Zimbabwe, like many neighboring countries, was a British colony. In 1964, under the rule of Ian Smith, they declared independence from Britain under the banner of “no majority rule.” Rhodesia, at the time, was desperately trying to a sort of white homeland in Africa, and saw zero role for blacks outside of being farm labor. Rhodesia’s new rules wanted it to become a white controlled, massively segregated state and developed a pretty twisted manifest destiny style ideology to go with it. Their vision was so insane that Britain immediately declared them nutty rebels and dropped and embargoed them, and unsurprisingly, the blacks were not particularly taken with this idea either and started both violent and non-violent resistance.
A guerrilla war raged through the 1970s, while Smith, to the defiance of everyone else on the planet except South Africa, resolutely held on to the idea of a color-based state. Through this time, the prospects of black Zimbabweans was purposefully undermined. Skilled jobs were reserved for whites, and education and job skill training was restricted. The goal was to keep them poor and ignorant so that they could not pose a threat. Blacks continued to be unhappy about being second class citizens with minimal rights and no control of land, and the violence got more and more intense on all sides.
Smith held out until literally the last moment that his insane vision could. He made no attempt to look ahead to a transition towards a more equitable state. He made it impossible to build a future black civil service. He fought and fought and fought on the wrong side of history until 1979, when the whole thing kind of gave up the ghost because who can pretend in 1979 that a race-based state makes any sense? In a last ditch effort, Smith signed an agreement with local black leaders, including Mugabe, that would allow for black rule while keeping the whites in charge of several major power structures (security, etc.) and reserving a large chunk of parliamentary seats for the white minority.
Parts of Zimbabwe that did not feel a part of the power-sharing agreement immediately rebelled, and there were insurgencies through the country. Mugabe relentlessly stamped these down, and in the process he was able to seize complete power. Through the 80s and 90s, his rule became increasingly unbalanced and oppressive. This extremism disrupted all of the industry in the country. Land reform tried to address the question of how you bring economic prospects to blacks when the wealth is so concentrated out of their hands, but it went sour and became a political giveaway. In reality, there are no solutions to getting a country that has been unbalanced so long back on track. Bad feelings, violence, decades of denial of education and skilled work, lopsided economic systems and a lack of a civil servant class did it’s work. When the majority of a population has been systematically denied for decades all of the things it takes to run a country, it’s not surprising that when they do start to run the country, a lot of stuff will go wrong.
But while the US loves to complain about him, in reality nobody wanted to deal with what a completely destabilized Zimbabwe looked like.
In the late 1990s, the famous hyperinflation occurred. Hyperinflation happens due to a confluence of economic issues, and while Zimbabwe is probably the most extreme modern example, it’s something that happens from time to time in developing economies. Dollarization brought a lot of stability, at the price of local living standards. It basically made everything too expensive for anyone to buy.
I was in Zimbabwe as a tourist a couple years ago. I can say that of every African country I’ve been to, it was the safest and most overwhelming welcoming one I’ve been in. They used to do pretty good tourist trade, and the infrastructure is largely there, but the tourists left and so those that do come are very much appreciated. I spent nights with white farmers up in the mountains who told me their stories of the “bad years.” I visited a mixed town with a white mayor. I saw the ruined infrastructure of the past, as well as the modern new development, full of African fast food chains and shiny supermarkets, coming in. I spent the day in Great Zimbabwe with a black guy who gave me a ride to my destination showed me around his village, because he had once been picked up hitchhiking by a tourist years ago and wanted to repay the favor. I also got a real feeling for the political oppression. It’s something you don’t even begin to talk about, because it will get the people you are talking to tortured and killed. It’s not a joke at all.
Anyway, interesting place. It’s very poor while also being very developed. I think it’s suffering the long hangover of a very stubborn crazy rule, Cold War machinations, and a dictator whom everyone admits at this point has just plain lost it.