by Gregory Elich
As Zimbabwe descends into anarchy and chaos, land is irrationally seized from productive farmers, we are told. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is portrayed as a dictator bent on driving his nation into starvation and economic disaster while benevolent U.S. and British leaders call for democracy and human rights. These are the images presented by Western news reports, intended to persuade the public to support an interventionist policy. As always when the West targets a foreign leader for removal, news reports ignore complexity and context, while the real motivations for intervention remain hidden. Concern for democracy and human rights is selective and it is always the nation that displays too much independence that evokes concern, even in cases of a functioning multiparty system and wide ranging media. On the other hand, no one calls for democracy and human rights in oppressive nations as long as the political environment is conducive to Western investment. Saudi Arabia, for example, holds no elections and imposes an abusive oppression on the lives of its women. The pattern is consistent. Any nation that embarks on a path diverging from Western corporate interests and places the needs of its people over the demands of Western capital finds itself the target of destabilization, sanctions and intervention. History and context are essential for understanding political events, and it is precisely these aspects that are lacking in Western news reports.
The Legacy of Colonialism and Land Reform
In 1888, representatives from Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company induced Lobengula, king of the Ndebele people, to sign an agreement allowing the company to mine gold. This agreement granted the company "the complete and exclusive charge over all metals and minerals" in the region, as well as "full power to do all things that they may deem necessary to win and procure the same," which the company was to interpret as permission to seize land. Unable to read the document he had signed, a dismayed King Lobengula sent a protest letter to Queen Victoria in which he objected that he was deliberately misled by British negotiators. "A document was written and presented to me for signature. I asked what it contained, and was told that in it were my words and the words of those men. I put my hand to it. About three months afterwards I heard from other sources that I had given by that document the right to all minerals of my country." Lobengula declared that he would "not recognize the paper, as it contains neither my words nor the words of those who got it." The unsympathetic response from the Queen's Advisor to Lobengula was that it was "impossible to exclude white men." (1)
It soon became apparent to the British South Africa Company that little gold was to be had and the company's outpost in Mashonaland found itself in financial straits. Land seemed a more promising venture, and in October 1893 British troops and volunteers crossed into King Lobengula's core territory of Matabeleland. The entire region rapidly fell into their hands as they inflicted heavy casualties on the Ndebele. Under terms of the resulting Victoria Agreement, each volunteer was entitled to 6,000 acres of land. Rather than an organized division of land, there was instead a mad race to grab the best land, and within a year 10,000 square miles of the most fertile land had been seized from its inhabitants. White settlers confiscated most of the Ndebele's cattle in the process, a devastating loss to a cattle-ranching society such as the Ndebele. The large tracts of land now run by relatively few white settlers required workers, and the Ndebele became forced laborers on the land they once owned, essentially treated as slaves. The Shona also saw their cattle confiscated by white settlers, and were driven into poverty through the imposition of onerous taxes by the new British rulers. (2) The inevitable uprising by the dispossessed Ndebele and Shona in 1896 was finally crushed over one year later by the British at the cost of 8,000 African lives. The region was established as a new colony in the British realm and named Rhodesia in honor of Cecil Rhodes.