Understanding Zimbabwe: From Liberation to Authoritarianism
by Sara Rich Dorman
(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016,) pp. 347.

Reviewed by Dr. Wyndham Whynot, Department of History and Political Science, Livingstone College

Recently Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who ruled that country for the last several decades, was removed from his position by Zimbabwean military forces, leading individuals to wonder about the country’s immediate and long-term future. Since gaining independence Zimbabwe’s political history underwent a series of changes from acquiring and practicing political freedom to the development of an authoritarian government limiting the role of the people to share in governance to a limited segment of the population. Dorman’s work provides a political history of Zimbabwe focusing on the rule of the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) between 1980 through 2014.

Dorman divides her book into eight chapters, the first and the last focus on understanding and writing on Zimbabwean politics respectively. The remaining chapters each examine a specific chronological period from the pre-liberation era through the ZANU election victory in the 2013 national election. She argues that in some ways Zimbabwe encapsulates many aspects of African politics in general, and the understanding Zimbabwean politics allows individuals to gain an understanding not only of that nation’s politics, but also other governments throughout the continent.

Much of the book discusses ZANU policies and roles in developing the government, as well as steps taken by opposition parties. Dorman explores the intersection of significant social institutions such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the church, labor unions, political activists, and the military veterans and their impact on the changing nature of Zimbabwean politics in each section. Throughout this monograph, the author continually shows how ZANU sought to unify the government under one banner, that of ZANU either by persuasion or through the use of force.

Initially starting with the liberation era, a period of fifteen years, Dorman analyzes the Zimbabwean policies based on a semi-independent movement combined with a negotiated settlement. She argues in essence, the Lancaster House Agreement, somewhat limited policy options available to ZANU, thus forcing coalition building efforts to establish the government. Succeeding chapters then examine ZANU attempts to use nationalism to unify the country to co-opt and unite various institutions and political parties to create a government focused on ZANU objectives; a process not wholly supported by all the people. Despite the initial success the Unity Agreement, Dorman notes that ironically this led to some of Zimbabwe’s significant achievements; it also led to the growth of considerable opposition by different sectors in society.

The latter chapters examine ZANU’s shift towards an authoritarian society, first by indicating steps taken by the government to maintain power or to establish a one-party state, as well as the increasing corruption and use of violence to ensure the proper political results. Particular focus is placed on the deconstruction of specificZimbabwean institutions through the use of the carrot and stick and by ZANU development of institutions to replace opposition organizations. Ultimately, Dorman examines how ZANU was able to overcome opposition to create an authoritarian state similar to that established by the white South Rhodesian settlers.

Among the strengths of this book is the amount of research conducted by the author. In addition to conducting research trips over a period of twenty-one years in Zimbabwe, much of Dorman’s work relies primarily on secondary sources with some use of primary sources, all heavily documented. Her bibliography and citations account for almost one-third of the entire book. The index uses two different approaches, the first follows the standard indexing system, yet the entries on Southern Rhodesia and Zimbabwe also use a chronological layout. However, the reviewer believes the addition of some appropriate maps and photos/pictures could enhance the usefulness of the book.

Although well-written, Dorman’s book appears aimed towards upper division students and academics knowledgeable about African history, rather than the general population. At times the reader is expected to have some understanding of Zimbabwean politics in general. Additionally, readers interested in Zimbabwean foreign policy will be disappointed, as the author deliberately focused much of her work on domestic policies.

On a few occasions, the writing is slightly confusing with her use of a thematic over a chronological approach during one chapter which somewhat weakens her text at times. In some ways, this book reminds the reviewer of older era books, where the author spelled out the specific goals of each chapter and ends the section with a paragraph offering the author’s conclusions. Despite these issues, the reviewer believes this book serves a significant monograph delving into the political history of Zimbabwe and would recommend this book for students interest in African political systems in general and specifically in Zimbabwean politics.