Review of Becoming Zimbabwe - International Affairs

Review article
Land, citizenship and the consolidation of
constitutional democracy in Southern Africa

Becoming Zimbabwe: a history from the pre-colonial period to 2008.
Edited by Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo. Harare: Weaver Press. 2009.
296pp. Pb.: £22.95. isbn 978 1 77922 083 7.
Land, liberation and compromise in Southern Africa. By Chris Alden and
Ward Anseeuw. Basingstoke: Palgrave. 2009. 272pp. Index. £57.50. isbn 978 0
23023 084 2.
Overcoming historical injustices: land reconciliation in South Africa. By
James L. Gibson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009. 328pp. Index.
£45.00. isbn 978 0 52151 788 1.

A dozen years ago, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia were held up as models
of racial reconciliation and stable constitutional democracy. Events in Zimbabwe
since 2000 have knocked out that model, and anxieties are intermittently expressed
about its durability in South Africa and Namibia. These scholarly, well-argued
books analyse, from different angles, the sources of instability, particularly the
role played by the unresolved issue of land ownership, in shaping the prospects for
economic growth, the construction of national identities and the consolidation
of constitutional democracy. As the Zimbabwean case shows, this process poses
challenges for the West in managing its relations with these formerly white-ruled
In all three African countries there was a sharp disjuncture between the political
transition to majority rule alongside very incomplete economic transformation,
with the former ruling white elites remaining economically dominant in
the private (though not state) sectors. This racially skewed inheritance is glaring
in relation to land ownership. In 1970, in Zimbabwe, 6,400 white farmers owned
almost half the land, while over one million black Africans were confined to the
scattered native reserves. In South Africa, 86 per cent of the land was reserved for
white people who, in 1970, comprised 18 per cent of the population (now down to
10 per cent). In Namibia, 4,200 white farmers owned 43 per cent of the land. After
the introduction of majority rule—in 1980 in Zimbabwe, 1990 in Namibia, and
1994 in South Africa—there was little change in these inherited colonial patterns of land ownership.

Why was land reform so limited before 2000? Why were radical changes then
suddenly and violently introduced in Zimbabwe? Are these changes a portent of
what might happen in South Africa and Namibia, where agriculture is a much
smaller component of GDP?1 And, if land—and other natural resources—become
sites of struggle, is this likely to have similarly adverse implications for their
economic and political stability, and for their relations with the West?
Zimbabwe has been the storm centre of conflicts over land, and other resources.
Among the strengths of Becoming Zimbabwe is the historical context it provides,
with concise chapters by leading Zimbabwean scholars about the country’s gradual
emergence, beginning many centuries ago, with the entry into this area of the
Shona, Sotho, Ndebele and, in the nineteenth century, the Europeans. Gerald
Mazarire’s chapter on the pre-colonial period highlights both the cooperative and
the conflictual relations among these waves of migrants. Later chapters in this
tightly edited book refer frequently to past developments, linking current social
trends, attitudes and patterns of behaviour to their historical roots.
The influence of past relations can be seen not only in interactions between black
and white people, but also among the heterogeneous black population, evident in
the deep divisions during the anti-colonial struggle, which, as Raftopoulos writes,
became ‘as much a civil war as a national liberation struggle’ (Becoming Zimbabwe,
p. xxvi), with ZANU and ZAPU, the Shona- and Ndebele-based political organizations,
conducting a bitter fight, not only against the white Rhodesian state, but
against each other. These struggles were not only ‘ethnic’, but had major class and
ideological dimensions, as the liberation movements attempted to coerce an often
reluctant peasantry into supporting them. In the urban areas, the emerging black
middle class distanced itself from the working class and showed early signs of
aspiring to replace, and to adopt the privileged lifestyles of, the ruling white elite.
The authors argue that in the violence of earlier Zimbabwean history, including
during the independence struggle, lie the roots of the authoritarianism and the
ready resort to violence and intimidation that have marked the post-independence
period. These tendencies soon became evident in the bitter civil war that
broke out in Matabeleland province from 1982, and in the increasingly brutal
repression of the growing opposition to Mugabe thereafter. This opposition was
rooted in the alternative, non-violent tradition that also had a long history in
Zimbabwe, exemplified in the battle waged by the trade unions, churches and
other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) against colonial rule. These urban
groups conducted a dogged non-violent struggle which, while less dramatic,
incurred risks and penalties; helped to educate and buy ventolin prescription mobilize the population; and
added to the pressures on the Rhodesian state.
James Muzondidya describes how the opposition to Mugabe became more
broadly based. Sources of dissatisfaction certainly included land, evident in increasingly
militant land invasions as the initially promising redistribution programme degenerated into handouts to Mugabe’s political cronies.2 But there was also
growing disenchantment among the frustrated black middle class, demanding
more affirmative action and indigenization programmes in business, while the trade
unions protested against declining living standards, as economic growth foundered.
There was also growing anger among all groups at ZANU-PF’s economic mismanagement
and corruption.
Faced with these growing threats, Mugabe focused popular attention on the
unfinished business of land reform, to which he diverted the attention of the
restless ‘war veterans’ (many too young to have fought in the war), to whom he
mandated the task of carrying out the ‘fast-track’ land seizures. These involved
the violent takeover of most white farms; the eviction of hundreds of thousands
of farm workers and their families; and the collapse of agriculture, which was the
major component of GDP and foreign exchange. Economic decline intensified
both opposition and repression. Thus land reform generated a wider range of
issues, with ramifications for citizenship (who qualified as a Zimbabwean?) and
the rule of law.

The history wars
The chapters by Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Alois Mlambo, and Joseph Mtisi et al.
make frequent reference to the historiography of Zimbabwe—the varied, often
conflicting, narratives produced by successive generations of historians. This
includes discussion of the challenges by Norma Kriger and others to the earlier,
and in its time pioneering, ‘patriotic national liberation’ history of Terence Ranger
and others. Historiography provides a stimulating, revealing way of thinking about
the past, exposing the continual, often politically motivated, reconstructions of
history by each generation and the deployment of these competing versions in the
political struggle. This approach illuminates the confusions and, often, trickery
related to the process of land acquisition, including the deals whereby land was
alienated from Lobengula and other chiefs by imperial adventurers such as Rhodes
and Rudd during the nineteenth century and, more recently, the acrimony caused
by misunderstandings over the ambiguous agreements on land at the 1979 Lancaster
House conference which ushered in black majority rule.
The authors show how the competing interpretations of politicians and historians
fuelled conflicts both internationally, between Zimbabwe (backed by the
African Union) and the United Kingdom (backed by ‘the West’), and domestically,
where the history wars became an important element in the propaganda
warfare over the respective roles in the struggle of ZANU-PF and its rivals. The
airbrushing from the official history of the significant contribution of civilians—
and of ZAPU—was used to justify the exclusive claims to land, mineral rights
and jobs by ZANU-PF supporters. This led Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to call for a less ‘selective heroic tradition
…, recognition that the struggle was a broad, uneven process, with many
unsung heroes and unintended effects …, [and for] alternative, more plural ways
of conceiving the past’ (p. xxx). The division between ZANU and its critics also
reflected a divergence in values, as the latter challenged ZANU’s narrowly nationalist
values and disregard for the rule of law, and championed more universalist
(non-racial, democratic, constitutionalist) norms.

Land, liberation and compromise sheds further light on the close link between the
lack of timely, legitimate land reform, the fiercely competing ‘narratives’ about
the history, and the adverse effects for the consolidation of constitutional democracy.
Chris Alden and Ward Anseeuw also examine the impact of Zimbabwe’s
‘fast-track’ land invasions on South Africa and Namibia, whose governments were
‘jolted’ into addressing a contentious issue they had largely ignored.
Alden and Anseeuw concur with the contributors to Becoming Zimbabwe
that Mugabe used land reform to deflect attention from ZANU-PF’s increasing
economic mismanagement and corruption. They endorse the view that this had
disastrous effects not only for Zimbabwe’s economy, but also for its political
system. Land became ‘the metaphor for the failure of post-colonial regimes to
fully address the aspirations of liberation … the white farmer became a living
representation of the brutal expropriation of land … [and Mugabe] dumped the
constitutional state to retain political power’ (Land, liberation and compromise, p. 159).
International dimensions of the Zimbabwe conflict
Alden and Anseeuw’s discussion of the international dimensions of the propaganda
warfare over the causes of Zimbabwe’s lurch from relatively stable to
failing state shows how Mugabe’s ‘national liberation’ narrative won support from
most African leaders in two key respects. First, they endorsed Mugabe’s claim
that Zimbabwe’s domestic problems were rooted in the inadequacies of the 1979
Lancaster House settlement that ended white rule, and his claim that the United
Kingdom and the United States failed to honour their promises of substantial
financial support for land reform. African leaders hailed Mugabe’s actions as ‘a
forthright stance against vestiges of colonialism and the new imperialism’ (Land,
liberation and compromise, p. 163). South Africa’s President Mbeki endorsed the
essentials of Mugabe’s narrative (though not his manner of achieving his aims),
stating that Mugabe’s land seizures were a necessary form of redistribution due
to ‘a problem caused by colonialism’, while South Africa’s then Foreign Minister,
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said African states were aware of the West’s ‘hidden
agenda to topple the Zimbabwean government … [and] re-colonise Zimbabwe’
(Land, liberation and compromise, pp. 110, 174).

Second, many African leaders supported Mugabe’s contention that the western
‘obsession’ with Zimbabwe’s crisis—‘picking on’ him, while ignoring worse
perpetrators of human rights abuses, such as Equatorial Guinea—was due to
racist concerns about ‘kith and kin’, that is the few thousand white people whose farms were seized. This charge gained credibility from the initial media focus on
the few thousand dispossessed white farmers, alongside relative neglect of the
numerous displaced black farm workers and brutal persecution of the MDC.
However, international attention soon shifted to the plight of black Zimbabweans.
Among reasons for the international focus on Zimbabwe were the collapse of a
formerly well-functioning state, with some of the best infrastructure in Africa (in
education, health, agricultural research), and the fight put up by the opposition,
both within Zimbabwe and in the diaspora. Their dogged, non-violent struggle
attracted international attention and support not only because of ‘emotional’
concerns about human rights, but also because of a longer-term, more strategic
issue: whether and how outsiders should respond to appeals from the progressive
reformers emerging in many African countries, such as Kenya, for support against
the misrule of old guard ‘national liberation’ leaders (who had themselves once
sought international support).
Regional dimensions of Zimbabwe’s ‘fast-track’ land reform
Among reasons for Mugabe’s partial diplomatic successes were solidarity politics
among the former liberation movements, reinforced by resentment at continuing
white domination of their economies and by aspects of western policy, including
the failure to reform international financial and trade policies and institutions,
and the ‘new imperialism’ of Bush and Blair (the reaction against this was evident
in South Africa’s increasingly anti-western tone after the Iraq invasion). African–
western relations were also affected by the changing international balance of
power, leading to less sensitivity to western interests and norms.
However, following Zimbabwe’s economic implosion—starkly evident in the
hyperinflation of 2008, intensification of the refugee flood (an estimated quarter
of the population departed), and damaging effects on investment in the whole
region—as well as the growing electoral support for the MDC, even in violent,
rigged elections, the AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC)
gradually applied sufficient pressure to force Mugabe, after the internationally
observed 2008 election, to accept the power-sharing Global Political Agreement,
which SADC arm-twisted the MDC (which won the election) into joining in a
junior role.

Alden and Anseeuw’s pioneering analysis of the regional impact of Zimbabwe’s
‘fast-track’ land reforms argues that Mugabe’s ‘state-sponsored anarchy found
echoes in the rise of local militancy in neighbouring states … [the land issue]
resonates deeply … and is inextricably intertwined with notions of identity and
citizenship (who is “African”) and the legitimacy of post-colonial regimes’ (Land,
liberation and compromise, p. 5). But their argument that, although neighbouring
states were ‘jolted’ by these events, their response is likely to remain merely
rhetorical, seems undermined by some of their own useful documentation. In
Namibia, President Nujoma not only hailed Mugabe’s ‘fast-track’ invasions but
strengthened the legislative framework for redistribution, introducing a land tax to raise the costs of ownership, especially of underutilized land. The SWAPO
(the South West Africa People’s Organization, the governing party since 1990)
government declined to publish a potentially explosive report based on its audit of
agrarian reform entitled, ‘One day we will all be equal’, but became more sharply
critical of ‘intransigent’ white farmers. In 2004, Prime Minister Gurirab warned
that, unless they became more cooperative, ‘orderly fast track expropriation’,
within the law, would be pursued. The budget was increased, and some farms
listed, for this purpose.
Thereafter, the (white) National Agricultural Union became more cooperative,
working with the (black) Namibian National Farmers Union to provide
technical aid and mentoring, with donor funding for black farmers. This adaptation
presumably contributed to the fact that SWAPO, unlike ZANU-PF, did not
view the constitution as an obstacle to economic reform. Alden and Anseeuw
recognize that the symbolic importance of land might yet lead a new generation
of activists, ‘driven by political opportunism and idealism’ to use land claims
to invigorate their electoral prospects; but they think this unlikely and believe
SWAPO will remain cautious, ‘cheering but not emulating Mugabe’ (Land, liberation
and compromise, p. 154).
The long chapter on South Africa contains much useful information, but
focuses too heavily on infighting among government departments and rural
NGOs, whose view of their influence, and role as spokespersons of the rural poor,
Alden and Anseeuw accept somewhat uncritically. From 2005, the ANC began
to pay more attention to land reform, sponsoring a National Land Summit at
which there were calls for scrapping the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle.
Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka stated: ‘land reform had been too slow …
we may need the skills of Zimbabwe to help us … South Africa should learn
some lessons from Zimbabwe—how to do it fast’ (Land, liberation and compromise,
p. 115). In 2007, the cabinet approved a Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy and an
Expropriation Bill allowing for the acquisition of land with compensation. Some
farms were listed and numerous claims lodged but, following an outcry, there was
little action. However, extensive land claims, demonstrations and land invasions
have damaged agricultural investment and it seems unlikely that this ‘do nothing’
approach can continue. In April 2010, Gugile Nkwinti, Minister for Rural Development
and Land Reform, declared: ‘repossession of lost land [was] … at the core
of … all anti-colonial struggles … corrective measures necessary to tone down
the anger, bitterness and pain … by post-colonial reconstruction’ would be set out
in a Green Paper on Agrarian Transformation to be released later this year.3 The
South African government has stressed the need for an orderly, lawful process that
respects the constitution.
The extent to which land reform is a salient issue in more heavily industrialized
South Africa is the subject of James Gibson’s book, based on extensive public
opinion surveys. These show that, while land does not head the list of prime issues—pride of place goes to unemployment—land is of ‘considerable importance,
especially to Africans’. Gibson found a ‘stark divide’ between black and
white attitudes to land (90 per cent of black and 36 per cent of white citizens
supported the return of land taken away under apartheid) and a sense of grievance
of black people that is ‘growing … and these unsated land grievances hold
the potential to become a major destabilising force … Land is a tinderbox issue’
(Overcoming historical injustices, pp. 83, 65). These racial differences were reflected in
attitudes to Zimbabwe’s ‘fast-track’ reforms, supported by a smaller majority (55
per cent) of black people.4 However, Gibson believes black sympathy for Mugabe
has declined since his 2003–2004 survey, following Zimbabwe’s economic collapse
and a further flood of refugees to South Africa—a belief that receives support
from recent opinion surveys.
Gibson found a strong preference among all groups for any redistribution to
take place within the law, as well as recognition of the tension between contemporary
and historical injustices, that is imposing the costs of correcting historical
injustices on the present generation. However, he also found ‘evidence of
growing willingness of a large proportion of blacks to suspend the law in order
to achieve other goals’ (Overcoming historical injustices, p. 77). He concludes that ‘if
a demagogue took up this issue’, it could ‘resonate with many blacks’ (p. 215).
A candidate for this role recently appeared in the form of ANC Youth League
leader Julius Malema, urging nationalization, or indigenization, of resources such
as minerals and land.

Hence, Gibson shares the view of a close link between land and the consolidation
of constitutional democracy. He argues that land is not just an economic, but
also a symbolic issue, with attitudes shaped not just by individual self-interest,
but ‘by larger attitudes towards intergroup politics [on which] blacks and whites
hold nearly opposite views about land conflicts grounded in the past. Blacks want
to take the past into consideration; whites do not … [this] renders negotiation
of land claims [exceptionally] problematic’ (Overcoming historical injustices, p. 191).
This emphasis on the symbolic importance of land may be why there is such
surprising neglect of the economics of land reform by almost all the authors
discussed here. Gibson, for example, does not relate his finding of the ‘considerable
importance’ of land to the finding that the prime issue for 85 per cent of
the black population is unemployment. His otherwise impressive questionnaire
does not even ask respondents whether they would be interested in farming. This
question would need to be linked to the provision of the necessary supports and
infrastructure, such as irrigation, marketing facilities and credit. Such supports
are taken for granted for white farmers and for urban employers and workers, but
seldom for black farmers, contributing to their low productivity and, hence, lack of interest in farming.

Obstacles to land reform: foreign or domestic?
Why were South Africa, Namibia and pre-2000 Zimbabwe so slow to tackle
land reform? The authors of all three books attribute this mainly to constraints
imposed by the ‘neoliberal international order’, particularly the ‘willing seller,
willing buyer’ principle. This includes their acceptance of the standard view that
the ANC ‘fully endorsed neo-liberalism’—a depiction of South African policy
that seems contradicted by its huge expansion of welfare grants (received by a
quarter of the population); its highly interventionist affirmative action policy;
and its maintenance of banking regulation and exchange controls, which helped
to insulate the economy from the recent global financial crisis. Moreover, while
the desire to attract foreign investment imposes constraints on actions perceived
as breaching property rights, all three states, particularly South Africa, failed to
go as far as they could within the constitutional constraints, which allow both for
expropriation of land with compensation and for affirmative action loans. South
Africa has never fully spent the budget it allocated for this purpose, in contrast
to its assertive affirmative action policies in other sectors, such as Black Economic
Empowerment. Thus, the constraints of ‘neoliberalism’ seem, at most, only a
partial explanation.

Among other reasons cited by all authors is the ‘intransigence’ of white
farmers. There has certainly been much of this, with foot-dragging, resort to the
courts and attempts to jack up land prices. However, this opposition can be at
least partly countered by measures such as progressive land taxes and ceilings on
land ownership. These were widely used in, for example, postwar Japan, Taiwan,
South Korea and, recently, Namibia. Indeed, such mechanisms were recommended
in the World Bank’s 1994 report on reforming South African agriculture,
which also urged South Africa to redistribute 30 per cent of white-owned land to
black citizens within 15 years (seeming to contradict claims that the ‘international
financial institutions’ blocked land reform).6 But the ANC has not used these
mechanisms, nor acted on these recommendations, although the government has
imposed other measures on white farmers, such as insisting on the disbandment of
local commandos that provided policing in rural areas, where the murder rate is
four times the (already high) urban rate. The record shows that these governments
failed to go as far as they could within their own constitutional, and internationally
accepted, norms. This suggests a lack of priority for land reform, or at least
for the reform to which all three governments pay lip service, namely, to the rural
poor, that is small- to medium-scale, farmers, rather than to large-scale, ‘fat cat’

Another obstacle, or at least complication, confronting land reform is the
conflicting interests and pressures among the black population. As Alden and
Anseeuw show, this includes fear of precipitating unrest among competing land
claimants, including land grabs by chiefs in the former ‘communal’ areas. All three ‘national liberation’ ruling parties rely heavily on the rural vote. This has not led
them to support rural production, including in the undeveloped ‘communal’ areas
which were already owned by black citizens. Instead, they all shifted from their
former hostility to the chiefs to relying on them to deliver the rural vote and
maintain order in rural areas. The ANC skilfully countered the challenge posed
by Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party by establishing its own chiefs’ organization,
Contralesa, and by tailoring the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act to favour the
chiefs—to the dismay of rural NGOs, and at the cost of small farmers, especially
the many who are women. SWAPO’s concern to keep the chiefs on side contributed
to its wariness in tackling reform in Ovambo, the most heavily populated and
fertile region in Namibia. Another obstacle seems to be the interest of members
of the ruling parties in acquiring farms for themselves. As Namibian trade union
leader, Anfred Angula, remarked: ‘The land issue is not a top priority because
every Minister has already got his farm’(Land, liberation and compromise, p. 152). In
Zimbabwe, the best white farms have gone to the elite, including Mugabe’s family,
although there has also been some wider redistribution to small-scale farmers who
are ZANU-PF supporters.

These ‘conservative’ pressures—black as well as white, domestic as well as
foreign—have not been offset by effective counter-pressures from the supposed
beneficiaries of land reform, namely the unemployed and rural poor. Alden and
Anseeuw recognize that the rural NGOs have little support among the rural poor,
who seem wary of radical movements, such as the Landless People’s Movement
in South Africa, and show extraordinary ‘patience’, reflected in an interviewee’s
statement: ‘The government will deliver. They know we are waiting’ (Land, liberation
and compromise, p. 108). This waiting is eased by state grants and pensions in
Namibia and South Africa. These grants reduce poverty, but in an unproductive
way that imposes a heavy, and in the long term probably unsustainable, burden
on the fiscus.
Another obstacle to land reform is the grossly inadequate support for new
farmers and poor management of the resettlement programmes, due to weak
state capacity and also to infighting over the—often inappropriate—resettlement
models. The latter initially included the imposition of the ‘collectivist’ models
that have failed worldwide, alongside ideological objections to the independent
smallholder models that have worked in Asia and, increasingly, in parts of Africa
(flowers in Kenya, tobacco in Malawi, cassava in West Africa). The infighting and
early failures discredited the programmes and confirmed the widespread belief
that ‘Africans can’t or don’t want to farm’—a belief deeply entrenched among
many on the left as well as the right.
The main gap in these impressive books is their lack of attention to the econo -
mics of land, and agricultural, reform.8 This is, unfortunately, typical in a debate in which social scientists and economists talk past each other. However, this
frustrating non-engagement is likely to be overtaken by events, as the growing
concern about global food shortages propels a drive towards what might become
Africa’s long-delayed agricultural revolution(s). Among the drivers are activists
in the AU, supported by the international food policy research institutes and the
Gates (and other) foundations, private (African and foreign) companies and even
sovereign governments (Saudi Arabia, China) seeking to secure their food supplies.
The key questions are: will this process involve another round of alienation of
African land? And will it generate livelihoods for millions of African smallholders
and farm workers or, instead, their displacement by large-scale, capital intensive
farms, whether owned by Africans or foreigners? In Southern Africa, there is the
further issue of whether land reform will follow the bungled Zimbabwean model
or take place in a timely, lawful manner that reinforces, rather than undermines,
their recently established constitutional democracies.