Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Country Study: Zimbabwe

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Map of Zimbabwe
Map of Zimbabwe

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Generational Crisis Wars

-- Zimbabwe: Ndebele Invasion/Mfecane Fallout -- 1815-1835
-- Zimbabwe: Mtabeleland Wars -- 1893-1897
-- Zimbabwe: Rhodesian Bush War -- 1964-1979

Brief Generational History - updated 31-May-2008

Southern Africa
Southern Africa

The southern portion of Africa in the first decades of the 1800s was a region in great turmoil, with many different populations competing for resources.

Among the indigenous populations, the Zulus were an obscure tribe in the Transvaal, the northern portion of what is now South Africa. The Zulus went from obscurity to world renown as a result of Shaka, born in 1787, who became the tribal chief in the early 1800s, and who took the Zulu from being a tribe to being an empire.

In a massive war known as the Mfecane ("the crushing"), Shaka revolutionized tribal warfare with new kinds of spears and warfare techniques, resulting in the deaths of millions of indigenous Africans, by the time the war climaxed in 1828. Shaka's Zulu Empire left behind vast uninhabited regions by obliterating the populations that used to live there.

Into those newly uninhabited regions came the European settlers -- Boers and Afrikaners, from Holland and neighboring countries, and the British. In the 1830s, tens of thousands of Boers began moving north into the Transvaal, in what became known as the Great Trek.

The Ndebele tribe had already tried to establish itself in the Transvaal. Those who had survived the Mfecane had fled to this region, where they clashed with the Boers. The Ndebele spears were no match for the Boers' guns, and the Ndebele were massacred again, and were forced to the north, in what is now Zimbabwe, where they in turn massacred the Shona tribe already living there.

After a generational Crisis war, there's always a period of recovery, followed by an Awakening era of mostly non-violent political clashes, followed eventually by an Unraveling era where many previous societal conventions and rules break down. The Unraveling era is often characterized by desperate political measures to avoid another war, like the previous Crisis war.

Cecil Rhodes and Rhodesia

The Mfecane was still in the memories of the old-timers in the 1880s when large lodes of gold and diamonds were being found in the Transvaal. During this period, major clashes were avoided, as the British, the Boers, the Zulus, the Shona, the Ndebele and other groups signed treaties to establish boundaries, form governments, and share the wealth.

In the 1880s, entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes established two major companies, De Beers Consolidated Mines and Gold Fields of South Africa. These companies dominated the export of diamonds and gold.

In 1890, Rhodes made an agreement with the Ndebele allowing him to expand north, creating the British colony of Rhodesia, with Harare as its capital. However two problems arose.

First, improvements in transport permitted thousands more Europeans to migrate to Rhodesia.

And second, the young Shona and Ndebele, with no personal memory of the horrors of the Mfecane, began demanding expulsion of the Europeans. These changes led to the genocidal Matabele Wars (1893-97). These wars were fought not only between Europeans and Africans, but also between Shona and Ndebele. Rhodes had no trouble defeating both tribes, and by 1897 he had complete control of the region, with two colonies: Northern Rhodesia, which later became Zambia, and (Southern) Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe.

Once again, the end of the Crisis war brought several decades of political wrangling. By the 1950s, the Unraveling era compromises were becoming unacceptable to both Europeans and indigenous tribes.


In 1957, a young Robert Mugabe was among the blacks (Ndebele and Shona) forming the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). However, even though all blacks were opposed to the apartheid government, ethnic politics caused a split in ZAPU, and in 1963 Mugabe formed the Shona-based Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

By this time, Rhodesia was in a generational Crisis era and, as I've described many times on this web site, xenophobia plays a big part in such eras. Thus, the all-black ZAPU and ZANU parties, the latter led by Robert Mugabe, came to be opposed by the white supremist Rhodesian Front party, led by Ian Smith. Smith became Prime Minister of Rhodesia in 1964, and arrested Mugabe, imprisoning him for ten years.

A guerrilla war against the Ian Smith government began, and continued in 1976, when the Ndebele ZANU and Shona ZAPU forces joined together to form a Patriotic Front (PF). The civil war climaxed in 1979, when Ian Smith was forced to end apartheid. In the aftermath, Mugabe and ZANU won a resounding electoral victory over the ZAPU party.

The following is a Reuters description of what happened in 1983:

"Operation Gukurahundi (The rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rain)

In 1983, the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, under the command of Lt Col Perence Shire, once known as the "Black Jesus", but currently the commander of Zimbabwe's air force, was the vanguard unit in a campaign against alleged dissidents that has also become known as the Matabeleland Massacres. At least 20,000 people were killed in the operation. The target of Gukurahundi was members of the rival liberation movement, ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo and drawn mainly from Zimbabwe's Ndebele people in the southwest of the country. There were numerous accounts of children murdered, women raped and killed, and homesteads razed. Regarding the deaths of civilians, Mugabe reportedly said in April 1983: "We eradicate them. We don't differentiate when we fight because we can't tell who is a dissident and who is not." Unlike other army units, the 5th Brigade, comprised of Shona-speaking people, reported directly to Mugabe."

Nonetheless, an attempt was made at reconciliation, and in 1987 the two parties merged to form ZANU-PF. However, this didn't end Mugabe's oppression of Ndebele people, resulting in the formation of the new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999.

Zimbabwe's violent Awakening era

The yin and yang of generational theory are Crisis wars and Awakening eras. Historians study wars a great deal, but Awakening eras as a critical passage through which all societies throughout history must pass are a relatively new discovery, and are a crux of generational theory. For example, see my article on William G. McLoughlin and American Awakenings to see how important they've been to American society.

And so each time we have an opportunity to study an Awakening era that presents unique features, it gives us an opportunity to add to generational theory.

The characteristic feature that unites all Awakening eras is what in the 1960s we used to call the "generation gap." The protests and demonstrations that go on during an Awakening era are never really protests against policies (war, racism, whatever) so much as they are protests by the young against their parents' beliefs, or against their parents themselves.

Zimbabwe's war of independence ended in 1979, and so the Awakening began roughly in the late 1990s. Why haven't there been student riots and demonstrations?

In fact, people in the media, most of whom think that all Africans are uncivilized tribal warriors as a way of life, have been asking exactly this question, as illustrated by this news story:

"Absence of street fury in Zimbabwe puzzles analysts

JOHANNESBURG - Suspiciously delayed poll results, army trucks fanning out through villages, police ransacking opposition party offices, and reports of torched huts and broken-limbed civilians—such has been the ugly face of democracy for nearly a decade in Zimbabwe, and by now most political experts have given up asking whether millions of Zimbabweans will ever reach a violent breaking point.

Indeed, even as fresh reports of government brutality seep out of Zimbabwe in the wake of the still-unresolved March presidential election, there are virtually no reports of unrest on the streets.

A call for a mass protest two weeks ago by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which claims it won the vote, fizzled as usual. Hungry citizens queued obediently for bread in the capital, Harare, last week even as cops rounded up hundreds of opposition activists. ...

This deep well of stoicism — or, as some critics sneer, passivity — in Zimbabwe's victimized population has for years been a source of puzzlement to many Africa analysts, humanitarian workers and foreign journalists, who contrast Zimbabweans' seemingly inexhaustible acceptance of suffering with deadly explosions of electoral fury elsewhere in Africa, most recently in Kenya. ...

"This is the single greatest mystery of Zimbabwe," marveled a Western diplomat in Harare who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "In most other countries there would've been riots and violence years ago. But not here. These people are just too nice."

I really have to laugh at this hilarious story. The comparison with Kenya is absurd -- Kenya is entering a generational Crisis era, while Zimbabwe is in a generational Awakening era. To compare the two in any way makes no sense at all. You would expect bloody violence during a Crisis era, but not during an Awakening era.

But still, why haven't there been the political street demonstrations characteristic of an Awakening era?

Well, we know that any government can stop most such protests through torture and violence. How big would America's 1967 summer of love have been, if police were rounding up demonstrating teens, torturing them and jailing them?

Mugabe came to power after the crisis war ended in 1979, and initially worked to reconcile opposing factions. However, when Ndebele dissidents began to surface, Mugabe sent his army on a "pacification campaign" directed at Ndebele opponents, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths in 1983 and 1984. Mugabe maintained control throughout the 1980s and 1990s through torture and jailing of political opponents.

The beginning of Zimbabwe's generational Awakening era was signaled in 1999 by the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the major opposition party to Mugabe's ZANU-PF.

According to the MDC web site: "The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a Zimbabwean political party. It was founded in 1999 ... as a political party opposing the government that had failed to represent people and the deterioration of Zimbabwe's economy and official corruption had reached alarming levels proportions, which gave birth to general dissatisfaction and unrest among the working people of Zimbabwe. The MDC was formed from a broad coalition of civic society which includes business, church, women's groups, students, human rights and civic groups, individuals including the impoverished rural and urban population."

This is exactly the kind of organization that typifies a generational Awakening era in any country.

And so, media complaints of no Keyna-like "unrest in the streets," or wide-eyed claims that Zimbabwe's people are are "too nice" to riot are silly. The "generation gap" is being channeled through the MDC, and widespread rioting and demonstrations are being held back by government beatings and torture. Zimbabwe is precisely following the same generational script that every other country follows, but with specifics adapted to its own needs.

There is still "one more shoe" to drop, however. An Awakening era is a political clash between the generation of survivors of the previous Crisis war versus the young people born after the Crisis war. There will have to be an Awakening era "climax" - an event that signals the victory of one generation over the other.

Typically the younger generation "wins," as when President Nixon was forced to resign in 1974. When the older generation "wins," as with China's Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, it signals years of repressed turmoil, culiminating decades later with a new Crisis civil war.

However, those who are expecting a Kenya-like near term civil war in the short term between Ndebele and Shona ethnic groups are going to be disappointed for a long time to come.

The future of Zimbabwe

As I've said, those who expect Zimbabwe to follow Kenya's path are going to be disappointed, because Kenya is entering a generational Crisis era, while Zimbabwe is in the midst of an Awakening era.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, the next thing to watch for is who will "win" the Awakening era climax.

Reading today's headlines from Zimbabwe, you would think that Mugabe is going to crush his political opposition and force younger leaders to conform to his policies. The model would be the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But Mugabe is 84 years old. His violent oppression is much more personal than the CCP's government policies. The death of Mugabe, which can't be too far off, would completely change the political situation, and may make an MDC victory possible in the next presidential election.

Overshadowing all of this is international relations, especially China's policies in Africa. China is clearly siding with Africa's "old guard," including Mugabe. But China is also being very careful not to stir up unnecessary controversy prior to the Beijing summer Olympics.

In the end, what happens in Zimbabwe may depend less on what happens in Mugabe's election and more on how China behaves in the next year.

Source: "Zimbabwe's 'Liberation Hero' president Robert Mugabe continues to destroy his country" Updated 12-May-2008.

Article Cross-References

-- South Africa will create "temporary shelters" for migrants, not "refugee camps": Tribal differences are reasserting themselves and destabilizing the country. (31-May-2008)
-- Now it's South Africa's turn: ethnic violence spreads through Johannesburg: Mobs of mostly Zulu South Africans have attacked, raped and slaughtered mostly Zimbabweans (21-May-2008)
-- Zimbabwe's "Liberation Hero" president Robert Mugabe continues to destroy his country: With a 150000% inflation rate, torture, and destruction of property, (4-May-08)

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Copyright © 2002-2016 by John J. Xenakis.