Africa was fluid. Tribes seldom recognized fixed boundaries. When a tribe migrated (sometimes into empty land, sometimes ousting the previous occupants), the chief allocated land in the same relative positions as in the tribe's previous location. Killing enemies and stealing their cattle were considered honorable occupations.

In 1817, the Zulus lived mainly along the southern coast of Africa, pretty much where they are today. Population pressures caused a need for expansion, so they conquered other tribes. They moved westward, defeating their neighbors the Xhosa. In protest against their despotic leader Shaka, other Zulus — led by Mzilizaki — migrated northward. Along the way, they displaced other tribes, who joined them in moving further north. The Tswana are credited with calling Mzilikazi's warriors the Ndebele, though at first they were all Zulus. The whole movement, which shook up southern Africa, is known as the mfecane. After they had reached the Zambezi River they drove the previous peaceful occupants, the Shona, to the east. The Shona and the Ndebele have since found a way to live together in one country, though tensions remain. Two-thirds of the population of modern Zimbabwe speak Shona.

Click to enlarge [note]
Conical tower of Zimbabwe

British Colonial Era

When the British first occupied that land in the 1860s, they found the remains of a medieval stone city called "The Great Zimbabwe." Thinking the black Africans were not intelligent enough to be architects of such a fine city, they presumed that a previous white civilization had lived there. However, the weight of archeological evidence points to the Shona as the builders of the walled city.

In 1885, European governments met in Berlin to define their colonial boundaries. These on-paper boundaries often split tribes. After independence (c. 1963) the new governments insisted on keeping their colonial boundaries, since each refused to give up any territory. Thus, with a few exceptions, the Congress of Berlin (not the Africans) created the post-independence map of Africa.

In 1923, the British government purchased what is now Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia, from the British South Africa Company, when the BSAC had given up on Cecil Rhodes' dream of a railroad from Cape Town to Cairo. Although arable land occupies only 8.2% of total land (World Fact Book, 2005), this small percentage is extremely fertile and is where the British farmers mainly settled. They considered the lands unoccupied, but the constantly migrating Africans also claimed them.


In 1962, Ian Douglas Smith's party was elected, and he was made prime minister (1964-79). He negotiated with the British government to keep Rhodesia white, but gave up this effort in 1965 by issuing a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. But the cries of Black nationaIism became so loud that Smith gave in with another election in 1972, in which Bishop Abel Muzorewa of the Ndebele was elected prime minister. The country was renamed Zimbabwe. In the election of 1980 Muzorewa was succeeded by Robert Mugabe, a popular freedom fighter. Mugabe named himself president in 1987 and grew extremely jealous of his power, so much so that some psychologists have suggested a mental illness.

Since 1991 the history of Zimbabwe has been clouded by repeated attempts at land reform, all of which have failed in one way or another. The latest land redistribution effort of 2000-2001 has been particularly disastrous (see Fast Track Land Reform, from Human Rights Watch, 14, no. 1A). Many white farmers left the country, and agricultural production plummeted — and with it Zimbabawe's main export item, crops.

The HIV-AIDS epidemic hit Zimbabwe with particular virulence, primarily due to governmental denial and incompetence. Current estimates of the HIV infection rate among adults in Zimbabwe range from 20% to 35%. Note that this implies that as many as one in three adults now living in Zimbabwe may die within the next five years. This is a public health catastrophe for Africa of a severity comparable only to the Great Plague of medieval Europe.

Current Situation

According to the London Times Online (June 2, 2005), the capital city Harare "remains in chaos after a violent week of police and army raids during which nearly 23,000 people have been arrested and thousands of homes destroyed in what the government has called a clean-up operation. Thousands more residents of Zimbabwe's capital have been made homeless and are said to be fleeing to the countryside to escape the bulldozers that have razed their shantytown homes and shops."

In the same issue, an opposition leader stated: "Property worth millions of dollars has gone up in flames. Families are out in the open — without jobs, without income, without shelter, without support. Overnight, Zimbabwe has a massive internal refugee problem in its urban areas."

Until now, Mugabe has refused foreign aid. On June 2, 2005, however, he agreed with a United Nations representative that food aid was needed.

In the next issue, we will have a report by Norman K. Reynolds, a distinguished economist who served as chief economist of Zimbabwe while Mugabe was still prime minister (1981-86).

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments:

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What will happen to southern Africa if Zimbabwe collapses? Will the region become more unstable, resulting in wide-spread civil disturbances, failing governments, mass displacements? Are Zimbabwe's neighbors stable? Are they willing to help Zimbabwe become stable, or would they become embroiled in a scramble for territory or resources? Would tribalism override democracy (if, in fact, democracy is the rule)?

Who now owns or controls the arable land? Why did farming fail? What effect will Zimbabwe's implosion have on the economies of the rest of Africa, the rest of the world?

Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

— M. C. McLemore (Sofie One Crow), Pennsylvania.

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Publisher: Russell Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2005 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

The image of Great Zimbabwe has been copied from Wikipedia under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Copyleft 1997 by Jan Derk.

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