Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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Catastrophe: What Went Wrong in Zimbabwe?

Much of the literature on modern Africa makes the unhappy comparison between hopes, especially upon independence, and reality. In Zimbabwe that link resonates even more than is normal.

Zimbabwe only achieved full independence in 1980 after a brutal war involving several guerilla groups and the country’s white minority, which had tried to create a unilaterally independent state based upon their own minority rule. Zimbabwe was a cause for hope, after so many newly independent African states before it had run into trouble. It enjoyed many advantages, not least the good will of the international community, and the lessons that it could learn from other failures on the continent.

Two decades on, however, and Zimbabwe had become a "failed state", with massive hyperinflation, a government that routinely relied upon violence to achieve its ends, and the large scale outward migration of Zimbabweans desperate for a new life. How did this happen?

Richard Bourne‘s Catastrophe: What Went Wrong in Zimbabwe? (Zed Books, 2011) leaves few stones unturned. He goes back before the days of Cecil Rhodes before taking us through the colonial period, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence and the rule of Mugabe. It is a compelling story and a sobering one, and Richard Bourne’s book does it justice. He avoids over-simplified conclusions, and the book is all the better for it. Too much of Zimbabwe’s modern history has involved simple solutions to politically convenient levying of blame. It’s a book that I heartily recommend for those interested in understanding how a country can fall from such promise to such a low, so quickly.

This podcast has been republished from New Books in African Studies.