Zimbabwe's recovering agriculture is not good news for everybody

Dec 5, 2010

A constant feature of news reports about Zimbabwe over the last several years has been how all systems in the country, particularly agriculture, had 'collapsed.' 

This sentence from a December 3 Telegraph (UK) article by Peta Thornycroft has become fairly typical reportage on Zimbabwe:

In the ten years since Mr Mugabe ordered 4,000 white farmers off their land, Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed.

Ms. Thornycroft is a correspondent on Zimbabwe for the Telegraph and other western news outlets. In her articles she has not been shy to show her deep sympathy for the white farmers who have been dispossessed of land by Robert Mugabe's government over the last decade.

The serious drop in agricultural production after the farm expropriations has been reported not just as a matter of fact, but often also as an implicit statement of the indispensibility of the white farmer for Zimbabwe's well-being. As long as agricultural production continued to decline, the link between white farming skill and Zimbabwe's food security and economic health would have seemed obvious, especially in the media market for which Thornycroft writes, where 'Mugabe' is a dirty word and Africans in general are not held in particularly high esteem.

If it was difficult to defend the white farmers on the basis that they were entitled to their colonial-era vast land privileges, it certainly was more politically correct to imply, 'not only is the land reform effort anti-white, but even if it wasn't, the bloody blacks will all starve to death without white farmers, it was in their own interest for things to have remained the way they were.'

To bolster this point we have had films like 'Mugabe and the White African,' which among other points has sought to stress that it is not just the white farmers who have suffered and lost because of land reform, but thousands of black farm workers they employed who are now jobless. Therefore, in general Zimbabwe's agricultural under-performance since land reform has been seen as helpful to the cause of the dispossessed white farmers, helped by the likes of Ms. Thornycroft in the tenor of their reporting for western news agencies.

But now Zimbabwean agriculture has begun to stir from its doldrums. The white farmers are just as gone today as they were at the lowest ebb of the country's farming in recent years, so what has happened? For example, export tobacco production by the country's small and medium scale black farmers has experienced a strong rebound which seems on course to continue.

There are also increasing reports suggesting that while certainly violent and costly, the land reform effort has not been quite the disaster incessantly, lovingly portrayed by the likes of Thornycroft. If the Zimbabwe government's talk of gradual agricultural and economic improvement are considered to be suspect, there are also 'neutral' studies that suggest that indeed there are many ordinary Zimbabweans who have been 'empowered' by land reform and are beginning to find their feet as farmers.

Well, after several years of economic hardship and decline, this is good news, isn't it? Surely those who have been so concerned about the land reform-caused plight of Zimbabwe's blacks would be relieved and glad to know that many have been working their butts off and that the results are beginning to show in the country's economic performance? Are all those western news agencies that have been so worried about Zimbabwe's 'collapse' now going to happily start reporting on the improvements? Huh?                 

Well, not necessarily. These new reports of recovery spoil the carefully woven story of the 'collapse' of recent years and the reasons for it! Hell, if this "bad good news" keeps on coming out every year it might:

1. Lend justification to Mugabe's 'land grab' from the white farmers, and worse

2. Suggest that eventual full recovery of the country's agriculture need not mean a wholesale return of things to the way they were during the heyday of the white farmer!

This would be upsetting the southern African apple cart in all sorts of unprecedented ways! So unprecedented that people like Thornycroft simply cannot bear to contemplate the possibility that the nascent farming and economic recovery taking place in Zimbabwe now is doing so driven by the scrappy black small scale farmers and other 'new' economic players, not the old dominant ones.

So what to do about this bad-good news of agricultural recovery? How to explain it to readers who you have told for years in your dispatches from 'collapsed' Zimbabwe the natives cannot do anything right and absolutely needed and depended on the poor-helpless-rich-Mugabe persecuted-privileged white farmers to have enough to eat and to run their economy?

Have no fear, madame is here with the 'correct' explanation for the recovery! What is it? It is:

White farmers return to Zimbabwe land, the heading of her latest dispatch for the Telegraph. The article's main thrust is how some white farmers are seeking to lease land from new black farmers, and how other white farmers think this is practice is 'handing victory to Mugabe.'

But Thornycroft finds a way to inject a defense of the white farmers even in this story. You see, the farmers who have 'returned to the land' in this way (leasing from black farmers), all "at least 120" of them, are/must be the reason agriculture is recovering. Writes Ms. Thornycroft, with not a shred of supporting evidence, A recent revival in agricultural production appears to have resulted from younger white farmers restoring fallow land to agriculture.    

But Ms. Thornycroft's stories these past few months and years are almost invariably about how the few remaining whites remaining on the land continue to be hounded off their farms! Surely if this trend had begun to be reversed she would have been the first one to announce the news to the western world that all the pressure on Mugabe to change course in this regard had began to pay off, finally. 

No, there is no significant (if any at all) movement of white farmers, 'younger' or otherwise, onto fallow or used land that could explain things like rising tobacco production. The fact that people like Thornycroft can't find it within themselves to admit that the new black farmers are and will continue to become better farmers with time and experience, just as when white commercial farming began several decades ago, is boorish.

Sure, the land reform has been very messy, and many farms lie bare and derelict. But it is also true that in countless smallholdings all over the country people are farming feverishly, as they have always done. During an August visit to my home area in eastern Zimbabwe a common complaint of many of my small scale farmer relatives was the depressed produce prices resulting from over-production. Almost everybody who can now tries to grow their own vegetables, drying up a good part of the market for those who are doing it commercially.

Messy, often violent and poorly planned as the land reform was, ten years after it started the whole environment has changed in many important ways that require re-evaluation of everything on everybody's part. From some people's point of view, the thrust is still to concentrate on the ills, the wrongs of it, of which there have been plenty, just as there have been plenty others throughout the violent history of Rhodesia and of Zimbabwe. It is of course important that all these ills be aired and addressed wherever possible. But the most urgent order of business for Zimbabwe today is to get its economy moving again, and agriculture will have to be an important part of that. The fact that recovery, however slow and from a low base, is good news for Zimbabweans. Those who find this not such good news and seek to ignore, downplay or mis-attribute this recovery reveal a lot more about themselves than they do about Zimbabwe.      

Many 'new' commercial farmers who don't yet have the funds, experience or infrastructure for more sophisticated types of horticulture have made a serious go of growing tobacco because of its simpler needs. Thousands of these new players are what account for the increased production, not a few dozen 'younger white farmers' plowing fallow land!   

Being unable to give credit where it is due because it contradicts the narrative of 'collapse' one has joyfully peddled for years in order to defend the white farmers against their treatment at the hands of Mugabe is hardly showing journalistic integrity, and it is churlish and grumpy in the most Rhodesian way.

That attitude amongst the likes of Thornycroft helps explain why many black Zimbabweans will continue supporting the land reform effort despite its messy nature and despite any misgivings they may have about Mugabe. Sure, the white farmers have been largely decimated as an economic force by Mugabe, and have been treated shabbily in many other ways as well.. But it is also true that many of the changes that have taken place in land holding in Zimbabwe are not going to be undone.

Africans over the last couple of centuries have got used to be at the receiving end of powerful historical forces beyond their control. Now that Africans are beginning to shape their destiny again, there are many who find this new and supremely unsettling. Peta Thornycroft appears to be one of them. The end of the era of the reign of the dinosaurs must have appeared equally unthinkable until it actually happened.


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