Land and Liberation: The Legacy of Zimbabwe’s Revolutionary Struggle

By Chase Barney

Map of Africa with the date of Independence for each country.

Independence in most of southern Africa came with bloodshed, and came much later than elsewhere on the continent largely due to the presence of significant white settler communities in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Known as Southern Rhodesia until 1964, and simply Rhodesia until 1979,  Zimbabwe’s revolutionary struggle was a complex mixture of black nationalism, communist ideology, and racial liberation that sought to overturn the social, economic, and political order. The white minority government monopolized power through an aggressively racialized system of political and economic discrimination, not completely unlike apartheid in South Africa. As the 40th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence approaches, the roots of Zimbabwe’s liberation ideology—race and land—remain ever prominent.

The liberation struggle in Zimbabwe grew out of a combination of internal and international pressure on the white minority government of Southern Rhodesia to enfranchise its black population. Self-governing since 1923, but still a Crown colony of the British Empire, the Southern Rhodesian government began asking for full political independence by the early 1960s. Internationally, Southern Rhodesia’s system of racial discrimination had become repugnant to Western onlookers, and the British made ending white rule a prerequisite for granting the colony political independence. Internally, new parties of black Africans began advocating for majority rule and seeking international audiences for their message. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) were formed in 1961 and 1963, respectively, to advocate for an end to white rule and were promptly banned by the Southern Rhodesian government. Two ideas formed the pillar of the liberation ideology: black majority rule and the redistribution of land to black Africans (a Zimbabwean “40 acres and a mule” pursuit).

Land became the vessel through which racial wrongdoing was to be made right. The 1930 Land Apportionment Act made it illegal for black Africans to own land outside of the delegated “Native Reserves.” The Native Reserves constituted 22 percent of the country’s least arable land, while the white population of Southern Rhodesia made up only a little over 4.5 percent of the country’s population. The South Rhodesian state granted them exclusive access to 51 percent of the country’s land. This left nearly 50 million acres available for settlement by a white population of just 48,000 individuals, and 20 million acres available for over 1 million black Africans.[1] To make matters even more extreme, the government also passed legislation that ensured the prices of African-produced agricultural products could not compete with those produced on white farms. Land ownership quickly became the primary incentive behind the white government’s plans to attract further white immigration into the country, and white land owners formed the backbone of white political and economic power.

In fact, white resistance to black rule was motivated almost entirely by a desire to maintain the white monopoly on arable land and agricultural production. In 1962, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front party rose to power on the votes of the land-owning, white farming community by promising to resist any efforts to ease the racial stratification of land ownership.[2] Frustrated by British demands to end white rule, the Rhodesian Front government unilaterally declared independence (UDI) in 1965. After UDI, the white government instituted the Land Tenure Act, which divided the land into 45 million acres a piece for whites and blacks (with some land leftover for national parks and game reserves). While being sold as a fair solution to the land problem the act sought to cement the racial division of land in perpetuity.

As a result, the liberation struggle that had focused upon ending minority rule and enfranchising blacks quickly found that land was the most contentious and relatable issue to rural communities of Africans, many of which had been evicted from land designated for white farming only to be invited back to work the land as wage laborers in service of white owners. This enabled the liberation parties to deepen their ideological and political message, while intensifying their war in the countryside. A guerrilla struggle in practice, the liberation forces recruited from the peasant classes in rural areas—most effectively where white land acquisition and evictions had been most recent—on the promise that after victory “every African would be given land.”[3] This strengthened the Maoist-Communist nature of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe and furthered the white government’s anti-communist, pro-West, narrative that played into Cold War fears of southern Africa going “red.” 

Photograph of Robert Mugabe.
Robert Mugabe (1924-Present)

Land became inextricably tied to both race and liberation, and the post-independence legacy only further complicated that relationship when the liberation front took power in 1980. While thousands of whites had fled the country during the war in the 1970s, many remained after independence. The negotiated peace in 1979 ensured an end to white minority rule, but also limited the new government’s ability to seize or forcibly purchase white land, leaving a sizable portion of the white land owning power block in place. Not until after Robert Mugabe’s consolidation of power in 1987 did the new government begin to take significant steps towards its liberation era land agendas. Unfortunately, attempts at land seizure became steeped in racial antagonism, decolonization rhetoric, and political corruption that made a mess of any sensible economic reform policy. The 1990s saw a dramatic decline in Zimbabwe’s economy and the transformation of a once hopeful, independent, and democratic government into a brutal autocracy that suppressed human rights and democracy, while stoking the flames of racial division within the country.

In many ways, the powerful unifier of the liberation movement—land—has contributed to the country’s more recent hardships, as well. Robert Mugabe’s fixation on the liberation message of white land control has led to an inability for Mugabe to see anything other than white imperialism as the cause of his nation’s problems. Combined with a single party ruling apparatus that has only grafted itself onto the elite power structure once held by powerful whites, the liberation message in Zimbabwe has persisted in Mugabe’s now antiquated rhetoric, but has failed to bring the economic prosperity and political freedom to the masses that the liberation was supposedly waged for. And so, the liberation lives on in Zimbabwe, a half century after its struggle began, still focused on land and racial justice, and still striving to realize its revolutionary goals.

Chase Barney is a PhD student at the University of Arkansas studying colonialism and decolonization in Africa. Reach him at or tweet him at @chasebarney.

Title image: George Nene, Liberation, n.d.

Further Reading:

Terrence Ranger, Peasant Consciousness and Guerilla War in Zimbabwe: A Comparative Study. London: James Currey, 1985.

Jocelyn. Alexander, The Unsettled Land: State-Making & the Politics of Land in Zimbabwe, 1893-2003. Oxford; Harare [Zimbabwe]; Athens, Ohio: James Currey; Weaver Press; Ohio University Press, 2006.

Dane Kennedy, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.


[1] Mlambo, A. S. White Immigration into Rhodesia: From Occupation to Federation. Harare: University of Zimbabwe, 2003, 19.

[2] “S. Rhodesia Opposition Groups To Form United Front,” Times [London, England] 3 Feb 1962: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 15 April 2015.

[3] Meredith, Martin. Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe. New York: Public Affairs, 2007, 18.

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