How the Zimbabwean economy has changed so far

We need to understand the past before we can understand the present, and predict the future.

Understanding history can help one improve their ability to comprehend how changes happened over time and how the future may look like. Interpreting history properly can help one reflect and think through the causes, effects and significance of things that happened in the past.

As we seek to understand the present Zimbabwean political economy better, it is important to first understand how it was in the past.

In the face of so many dire predictions of the future and so much uncertainty engulfing Zimbabwe, where can we find reassurance? In our past. The future isn’t one certain, monocausal conclusion of doom and gloom, but rather, a range of possibilities that we must assess with the ratiocination from understanding the past.


IT is one of the purposes of this article to test the validity of the assumption of an interaction between economic base and superstructure in explaining the historical development of Rhodesia, and in interpreting recent political events there.

To this end the economic base of the Rhodesian social system before World War II is analysed and related to the coexisting set of socio-political events and attitudes.

In and after World War II external stimulants induced a process of development which altered the economic base and saw the emergence of an African proletariat and a manufacturing capitalist class.

But this process of development was subsequently interrupted because of the resistance of those classes who owe their economic and social status to the superstructure of the old production relations. In light of this analysis, some conclusions about the present political conjuncture are drawn.

The most important single element determining the nature of economic and political development in Southern Rhodesia, was the British South Africa Company’s overestimation at the end of the 19th century of its mineral resources, and the persistence of this overestimation for roughly 15 years.

The reasons behind such a misconception can be partly detected in the political interruptions which characterised the early period of colonisation (Jameson Raid, Matabele and Mashona rebellions, Boer War).

The costs incurred in the meantime increased the stake of the company in the country and led to additional heavy development investment particularly in railways. The overvaluation became apparent when, eventually, the Rhodesian gold fields failed to yield deposits comparable to those of South Africa.

For example, even in 1910 against a profit of close to £7 million from the 11 leading Johannesburg gold mines, the 10 leading Rhodesian mines yielded a profit of only £614 000. Large-scale workings were uneconomic because the deposits were scattered and the ore itself often of a low quality.

The desire to recover the original heavy outlays induced the chartered company to foster the formation of a white rural bourgeoisie which, by developing the country would raise the value of its assets in the area — viz the railway system, the mine claims, and especially land.

Settlement gathered momentum after 1902 when small workings of mine claims on a royalty basis were extended. The influx of peoples, European and African, to the mining camps brought about a derivative demand for other products. Between 1901 and 1911 the European population doubled from 11 000 to over 23 000.

Farmers began to settle and to feed the growing population and commercial undertakings became established in the growing towns of Salisbury and Bulawayo. Thus a cumulative process was started leading to a class structure which crystallised during the depression of the 1930’s.

White rural bourgeoisie

Within this class structure the white rural bourgeoisie was the foundation of the capitalist sector of the economy. This bourgeoisie consisted largely of both owner-workers of small and medium-sized mines and farmers who were economically committed to the development of the country.

This “national” character of the white rural bourgeoisie, even at that time, distinguished Southern Rhodesia from practically all other African colonial territories north of the Limpopo and South of the Sahara, where exploitation of resources was carried out by large-scale international capitalism.

In these other territories, where exploitation was based on large-scale mining or plantation or monopoly trade, capitalist interests in the economy were not permanent, but lasted until, for example, deposits were exhausted or the raw material was substituted in the industrial process overseas or some more economic source of supply was found.

In inter-war Rhodesia about a third of the Europeans gainfully occupied belonged to the rural bourgeoisie, but to assess the full strength of this class, it is important to take into account the would-be agriculturalists.

In fact, even the civil servant, business and professional man, miner or railway employee looked forward to retiring to a plot of land. International capitalism was represented mainly by the British South Africa Company which, apart from its control over the railways, the bulk of gold production and coal mining, also owned land in part exploited for productive purposes (maize, cattle, citrus, etc). In accordance with its interest in encouraging the growth of the white rural bourgeoisie, it also experimented with new crops.

Large estates had been given to companies and syndicates for certain interests acquired by the British South Africa Company.

Other big companies were already dominating asbestos and chrome mining. Control over tobacco production was exercised indirectly through monopsonistic

practices by the United Tobacco Company which, in former prime minister Godfrey Huggins’ view, “was aiming at becoming the country’s sole tobacco buyer, and managed to draw the best experts out of the government service”.

A third class consisted of craftsmen engaged in manufacturing, whose activity was totally dependent on the rural bourgeoisie and big international capital, mainly the British South Africa Company. It was typically a petty bourgeoisie and, indeed, the Colony’s official Year Book of 1932 does not even mention the manufacturing industry.

White wage-workers

Much more significant was the class of white wage-workers formed by artisans, semi-skilled workers, foremen, clerical workers, administrative employees, etc. Demand for their labour was concentrated in mining, transport (mainly railways) and service activities (civil service especially).

It is important to notice that, unlike South Africa, or Algeria, their settlement was a consequence of, and did not precede, capitalist development in the country. Therefore they had to be attracted by the offer of high wages, and with their skills they brought union organising abilities.

This phasing of white settlement and capitalist development is at the root of the absence of ‘poor-white-ism’ in Southern Rhodesia. This class of white wage-worker, together with the white petty bourgeoisie, i.e. handicraftsmen, shopkeepers and small employers in agriculture and mining, already in the pre-war period constituted the bulk of the European population in Southern Rhodesia.

The Africans

The Africans were still essentially a class of self-employed rural cultivators. The African wage-workers, the African middle-class and petty bourgeoisie were merely appendages of the peasantry rather than independent classes.

Land was not a saleable commodity, but each adult had rights to its use. The system of cultivation involved a form of land rotation whereby it was used until its fertility was diminished and then abandoned and left to recover until fertility was restored. Within the peasantry some division and hence specialisation of labour could be observed.

The role of men was to regulate the community’s relationship with animals (tending cattle and hunting) and to provide development works such as bush clearance and building huts. The women’s role on the other hand consisted of routine tasks: sowing, weeding, threshing, fetching water, preparing food and making beer.

Communal ties were very strong and when the peasant left to seek wage employment he left his family behind and kept close links (through a flow of goods, cash or occasional labour) with the peasantry to which he belonged and meant to return, even after several years of absence.

At the same time the size and number of holdings under cultivation within the rural areas contracted and expanded as the wage labourers left or returned to their wards. Thus, given this security in land tenure, we cannot, strictly speaking, refer to the African wage-workers of the 1930s as a proletariat.

On the other hand the African middle class and rural (petty) bourgeoisie were numerically and economically insignificant. For example, by 1930, i.e. before the Land Apportionment Act was introduced, Africans had managed to acquire only 45 000 acres in the open market, while Europeans had purchased about 31 000 000 acres.

The reasons for the failure of these classes to emerge are a consequence of the class structure itself and therefore they will be dealt with at a later stage.

To sum up:we can discern five main classes in pre-war Rhodesia. There were (a) the white rural bourgeoisie operating in mining and agriculture, national in character; (b) large-scale international capitalism controlling transport (railways) and power (coal) and engaged in primary production and speculation in land; (c) the white wage-workers whose entrance into the economy followed and did not precede the capitalist development of the country; (d) the white petty bourgeoisie operating in all sectors of the economy but especially trade; (e) the African peasantry and wage-earners. – The New Left, 39, 1966.

About the writer: Professor Giovanni Arrighi was an Italian economist, sociologist and world-systems analyst at Johns Hopkins University. His work has been translated into over 15 languages.

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