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Reflections on Zimbabwe 40 years later

July 31, 2008
On March 11, 1968, a man and his son, protesting outside Rhodesia House in London, had the courage to demand the jailing of Ian Smith, leader of what was then the white minority government of Rhodesia and release of the freedom fighters who ultimately freed their country and renamed it Zimbabwe. – Photo: Keystone, Getty Images
by JoNina M. Abron

Forty years ago, on July 3, 1968, I celebrated my 20th birthday in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. Five fellow students and I and a professor at Baker University spent six weeks in the southern African country during a summer study program. I was the only Black person in the group.

Baker is a small liberal arts college in Kansas affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and in Rhodesia, I lived on a church mission, Old Umtali, today known as Old Mutare. It seemed appropriate that as the daughter of a United Methodist minister (my father, the Rev. J. Otis Erwin, died in 2003) I lived at Old Umtali with a young white United Methodist missionary, Shirley Culver. Born in Rhodesia to American missionaries, Shirley had returned to her native country after graduating from college in the United States. She was engaged to another missionary, Ted DeWolf. Today, the Rev. Shirley DeWolf continues to live in Old Mutare.

Back then, I knew almost nothing about Africa and assumed that African Blacks ruled their countries. After arriving in Rhodesia, I learned that the country was colonized by Great Britain in the late 19th century and that the white Rhodesian Front Party led by Ian Smith had illegally declared independence from Britain in 1965. (Smith died in South Africa in 2007 at age 88.) By 1968, the Black majority in Rhodesia had been completely stripped of their economic, political and social rights. Rhodesia reminded me of Mississippi in the 1950s.

On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2006, a Zimbabwean journalist protests the closure in recent years of three newspapers. – Photo: AFP
I was a journalism major at Baker University and was excited that my assignment at Old Umtali was to work for a Black newspaper, The Umbowo (The Witness). Articles in the newspaper were censored that were critical of the Smith regime, which the U.S. government supported despite economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations against Rhodesia.

When I arrived in Rhodesia, 1968 had already been a momentous year in the United States. U.S. setbacks in Vietnam had led Lyndon Johnson to announce his withdrawal from the 1968 presidential campaign. Days later, on April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, shortly before the Baker group left for Rhodesia. Meanwhile, Black Power activists in the United States, led by young Blacks like me, were urging Black Americans to be proud of our African heritage. I felt lucky to be in Africa.

It was also a momentous time in Rhodesia. Fighting had recently erupted between government forces and armed Black freedom fighters near Rhodesia’s border with Mozambique. Old Umtali was near the border. Once I drove with Shirley and Ted to Mozambique to buy gas, which was cheaper there than in Rhodesia because of U.N. sanctions. I remember being afraid because we drove in an area where there was warfare.

Black people at Old Umtali were surprised to learn that I had come from America. Before engaging me in conversation, they assumed that I was a local and greeted me in Shona, their language. I only knew the Shona words for “good morning” and “good afternoon.” After that, I had to speak English, which, fortunately, many Blacks there also spoke. Most of the Black people at Old Umtali had never met a Black American. They were very friendly and treated me like a member of the community.

They were also full of questions. Some people told me they didn’t understand why there were so many Black protests in America. After all, they said, weren’t most Blacks in the United States rich? When I asked what had led them to this conclusion, some people said they had read about wealthy Blacks in U.S. magazines and newspapers. I explained that many Blacks in America lived in poverty.

That summer long ago in Rhodesia, I had my first experience of what it means to be an African in the Diaspora. I returned home more determined than ever to join the Black Power Movement. After graduating from Baker University in May 1970 and earning a master’s degree, I joined the Black Panther Party and moved to Oakland, Calif., where at party headquarters I worked on the BPP newspaper, The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service.

As a reporter and later editor of the BPP newspaper, I wrote many articles about the armed Black liberation struggle led by the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union and the Zimbabwe African National Union to regain control of their homeland. I also wrote about U.S. mercenary soldiers who fought with white Rhodesian soldiers to defeat the Black freedom fighters.

The BPP newspaper also regularly reported about the Black liberation struggles elsewhere in southern Africa – in Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. Several Southern Africa freedom fighters lived in the Bay Area, including members of ZANU whom I knew. The BPP was a strong supporter of the Black liberation struggles in southern Africa, and I represented the party in some of the campaigns conducted by the southern Africa support coalition in the Bay Area. I was at one time a leader of the Bay Area’s anti-apartheid movement and remained active in the southern Africa support movement after I left the BPP.

In 1983, three years after Black majority rule and 15 years after my summer in Rhodesia, I visited the new country of Zimbabwe. During a study trip sponsored by a non-profit organization where I worked, I talked with Black rural activists who were impatient for land reform. I visited a women’s organization, some of whose members complained that they had yet to attain equal status with men after having fought alongside them in the armed struggle. I also heard rumors about government corruption. Despite the new government’s problems, Black Zimbabweans were in control of their country.

As I reflect on my experiences in Rhodesia 40 years ago, Zimbabwe faces international condemnation for the violence surrounding the country’s recent controversial elections. The country undeniably faces difficult economic, social and political problems. The ZANU-Patriotic Front government led by President Robert Mugabe has failed to deliver on many of the promises it made when it assumed power in 1980 and bears much of the responsibility for the current crisis.

However, this crisis is irrevocably tied to the legacy of the nearly 100 years of white colonial rule that preceded Black majority rule – a fact that most mainstream U.S. news organizations rarely report about in depth. Consequently, I sometimes doubt the truth of the news I hear about Zimbabwe.

In 1968, the Johnson administration helped the white minority regime of Rhodesia to circumvent U.N. sanctions. Today, the Bush administration threatens to seek U.N. economic sanctions against Zimbabwe’s Black majority government. The struggle for a free Zimbabwe continues.

© 2008 by JoNina M. Abron. JoNina M. Abron, a journalist and veteran Black activist, is associate professor emerita of communications at Western Michigan University and former managing editor of Black Scholar magazine. A news correspondent at the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Abron was also a delegate at the conference’s meeting of non-governmental organizations. She lives in Nashville, Tenn., and can be reached at

6 thoughts on “Reflections on Zimbabwe 40 years later

  1. Alice

    What a load of bulages is writen here. The so called Freedom fighters were terrorists, their victims were for the majority the black Africans.
    Eighty procent of the Rhodesian army were black soldiers, fighting against monsters that tried to steal their children and tried to get power through the barrel of the gun. The UK didn’t colonise Rhodesia as there has never been a Brits soldier nor a British policeman in Rhodesia. The country was self-governed and elected by the people of Rhodesia, including the Africans. It were the terrorists that stopped the ordinary African to vote.

    It was the taxes of the white Rhodesians that paid for schools, hospitals and infrastructure for all of the people living there.

    President Johnson never helped Rhodesia to avoid sanctions. Isn’t it amazing that you were allowed to enter Rhodesia and could give your opinion about the country without being locked up? Try this today in one of the poorest countries in Africa, Zimbabwe and see what happens to you. Chikarima is the place or you just disapear. Shame on you that you protect this monster while he is murdering thousands of blacks, starting in 1982 with the genocide against the Ndebeles (20.000 were killed and nobody protested)

  2. Murenga

    Alice, you are obviously an embittered Rhodesian dreg still pining for the good old days with ol’ Smithy, braais and twilight gin and tonics served by a khaki-clad 40 year old “boy” who would salute and call you “baas”. Those days are long gone. Zimbabwe was never your country. Your tribe were a gang of usurpers, thieves, murderers and rapists. You lost the war, you lost your power and now you have lost the Land, as it has been repossessed by its rightful owners. There is no going back. Deal with it!

    1. Gerrard

      Rhodesia was a segregated country, but most of the inequalities were minor things and a lot better than the shit blacks in America had to deal with.
      I'm not a racist man, but the things that Mugabe and his ZANLA thugs did during and after the war, murder and rape of whites just to try and scare farmers off thier lands, and then stealing that land from people like my father and then giving it not the "starving masses" but to members of Mugabe's ass-kisser brigade. All of this, the commies claimed, was for the good of the people, when a lot of blacks were press-ganged into terrorist service.
      Also hilarious is how people like this harp on about how racist Rhodesian society was, when after the war the new black government did far worse things to the whites of the nation than the whites had ever done to the African population.
      Anyone who thinks that Zimbabwe is better off than Rhodesia was is more insane that Mugabe. What good is free health care if they can't even handle freaking cholera?
      The revolution was unjustified, Mugabe ought to be locked up, and you, sir, should stop talking out your arse.

  3. Alice

    NO I am not, what is your knowledge? Do you know that Mugabe murdered 20.000 Ndebeles from 1982 – 1984? I was there….I was working as a nurse and my salary was 1 dollar an hour. All the infrastructure was build by Rhodesians, black and white and paid by the white tax-payers. In Rhodesia the medical care was free for the ones that couldn’t pay. In Rhodesia everybody was allowed to vote, also blacks and no violence.

    Murenga have you seen how Mugabe lives???? He is bleeding Zimbabwe dry. The whites that were born there are just as much Zimbabweans as blacks. Or are you a racist??? Must be.
    The Ndebeles were a different tribe, just as the Tutsis who were slaughtered by the Hutus, or the Masai’s who are now chased away from their land by the ruling tribe in Tanzania.

    I think that Africa should take their own responsibility and stop asking for AID and FOOD. They got the land now, WORK ON IT AND PRODUCE FOOD. Africa should be richer then Europe as the climate is better, the land is more fertile and there are enough people to work. No they are sitting on their backsides waiting for some stupid whitey to come along to GIVE them food.

    A country belongs to those that are prepared to work for it. It has nothing to do with the colour of the skin. You racist. Your comments tells me that you have no idea about Rhodesia of about Ian Smith, who never had body guards and always had his front door open. More black Africans came for tea (that Smithy made and poured) then white Africans.

    In Zimbabwe there is no medical care or free schooling or food unless you have the membership card of Zanu PF.
    Do you live there or are you living off some western country who was stupid enough to let you in? Have you ever lived there or are you a white leftwing scander.

    The rightfull owners of the land are the ones that cleared the land. This land is going back to nature, there are trees growing there that are 9 years old, since the land was stolen so what do they do with this beautiful land? NOTHING. It should be returned to the rigthfull owners and the hunger problem is solved. It is not rocket science but normal sense and you are lacking this a big time.
    You don’t care that children are starving to death and nor is Mugabe, he wanted to get rid of 6 million people.

    Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Dictators are dictators and that is what your hero and JoNina talks nonsence, black and white Zimbabweans will see that she is not an African so why should the Shonas greet her in Shona? The Ndebeles don’t speak Shona and everybody can see the difference between these 2 tribes.

  4. Alice

    as it has been repossessed by its rightful owners. There is no going back. Deal with it!

    This is a slogan from Oxfam…..

  5. mwana wevhu

    Angry whiteys. It hurts doesn't it especially when u cannot see a future that u like in your future. We black people grew up from birth feeling like that. It can all go to shit as long as its a black person taking us there. Deal with it and stay home out of africa if u don't like what the kaffirs are doing here.


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