Comments on a summary of the new book, Catastrophe: What went wrong in Zimbabwe?

Jul 1, 2011

As the fiercest international heat over Zimbabwe's expropriations of land from white farmers dies down, there are now coming increasingly more measured, more fully contexed analyses of how the land imbalance that gave rise to them came about.    

Ronald Sanders is a former diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda who has had a keen interest in Zimbabwe over the years, expressed in un-emotional, above-average depth in several articles.

He briefly reviews a book that is about to be published, Catastrophe: What Went Wrong in Zimbabwe, by Richard Bourne, described as 'Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University.'   

Sanders writes, "What has not yet been attempted is an account of how a country that emerged with such international goodwill and with considerable natural resources and markets for its products could decline so drastically in thirty years. Bourne’s book is a well-researched investigation of this question."

This is a puzzling statement, because regardless of how good Bourne's book turns out to be, the fact of the matter is the subject of trying to explain Zimbabwe's decline over the last 30 years has been dealt with quite exhaustively internationally, though perhaps not often in scholarly book form. 

Also anti-climatic is Sander's revelation that "the contention of the book is that the central cause of Zimbabwe’s land." It is embarrassing for someone to write a whole book on this in 2011 and 
make such a pedestrian observation as its main conclusion. But perhaps Bourne has some new insights in the course of getting to a conclusion that most people would have long been aware of without needing to read a whole new book about it.

If the rest of Sanders' review of the book is an accurate reflection of it, then it unfortunately offers very little that is new to an understanding of the history of Zimbabwe's exhaustively covered land issue, although a copy of the book will be sought for a direct review.

For a time the land expropriations were referred to in much of the western and particularly British press as a 'land grab.' It is a term not heard as much now with regards to Zimbabwe, perhaps partly because it has now been transferred for use to the controversial new fashion of foreign companies coming to Africa to buy or lease large pieces of land for agribusiness. This is a new trend whose relationship to Zimbabwe's land issue has not been much explored but is bound to be in coming years.

What is interesting is how Sanders refers to "this second land grab in Zimbabwe" to mean the recent forced acquisition of land from the white farmers. Many Zimbabweans argue that the process by which white farmers ended up owning most of the best land was a colonial 'land grab,' and that on that basis even the present-day possession of title deeds was invalid or irrelevant, a contention in turn rejected by those who believe that colonial conquest was legitimising in a way that Mugabe-style expropriation today somehow isn't.

This is one of those contentious issues of how to get over past wrongs without going around in circles of generational and group grabs and counter-grabs that has not been adequately examined in regards to Zimbabwe. How and where does a society plagued by decades of violent conquest and violent pushbacks draw a line under all that to say, 'from here on we are agreeing on new societal rules that are no longer underlined by the wrongs of before?'

If this had been discussed in Bourne's book Sanders would have mentioned it because it would have been a rare new angle to the discussion of 'the Zimbabwe crisis.'

This issue comes up here because of the still unusual characterisation of the colonial conquests as 'land grabs' as most Zimbabweans think of them. That is unusual to hear from a non-Zimbabwean commentator, given how the so-far agenda-setting western/British press has cast today's Africans as the land grabbers, and yesterday's colonisers as well-intentioned 'civilisers' who may just have been a little naughty by then taking the natives' land and shouldn't be judged too harshly for it because of all the innovations they introduced.

Sanders ends with, "Bourne’s book is an important contribution to understanding what went wrong in independent Zimbabwe; it is also a good account of all the factors that blighted the country and its people long before Mugabe came to power." 

The first part, the importance of Bourne's book, remains to be seen. But if it helps make clear that many of the factors for Zimbabwe's troubles were in place long before Mugabe came along, that would be a useful addition to an understanding of the messy complexity of Zimbabwe that has been often over-simplified as a clear cut story of good/white versus bad/black.   

Hopefully Bourne's new book is more promising and insightful than Sander's review suggests.


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