Why Zimbabwe's farm expropriations will not be reversed after Mugabe

Sep 6, 2011

by Chido Makunike

In the Western media it is called 'Mugabe's land grab.' That terminology is partly to indicate not just the reality of how it was done, but to also show deep disapproval. Indeed, expropriating land from white farmers is one of the main reasons Mugabe is now depicted as a particular figure of hate in the West. However, a side effect of the narrative that he simply took productive land out of a fit of racial hate and then parceled it out to his 'cronies' is that it gives the false impression that Zimbabwe's controversial land reform might be temporary; to be reversed after 'dictator Mugabe' exits the scene. Here's in brief why that is not going to happen.

It is true that Mugabe-led land reform was literally a 'grab,' in the sense that the farms were taken forcibly and without compensation. It is also true that it is incomplete and out of context to refuse to listen to Mugabe's defense of his method for that 'grab,' even if one dismisses it.

It is that the 'willing buyer-willing seller' means of land reform had failed over many years, as it is doing in South Africa today. The recent/current 'grab' was/is explained in political terms as the recovery of land that was in turn grabbed by white colonial governments from Africans. So technically today's land reform is really explained/justified as a 'counter grab' to restore to the Africans what was taken from them.

What about the fact that after the colonial land grab there arose a new system of Western-style 'rule of law?' Today's white farmers had title deeds after all, some of them obtained after independence. Did all that not effectively white wash and legalize the whole process of colonial land grabbing? Did that not imply that the Africans had accepted the irreversibility of their colonial-era land losses?

This is politically countered as having been a type of 'land-laundering' to legitimize colonial conquest. It just so happened that under Mugabe the Zimbabwean Africans have achieved the rare post-colonial achievement of attaining the power to reverse the land grab that disadvantaged their parents and grandparents, along with having a ruler who was prepared to face the continuing onslaught of western hostility to carry it out that reversal. Australian Aborigines, Native Americans were almost wiped, on the other hand, and are now tiny minorities who don't have the power to do the same.

Mugabe basically withdrew the statute of limitations on Zimbabwean Africans reversing the colonial-era land grabs. He effectively said to the white farmers, ''Sorry, tough luck if you have now 'legitimately' acquired title deeds to originally stolen African land. We are canceling the legal power of those title deeds; we no longer recognize them, and are replacing the old rule of law with a new one.''  

All discussions about property rights, rule of law and so forth in relation to this complex issue need to take place in light of these clashing imperatives of the two groups that came into conflict over the land: the once- conquering, later title deeds-owning whites on the one hand, and the once vanquished, once land- dispossessed but now land-reclaiming blacks. Mugabe's 'land grab' and the many questions it has forced about the origins of the racial inequality of land holdings in the first place, has ensured that resolving the issues is far from as simple as waving title deeds about. Those title deeds are effectively dismissed as ownership rights to stolen property, whose one-time legitimacy was enforced by colonial conquest which has now been reversed.     

''Ah, but that is just a nonsensical, self-serving justification by the brutal dictator Mugabe. He just wanted to take productive land from white farmers who no longer supported him and give it to his restless cronies to appease them.''

There is a degree of truth in this as well. Land reform that was popular, overdue, and widely-supported even by Mugabe critics also served Mugabe's political interests at a time he had begun to experience a serious dip in his support over a concentration of power in his hands, increasing repression and reduced economic performance. However, to say his 'land grab' was partly politically self-serving does not neutralize the many other reasons for which it was and is still widely supported.

''He gave all the land to his cronies who don't know a thing about farming'' is now an established part of  the Mugabe-land-grab narrative, predictably followed by 'that's how Zimbabwe went from breadbasket to basket case.' It's a simple and neat explanation, and where it is particularly comfortingly accepted, cements the view of a particularly bad guy. If it is not easily politically correct to defend the old white farmers, then Mugabe's badness can be attacked from the perspective of how his recklessness made his own people suffer the consequences of his rash acts.

Again, largely true, but also incomplete in important ways.

It is certainly true that 'Mugabe cronies' disproportionately got the choice farms. For many of the political elite, it was not so much the rich farming potential of the soils they paid attention to, but the farm bungalow, the swimming pool, the barns and farm machinery, etc. There is simply no denying this element of their eagerness to 'grab' built up infrastructure and property. For many, the farming was secondary, since this elite already had their jobs and/or other businesses. The commitment to their new farms was often casual, in addition to all the other problems-inexperience, lack of capital, lack of security of tenure, etc.

This grabbing by the elite of the best of the farms that were expropriated was also accompanied by the parceling out of other land to hundreds of thousands of ordinary black Zimbabweans who could in no way be regarded as 'Mugabe's cronies.' The concentration of the narrative on the grabbing of the elite at the cost of also mentioning how significant numbers of ordinary people also benefited is where the degree of anti-Mugabe hysteria actually blinds some observers from understanding how widespread is the stake Zimbabweans now have in the land reform exercise, messy as it has been.

These hundreds of thousands of new landholders may have just had a piece of land with nothing on it; certainly no farmhouse or swimming pool-that property would have gone to a 'Mugabe crony.' Most of these aspirant farmers have not had anywhere near the kind of support necessary to make a productive go of their farms, although a significant percentage are beginning to do so on their own, giving rise to recovery in sectors like tobacco and maize.       

The point is that while the redistribution of the grabbed farms has been very far from what could be called equitable, it has been far from simply an exercise in Mugabe doling out more free privileges to his 'cronies.' That this is so widely believed in many Western quarters is because of the legion of people there whose skin crawls at the mere mention of the name 'Mugabe,' but it is also the cause of deep misunderstanding about what is likely to happen in the post-Mugabe era.

It is widely recognized that the land reform exercise was replete with anomalies. For years there has been lip service thrown at the need for a land audit, addressing multiple ownership, derelict farms and many other issues. At some point there will need to be some sort of resolution of these issues. For many reasons Mugabe's government is not keen to follow this up. Such necessary basic accounting of who has what, security of tenure issues and so forth are far more likely not only after Mugabe, but with a non-ZANU PF government.

There is widespread support for corrections of the reform effort, but not for its reversal. Many of those who were previously landless may still not have the means to fully benefit from their new asset. They  nevertheless have more than they had before, with continuing hope that they can turn it into a productive asset. Whether that happens soon or not, these many ordinary Zimbabweans fully support the exercise that has made it possible to have new dreams, even if they do not support Mugabe on other issues.

The recognition of this is why even Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, who the white farmers once unrealistically considered as their potential saviors, have said there will not be a reversal to the pre-land reform land holding patterns. Many of the people who support the MDC are themselves beneficiaries of 'Mugabe's land grab.' It is simply to accept political reality for the MDC to vow not to attempt to reverse it. They might arguably be even better placed to spearhead corrections than the current ZANU-PF dominant coalition government, although they would have to tread carefully.   

'Mugabe's land grab' will need a lot of panel-beating to properly serve all the country's best interests. But there will be no wholesale reversal of it precisely because it didn't only benefit his 'cronies,' but also many other Zimbabweans who are slowly, gradually, increasingly beginning to enjoy the benefits. There was favoritism and corruption in the process which sorely need addressing. That does not obviate the fact that it also was and remains a massively supported exercise, nor the fact that the potential for it to become the main engine of the economy, but in very different hands and forms, remains.    

Much of what you read about 'Mugabe's land grab' is misleading not so much because it is untrue, but because it is only partially, selectively true.

The Zimbabwe Review


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