Zimbabwe’s economy has been in free-fall for more than two decades. Two major explanations stand in opposition to each other. The first school of thought attributes the country’s economic malaise to sanctions imposed by Western countries. The second blames government mismanagement and corruption.
Starting in 2001, the European Union, the United States, and other countries slapped Zimbabwe’s ruling elite with economic sanctions in response to alleged electoral rigging and human-rights abuses and the government’s radical land reform program (Chingono, 2010). While the sanctions have been softened considerably in recent years, the ruling party and government, war veterans, and many beneficiaries of the land reform program and other disbursements continue to blame them for Zimbabwe’s economic woes (Nyoni, 2019; Herald, 2021).
The government has managed to mobilize support against the sanctions. In October 2019, leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agreed to campaign for the removal of the sanctions, arguing that they destabilize Zimbabwe’s economy and adversely affect the region (Human Rights Watch, 2020). A group of ZANU-PF supporters camped out near the U.S. Embassy in Harare since 29 March 2019 has vowed to stay put until the sanctions are removed (ZimEye, 2019).
But critics say the government is using the sanctions as a scapegoat for an economic collapse caused by its own mismanagement and corruption (Magaisa, 2019; Mutongwizo, 2019; ZimEye, 2021). Prominent voices pointing beyond sanctions to the “real causes” of Zimbabwe’s economic troubles have included journalist Nqaba Matshazi (2019) and then- U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Brian Nichols (2019).
In October, a UN special rapporteur said that sanctions have worsened Zimbabwe’s “pre- existing social and economic challenges” and called for “meaningful, structured dialogue” to take the place of targeted sanctions to promote political reforms and human rights (Mabuza, 2021).
Where do ordinary Zimbabweans stand in this debate? Recent Afrobarometer survey findings show that a huge majority of Zimbabweans say that government mismanagement, not sanctions, is the main cause of the country’s economic troubles.