Review of Becoming Zimbabwe – Pieter Labuschagne

Edited by Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo
Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2009. 260 pp.
isBN: 978-1-77922-083-7
Becoming Zimbabwe – A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008 is one of the more recent publications on Zimbabwe. It aims to provide a comprehensive outline of the political history of South Africa’s troubled neighbouring state. The rationale for the book, as explained on page xxxiii, is to write a new history of Zimbabwe and to produce a single volume history that could provide the reader with an accessible overview of the country’s history and politics.


Various authors have made contributions to the book in order to make the dream of a comprehensive work on the history and politics of Zimbabwe a reality. The first chapter deals with the precolonial period and the earliest settlements in the region today known as Zimbabwe. In the second chapter the attention shifts to the first colonial encounters and covers the period up to the 1930s. The third chapter proceeds to cover the period from the Second World War to 1965, chronicling the history of the Central African Federation, the formation of the first black resistance groups, the workers’ struggles and the tightening of the screws by the white regime by eventually declaring itself unilaterally independent from Britain. The trajectory of events between 1965 and 1980 is covered in Chapter 4 with an account of how the political strife in the former Rhodesia slowly but surely plunged the country into chaos. This troubled period is also the theme of Chapter 5 entitled ‘War in Rhodesia 1965–1980’. This chapter concludes the period from colonial rule and minority white rule that ended effectively when the first full democratic election was held. It describes the events that culminated in the independence celebrations on 18 April 1980 with Robert Mugabe being installed as the first prime minister of an independent Zimbabwe.

The postcolonial history of Zimbabwe is covered in the two remaining chapters of the book. The first of the two chapters, Chapter 6, entitled ‘From Buoyancy to Crisis 1980–1997’, outlines the ‘limited and economic and social progress in the early years of the first decade of independence’, which left the country with little reform of the colonial economy and the legacy of economic inequality. The chapter interestingly points out that ZANU (PF) failed to proscribe democratic space and how its inability to establish supremacy and dominance over the population led to ongoing conflict. The concluding chapter of the book (Chapter 7) outlines the crisis in Zimbabwe from 1998 to 2008. The valuable observation made in this last chapter is that the upheaval consisted of a combination of political and economic decline and that it had its origins in both the economic and political legacies of economic rule and the political legacies of African nationalist politics. It is a welcome departure from the simplistic way in which the origin of Zimbabwe’s political problems has been explained in the past. The chapter points out that these underlying currents have manifested in various confrontations over land, property rights and aspects such as the meanings of nationalism and citizenship. The chapter concludes with a reference to the formal political agreement that was reached between the ZANU (PF) government and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and points out that the regionalisation of the internal turmoil affecting the whole of southern Africa necessitates a permanent solution. However, the building of a more tolerant citizenship and nation in which a democratic society should be based, will indeed be a daunting task.

The aim of Becoming Zimbabwe is to offer a broad overview of the history of Zimbabwe from precolonial times to the present and to track the idea of national belonging and citizenship. Within this broader aim the book has achieved its goal of providing insight into the changing political contours over time from the precolonial to the colonial and eventually the postcolonial period. For the reader who wishes to utilise a single source to understand the historical background to the present complexities facing Zimbabwe, Becoming Zimbabwe will undoubtedly be very useful. However, the book lacks balance in that it focuses too heavily on the precolonial and colonial era, which is covered in five of the seven chapters. Moreover, the bulk of the material in these chapters has already been covered by many similar publications in the last few decades and the events are well documented. It is only in the last two chapters, the prelude to the crisis and the actual economic and political meltdown in Zimbabwe, that the more recent crisis is discussed. It is a pity that the authors, who were based in Zimbabwe, did not place more emphasis on the contemporary period post-1980. Hopefully a revised addition of the book will also include coverage of the final phase of permanent peace building.

Nevertheless, Becoming Zimbabwe is a welcome addition to the existing literature on Zimbabwe and is recommended to all scholars, students and other interested readers who wish to understand the complexities of a postcolonial state in the modern era.