The Colonial Roots of the Mugabe and Mnangagwa Governments in Zimbabwe

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The hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has been trending online.  The digital movement is a response to efforts by Zimbabwe’s government under the leadership of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s to thwart organised political opposition and the agenda of non-partisan political activists.  

For those newly attuned to Zimbabwe’s prolonged turmoil, a deeper look at the nation’s repressive colonial heritage illuminates the anti-democratic political culture underpinning this drive.  Zimbabwe’s two post-colonial leaders, Mnangagwa and his long-serving predecessor, Robert Mugabe, both entered Zimbabwean nationalist politics in the 1960s. During that era, they experienced treatment similar to that which their administrations have meted out to the opposition.

To fully understand the strategies of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) we therefore need to go back in time. One of the most overt examples of anti-democratic practice under Rhodesian (white minority) rule was the successive rapid-fire banning of several nationalist political parties in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

This is directly reflected in the government abuses of recent months. During this period, the leading opposition party, the MDC Alliance under Nelson Chamisa, lost access to its headquarters. Meanwhile, its MPs and youth leaders have been abducted, and a number of its MPs were expelled from parliament.

Reviewing the siege against Zimbabwe’s anti-colonial opposition thus offers important insights on the authoritarian climate that shaped the political thought – and later actions – of both Mugabe and Mnangagwa. 

Colonial Prohibitions

The Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC) was founded in 1957.  It is seen as the first of Zimbabwe’s ‘mass’ nationalist movements.  However, SRANC was a moderate body which affirmed its “loyalty to the [British] Crown as the symbol of national unity.” 

After it became more active in pan-African circles in the second half of 1958, it was banned by the Rhodesian authorities in February 1959.  Approximately 435 of its members or supporters were arrested at that time.  Some were detained without charge for four years.  Among those targeted were several members of Mugabe’s first cabinet.

Nearly a year after SRANC was proscribed, a successor body, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was formed in January 1960.  The NDP was considerably more militant than its predecessor.  Its constitution was explicitly pan-Africanist and the party adopted slogans like ‘One Man, One Vote’ and ‘Freedom Now’.  It was the first nationalist party that Robert Mugabe joined and he served on its executive. 

In December 1961 the party was banned on the same day that Tanganyika became independent.  The move may have been retribution for the NDP’s announcement at a recent party congress that it would not participate in the Rhodesian government’s program of limited electoral reform.


The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) was formed a week after the NDP was banned.  Its executive contained a number of new members as many leaders of the banned NDP, while not imprisoned, were prevented from attending political meetings or giving public talks for a period of three months. 

ZAPU was banned in September 1962 and was the first Zimbabwean nationalist party that Mnangagwa joined.  The prohibition came ahead of a general election and was likely designed to boost the ruling United Federal Party’s law and order bonafides as it faced a stiff challenge from the white right-wing. 

Following the banning of ZAPU, its executive became riven by internal turmoil.  ZANU was established in August 1963 after its leaders (including Mugabe) were unable to successfully depose ZAPU’s President, Joshua Nkomo.  ZANU only endured a year in legal existence before it was banned during the administration of Prime Minister Ian Smith.  Smith had recently come to power as a result of a cabinet revolt against his predecessor and was eager to appease his far-right supporters.  The colony’s leading newspaper catering to a black audience was proscribed at the same time as well.

The past of the present

Following this last ban in 1964, most of the nationalist political leadership was imprisoned or went into exile abroad until just before independence.  By the time of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, both Mugabe and Mnangagwa were confined, only to be released in the mid-1970s.

While ZANU-PF does not seem resolved at present to resurrect its calls of the 1980s for a one-party state, or explicitly outlaw opposition parties as the Rhodesians did, its actions appear designed to foster an outcome along those lines.  Mugabe often cited variants of the Maoist adage the power flows from the barrel of a gun, a position that Mnangagwa seems to have doubled down on.  The current repression in Zimbabwe reflects the formative environment that gave rise to these sentiments and in which the nation’s post-independence political leadership was forged. 

However, while history provides the background to the present turmoil, it does not guarantee that the cycle will endure.  ZANU-PF’s actions are also surely shaped by the knowledge that they were eventually able to shatter entrenched white rule.

Brooks Marmon recently completed a doctorate on this period of Zimbabwe’s history at the University of Edinburgh and is an incoming post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria.

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