Recent events in Zimbabwe have once again captured international attention. This is a situation that has always left me feeling somewhat conflicted. It is quite clear that Robert Mugabe, despite his heroic role in the overthrow of white rule, has become an authoritarian demagogue who has run his country into a ditch.
At the same time I have always felt uncomfortable with how the situation in Zimbabwe has been discussed in the Western media. It always seemed to that whatever Mugabe's demagogic purposes that Zimbabwe was a country in profound need of radical land reform to undo the persistent effects of colonialism and white settler rule.
The glee with which some denounced Mugabe and saw in him confirmation that Zimbabwe's plight could not be blamed any longer on European colonialism had the troubling whiff of racism.
I was please then to read a recent article by Mahmood Mandami that does much to correct popular misconceptions about the situation in Zimbabwe.
After an interesting comparison of Mugabe's expropriation of white farmers with idid Amin's expulsion of Indians from Uganda in 1972 Mandami then reminds us of the roots of the land conflict not just in British colonialism but in the British intervention in the handover of power from Ian Smith's white supremacist regime to Mugabe.
Though widespread grievance over the theft of land – a process begun in 1889 and completed in the 1950s – fuelled the guerrilla struggle against the regime of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front opposed black majority rule, the matter was never properly addressed when Britain came back into the picture to effect a constitutional transition to independence under majority rule. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, but the social realities of the newly independent state remained embedded in an earlier historical period: some six thousand white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of prime land, 39 per cent of the land in the country, while about 4.5 million farmers (a million households) in ‘communal areas’ were left to subsist on 16.4 million hectares of the most arid land, to which they’d been removed or confined by a century of colonial rule. In the middle were 8500 small-scale black farmers on about 1.4 million hectares of land.
This was not a sustainable arrangement in a country whose independence had been secured at the end of a long armed struggle supported by a land-hungry population. But the agreement that Britain drafted at Lancaster House in 1979 – and that the settlers eagerly backed – didn’t seem to take into account the kind of transition that would be necessary to secure a stable social order. Two of its provisions, one economic and the other political, reflected this short-termism: one called for land transfers on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis, with the British funding the scheme; the other reserved 20 per cent of seats in the House of Assembly for whites – 3 per cent of the population – giving the settler community an effective veto over any amendment to the Lancaster House terms. This was qualified majority rule at best. Both provisions had a time limit: 1990 for land transfers based on the market principle, and 1987 for the settler minority to set limits on majority rule. The deal sustained illusions among the settlers that what they had failed to achieve by UDI – Smith’s 1965 declaration of independence from the UK – and force of arms, they could now achieve through support from a government of ‘kith and kin’ (as Smith called it) in Britain. In reality, however, the agreement drew a line under settler privilege.
Mamdani then presents a very useful review of the byzantine trail of events and conflicts leading to the present impasse that simply must be read and that I won't even attempt to summarize.
He then reviews some recent scholarship that has called into question much of the "common wisdom" on the relationship between the land reform process and the economic collapse of Zimbabwe, identifying "five myths":
that land reform has been a total failure; that its beneficiaries have been largely political cronies; that there is no new investment in the new settlements; that agriculture is in ruins; and that the rural economy has collapsed. Researchers at PLAAS have been quick to point out that over the past eight years small-scale farmers ‘have been particularly robust in weathering Zimbabwe’s political and economic turmoil, as well as drought’. Ben Cousins, the director of PLAAS and one of the most astute South African analysts of agrarian change – who had previously argued that the land reform would destroy agricultural production – now says that the future of Zimbabwe lies in providing small farmers with subsidies so that food security can be achieved. According to researchers at the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, new farms need to receive subsidised maize seed and fertiliser for a few seasons before achieving full production. Some might give up during this period, but not many – partly because the land tenure system doesn’t allow land sales; only land permits or leases can be acquired.
The situation in Zimbabwe is enormously complex. The take-way from Mamdani's piece is I think that we should treat with profound skepticism both the demonization of the war veterans who seized the white farms with Mugabe's approval and the assumption that US or other Western powers are motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns in this conflict. Western powers planted the seeds for this disaster with the Lancaster House agreements and compounded matters considerably with the imposition of structural adjustment policies that intensified the desperation of the rural producers whose support Mugabe has depended on.