1. It's Still About Liberation
As tanks roll through Zimbabwe today with the question of Robert Mugabe's presidency and leadership in the balance, it is important to remember the fact that Zimbabwe began as a country only recently liberated from British Colonial settlement. As the 1960s brought about the Civil Rights movement in the United States, so black nationalism in Africa grew against colonial rule. This was the context in which Robert Mugabe's ZANU party took over from Ian Smith's white minority rule.
While Mugabe was originally hailed as a symbol of liberation, the mid to late 1980s brought about the massacres of the Fifth Brigade called the the Gukurahundi (which means "the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains") in which over 10,000 Ndebelians were executed. The language of peace, reconciliation, and justice began to be replaced by the language of control and retribution. Since 2000, Mugabe has continued to remain in power even when the national tide has turned against him, as in the case of the 2008 elections when his opponent defeated him in elections.
What started as a desire to be free from rule and white minority oppression has ultimately led to another system of oppression, discrimination, and suffering. There exists 36,000 displaced individuals in Zimbabwe. Inflation got to a point that individuals were just leaving money out on the streets because of its lack of value. Poverty abounds. Healthcare is largely non-existent. Education is the same. Anyone with dissent ultimately fears their life, illustrated by the murder of over 150 MDC supporters in 2008. What that means is the struggle for freedom never fully died, even during the prosperous time of the 80s. It has continued, albeit only under a new ruler. As one watches the political and militaristic turmoil unfold over the next few days and weeks, keep this in mind: this is still a battle for freedom.
2. Race and Land Tensions Are Central
During the 1980s, Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF looked like they had secured an endearing legacy. Mugabe was hailed as an African hero, having spent a decade in the prisons of Southern Rhodesia (contemporary Zimbabwe) and was seen as a liberator for blacks. During the 1980s, Mugabe used the rhetoric of racial reconciliation and according to the Lancaster House agreement, he promised that any land redistribution from whites to blacks would occur on a "willing seller" and "willing buyer" basis.
It was only in the late 1980s and early 90s that as corruption began to grow in the country and the future began to tell signs of economic trouble that Mugabe began to abandon the strategy of peaceful racial cooperation. After a shocking defeat of his 2000 constitution and the establishment of the opposition party, the land began to be seized forcefully. No longer was racial reconciliation a goal. Rather, the land was to be taken at any cost. Ultimately, many white farmers were beaten. A few died. But who ultimately suffered were the many Africans who worked the land.
Mugabe has continued the fight, blaming Westerners (specifically, Britain) and capitalism for the problem, and this has been done through racial terms. No doubt, the colonial system of settlement in which whites owned the majority of the land was oppressive in itself. But a generation and a half after the Rhodesian Bush War, the race card is being used as a justification for violently seizing it back.
3. The Refugee Crisis Doesn't Have an End in Sight
According to rough numbers, 4 million undocumented refugees have crossed over into South Africa. Because many countries in Africa don't want to criticize a fellow national liberator, many have been hesitant about condemning their actions (except for Desmond Tutu who has called Mugabe a "cartoon of an archetypal dictator." 14,000 individuals are deported back to Zimbabwe a day! And, yet, individuals are still desperate to try and find a better life. Most of those who find themselves in South Africa are children!
Of those refugees who have been granted refugee status, most are sent to South Africa or Britain. This, unfortunately, has created social issues for every party, with xenophobia itself being a growing problem (by the way, the United States does NOT have very many Zimbabweans in the country!).
What is clear is that as Zimbabwe enters into a new period of political and military tension, we may see an increasing amount of need for support for Zimbabweans. It is clear that they are in a continued struggle for freedom and independence. Though they once thought under Mugabe and the ZANU-PF that this was achieved, history has shown the days of prosperity were more a hiatus from the struggle than anything else. What is also clear is that it is not likely that the refugee crisis will diminish in the coming weeks and months.