The British Empire Library

Catastrophe: What Went Wrong In Zimbabwe?

by Richard Bourne

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr Jonathan Lawley (Northern Rhodesia/Zambia 1959-69)
Richard Bourne's well-written book on the background to what Zimbabwe has become is remarkable for its attention to detail on both people and events. It is historically comprehensive and gives readers a good understanding of the background issues which led to the subsequent failures and failings. The book rightly and accurately focuses on the historical roles of the main players including Robert Mugabe, Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo, Peter Carrington and Christopher Soames. Many other lesser players feature, including a good number mainly black, who are not nearly so well known even in their own country.

The book to my mind is not so strong in giving adequate weight to the importance of attitudes amongst both blacks and whites and particularly to how the latter's mindset and attitudes led first to the failure of the Central African Federation and then to the war of independence. Prime Minister Garfield Todd and Governor Sir Humphrey Gibbs who tried to swim against this tide and whose policies, had they been implemented, might have led to more peaceful outcomes get scant mention. By the same token there is the key importance of the hugely damaging minutiae of white racism including so call 'pinpricks' and the almost suicidal but often routine humiliation of blacks. I learned in Northern Rhodesia of the unanimous rejection by the locals of anything that smacked of domination by whites in the south. Then there was the failure of successive British governments to take a stronger line over the failure of Southern Rhodesian whites to put "partnership" into practice when they had just voted for it in a referendum.

Richard Bourne accurately describes the issues and personalities featuring at Lancaster House. He does not however mention the indispensable role of retired Colonial Service DCs, particularly those who had served in Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, as British election supervisors in the independence elections, which brought a longed-for peace and the chance of a new beginning.

These officers whose job it was to get on with everybody were uniquely qualified and successful in getting the Rhodesian administrators, the nationalist politicians and the traditional chiefs to work together.

Again on a point of emphasis on what led to the catastrophe. Bourne does not do justice to what I thought was the damage done to their own cause by negative attitudes of many whites in the years following independence. This was complemented by New Labour patronisation and condescension which seriously irritated Mugabe. To my mind Zimbabwe was doing so well. Hardly mentioned are people like Chris Andersen (spelt Anderson by Bourne) who saw clearly the damage done by all the negativity and courageously joined the Mugabe government.

Bourne writes of the close links between Mugabe and the war veterans. Yet it was surely the fact that at first he had largely ignored them and then tried to re-ingratiate himself with them that led directly to the disaster of the land invasions. Finally mention might be made of the large number of Zimbabweans black and white with qualifications and perspectives born of experience who are now playing vital roles in all fields of activity throughout southern Africa and the wider world.

British Empire Book
Richard Bourne
NBN International
978 1 8481 3521 5


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