the land issue in Zimbabwe as "white farmers vs. black peasants"
buys into a racial smokescreen about what is at stake. In the U.S.,
that smokescreen is promoted by white-owned media, acting in ironic
alliance with Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe. In both cases, though
from opposite sides, obscuring the nature of real democratic land reform
motivates the racial reductionism.
Mugabe, the U.S. media portrays the land issue as purely a racial one.
Both put disproportionate emphasis on white farmers and the racial identity
of owners, at the expense of how land is used and by whom. Zimbabwe's
real land politics are considerably more complicated. A genuinely democratic
approach to land reform would have to take into account social divisions
and claims that race alone cannot capture. As I will suggest later,
democratic land reform would have to address, among others, claims rising
from the history of dispossession, from proximity of communities to
formerly segregated places, and from connection to the soil through
issues will have a familiar ring to many black Americans whose ancestors
faced the dispossessions of enslavement. The broken promise to ex-slaves
of a rooted place on the land they had worked, the legal formalities
used first to bind black sharecroppers to white landowners, then later
to force them from the places where their families had been born and
buried, the manipulation of tax laws and debt to dispossess once again
African Americans who managed to buy land, all resonate with aspects
of Zimbabwean struggles.
histories call up democratic redistribution claims arising from human
ties and from working closely with the land, rather than from the abstractions
of property law and market theory. To see how such an approach differs
from current policy in Zimbabwe, we have to look deeper into current
land politics there.
elections and parties
in issue 13 justifies Robert Mugabe's policies because "majority
rules." Unfortunately that is not true in Zimbabwe.
of Zimbabweans voted against a new constitution that Mugabe proposed
in 2000. It would have given him enhanced land expropriation powers,
and also entrenched the power of his party, ZANU-PF, and himself. Popular
rejection came even though Mugabe tried to label the opposition organizers
of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), headed by trade union leader
Morgan Tsvangirai, as stooges of the white farmers. Undoubtedly the
majority of Zimbabweans want land reform, but when offered this at the
cost of broader democratic rights, they rejected it.
since then has proceeded to act outside the law, to refuse to enforce
the law, and to ignore the Zimbabwean courts (majority African). His
re-election in 2001 was tainted by accusations of fraud and intimidation
in the actual conduct of the vote, though not all observers agreed.
What is incontestable is that the campaign was marked by massive bias,
lies and smears by government-owned media against the opposition MDC
and Tsvangirai personally. The ZANU-PF government controls about half
the newspapers in the country, has a monopoly of television broadcasting,
and most importantly, a near monopoly of radio broadcasting.
his re-election Mugabe has forced through legislation to suppress the
independent press. He and his government continue to organize, encourage
and tolerate violent intimidation of MDC leaders and members, both by
official security forces and ZANU -PF vigilantes. Targets of state human
rights abuses include white farmers, but mostly are Africans. All of
this is bad enough, but today it comes at the expense of confronting
a looming agricultural disaster.
The current food crisis
Africa, including Zimbabwe, is suffering severe drought and is threatened
with famine. The Western press decries Mugabe-backed land invasions
and attacks on white farmers, blaming them for the declining production
of Zimbabwe's white-owned commercial farms. Unfortunately, such accounts
often are written as if there is something magical about the whiteness
of the farmers that makes them inherently superior to African farmers,
and makes their farms drought resistant. Conversely, Mugabe's defenders
assert that the famine proves the failure of white-owned commercial
farming and, without evidence, that redistributing the land would lead
to food self-sufficiency and greater national wealth.
or not land reform could raise productivity, and regardless of the racialism
that can accompany valorization of white farmers, the violent and chaotic
character of ZANU-PF's current course of action certainly has disrupted
the commercial farm system. Even taking into account the drought's effects
on white-owned farms, there is no escaping the fact that grain production
has been massively reduced by ZANU-PF policies in the recent past. Nor
has the commercial farm system been replaced with self-sufficient peasant
production or any other system. Even if some other system could in theory
meet the drought better, the Mugabe-led campaigns have not brought it
into existence, only sabotaged the commercial farm system.
are some complicated trade-offs here between direct production for consumption
vs. markets as means to circulate food. Localized self-sufficiency increases
peasant autonomy in good years, but reduces food security in any given
place in bad years, to the extent that food circulation is limited locally.
Markets can bring outside food to hard-hit localities, but often at
a cost premium that poor peasants can't meet, or not without crushing
debt. Likewise the fate of urban Zimbabweans, now a substantial minority
of the population, depends on commercial food circulation. Finally,
there is the (formerly) large role of Zimbabwean commercial agricultural
exports in the national economy and the food systems of nearby nations
of such issues might be that a democratic land reform process ought
to involve a mix of degrees of market orientation, which in turn might
imply a mix of land tenure forms. Or it might be that a case for strongly
peasant-oriented land reform should say how the needs of temporarily
food-insecure localities would be met, along with the regular needs
of cities, and if or how such a system would address the national and
regional role that Zimbabwean commercial agricultural exports used to
ZANU-PF's approach to the land issue nor the prescriptive straitjackets
of abstract market theory promoted by the international financial institutions
can provide the room for such issues to be debated. Yet such debate
is a prerequisite for democratic land reform.
benefits, and who should?
then has happened to land that Mugabe's government has successfully
acquired? Most of it so far has ended up in the hands of Mugabe cronies
and ZANU-PF officials, who continue to hold it as private capitalist
property and run it as commercial farms. The assumption that expropriating
white owners means redistribution to peasants is simply wrong.
to Mugabe's focus on white ownership, his other rhetorical focus has
been "ex-combatants" or veterans of the Chimurenga liberation
war. They are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of land redistribution.
Groups acting in the name of ex-combatants have been the driving force
behind land invasions and violent attacks on white-owned farms.
this ideology poses several problems. First, a good many of the supposed
ex-combatants are not veterans but simply ZANU-PF adherents. Meanwhile
liberation war veterans who now support the MDC are excluded from land
the ideology contains a massive gender and age bias. Women farmers do
the majority of actual cultivation in Zimbabwe's peasant agriculture.
In the nature of a guerrilla liberation war, women, children and older
men formed crucial elements of the "sea" in which the Chimurenga
fighters "swam," and sometimes bore arms themselves. And women,
children and older men bore most of the brutality of the Rhodesian "counterinsurgency"
campaigns. Yet women are not counted as ex-combatants, and are being
excluded from land redistribution defined and justified in those terms.
peasants and communities in areas of strong Rhodesian government control,
who may have had less opportunity to join guerrilla armies, are disadvantaged,
although they may have an equal or greater historical claim land based
on the history of dispossession.
the land invasions are not really attacks on white farmers, but are
attacks on white-owned-farm communities. The majorities of those communities
are African farm workers. Most of the people killed or injured in Mugabe's
land campaigns have been black. You wouldn't know that from the U.S.
press for the most part, of course, because of racially biased focus
is not to say that white farm-owners do not have fundamental human rights
about which we ought to be concerned, in the face of government-encouraged
violence. But it is to say that when we are concerned for the land rights
of Africans and their ancestors dispossessed by colonialism, and the
human rights of all Zimbabweans, those two concerns do not fall out
along the neat racial lines suggested by both the white-owned U.S. media
and Mugabe's backers. The ZANU-PF government's assaults on human rights
encompass black political opponents, white landowners, and black farm
workers and tenants. Landless participants in land invasions may have
a just claim to land, but they are not the only ones with such claims.
from the being the targets of violence, the farm workers again raise
the question of who should benefit from real democratic land reform,
and who actually benefits from Mugabe's version. Farm workers have put
their sweat and blood into the land they have worked on behalf the owners,
often for several generations. Some of them descend from communities
who owned the land before colonial expropriation; others are recent
migrants to local areas, or descendants of earlier migrants.
same is true of the land invaders. In most cases they do not all come
from the local area. In some cases almost none of them do, when local
peasants tend to support the MDC and Mugabe wants to use land seizure
to create a ZANU-PF presence.
a farm ends up as capitalist private property in the hands of a government
minister or Mugabe crony, the existing farm communities aren't necessarily
getting a better employer or landlord. White owners have been under
intense scrutiny and pressure for "best behavior" that would
not be put on a powerful ZANU-PF owner. There may be ethnic animosity
(in the case of laborers with Mozambiquan ancestry), desire by the new
owner to use the land and jobs for patronage to his own followers, displacing
current workers, and perhaps poor capitalization or inexperience in
commercial farm management, creating pressure to maintain profits through
would democratic land reform look like?
democratic land reform in Zimbabwe would work very differently than
ZANU-PF's partial, partisan and violent campaign. It would have to be
a negotiated process. It would have to let people to make a variety
of claims, recognizing issues such as historical family ties in an area,
current occupation and work on the land, the right of women to own land
they work, claims of nearby communities, and so on. It would also have
to set up terms on which persons from more distant but overcrowded areas
could approach people in less crowded areas and negotiate joining their
communities, a not uncommon practice in pre-colonial days.
land reform also ought to involve strong international pressure on the
British government to live up to its promises to fund land repurchase.
Colonial land expropriation was fundamentally underwritten by British
coercive power. To the extent that current white owners have claims
based on their ancestors' and their own labor and wealth invested in
farms with private property expectations, those claims very largely
ought to be directed to the British government. It was that government
which arrogated to itself, and then granted to Cecil Rhodes' British
South Africa Company, the alleged right to seize the land and to redefine
the forms of tenure in the first place.
current white owners ought to have some sort a role and a claim in a
locally democratic process, based partly on length of time their families
have been in the country, and partly on how their black employees and
neighbors view them. This could include a question as to whether the
workers and area residents would want to negotiate some continuing relationship
involving white tenancy and management or other involvement in a commercially
oriented portion of land. Without overstating its significance, it should
be noted that whites who remain in Zimbabwe have shown a commitment
to the country, while many others left, including the most vicious racists
who could not abide the thought of living under a black-led government
(their fantasy Rhodesias can be found on the web by anyone who cares
consideration also ought to be given to the fact that pre-colonial African
landholding was not capitalist private property. It involved multiple
overlapping concurrent use-rights held by numbers of people. Perhaps
that principle could help resolve the frequent situations in which there
are multiple legitimate claims.
on Robert Mugabe
U.S. media racial biases, perhaps American supporters of Mugabe are
not to be blamed for seeing Zimbabwe's land issue only in racial terms.
But in supporting Mugabe they are buying into the tacit collusion between
his government's racism and U.S. media racism. These racisms are not
the same, but both are real. Mugabe has power, so even if "racism
= prejudice + power," Mugabe can be racist. More importantly than
his personal views, he and his government can and do manipulate racial
angers and fears, as well as inter-African ethnic perceptions, as much
or more against his black opponents, and against the interests of the
Zimbabwean majority of peasants and workers, as against the white minority.
Mugabe's historical role in leading Zimbwabwe's liberation struggle
cannot be denied to him. Possibly the neocolonial restraints placed
on him for two decades, not only by the specific terms of Zimbabwean
independence, but by the neoliberal world economic order imposed globally
at nearly the same time, may have shaped his subsequent slide into bitter
and cynical corruption and towards dictatorship. However, the slaughter
of thousands of people in Ndebele-speaking areas in the southwest of
Zimbabwe by government troops in 1983 might suggest otherwise. Whatever
the cause of his decline, it is a sad sorry damned shame, for Mugabe
and for Zimbabwe. But denying the truth of Mugabe's failures and disintegration,
or the viciously violent character and disastrous consequences of his
recent policies, because he once had a claim to heroism, does no good
for black Zimbabweans, or for progressive thinking about Zimbabwe and
Africa in the U.S.
Lowe lives in Portland, Oregon and is active with African Action, Washington,
DC. He received a doctorate in African history from Yale University
and lived in Swaziland for 16 months in 1988-89.
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