The phenomenon of heroes of liberation movements sliding into despotism has now become all too familiar. In South Asia, we have our own examples – currently from Bangladesh and Myanmar – but the narrative has been more destructive in Africa. That is obvious from the struggles to disengage Robert Mugabe from his seat of power after 37 years as Zimbabwe’s president. Next door, Yoweri Museveni who has ruled Uganda for 31 years is also a despot who uses severe means to crush any opposition.

This has been the tragic story of many leaders who were national heroes for mobilising successful struggles for freedom from colonisers, who dominated the economies of the countries they ruled. In Africa, where fertile land was available in plenty, the British, the French, the Belgians and the Portuguese developed plantation economies that often used slave labour, exercising unbridled power over their properties and accumulating enormous wealth.

How difficult it has proved for the people of newly liberated countries to wrest these assets away from the colonisers is obviously from the situation in South Africa today. Despite the extraordinary anti-apartheid struggle and the transfer of political power from white to black, vast areas of fertile land – vineyards​, fruit and grain farms – remain in the hands of white planters, who continue to rely on the labour of black people.

When Zimbabwe became free in 1980, this was its challenge: how to deal with this entrenched post-colonial presence in the economy? How to gain control over the means of production? In his quest for an answer, Mugabe was among those who supported the idea of the South Commission, a think tank of eminent economists that aimed to frame a programme for countries in the global South that aimed to cut the umbilical cord to the northern economies. In time, though, Mugabe unleashed terror on the plantations, setting off a wave of killing and burnings.

The tragedy of Africa is how new types of colonisers are taking advantage of the large tracts of land that are still believed to be uncultivated. Just five years ago, for instance, Indian entrepreneurs were offered unlimited parcels of pastoral land​ in Ethiopia to grow bio fuels. The role played by the colonisers in taking over the resources has unfortunately been followed in modern times with the arrival of structural adjustment programmes and the pressures of liberalisation programmes pushed by the International Monetary Fund. Much has been written about the financial seduction of political leaders by corporations trying to get profitable deals in these former colonies.

​ ​None of this, of course, is an attempt to condone Mugabe’s despotism, his corruption and his extreme abuses of power. But it is useful to recognise the dynamics in the struggles of African countries to renegotiate their freedom from their colonial legacies. Yes, Mugabe is a tyrant. But he is also a victim. Cry ​the beloved country, said Alan Paton at another time. Cry the beloved Africa.​

Economist Devaki Jain economist was a member of the South Commission from 1987-1990.