Illustration: Disputed Seats © Misheck Masamvu 2008
INTERVIEWED RATHER GENTLY in October 1984 by Zimbabwe's Moto magazine about the "allegations" of his army's massacres of the Ndebele-speaking inhabitants of Matabeleland in the southwest of a liberated Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe claimed, "We have the army there to try and defend these helpless citizens."
In fact, what at first glance appeared to be an internecine conflict among demobilized former liberation fighters had turned into an all-out assault on Mugabe's political opposition and its civilian Ndebele ethnic base. Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU (Zimbabawe African People's Union), founded in 1961, and Mugabe's ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), which broke away from ZAPU in 1963, had both fought a successful guerilla war against Ian Smith's Rhodesian government. Mugabe's ZANU won the first post-independence elections in 1980, only to find its political dominance challenged in Matabeleland by Nkomo's Ndebele-based ZAPU. Intense political repression of Nkomo's supporters followed, in a process known as the Gukurahundi, which claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 civilians until the Unity Accord of 1987 merged the two parties into the current ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front).
At the time, Mugabe's shameful denials of what was really occurring in Matabeleland raised few eyebrows. Back then, Mugabe's status as a heroic anti-colonial liberator, and Zimbabwe's role as the poster child for a prosperous, well-governed, and stable postcolonial African state, went largely unquestioned, especially in the precincts of the international anti-colonial left. Not anymore. Still president 27 years later, Mugabe's denials can and should now be read as a chilling reminder that the depths to which his regime has sunk today had already been charted over a quarter-century ago.
Over the past decade, as the human rights situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated relentlessly, Mugabe's regime has received much unwanted attention. The crisis began in early 2000 with a referendum on the Zimbabwean constitution designed to entrench the power of Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF. Soundly defeated in the referendum by a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mugabe instituted "fast-track land reform" to shore up his rural political base, reward his cronies, and placate increasingly restive veterans of the Chimurenga, or Liberation War. In practice, much of this land reform consisted of state-sanctioned "farm invasions" of land owned by white commercial farmers, ostensibly led by destitute "war veterans" seeking long-overdue compensation for their service in the Liberation War. Unequal distribution of arable land certainly posed a severe problem in postliberation Zimbabwe, but in the chaos of a politically driven land reform program, many of the country's most productive farms fell into the hands of Mugabe cronies who didn't know a tobacco plant from a common weed. The result was economic catastrophe. In the two years after the invasions began, the number of employed farmworkers dropped from 350,000 to 100,000, the production of corn by 90 percent, and tobacco by over 60 percent.
In response to the land invasions, the subsequent collapse of the country's currency and foreign reserves, hyperinflation,...