It was with great sadness that I read a recent article reminding readers of some of the extraordinary feats of nation-building that took place in the country that used to be known as Rhodesia.
Only seven years after the Union Jack was hoisted at Fort Salisbury in 1890 the first rail link connecting the new country to the outside world reached Bulawayo. With Cecil Rhodes’ funding and ‘the Founder’ hurrying him on, big George Pauling, when not quaffing a reputed crate of beer a day, supervised the completion of the last 644 kilometres from Mafikeng to Bulawayo in four hundred days: below budget and ahead of time.
But needing quick access to the sea the redoubtable Leander Starr Jameson recced the port of Beira and so began the building of the line through then Portuguese East Africa to the border town of Umtali. With Pauling again in command, the line cut through a swampy wilderness and tropical jungle riddled with lions and malaria. In the first two years 60% of the labour had died of malaria. This did not stop them setting records. A visiting French engineer estimated that three-quarters of a kilometre could be laid in a day. Under the watchful eye of the incredulous Frenchman, Pauling’s people laid nine kilometres before the sun went down. European contractors were ordered to supply details for inscription on their tombs before starting work. In 1898, when the line reached Umtali, the survivors smashed their gravestones.
In order to link Northern and Southern Rhodesia it took the settlers just 14 months to construct the 205-metre-long bridge across the gorge, 126 metres above the Zambezi, downstream from the Victoria Falls. Rhodes insisted it be close enough to the waterfall to mist the windows of the trains that would soon pass. It stands solid to this day.
By the turn of the century work on new lines had begun. Bulawayo and Salisbury were linked in 1902 and by 1904 they were connected to the Victoria Falls.
When the 329-metre-long Birchenough Bridge across the Save River was completed in 1935 it was the 3rd largest suspension bridge in the world.
During the Great Depression, it was mainly impoverished white settlers who went to work and cut the strip roads through the wild countryside that provided the infrastructure that would later link the towns and cities.
When WWII interrupted progress the Rhodesian government faced a problem. While Britain and the other colonies introduced conscription to compel the citizenry to serve, Salisbury introduced rules to force them to stay. Such was the rush to fight, the fear was the colony would be bereft of men if action was not taken. While many went to fight abroad, the colony provided the training facilities for a third of the Allied fighter pilots that flew in the conflict.
In 1955 work commenced on damning the Zambezi at Kariba gorge. At the time it was one of the biggest construction projects of the kind ever embarked upon. Despite difficult logistics and harsh conditions the world’s largest man-made water reservoir was completed four years later in 1959. The electricity required to power economic growth in the colony was assured.
When the Portuguese abandoned Africa and Samora Machel’s Frelimo took power in 1975, one of his first actions was to close the border and block the country’s access to the sea. A solution had to be found if the country were to survive and the solution lay in connecting to South Africa through Rutenga and Beit Bridge. Consulting engineers estimated the time need for completion to be two years, but the line was completed in a world record time of just 93 days: 21 months ahead of schedule. At the time, the country was the target of comprehensive United Nations imposed sanctions and at war.
Reminded of these events, it was another reason to reflect on what might have been, if the world, most of which was deeply hostile to the people initiating and managing the incredible progress underway, had not been so destructive in their demands. It is important to note, none of this was conducted with the use of involuntary labour, and all of it was paid for and managed by adventurous, enterprising Europeans with their own hard-earned resources.
Thanks to the actions of those who followed, a country that once hovered on the cusp of being an economic powerhouse was destroyed. Today, most of this infrastructure is badly damaged and derelict. Kariba Dam generates little, or no power and the railway system seldom operates. The citizenry is impoverished. Alas, what could so easily have been the heartbeat of Africa, generating growth and opportunity that would have spread beyond its borders providing wealth and opportunity for millions, has become a disappearing dream.
It seems none of the achievements mentioned above were considered in mitigation when leaders of the democratic West, along with the Soviets and the Chinese, demanded radical change and a political dispensation that would exclude the very people that wrought such astonishing development in so short a time.
Meanwhile, the airwaves of the modern world are filled with hysterical demands for Britain and other former colonial powers reparations for the alleged crimes of colonialism.
Few dare consider the indisputable fact the suffering of Africans before or after the imperial era is on another scale, and of another nature altogether; genocide, economic and infrastructural collapse, disease, war, dictatorships, corruption and lawlessness. Against this backdrop, the countries being called to account have donated some Five Trillion dollars to these countries in various forms of aid. Most of it has been stolen or squandered. This begs the question as to why these ‘liberators,’ the perpetrators responsible for this human tragedy are not called to account, let alone prosecuted. While that question hangs, we do now know, that the so called ‘liberation struggles’ were actually wars of acquisition; the victors used political power to plunder vast amounts of wealth for the benefit of a tiny minority that they have played no part in generating.