The Role of Colonial Legacies in the 2017 Zimbabwe Crisis

zimbabweBy Carissa Chew

This article, which is informed by two public lectures about the Zimbabwean political crisis that were held at the University of Edinburgh in the week beginning 20 November, discusses the role of colonial legacies in recent Zimbabwean political affairs. Firstly, this article provides a summary of the Zimbabwean crisis for the reader who is not familiar with the timeline of events. Secondly, it offers a historical explanation for the political crisis’ unusual features, with particular reference to Dr George Hamandishe Karekwaivanane’s recent research on the historical continuities in Zimbabwean law and politics in the period 1950 to 2008. The peculiarities in these political developments upon which this article will focus include: the military ‘not coup’; the overall lack of violence; the continued reverence of Robert Mugabe despite his failings; and the air of legality given to the entire episode. This article intends to demonstrate that these recent events reflect broader trends in Zimbabwean history, and thus in order to comprehend the unusual way that the events of November 2017 have unfolded, it is essential to recognise that they have historical roots in the colonial era.

As the crisis was unfolding, two roundtable discussions regarding the developments in Zimbabwean politics took place at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to Mugabe’s resignation, the Edinburgh Political Union hosted ‘Zimbabwe: Explaining the Crisis’ on Monday 20 November; and following his resignation, the Centre of African Studies hosted ‘Law, Politics and Activism in Zimbabwe’ on Wednesday 22 November. Both events welcomed a panel of experts to shed light on the unfolding crisis. The first panel consisted of three members of the University of Edinburgh: Dr Sarah Dorman, who is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and author of Understanding Zimbabwe: From Liberation to Authoritarianism (2016); Bakani Dube who is Zimbabwean student at the University; and Dr Leila Sinclair-Bright who is a Career Development Fellow at the School of Social Anthropology. Sara Dorman also appeared on the second panel, alongside Dr George Hamandishe Karekwaivanane and Dr Alex Magaisa. Karekwaivanane is from the University of Edinburgh Centre of African Studies, and recently launched his book The Struggle over state power in Zimbabwe: law and politics since 1950 (2017). Magaisa is a Zimbabwean lawyer from Kent Law School who played a key role in the drafting of the Constitution of Zimbabwe from 2011 to 2012 and is the author of ‘Saturday Big Read’, a blog about Zimbabwean law and politics.

At these two events, the main topics of discussion were Grace Mugabe, the nature of the military ‘coup’, Robert Mugabe’s resignation, and the national and international responses to the crisis. The panellists dedicated a significant proportion of their discussion, particularly in response to questions from the audience, to speculating about the future of Zimbabwean politics. This article, however, will maintain a historical focus: building upon some of the key points that the panellists made concerning the historical roots of the events, it will explore the colonial legacies in Zimbabwe as an analytical framework through which the political developments witnessed in November 2017 can be understood. The panellists agreed that the crisis must be recognised as a continuation of previous historical developments in the country. As Karekwaivanane poignantly remarked, this is ‘not the dawn of a new era, but the dawn of a new error’ in Zimbabwean history.


During November 2017, the world witnessed Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule of Zimbabwe come to a sudden and chaotic end. Although the end of 93-year-old President Mugabe’s leadership of the ruling party ZANU-PF had become increasingly anticipated due to his old age, in his long career Mugabe had refused to ever name a successor and hence the question of who would succeed him as president has been the cause of great anxiety in twenty-first century Zimbabwean politics. The recent political crisis was triggered by Mugabe’s decision to dismiss Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 6 November. This was extremely controversial because it was interpreted as an attempt to aid the presidential ambitions of Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace Mugabe, a divisive political figure who has been accused of trying to borrow her husband’s powers. Mugabe attempted to justify his decision by condemning Mnangagwa as ‘deceitful’ and ‘disloyal’. However, in recent years, it had become increasingly apparent that Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s most likely successor, and thus his dismissal unsurprisingly fuelled speculation that the President was in fact attempting to facilitate his wife’s rise to power.

The removal of Mnangagwa aggravated the military elite in particular, who were already disgruntled by Mugabe’s purging of former allies in the party. The Zimbabwean military have had a long-standing belief that Zimbabwe’s ‘revolution’ will be undermined if the country is not headed by somebody who was involved in the liberation struggle. Moreover, anxieties over Grace’s influence were heightened in October when it was announced that the ZANU-PF constitution would be changed to ensure that one of the country’s two vice presidents would be female. On 13 November, at a press conference in Harare, army chief Constantino Chiwenga stated that ‘the current purging which is clearly targeting members of the party with liberation backgrounds must stop forthwith’ and warned that ‘when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in’. The following day, on 14 November, military tanks were seen on the outskirts of the capital and gunshots were heard outside Mugabe’s residence that night. In a televised statement, Major General Sibusiso Moyo announced that the military were ‘only targeting criminals around [Mugabe]’, and stated: ‘We wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover’. However, by the early hours of 15 November military vehicles had taken control of the streets of Harare, and were controlling access to the Supreme Court, parliament and the ruling party headquarters. In a phone call to the South African president Jacob Zuma, Mugabe revealed that he was under house arrest but was safe and unharmed.

Army generals urged Mugabe to resign, but on 16 November it was reported that he had refused. On 17 November he made a public appearance at a university graduation ceremony as if everything was normal, and negotiations continued. Veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation war called for anti-Mugabe street protests to occur the following day, and eight out of ten of the regional branches of ZANU-PF called for his resignation. 18 November witnessed thousands of peaceful protesters taking to the streets to demand Mugabe’s resignation. On 19 November, Mugabe was issued an ultimatum: he must resign as president by noon on Monday 20 November or face impeachment. Later that day, Zimbabweans expectantly watched a live televised address by the President in which they assumed he was to announce his resignation, but the public were surprised and disappointed to hear Mugabe state that he would preside over the ZANU-PF December congress.

The deadline for Mugabe’s resignation passed, and ZANU-PF began to prepare for the impeachment process. On 21 November, however, the impeachment preparations came to a sudden halt after a speaker of parliament read out Mugabe’s letter of resignation. The letter emphasised that the decision to stand down was voluntary and that the handover of power was smooth and peaceful. ZANU-PF were quick to appoint Mnangagwa as the next president, and his inauguration ceremony was held at the National Sport Stadium in Harare on 24 November.


Many leading academics have deemed that the Zimbabwean military takeover was an ‘unconstitutional coup’ by definition. One of the main questions that arises concerning the political crisis, therefore, is why a concerted effort was made to give the event an air of legality. Why did the military make the effort to announce their intervention and deny that it was a ‘coup’? As Dr George Hamandishe Karekwaivanane explained on 22 November, this peculiarity can be better understood by looking at the continued importance of legality and constitutionalism in Zimbabwean history. The painstaking effort taken to ‘dress the whole saga in legality’ belongs to a broader trend. In his book, The Struggle over state power in Zimbabwe, Karekwaivanane recognises that ‘the law has been a central means by which power has been instrumentalised in Zimbabwean history’.

In the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company first demarcated the territory of South Zambezi, which became known as Rhodesia in 1895. The territory was administered as a protectorate until it was annexed by the British in 1923, becoming Southern Rhodesia. This self-governing British colony lasted for 42 years, and as was the case in other African colonies, the colonial regime was in many ways discriminatory and oppressive toward the indigenous population. One key example, as an article by R. Hill and Y. Katarere explains, is the colonial land policies which alienated native people from much of the land, effectively beginning a cycle of ‘resettlement, resource exploitation and degradation, ultimately leading to livelihood insecurity and resource-based conflict’ in Rhodesia. Karekwaivanane explains that law was one of the key instruments by which the colonial state effected land dispossession, undercut agrarian livelihoods, and compelled Africans into wage labour – thus creating a cheap source of African labour for the plantations, mines and industries. Legislation, such as pass laws, vagrancy laws, and the Masters and Servants Act ‘enabled employees to establish stringent disciplinary regimes in the workplace and compel Africans to work despite the sub-economic wages and the poor living and working conditions’.

Karekwaivanane argues that in the period 1950 to 1980, law was used in the response to the rise of African nationalism, of which there are numerous examples: the Subversive Activities Act (1950); the Public Order Act (1955); the Unlawful Organisations Act (1959), the Preventative Detention Act (1959); the Law and Order Maintenance Act (1960), which was amended 12 times by 1979; and the Emergency Powers Act (1960), which was amended 32 times by 1979. These laws and their amendments criminalised all forms of political dissent in the colonial era, and the increasingly repressive legislation was justified by colonial tropes about Africans. Karekwaivanane argues that an intimate relationship has existed between law and violence in Zimbabwe: studies of corporal punishment reveal that ideas about racial difference were embedded in colonial legal systems. Law underwrote some of the most extreme cases of violence toward the end of colonial rule, often through states of emergency that sanctioned the use of brutal methods of quelling African political opposition. The colonial authorities also employed the law in subtler ways – and this has been a topic of discussion within the historiography since the 1990s. For example, the courts can be understood as sites of performances, and the law has been employed discursively. Karekwaivanane concludes that ‘the operation of law in colonial Africa was often simultaneously repressive and productive, coercive and constitutive’.

The British maintained a policy of ‘no independence before majority rule’, but by the 1960s they were struggling to suppress the independence movement from within the white-dominated Cabinet of Rhodesia known as the Rhodesian Front. In 1965, the Rhodesian Front issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), which declared that the territory was an independent sovereign state named Rhodesia. The UDI marked the beginning of the period of white minority rule in Zimbabwe, which lasted for 14 years. However, the United Kingdom deemed the UDI illegal and introduced mandatory trade embargos in 1966. The United Nations likewise condemned the independence declaration, stating that it had been ‘made by a racist minority’, and so also imposed economic sanctions upon the country in 1968.

White minority rule was not only a point of contention on the international stage, however. Zimbabweans were frustrated by their continued subjugation, and so in July 1964, a civil war broke out between Ian Smith’s white minority government, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). This is known as the Rhodesian Bush War or Zimbabwean War of Liberation, and was not settled until 1979. Karekwaivanane identifies that the assumption of power by the Rhodesian Front led to a decisive shift in the government’s use of law away from legitimation toward coercion: ‘The period witnessed the build up of a substantial legal armoury which was used to ruthlessly suppress African political dissent’.

Although a military victory was never achieved, the prolonged civil war was finally settled when the Lancaster House Agreement was signed in December 1979. New elections were held under the British Commonwealth, and Robert Mugabe, as head of ZANU, became the first Prime Minister of independent Zimbabwe.

Contrary to the expectations of newly independent Zimbabweans, however, rule under Mugabe was not so different to rule under the British colonial government or the white minority Cabinet. Ugandan author Mahmood Mamdani also highlights that ‘the social realities of the newly independent state remained embedded in an earlier historical period’. Approximately six thousand white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of prime land, while 4.5 million African farmers owned only 16.4 million hectares of land. Moreover, the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 had reserved 20% of the seats in the House of Assembly for the whites, who made up only 3% of the country’s population. Furthermore, the brutal repression of political opposition continued. In the early years of independence, ZAPU had retained its popularity in the south west of the country. In 1985 Mugabe attempted to strengthen ZANU rule by sending the Fifth Brigade to purge the dissidents in Matabeleland, where ZAPU retained much support. Between 20,000 and 50,000 people were slaughtered, many tortured. This mass slaughter was followed by the signing of the Unity Accord, which saw the joining of ZANU and ZAPU to form the Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in 1987. Blanket amnesty was granted to the perpetrators of the violence, and Mugabe was elevated as the leader of ZANU-PF. Mugabe even tried to block the lawsuit for the victims of 1985.

At the conference on Monday 20 November, an audience member asked the question: ‘What has been the biggest hindrance for growth in Zimbabwe?’ Zimbabwean student Bakani Dube replied, stating that although the government would blame economic sanctions and Western imperialism, these issues have been used as scapegoats to mask the real problem: political corruption. For example, in 1999 Mugabe revised the Lancaster House agreement, which enabled him to stay in power for two more terms and ensured immunity from prosecution for political and military leaders accused of committing crimes in office. Furthermore, the 2000 elections were fixed by the government, and laws were passed that granted local agencies powers to defeat opponents of land reform. Mamdani explains: ‘Denouncing his adversaries in the trade unions and NGOs as servants of the old white ruling class, Mugabe authorised the militias and state security agencies to hand down opposition, as repression and reform went hand in hand’.

Karekweivane argues that Mugabe’s government embraced many of the legal practices of the settler state, and justifies this statement by identifying a range of examples: Broadcasting Services Act (2001); The Political Parties (Financing) Act 2001; The Public Order and Security Act (2002); Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002); Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (2004); Constitutional Amendment No.17 (2005); Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act Amendment (2006); and Interception of Communication Act (2007). These laws parallel the aforementioned repressive laws introduced by the colonial regime. In fact, the Public Order Act (2002) was worse than the corresponding colonial law. Under Mugabe, therefore, governmental powers became increasingly repressive, and the law continued to be used to legitimise government actions and eliminate political dissent.

Nevertheless, Mugabe has remained highly respected and popular among Zimbabweans because of his major role in the independence movement. In a BBC article about growing up in Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah explains that the Independence War was recast as a heroic, historically inevitable struggle between the black socialist majority and the white minority capitalism. And thus even though she once saw Mugabe allow his bodyguards to rough up one of her friends, she continued to feel ‘deep and conflicted respect’ for the President. Due to the cultural importance of Mugabe’s role in the independence struggle, Sarah Dorman explained on 20 November, it was strategically necessary that Mugabe was removed from office by ‘legal’ means. To be seen disrespecting Mugabe would have been highly controversial and unpopular among the electorate, particularly the older generations. Hence the non-violent nature of the military ‘not-coup’, and the importance of dressing up the transfer of power as a smooth and peaceful one.

On 22 November, therefore, Alex Magaisa reinstated the importance of ‘following the veneer of law’ in Zimbabwean politics. The ‘coup’ was a performance of reality, and this is seen in particular in the fact that Mugabe, as chancellor of all state universities, was allowed to officiate a graduation ceremony despite being under house arrest – this was a performance of peace and normality. Throughout Mugabe’s presidency, and during the November crisis also, we see a continued use of the colonial regime’s rule by law: these successive governments have all attempted to mask corruption and repression with an air of legality. Karakweivanane even noted the irony in the fact that Mugabe, who had frequently used the law in this way for his own ends, had become the victim to ZANU-PF’s own attempt to legitimise the unlawful removal of their leader. The façade of legality seen in the events of November 2017 therefore reflects, as Karekwaivanane concluded, a ‘historical set of practices’. Furthermore, Bakani Dube and Leila Sinclair-Bright stressed that an obsession with constitutionalism and legality was part of Zimbabwean culture, and also pointed out that the peaceful nature of the protests can be explained by the fact that Zimbabweans did not want a repeat of the violence witnessed in 2008. Finally, the November crisis epitomises the tension between colonial legacies and anti-colonial feeling in Zimbabwe: despite the similarities between Mugabe’s government and colonial rule, Mugabe continues to be revered in Zimbabwean society for his role in the independence movement, and was thus dismissed ‘legally’ and respectfully.


BBC News, ‘Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe resigns, ending 37-year rule’, 21 November 2017,; accessed 05 December 2017.

Dzirute, Macdonald, ‘Mugabe set to appoint woman deputy, all eyes on wife’, 04 November 2017,; accessed 05 December 2017.

Gappah, Petina, ‘Mugabe and Me: A personal history of growing up in Zimbabwe’, BBC 25 November 2017; accessed 26 November 2017.

Hill, R. and Katarere, Y., ‘Colonialism and Inequity in Zimbabwe’ in Matthew, R., Halle, M. and Switzer, J. (eds.) Conserving the Peace: Livelihoods and Security (2002), pp.247-272.

Karekwaivanane, George Hamandishe, The Struggle over state power in Zimbabwe: law and politics since 1950 (Cambridge, 2017).

Mail & Guardian, ‘Timeline: How Zimbabwe’s ‘coup’ unfolded’, 21 November 2017,; accessed 05 December 2017.

Magaisa, Alex, ‘Saturday Big Read: The Downfall of Robert Mugabe’, 30 December 2017,; accessed 11 January 2018.

Mamdani, Mahmood, ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’, 4 December 2017,; accessed 5 December 2017.


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