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Finally, and most astonishingly, the editorial claims, “It is a fact, but barely relevant, that Britain’s colonialists bear much historical guilt.” Thus the role of British imperialism, the crimes committed in its name and its enduring legacy, are written off as “barely relevant”. But how is it possible to understand present events in Zimbabwe or anywhere else without a knowledge of history—and of the impact of British imperialism’s oppression of the African masses?
The former name of Zimbabwe—Southern Rhodesia—reminds us that from 1889 to 1922 the country was run as a British mandate by a commercial company set up by royal charter—Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSA). All the wealth of the country passed into the hands of the British invaders. On 12 September 1890 Rhodes raised the British flag and formally “took possession” of Mashonaland and all it contained. When he conquered the Ndebele region by military invasion, the opposition of the indigenous people was declared “a rebellion” and virtually all their land and cattle passed into white hands.
When Matabeleland was subjugated, villages were burnt down to make room for the white settlers and for mining camps. Labour was made available for the mines and the land through the imposition of a labour-tax law. In 1896 the Ndebele uprising against BSA rule was brutally crushed. Landless peasants were forced to live in “locations” in areas of the country devoid of fertile soil, water and wild game. The Saturday Review of August 26, 1896 wrote, “Permanent peace there cannot be in countries like Mashona and Matabeleland until the blacks are either exterminated or driven into the centre of Africa.” That was the spirit of the rule of the BSA on behalf of the British colonial power.
This was the way that British rule began in Southern Rhodesia. It is but a small part of Britain’s colonial history, which the Guardian editorial insists is “barely relevant”.
The legacy of Rhodes continued in the twentieth century. From 1923 Southern Rhodesia, though still part of the British Empire, became a self-governing colony, ruled by the white minority. Seven years later the Land Apportionment Act made it illegal for Africans to own or rent property in towns in the greater part of the country. A formal colour bar in employment was introduced in 1934, under the Industrial Conciliation Act, which excluded “natives” from the definition of “employees”.
After the Second World War tens of thousands of British immigrants arrived in Southern Rhodesia and settled on land that had been designated as “white” areas by driving Africans from their homes. The Rhodesian authorities attempted to crush the rising nationalist challenge. In 1959 the African National Congress (ANC) was banned and hundreds of activists were imprisoned.
In 1965 the Ian Smith government signed a proclamation declaring its independence from Britain. The limited rights that Africans had achieved in the previous period were withdrawn. The Zanu and Zapu national movements were banned and their supporters incarcerated.
As the liberation struggle developed, thousands of Africans were uprooted from their homes and herded into “new villages” to cut off food and information from the guerrilla forces. New pass laws were introduced that limited the right of Africans to enter the towns. During the whole period of the Smith regime, the country was covertly supported by British capitalism, animated by the knowledge that its interests were being protected.
In 1980 Mugabe came to power, having led the bitter liberation struggle against the white rulers and being imprisoned by the Smith regime for 10 years. He was elected as president of Zimbabwe after the Lancaster House agreement of 1979, which was designed to safeguard British interests and the white farmers in the face of massive social and political resistance. Two years later the British turned a blind eye to his brutal suppression of the political opposition in Matabeleland. This was no doubt an example of the West’s “double standards” that the Guardian is so eager to dismiss.