Zimbabwe and Where it All Went Wrong

The people shall govern

Fungai Kumbula | 12/5/2017, 2:29 p.m.
Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe's second president on Nov. 24, replacing his former boss Robert Mugabe who had ...
Members of the Zimbabwean Parliament in Harare celebrate after Robert Mugabe’s resignation. (AP photo)

Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe's second president on Nov. 24, replacing his former boss Robert Mugabe who had led the nation in southern Africa since it gained political independence from Britain in 1980. For more than a decade, but more increasingly as the 1970's came to a close, Zanla and Zipra guerrillas had waged a war to give the African-majority the right to vote, a right that the successive settler colonial governments denied them.

So, when Mugabe was finally sworn in as Zimbabwe's first African prime minister in 1980, his election, seen as the culmination of the war, was cheered by millions not only in Zimbabwe but throughout Africa and the wider African community. Sadly, the circumstances surrounding his departure can only have left all these people wondering as to where it all went wrong.

I returned to Zimbabwe in 1981, leaving friends and colleagues at Portland State University (Black Studies and Biology Departments, African Students Association), Portland Observer, KOAP-TV, Black United Front, Talking Drum Bookstore, church, high school and other community groups and neighbors in northeast Portland.

Like thousands of others making the trek back home, I felt we had the golden opportunity to show the world how a modern African economy can be run, having learned from the errors our brothers and sisters on the Continent had made, errors that hobbled Africa's development in spite of an abundance of riches.

The early years were encouraging: I remember bragging about the laboratory facilities at the University of Zimbabwe Medical School's Department of Immunology, where I worked, that they were comparable to those I had had access to at the then Charles Drew Post-Graduate Medical School at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles.

The words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “These truths are self-evident that all men (and women) are created equal with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were reverberating in my head, as they did to fellow returning residents in other sectors who were just as impressed.

Though coming off a protracted war, Zimbabwe's economy in the early going was still second only to apartheid South Africa's. Hope was infectious; everybody rolled up their sleeves and went to work and for the next decade. It seemed Zimbabwe's economy had started on a sustained upward trajectory. Zimbabwe was then known as the breadbasket of the 14-member Southern Africa Development Community and we used to entertain our brothers and sisters from around Africa traveling to Zimbabwe on shopping trips.

We also had experts from all over Africa, the U.N. and the rest of the world working in the country. With South Africa still under minority apartheid (Jim Crow) rule, Zimbabwe became an example to the efforts to resolve South Africa’s problems. One of the most damning indictments of Mugabe's 37 years at the helm was that Zimbabwe's 2017 gross domestic product had shrunk to half of what it had been in 1997. Even discounting population growth, these figures imply, on average, that every Zimbabwean is 50 percent poorer today than 20 years ago.