Framing 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.

Like 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 labor.

These 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.

Such 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.

Land, elections and parties

A letter to in issue 13 justifies Robert Mugabe's policies because "majority rules." Unfortunately that is not true in Zimbabwe.

A majority 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.

Mugabe 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.

Since 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

Southern 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.

Whether 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.

There 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 to consider.

The implication 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 play.

Neither 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.

Who benefits, and who should?

What 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.

In addition 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.

However, 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 redistribution.

Second, 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.

Likewise, 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.

Finally, 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 on whites.

This 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.

Apart 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.

Yet the 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.

And if 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 exploiting workers.

What would democratic land reform look like?

Real 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.

Democratic 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.

Yet even 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 to look).

Finally, 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.

Coda: on Robert Mugabe

Given 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.

Robert 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.

Chris 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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Issue Number 15
November 4, 2002





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Other commentaries in this issue:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bogus Election "Study"
Black Majette vote grossly inflated, analysis reveals By Bruce A. Dixon, Associate Editor

Guest Commentary 1
Harvard Professor Lambasts THE CRISIS Editor
Martin Kilson says magazine bolsters NAACP foe

Wellstone: The best of them all

Permanent war, permanent Uncle Toms
NAACP for peace
Solitary killers and mass muderousness
Prisoners of the American gulag

Politics Trumps Religion:
Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative
By Barbara Miner

Belafonte’s courage
Race and war hysteria
Baraka’s verse
Unpaid debt in Zimbabwe

Commentaries in Issue 14 October 17 , 2002:

Permanent War: Permanent State of Emergency

Trojan Horse Watch: Bob Johnson’s message invades Black radio...Rep. Harold Ford: mess of the blue dog...The Trojan Horse TV show

Briefs:The Four Eunuchs of War...The most dangerous game...Smack, Blow, and Blowback...Lethally stupid and more...

IRAQ, WAR & COLOR RACISM: By Dr. David Graham Du Bois, Guest Commentator

A Jewish Peace Activist on Baraka’s Poem: Urban Legends by Rachael Kamel, Guest Commentator

e-MailBox: The Real Rosa Parks...NAACP challenged on war...Plato and the Emperor George...Deceitful billionaire busted...Anglo-Saxon alarmed

RE-PRINT: Harry Belafonte on Colin Powell...CNN Larry King Live Interview with Belafonte

Interview: Educate and Advocate - Henry Nicholas on social justice in America

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.