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What the West Doesn't Want to Know - Zimbabwe's Fight for Justice

What the West Doesn't Want to Know - Zimbabwe's Fight for Justice

By Gregory ELICH

Twenty-five years ago, Zimbabwe's liberation movement came to power after years of struggle. Hopes soared that independence would bring an end to the legacy of colonial rule and apartheid power and give birth to a more equitable and just social order. But in many ways, those expectations had to be put on hold due to British and U.S. pressure, and for years Zimbabwe was compelled to maintain the inequitable land ownership patterns inherited from apartheid Rhodesia. The process of land reform is at root a struggle for justice and a challenge to the Western neoliberal model. The refusal to serve Western interests is what motivates U.S. and British hostility.

It is impossible to understand the nature of land reform in Zimbabwe without first examining the history of land allocation in Rhodesia. In 1893, invading British troops and volunteers conquered Matabeleland. Under terms of the Victoria Agreement, every British soldier and volunteer was allowed 6,000 acres of land, and within a year 10,000 square miles of the most fertile land was seized. White settlers confiscated cattle and dragooned the Ndebele people into serving as forced laborers on the land they once owned. Colonial Administrator Starr Jameson felt that by depriving the Ndebele of their cattle, he could secure their "submission and future tranquility." The Shona people also saw their cattle taken by settlers and in 1896, resentments had accumulated to the point where an uprising resulted. It took more than a year, but the British crushed the rebellion at the cost of 8,000 African lives.

In 1899, Rhodesia established reserves on the most arid land onto which the indigenous inhabitants were to be herded, where in just six years half of the indigenous population was confined. Passage of the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 forbade Africans from owning land outside of the barren reserves. During a twenty-year period beginning in 1935, the Rhodesian regime expelled a further 67,000 African families from their homes and transported them to the reserves. Dispossessed Africans were beaten and herded onto trucks at gunpoint, while bulldozers levelled their homes. As more and more people were forced from their homes, the reserves became increasingly overcrowded with people and cattle. To "solve" that problem, in 1944 the colonial government decreed that many of the reserves were overstocked and would have to be thinned out. Over the course of the next thirty-some years, more than a million cattle were either killed or confiscated by white settlers. In the ten years following the Second World War, another 100,000 people were expelled from their homes and dumped onto the reserves.

The liberation movement's successes eventually brought it to the verge of taking power and it was clear that the apartheid government of Rhodesia would not survive much longer. Although Rhodesia had declared its independence from the colonial system in 1965, Great Britain intervened to protect white privilege. Under British tutelage, the Lancaster House Conference was convened in 1979. The core issue for the liberation struggle was land, but British and American negotiators made the granting of independence to the liberation movement conditional. The agreement that resulted from the conference imposed a number of limitations on the new government. One provision stipulated that for a period of ten years, land ownership in Zimbabwe could only be transferred on a "willing seller, willing buyer" basis, a formula that effectively stymied any meaningful attempt at land reform. Whites were also allotted a quota of 20 out of 100 seats in Parliament, far exceeding their actual percentage in the population, and the measure had the effect of making constitutional change nearly impossible.

Passage of the Land Acquisition Act in 1992 finally established a more flexible approach to land reform, but the process continued to be constrained by outside pressures. Progress was slow and by the time fast track land reform was launched in 2002, 70 percent of the richest and most productive land still remained in the hands of just 4,500 white commercial farm owners. At the same time, six million African peasants eked out a precarious existence on small farms in the "communal areas," the land encompassing the former native reserves. Because of historically imposed overcrowding in the communal areas, the already barren land was depleted long before by deforestation and over-grazing, thus making it even more unsuitable for agriculture. More than a million landless blacks were engaged as hired labor on white commercial farms, laboring for abysmally low wages to make the few commercial landowners even wealthier. A team sent by the United Nations Development Program in 2001 reported, "Given the rapidly rising population growth rates and the decreasing opportunities for non-farm employment over the years, many rural dwellers were thrown into increasing poverty as a result of inadequate and poor-quality land for subsistence farming and unemployment. These inequities, the team said, were "the motivation for the Government's determination to correct the past injustices caused by dispossessing the indigenous people of their land."

Agriculture is the most significant sector of Zimbabwe's economy. Western news reports encouraged the notion that land reform has harmed economic performance, implying that efficient farming was best left in the hands of the few wealthy white farmers, while discounting the plight of the millions of blacks who struggled for bare survival. The unspoken assumption was that only white farmers could be efficient. The concern expressed in the West for "efficiency" was in reality a mask for the preservation of white privilege.Efficiency is a relative term. Temporary economic dislocation is an unavoidable byproduct of land reform, but the only path to genuine and lasting progress is through land redistribution. There can be nothing efficient about a gross concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, while millions are condemned to lives of hopeless despair and poverty. No mainstream journalist has ever described the grotesque inequality of the situation inherited from colonialism and what this meant for those on the bottom.

Long after the liberation movement won power in Zimbabwe, the promise of land reform remained largely unfulfilled. During its first ten years, the nation was saddled with constitutional restrictions imposed by British negotiators that effectively blocked progress on land reform. Even so, during the 1980s Zimbabwe still managed to distribute three million hectares to some 70,000 families. Then came the adoption of a structural adjustment program, at the urging of the World Bank, and little more could be accomplished within the neoliberal agenda to rectify the inequity of the land ownership pattern inherited from apartheid Rhodesia. Investment was offered primarily to white owners of large commercial farms, and the structure of land ownership changed little. Negotiations beginning in 1979 determined under what conditions Great Britain would permit Zimbabwe to have the independence and self-rule that it had already won on the battlefield. These talks resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement that was to remain in effect for ten years. Great Britain's economic and diplomatic might had extracted several concessions from the liberation movement. The main British demand was that the existing land ownership pattern to remain as it was. Land could not be confiscated but could only be acquired on a "willing buyer, willing seller" formula, which precluded any meaningful prospect of land reform. Under terms of the Lancaster House Agreement, Great Britain was required to provide funding for the purchase of farms. Inevitably, land that was offered for sale under the program was often marginal in quality and tended to be widely dispersed, making resettlement an expensive and difficult to administer process. Nor was the arrangement sustainable. After commercial farmers sold off marginal holdings in drier areas, farm sales slowed to a trickle.Once the agreement expired in 1990, Great Britain urged its continuation. Continued British funding for the purchase of land, it was emphasized, would be predicated on extension of the "willing buyer, willing seller" program. Furthermore, the British suggested, such purchases should be limited largely to barren regions and land abutting communal areas. One observer noted, "As for the British government, which has taken such an intimate interest in the land question and whose financial support for the resettlement program is crucialit appears determined that, by perpetuating the spirit of Lancaster House, it will ensure that the feeble flame of socialism still flickering in Zimbabwe in 1990 will be snuffed out. So it seems likely that peasants will have to wait much longer for land reform."

Land was at the heart of the liberation struggle, but the Zimbabwean delegation to the Lancaster House talks agreed to British and U.S. terms only after receiving promises of Western funding for the purchase of land. In time those promises would be prove to be worthless. The limited prospect of success for the imposed market-based approach to land reform hinged on British and American financial support. Predictably, the US$1 to 1.5 billion the U.S. promised to Zimbabwean liberation forces in 1976 in an agreement to end guerrilla warfare never materialized. Great Britain promised much but delivered little. Once it obtained what it wanted in the Lancaster House Agreement, it sharply scaled down its commitment. Yet Great Britain failed to match even that inadequate amount and by 1996, when Great Britain ceased funding the program altogether, it had contributed barely more than half the promised funds. The paltry US$45 million contributed by Great Britain paled in comparison to the untold billions it had forcibly expropriated from the people and land throughout the long colonial period. By emphasizing that land should be held in so-called "capable" hands, British officials sought to maintain white privilege and ensure the continued dominance of the agricultural sector by white commercial farmers at the expense of the destitute indigenous population.

Zimbabwe finally abandoned the "willing buyer, willing seller" formula in 1997. The formula was crippled from the start by parsimonious British funding, and it was a clear that the program's modest goals were more than Great Britain was willing to countenance. In a letter to the Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture in November of that year, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short wrote, "I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe." Referring to earlier British assistance funding, Short curtly stated, "I am told that there were discussions in 1989 and 1996 to explore the possibility of further assistance. However that is all in the past." Short complained of "unresolved" issues, such as "the way in which land would be acquired and compensation paid ­ clearly it would not help the poor of Zimbabwe if it was done in a way which undermined investor confidence." Short was concerned about the interests of corporate investors, then. In closing, Short wrote that "a program of rapid land acquisition as you now seem to envisage would be impossible for us to support," as it would damage the "prospects for attracting investment."

Market-driven land reform was an abysmal failure from every standpoint save that of protecting wealth and privilege. The number of resettled farmers never approached the numbers necessary for the nation to advance economically and alleviate widespread rural poverty. By the time Zimbabwe ended the program, the pattern of land ownership was still substantially unchanged from that of apartheid Rhodesia, no doubt as intended by Western advocates of the market approach. The market approach in Zimbabwe made an interesting contrast with U.S. backing for non-market based land reform in post-war Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, where it was recognized as a necessary measure for rapid development and economic recovery. In those countries, land reform was also seen as a way to counter the appeal of communism, a factor the West no longer feels it has to take into consideration. But the market-based approach placed the burden precisely on those least able to bear it. "The latest estimated cost to the southern African region for eradicating political apartheid is [US]$115 billion, which is being paid for by southern Africans," one analyst noted. "Why is that the subjugated people of the region are required to pay the bills of white supremacists ­ aided and abetted for many years by American and European countries?"

By the 1998, mounting frustration and resentment over the slow pace of land reform induced rural workers, impoverished by ESAP, to take matters in their own hands and occupy portions of several large white-owned farms. In some areas, local officials gave tacit, and sometimes not so tacit, support to these actions. Land occupations, while minuscule in scale and highly localized compared to the massive and unremitting expropriation of land from blacks under colonial rule, served to put the issue of land reform on the political center stage in Zimbabwe. As one study put it, "land invasions is the generic term used to denote a negative view of politically organized 'trespass' of farms led by war veterans. Invasions involve temporary visits of a few days and sporadic repeat visits. They do not entail the extended stays." The number of farms experiencing occupations peaked at around 800 in 2000, but this fell to around 300 the following year. Over the years, a total of approximately 300 occupations were accompanied by violence that were often the acts of opportunistic criminals practicing extortion. Several case studies concluded that where there were grievances against specific landowners, farms tended to be marked for occupation. Landowners who had mistreated workers, paid excessively low wages or exhibited overt racism were far more likely to have portions of their farms occupied than those who had shown more respect for their workers. "Past studies had all predicted that inadequate land delivery would precipitate violent confrontations," pointed out a Zimbabwean economist. "There has been an instrumentalization of violence although the scale of it has been exaggerated and it has been wrongly made the focus of the whole land reform issue. In fact, compared to rural and urban violence in South Africa, Ireland or Brazil, the level in Zimbabwe has been quite low."

A total of around 2,900 white-owned commercial farms were earmarked for redistribution in the fast-track reform of 2002. Owners of listed farms were notified to stop farming within 45 days and given an additional 45 days to move from their farms. Land subject to acquisition comprised the following categories: unused land, underutilized land, land owned by absentee owners, land owned by a person possessing multiple farms, land exceeding size limits (which varied by region), and land contiguous with communal lands. Owners of farms marked for redistribution were told that they would be compensated for improvements made on the land, but not for the land itself, which was stolen from its original owners during the colonial era. White farm owners who lost land in the process were often allowed to keep a reasonably sized portion on which they could continue to farm. Those commercial landowners whose only farm was taken were told that another farm of suitable quality would be given to them. "All genuine and well meaning white farmers who wish to pursue a farming career as loyal citizens of this country will have land to do so," promised President Robert Mugabe. Although some white commercial landowners chose to remain and continue farming in Zimbabwe, many chose to move abroad.

Western reports repeatedly charged that land reform was an exercise in rewarding President Mugabe's "friends and cronies." With 90,000-some families settled throughout the first twenty years of independence, and an additional 134,000 receiving allocations during fast track land reform in 2000-2, one can only conclude that President Mugabe was an extraordinarily popular man to have so many friends and close colleagues. Inevitably in such a complex process, there were officials who abused their office and arranged to be given multiple farms. An investigation undertaken by the Presidential Land Resettlement Committee identified 329 government and party officials who had profited in this manner, and later investigations were to find 70 more. The image of land reform as presented by Western media is almost solely one of corruption, yet such a portrayal is deliberately and highly misleading. Out of the 134,000 resettled farmers, those who abused the process to grab multiple farms accounted for a minuscule 0.3 percent of all allocations. These individuals characterized the entire land reform process, Western reporters told us. But to accept that argument, one would have to regard 99.7 percent of land recipients as exceptions to the rule. Nor did Western reports ever have an explanation for why many of those who received land were members of the opposition MDC. There was in fact no political test, and the process was open to anyone who cared to apply. However, the corrupt few in no way invalidated the experience of the many given hope for the first time in their lives. Clearly the focus on "cronyism" in the Western press was a red herring, meant to invalidate the process of land reform without arguing the issue on its merits. Land reform was presented in a slanted manner, ignoring the manifest fact that for all of its problems, the process has established a far more equitable distribution than the obscene concentration of wealth inherited from the apartheid era. Western reports habitually ignored the plight of millions of starving black farmers and their families eking out existence in barren communal areas while a few wealthy commercial farmers and corporate owners flourished. Another oft-repeated myth was that land reform spelled ruin for the agricultural sector. Western reports asserted that the break up of commercial farms led to a permanent loss of production, subtly, or in some cases not so subtly, implying that black farmers were ignorant and incapable of farming efficiently. No evidence was offered aside from anecdotal stories about withering crops while downplaying or ignoring the context of severe drought.

What we in the West "know" about Zimbabwe is what the corporate media choose to tell us. These stories go largely unchallenged, and few bothered to dwell on the stories that never got told. We heard nothing from black farmers, nor did we hear of the struggle of the indigenous population ­ the vast majority of Zimbabwe, after all - to overcome the legacy of the apartheid era. Political commentator George Shire observed, "A great deal of this lack of insight into Zimbabwe's woes has to do with the fact that knowledge about Zimbabwe is produced in the West within a racialized colonial context." More disconcertingly, very few people in the West ever pondered whether the U.S. and Great Britain had the right to dictate how Zimbabwe should conduct its own affairs. It was assumed that Zimbabweans were incapable of properly managing their own affairs, but as South African President Thabo Mbeki pointed out. "No self-respecting Zimbabwean with any pride in his country will accept that another should determine his destiny." In Africa, the sheer effrontery of the Western belief in a sense of mission to dominate others did not go unnoticed. Mbeki's assessment of the campaign against Zimbabwe was that it had taken on something of the nature of a witch hunt. "In the heated atmosphere that surrounds the issue of Zimbabwe, the tendency to pose as high priests at the inquisition, hungry for the blood of the accused, has taken root ­ as though to demonize and punish is the way to solve the most difficult problems. In this situation, as in war, the truth soon becomes a casualty.

A popular assertion in Western media was that land reform caused the drop in the production of maize, the staple crop of Zimbabwe. Commercial farmland devoted to growing maize declined after fast-track land reform only because commercial farm owners declined in numbers.If all landowners are taken into account, then the total area planted in maize at the height of fast-track land reform actually grew. Toward the end of 2002, the World Food Program reported, "The area planted to cereals actually increased by 9 percent over last year, with maize increasing by 14 percent, mainly due to expansion in the communal and resettled areas." This was a far cry from the demeaning picture usually offered of ignorant and inept black farmers incapable of growing crops. Little attention was paid to the effects of drought over the period of 2002-3, which devastated crops not only in Zimbabwe but in neighboring countries as well. All of the nations affected by drought saw a plunge in crop output, and in some cases it the drop was steeper than what Zimbabwe experienced.

It wasn't easy to separate the effects of drought from disruption caused by land reform in determining the overall impact of the process on agricultural production, but Western reporters didn't even try. Losses due to drought were routinely attributed to land reform. There could be no valid comparison between productivity by white commercial farmers and black communal and resettled farmers without taking into account a number of factors. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, "Yields on commercial farms are on average four times higher than on communal farms, in part due to inherent differences in land quality, but mainly because of facilities for supplementary irrigation, greater use of improved technology and management practices, as well as better access to working capital." None of these factors need be denied to resettled farmers. Resettled farmers are able to enjoy the immediate benefits of farming on richer soil, but the other factors will take longer, as new farmers build up the capital necessary to effect improvements.

Western reports persisted in viewing land reform primarily through the prism of its immediate effect upon production, implying that the effect would be permanent. This distorted view had an obvious utility for those who opposed a more egalitarian distribution of land. Yet, the success of any land-reform process can only be understood by examining its long-term results, thus it will be years before a proper assessment can be made of fast-track land reform in Zimbabwe. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, "a transition period before the full benefits" are achieved from land reform "is to be expected," requiring a minimum of five years. The substantial economic benefits realized by resettled farmers must also be considered. One study determined that, given start-up grants, subsidized credit and adequate inputs, "land reform can generate a sustainable income flow for the beneficiaries, in year 15 reaching 570-690 percent of their incomes before the project." The same study also examined the effect of land reform on production and employment, and concluded that although "some disruption of the agricultural production should be expected" in the initial stage, "production achieved by the resettled farmers after 15 years would be significant." Professor Bill Kinsey of the University of Zimbabwe carefully investigated the results of earlier land reform resettlements, and concluded that "any attempts at comprehensive evaluation of the benefits of land reform in less than a generation are ill-advised." Since small-scale farming is more labor intensive than operations on commercial farms, land reform should in the long-term result in a net increase in employment. Therefore it can be expected that increasing wealth across a broader spectrum of the population should act as a spur to what has been sluggish growth in Zimbabwe.

A report issued by four economists, including two employed by the World Bank, stated, "Economic theory is very clear on the fact that a one-time redistribution of assets can, in an environment of imperfect markets, be associated with permanently higher levels of growth." Conversely, "inequality in the distribution of land ownership is associated with lower subsequent growth." A survey of resettled households covering the years from 1983 determined that "the income of resettled households is more than five times as high as that of communal households in similar areas," and their "productivity has increased significantly." Given enough time, the increase in productivity means that crop yield should improve substantially, although it may never match that of commercial farms, due to the greater possibilities for mechanization on large farms. It is important to note, however, that the percentage of underutilized land in large commercial farms averaged about 40 to 50 percent in the regions with the best land, and 85 percent where the land was less suitable for farming. Studies indicate, furthermore, that "productivity decreases exponentially with increase in farm size in all natural regions of Zimbabwe." Every study finds that resettled farmers plant a far larger percentage of land than do commercial farmers. Therefore, the difference in yield between commercial farms and small-scale farming is to a certain extent offset by the greater utilization of land by small-scale farmers. Those farmers who were resettled in the first phase of land reform in the 1980s "represent 5 percent of the population, but produce between 15 and 20 percent of the marketed output of maize and cotton, while also largely satisfying their own food consumption needs." The report concludes, "The best available data show that the performance of resettled farmers in Zimbabwe is better than is conventionally believed," and that a well-designed land reform program "can have a large impact on equity as well as productivity."

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