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Mugabe embraced African nationalism and anti-colonialism during the 1960s. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni characterised “Mugabeism” as a populist movement that was “marked by ideological simplicity, emptiness, vagueness, imprecision, and multi-class character”, further noting that it was “a broad church”. He also characterised it as a form of “left-nationalism”, which consistently railed against imperialism and colonialism. He also argued that it was a form of nativism, which was permeated by a strong “cult of victimisation” in which a binary view was propagated where Africa was a “victim” and the West was its “tormentor”. He suggested that it had been influenced by a wide range of ideologies, among them forms of Marxism like Stalinism and Maoism, as well as African nationalist ideologies like Nkrumaism, Ujamaa, Garveyism, Négritude, Pan-Africanism, and African neo-traditionalism. Mugabism sought to deal with the problem of white settler racism by engaging in a project of anti-white racism that sought to deny white Zimbabweans citizenship by constantly referring to them as “amabhunu/Boers”, thus enabling their removal from their land.
Mugabeism as a form of populist reason is a multifaceted phenomenon requiring a multi-pronged approach to decipher its various meanings. At one level it represents pan-African memory and patriotism and at another level it manifests itself as a form of radical left-nationalism dedicated to resolving intractable national and agrarian questions. Yet, to others, it is nothing but a symbol of crisis, chaos and tyranny emanating from the exhaustion of nationalism.
— Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni
ZANU-PF claimed that it was influenced by Marxism–Leninism although Onslow and Redding stated that in contrast to the Marxist emphasis on the urban proletariat as the main force of socio-economic change, Mugabe’s party accorded that role to the rural peasantry. As a result of this pro-rural view, they argued, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF demonstrated an anti-urban bias. The English academic Claire Palley met Mugabe in 1962, later noting that “he struck me as not so much a doctrinaire Marxist but an old-fashioned African nationalist”, while Tekere claimed that for Mugabe, Marxism-Leninism was “just rhetoric” with “no genuine vision or belief behind it”. Carington noted that while Mugabe used Marxist rhetoric during the Lancaster House negotiations, “of course he didn’t actually practice what he preached, did he? Once in office he became a capitalist”. Mugabe has stated that “socialism has to be much more Christian than capitalism“. The Zimbabwean scholar George Shire described Mugabe’s policies as being “broadly-speaking” social-democratic.
During the 1980s, Mugabe indicated his desire to transform Zimbabwe from a multi-party state into a one-party state. In 1984 he stated that “the one-party state is more in keeping with African tradition. It makes for greater unity for the people. It puts all opinions under one umbrella, whether these opinions are radical or reactionary”. The political scientist Sue Onslow and historian Sean Redding stated that Zimbabwe’s situation was “more complex than pure venial dictatorship”, but that it was an “ideo-dictatorship”.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni argued that since the mid-1990s, Mugabe’s rhetoric and speeches came to be dominated by three main themes: an obsession with a perceived British threat to re-colonise Zimbabwe, to transfer the land controlled by white farmers to the black population, and issues of belonging and patriotism. References to the Rhodesian Bush War featured prominently in Mugabe’s speeches. The scholar of African studies Abiodun Alao noted that Mugabe was determined to “take advantage of the past in order to secure a firm grip on national security”.
David Blair stated that “Mugabe’s collected writings amount to nothing more than crude Marxism, couched in the ponderous English of the mission school”, remarking that they were heavily informed by Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and Frantz Fanon, and displayed little originality. Blair noted that Mugabe’s writings called for “command economics in a peasant society, mixed with anti-colonial nationalism”, and that in this he held “the same opinions as almost every other African guerrilla leader” of that period. Mugabe argued that following the overthrow of European colonial regimes, Western countries continued to keep African countries in a state of subservience because they desired the continent’s natural resources while preventing it from industrialising.