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Zimbabwe: When Bob Marley and Robert Mugabe celebrated independence

By Trésor Kibangula
Posted on Tuesday, 11 May 2021 15:34

Bob Marley and Robert Mugabe. Photomotaneg / Photos: AP/SIPA

Zimbabwe attained its independence after more than 10 years of armed struggle. On the day that the former Southern Rhodesia gained national sovereignty, Bob Marley performed in front of an audience that included Robert Mugabe, who would go on to serve as the country's first prime minister.

On 18 April 1980, Zimbabwe gained its independence. Celebrations followed on the nights of 17 to 18 April 1980 during a concert at the Rufaro Stadium, located in the heart of Highfield, the township of the capital Salisbury (now Harare). Bob Marley & the Wailers was just one of the musical acts and among the songs they performed was Zimbabwe, with a strong call for pan-Africanism.

Distinguished guests

The moment was of great historical significance, as the last European colony on the continent had finally gained independence. Representatives from 100 countries, including 11 heads of state, travelled to Zimbabwe for the celebrations.

At midnight, in absolute silence, the Union Jack was lowered from the big flagpole in the middle of the stadium and replaced by the four-coloured flag of the young state. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. For real, this time.

The list of distinguished guests included Prince Charles of the UK; Lord Soames, the country’s last governor; Kurt Waldheim, UN secretary-general; Edem Kodjo, secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU); Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The stadium was packed with more than 35,000 enthusiastic people attending the ceremony. Thousands more were prevented from entering, and even dispersed using tear gas, as the stadium could not accommodate all those who were desperate to witness the demise of the British Empire on the continent.

At midnight, in absolute silence, the Union Jack was lowered from the big flagpole in the middle of the stadium and replaced by the four-coloured flag of the young state. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. For real, this time, as the nation’s proclaimed independence had failed to gain any international recognition when it was declared twice before.

“Racist colonising minority”

Northern Rhodesia had become independent a year earlier and was now known as Zambia. Southern Rhodesia tried to follow suit by declaring its independence and taking on the name Rhodesia on 11 November 1965.

This had been spearheaded by its prime minister Ian Smith. However, neither the British mainland nor any other state, recognised its independence at the time. The UN Security Council Resolutions 216 and 217 even described Smith’s action as “a usurpation of power by a racist colonising minority.”

The UN’s position remained the same during Bishop Abel Muzorewa’s time in office. The nationalist opposed the armed struggle and succeeded Smith as prime minister in 1979. He came into power following legislative elections that had been boycotted by several guerilla movements: Robert Mugabe’s Zanu (Zimbabwe African National Union) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu (Zimbabwe People’s National Union).

Rhodesia’s struggle for independence began in 1966. In October 1979, Muzorewa agreed to hand over his country’s sovereignty to the British Crown so that the process would be internationally legal.

The Lancaster House Agreement was signed on 21 December 1979 in London, between the delegates of the Front Patriotique guerrillas (Robert Mugabe and Nkomo, among others), representatives of the Salisbury government and the British authorities. This agreement officially recognised Zimbabwe’s long-awaited independence.

It also brought an end to Smith’s racist regime and that of British colonisation, which had caused more than 25,000 deaths over 90 years of oppression. Zimbabwe finally welcomed a new era. It was led by President Canaan Banana and, above all, his prime minister Mugabe; the former guerrilla leader, whose party had won legislative elections that were organised a month before the country attained independence.

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