It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator, and blame him for Zimbabwe’s descent into hyperinflation and poverty. The seizure of white-owned farms by his black supporters has been depicted as a form of thuggery, and as a cause of the country’s declining production, as if these lands were doomed by black ownership. Sanctions have been imposed, and opposition groups funded with the explicit aim of unseating him.

There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters. His policies have helped lay waste the country’s economy, though sanctions have played no small part, while his refusal to share power with the country’s growing opposition movement, much of it based in the trade unions, has led to a bitter impasse. This view of Zimbabwe’s crisis can be found everywhere, from the Economist and the Financial Times to the Guardian and the New Statesman, but it gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved.

Many have compared Mugabe to Idi Amin and the land expropriation in Zimbabwe to the Asian expulsion in Uganda. The comparison isn’t entirely off the mark. I was one of the 70,000 people of South Asian descent booted out by Idi Amin in 1972; I returned to Uganda in 1979. My abiding recollection of my first few months back is that no one I met opposed Amin’s expulsion of ‘Asians’. Most merely said: ‘It was bad the way he did it.’ The same is likely to be said of the land transfers in Zimbabwe.

What distinguishes Mugabe and Amin from other authoritarian rulers is not their demagoguery but the fact that they projected themselves as champions of mass justice and successfully rallied those to whom justice had been denied by the colonial system. Not surprisingly, the justice dispensed by these demagogues mirrored the racialised injustice of the colonial system. In 1979 I began to realise that whatever they made of Amin’s brutality, the Ugandan people experienced the Asian expulsion of 1972 – and not the formal handover in 1962 – as the dawn of true independence. The people of Zimbabwe are likely to remember 2000-3 as the end of the settler colonial era. Any assessment of contemporary Zimbabwe needs to begin with this sobering fact.

Though widespread grievance over the theft of land – a process begun in 1889 and completed in the 1950s – fuelled the guerrilla struggle against the regime of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front opposed black majority rule, the matter was never properly addressed when Britain came back into the picture to effect a constitutional transition to independence under majority rule. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, but the social realities of the newly independent state remained embedded in an earlier historical period: some six thousand white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of prime land, 39 per cent of the land in the country, while about 4.5 million farmers (a million households) in ‘communal areas’ were left to subsist on 16.4 million hectares of the most arid land, to which they’d been removed or confined by a century of colonial rule. In the middle were 8500 small-scale black farmers on about 1.4 million hectares of land.

This was not a sustainable arrangement in a country whose independence had been secured at the end of a long armed struggle supported by a land-hungry population. But the agreement that Britain drafted at Lancaster House in 1979 – and that the settlers eagerly backed – didn’t seem to take into account the kind of transition that would be necessary to secure a stable social order. Two of its provisions, one economic and the other political, reflected this short-termism: one called for land transfers on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis, with the British funding the scheme; the other reserved 20 per cent of seats in the House of Assembly for whites – 3 per cent of the population – giving the settler community an effective veto over any amendment to the Lancaster House terms. This was qualified majority rule at best. Both provisions had a time limit: 1990 for land transfers based on the market principle, and 1987 for the settler minority to set limits on majority rule. The deal sustained illusions among the settlers that what they had failed to achieve by UDI – Smith’s 1965 declaration of independence from the UK – and force of arms, they could now achieve through support from a government of ‘kith and kin’ (as Smith called it) in Britain. In reality, however, the agreement drew a line under settler privilege.

The inadequacy of the Lancaster House provisions for the decolonisation of land ensured that it remained the focus of politics in independent Zimbabwe. The course of land relations and land reform in Zimbabwe has over the years been meticulously documented by Sam Moyo, a professor who directs the African Institute of Agrarian Studies in Harare. Transfers during the first decade of independence were so minimal that they increased rather than appeased land hunger. The new regime in Harare, installed in 1980 and led by Mugabe and his party, Zanu, called for the purchase of eight million hectares to resettle 162,000 land-poor farming households from communal areas. But the ban on compulsory purchase drove up land prices and encouraged white farmers to sell only the worst land. As the decade drew to a close, only 58,000 families had been resettled on three million hectares of land. No more than 19 per cent of the land acquired between 1980 and 1992 was of prime agricultural value.

As the 1980s wore on, land transfers actually declined, dropping from 430,000 hectares per annum during the first half of the decade to 75,000 hectares during the second. The greater land hunger became, the more often invasions were mounted; in response, Mugabe created local ‘squatter control’ units in 1985, and they were soon evicting squatters in droves. At this point Zimbabwean law still defined a squatter in racial terms, as ‘an African whose house happens to be situated in an area which has been declared European or is set apart for some other reason’. By 1990, 40 per cent of the rural population was said to be landless or affected by the landlessness of dependent relations.

When the Lancaster House Agreement’s rules on land transfer expired in 1990, the pressure to take direct action was intensified by two very different developments: an IMF Structural Adjustment Programme and recurrent drought. Peasant production, which had been a meagre 8 per cent of marketed output at independence in 1980, and had shot up to 45 per cent by 1985, declined as a result of the programme. Trade-union analysts pointed out that employment growth also fell from 2.4 per cent in the late 1980s to 1.55 per cent in the period 1991-97. The percentage of households living in poverty throughout the country increased by 14 per cent in five years. There was now widespread squatting on all types of land, from communal areas to state land, commercial farms (mainly growing tobacco), resettlement areas and urban sites.

The demand for land reform came from two powerful groups at extreme ends of the social spectrum yet both firmly in Mugabe’s camp: the veterans of the liberation war and the small but growing number of indigenous businesses, hitherto the main beneficiaries of independence under majority rule. At the end of the liberation war in 1980, 20,000 guerrillas had been incorporated into the national army and other state organisations, and the rest – about 45,000 – had had to fend for themselves. They found it difficult to survive without land or a job, which is why land occupations began in the countryside soon after independence.

Mugabe and the Zanu leaders tended at first to dismiss complaints from veterans as expressions of resentment on the part of the rival liberation movement, Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu, which had been marginalised in 1980. But after Zanu and Zapu signed a unity accord in 1987, former fighters from both groups became involved in land agitation. Their most significant joint initiative was to form a welfare organisation, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) in 1988, which called for pensions to be paid and land redistributed. It soon gained a large membership drawn from most sections of Zimbabwean society and from the two ethnic groups – the Shona majority and the Ndebele – which had defined Zanu and Zapu respectively. Its members, about 200,000 of them, came from a variety of classes, employed and unemployed, urban and rural, with positions in different branches of the state and party and the private sector. Although their strength lay in the countryside, the war vets formed the only alliance that was both independent of Mugabe and Zanu-PF, and could claim to have national support, giving them a decisive advantage over the better organised but urban-based trade-union federation in the power struggle that would shortly tear the country apart.

War vets were among the first targets of Structural Adjustment, when its effects began to be felt in 1991. Entire departments and ministries that had been heavily staffed by ex-combatants were disbanded and the stage set for a series of high-profile confrontations between veterans and government. Mugabe accused the vets of being ‘armchair critics’ at the inaugural conference of the ZNLWVA in April 1992; they went on to organise street demonstrations, lock top government and party officials in their offices, interrupt Mugabe’s Heroes’ Day speech in 1997, intervene in court sessions and besiege the State House.

After the Lancaster House Agreement had expired, the government tried to occupy the middle ground by shifting from the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ formula with a new law, the Land Acquisition Act of 1992, which gave the state powers of compulsory purchase, though landowners retained the right to challenge the price set and to receive prompt compensation. By the late 1990s, market-led land transfers had dwindled to a trickle. So had British contributions to the fund set up to pay landowners, with a mere £44 million paid out between 1980 and 1992, much less than anticipated at Lancaster House. When New Labour took over in 1997, Clare Short, the minister for international development, claimed that since neither she nor her colleagues came from the landed class in Britain – ‘my own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers,’ she wrote to the Zimbabwean minister of agriculture and land – they could not be held responsible for what Britain had done in colonial Rhodesia.

This effective default coincided with a rise inside Zimbabwe of demands for compulsory acquisition. Veterans led land occupations at Svosve and Goromonzi in 1997, clashing with Mugabe and Zanu-PF. They were joined by local chiefs and party leaders, peasants and spirit mediums (who had played a key role in the liberation war against Ian Smith). The next year, a wave of co-ordinated land occupations swept across the country, with veterans receiving critical support from the Indigenous Business Development Centre (IBDC), an affirmative action lobby set up in 1988 by members of the new black bourgeoisie. From now on, two very different elements huddled under the war vets’ banner: the landless victims of settler colonialism and the elite beneficiaries of the end of settler rule.

It was largely for his own purposes, but also as a response to pressure from squatters, occupiers and their local leaders, as well as from sections of the new black elite, that in 1999 Mugabe decided to revise the constitution drafted at Lancaster House. Two major changes were envisaged: one would allow him to stay in power for two more terms and would ensure immunity from prosecution for political and military leaders accused of committing crimes while in office; the other would empower the government to seize land from white farmers without compensation, which was held to be the responsibility of Britain. The proposals were put to a referendum in February 2000 and defeated: 45.3 per cent of voters were in favour. But only a little more than 20 per cent of the electorate had cast a vote. The urban centres of Harare and Bulawayo were three to one against adoption; voting in the countryside was marked by large-scale abstentions. Post-colonial Zimbabwe had reached a turning point.

Very early on, the colonial bureaucracy had translated the ethnic mosaic of the country into an administrative map in such a way as to allow minimum co-operation and maximum competition between different ethnic groups and areas, ensuring among other things that labour for mining, manufacture and service was not recruited from areas where peasants were needed on large farms or plantations. These areas, as it happened, were mainly Shona and so, unsurprisingly, when the trade-union movement developed in Rhodesia, its leaders were mostly Ndebele, and had few links with the Shona leadership of the peasant-based liberation movement (Mugabe belongs to the Shona majority). I remember listening to the minister of labour in Harare in 1981 complain that workers had failed to support the nationalist movement. When I suggested that it might be useful to turn the proposition around and ask why the nationalist movement had failed to organise support among workers, there was silence.

The Shona-Ndebele divide so conspicuous in the two guerrilla movements produced great tension after independence between the mainly Shona government and the mainly Ndebele labour movement, with Mugabe’s ferocious repression in Ndebele areas in 1986 remaining the bloodiest phase in post-independence Zimbabwean history. The slaughter in Matabeleland was followed by a ‘reconciliation’ that paved the way for a unity government in 1987, but Zanu-PF leaders thereafter suspected all protest – from whatever source – of concealing an Ndebele agenda.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, formed in 1981 with the blessing of the government, had by the end of the decade distanced itself from its Zanu patrons, purged internal corruption and elected an independent leadership. In the 1990s it spearheaded the national agitation against Structural Adjustment and the one-party state that acquiesced in it. Yet its organisation in the countryside was confined to workers on commercial farms. The ZCTU had at first been an umbrella body for private sector unions. The spectacular growth of ZCTU, its organisation of public sector workers, has been written about by two Zimbabwean social historians, Brian Raftapolous and Ian Phimister. After independence, workers in the rapidly Africanised public sector had retained close links to the government. But this began to change when the Structural Adjustment Programme led to public sector job losses and many African workers – especially veterans – were dismissed. When government workers came out on strike in 1996, the ZCTU was able to establish a base in the public sector. A general strike in 1997 and mass stay-aways the following year set the trade unions against the government. Civil servants – including teachers and health workers – who had declared allegiance to the ruling party and the state now began to affiliate to the ZCTU. In 1998, it organised a National Constituent Assembly, with the participation of civic, NGO and church groups.

By the time Mugabe put forward amendments to the Lancaster House constitution, an impressive alliance of forces – not only trade unions, churches, civic and NGO groups, but white farmers and Western governments – was arrayed for battle. The Movement for Democratic Change was formed a few months before the 2000 referendum, to campaign for a ‘no’ vote. The coalition was diverse, containing, on the one hand, public sector workers trying to roll back the tide of Structural Adjustment; on the other, uncompromising free-marketeers such as Eddie Cross, the MDC secretary of economic affairs and a senior figure in the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, who was intent on privatising almost everything, including education.

The veterans reacted to the defeat of the constitutional proposals by launching land occupations in Masvingo province. This prompted a split in the ruling party. With Mugabe out of the country, the acting president, Joseph Msika, told the police to torch the new squatter shacks. This was consistent with Zanu-PF policy: in the early days, Mugabe had been praised as a ‘conciliator’ by the international community for ensuring the security and property of those whites who remained in Zimbabwe, and evicting black squatters. Two decades later the position had changed: the support of the whites was no longer so important to Mugabe, and he was under enormous pressure from the veterans. With much to gain from casting his lot in with the rural insurgency, he returned from his trip and announced that there would be no government evictions. As land occupations spread to every province – 800 farms were occupied at the height of the protests – the split in the government and party hierarchy deepened. Inevitable tension between the executive and the judiciary undermined the rule of law; the executive sacked a number of judges, replacing them with others more sympathetic to land reform, and enacted pro-squatter legislation.

‘Fast-track’ land reform was now underway. The types of land that would be acquired compulsorily were specified by the government: unused or underutilised land, land owned by absentees or people with several farms; land above a certain area (determined by region) and land contiguous with communal areas. The white owners of around 2900 commercial farms listed for compulsory acquisition and redistribution were given 90 days to move out. Government directives specified that ‘owners of farms marked for redistribution will be compensated for improvements made on the land, but not for the land itself, as this land was stolen from the original owners in the colonial era.’

The closing date for ‘fast-track’ land acquisition – August 2002 – came and went, but occupations continued unimpeded until mid-2003, and on a diminished scale for a year or so after that. Chiefs fought for land for their constituents and for themselves, and so did their counterparts in the state bureaucracy and the private sector. In Matabeleland, a minority of pro-MDC chiefs were sceptical of land reform, but later submitted claims. The black elite made a brazen land grab in direct contravention of the ‘one person, one farm’ policy, provoking a hue and cry in society at large and within the ruling party; the government set up a presidential commission to determine the facts. Crucially, in 2005 the government passed an amendment declaring all agricultural land to be state land. Land was seized from nearly 4000 white farmers and redistributed: 72,000 large farmers received 2.19 million hectares and 127,000 smallholders received 4.23 million hectares.

What land reform has meant or may come to mean for Zimbabwe’s economy is still hotly disputed. Recently there have been signs that scholarly opinion is shifting. A study by Ian Scoones of Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies – in collaboration with the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape – challenges some of the conventional wisdom in media and academic circles within and beyond Zimbabwe. The problem with this wisdom is that certain highly destructive aspects of reform – coercion; corruption and incompetence; cronyism in the redistribution of land; lack of funds and an absence of agricultural activity – have come to stand for the whole process. In particular, Scoones identifies five myths: that land reform has been a total failure; that its beneficiaries have been largely political cronies; that there is no new investment in the new settlements; that agriculture is in ruins; and that the rural economy has collapsed. Researchers at PLAAS have been quick to point out that over the past eight years small-scale farmers ‘have been particularly robust in weathering Zimbabwe’s political and economic turmoil, as well as drought’. Ben Cousins, the director of PLAAS and one of the most astute South African analysts of agrarian change – who had previously argued that the land reform would destroy agricultural production – now says that the future of Zimbabwe lies in providing small farmers with subsidies so that food security can be achieved. According to researchers at the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, new farms need to receive subsidised maize seed and fertiliser for a few seasons before achieving full production. Some might give up during this period, but not many – partly because the land tenure system doesn’t allow land sales; only land permits or leases can be acquired.

Zimbabwe has seen the greatest transfer of property in southern Africa since colonisation and it has all happened extremely rapidly. Eighty per cent of the 4000 white farmers were expropriated; most of them stayed in Zimbabwe. Redistribution revolutionised property-holding, adding more than a hundred thousand small owners to the base of the property pyramid. In social and economic – if not political – terms, this was a democratic revolution. But there was a heavy price to pay.

The first casualty was the rule of law, already tenuous by 1986. When international donors pressured the regime in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2000 by suspending aid and loans – a boycott favoured by the MDC and the unions – the government simply fixed the result in its favour. In the violence that followed, more than a hundred people died, including six white farmers and 11 black farm labourers. Some of the violence was government-sponsored and most of it state-sanctioned. The judiciary was reshaped, local institutions in rural areas narrowly politicised, and laws were passed which granted local agencies the powers necessary to crush opponents of land reform. Denouncing his adversaries in the trade unions and NGOs as servants of the old white ruling class, Mugabe authorised the militias and state security agencies to hound down opposition, as repression and reform went hand in hand. In 2003, the leading independent newspaper, the Daily News, was shut down. While jubilant government supporters applauded the sweep of the revolution in agrarian areas, the opposition denounced the repression that accompanied it. Land reform had been ruthless, but in 2004, the violence began to abate. There was noticeably less violence surrounding the parliamentary elections of 2005.

In retrospect, it is striking how little turmoil accompanied this massive social change. The explanation lies in the participation of key rural figures in ad hoc but officially sanctioned land committees. When first introduced in 1996, these committees had mixed fortunes, some not functioning at all, others becoming instruments of this or that group of squatters. But a radical change occurred in 2000, when the committees were expanded to include centrally appointed security officials, ruling party representatives and local government personnel, as well as local veterans and traditional leaders. Charged with implementing fast-track land reform, these committees sidelined the old local administrative structures. They also had a national impact, since they reported to similarly constituted provincial committees, which in turn reported to the Ministry of Local Government. It was the infusion of veterans that gave the new semi-bureaucratic committees the edge over their wholly bureaucratic counterparts. Local committees usually comprised between 15 and 30 members. The veterans formed ‘base camps’ represented by ‘committees of seven’ which took the lead in identifying land for acquisition as well as finding prospective beneficiaries (mostly from veterans’ waiting lists and rosters in former ‘communal areas’). They also judged disputes, punished petty criminals and allocated farm equipment, seeds and so on. In a word, the committees co-ordinated everything, thus constituting new centres of power.

The second casualty of the reform was farm labourers. There were about 300,000 in all, around half of them part-time. Fast-track reform resulted in a massive displacement of these workers, who were traditionally drawn from migrant labour. Nearly a fifth came from neighbouring states and were regarded with suspicion by peasants in communal areas; even if they’d been born locally, they were often seen as foreigners and denied citizenship rights. Migrants and women (many employed as casual labour) were the weakest links in the rural mobilisation for land reform. Many were thought to have been encouraged by landowners to vote against the government’s constitutional proposals, and the anti-land-reform lobby certainly tried to organise farm workers, ostensibly to protect their jobs, but really to protect the white ownership of farms. When the workers rallied by the MDC, civil society activists and white farmers clashed with veteran-led occupiers, they came off badly. Occupiers held meetings to explain to workers what was at stake and eventually came themselves to distinguish between white farms, not only on the basis of size, proximity to communal areas, and the amount of unused land, but also on the basis of the farmer’s attitudes, particularly on race and towards his workers, and whether he had participated in the counter-insurgency during the independence struggle.

Some of the 150,000 full-time farm workers threw in their lot with the occupiers, though usually not on the farms where they had been employed. About 90,000 kept their jobs on sugar and tea estates, and on new or already established tobacco and horticulture farms. About 8000 were granted land, but most were denied it on the grounds that they or their elders had come from foreign countries, though some were given citizenship. Many went from steady employment to contract or casual work; many others were forced to supplement their meagre incomes through fishing, petty trading, theft and prostitution.

The best publicised casualties of the land reform movement were the urban poor who hoped to benefit from extending land invasions to urban areas. The veterans spearheaded occupations of urban residential land in 2000-1. Housing co-operatives and other associations followed their lead and set up ‘illegal’ residential or business sites. But the state feared that it would lose control over towns to the MDC if the land reform movement was allowed to spread and met these occupations with stiff repression, including Operation Restore Order/ Murambatsvina, a surprise military-style intervention in 2005 in which tens of thousands of families were evicted. Not surprisingly, those who opposed land reform in rural areas were the strongest critics of government efforts to stifle occupations in urban areas.

The final casualty was food production: Zimbabwe, once a food surplus country, is today deficient in both foreign exchange and food. In 2002-3, half the population depended on food aid: this was a drought year and the figures improved in 2004-5. The UN now estimates that nearly half the country’s 13.3 million inhabitants will once again be dependent on food aid in 2009, after another drought year. A million of these are poor, urban residents who can’t afford imported food. The rest are peasants, most of them hit by drought. Climate change is clearly a factor here, its role most obvious in marginal land: the communal areas worked by millions of small farmers. A 2002 World Food Programme study noted that there had been three droughts in Zimbabwe since 1982 and that the 2002 drought, which also affected several neighbouring countries in Southern Africa, was the worst in 20 years. The WFP estimated that 12.8 million people in the region would require assistance as a result of that drought and that in Zimbabwe alone, overall production would decline by 25 per cent, with cereal production down 57 per cent and maize, the staple in the diet of ordinary Zimbabweans, down by a devastating two-thirds.

To separate out the effect of drought and that of reform – and thus to understand how land reform has hit production – one needs first to distinguish between three groups of agricultural producer: local white farmers, who were the target of the land reform; peasants with farms in communal areas; and foreign corporations, whose large farms (except for small tracts of unused land) remain intact. Harry Oppenheimer, for example, lost most of his private land, but his firm, Anglo American, kept its sugar estates, which it then sold to Tongaat Hulett, a South African firm with 15,000 hectares in Zimbabwe. In a nutshell, white commercial farmers focused on export crops, whereas communal farmers were the major source of food security. The production of tobacco, hitherto the main source of foreign exchange, is concentrated in large-scale commercial farms; it has seen the most severe decline, almost entirely as a result of land reform. Maize and cotton are peasant crops and have not really been directly affected by land reform, but have suffered badly from prolonged drought – maize production was down by 90 per cent between 2000 and 2003. In contrast, the production of crops – sugar, tea, coffee – grown mainly by the large corporate plantations has remained steady.

Besides drought and reform, there is a third cause of declining production: the targeted donor boycott. Zimbabwe has been the target of Western sanctions twice in the last 50 years: once after UDI in 1965 (very ‘soft’ sanctions, which did not stop the country becoming the second most industrialised in sub-Saharan Africa by the mid-1970s) and again after Zimbabwe’s entry into the Congo war in August 1998. Zimbabwe’s involvement in the war was not well received in the West. Participants in the donor conference for Zimbabwe that year were decidedly lukewarm about committing funds. Britain announced a review of arms sales to Zimbabwe and, after the conference, again disclaimed any responsibility for funding land reform. The following year the IMF suspended lending to Zimbabwe, while the US and the UK decided to fund the labour movement, led by the ZCTU, first to oppose constitutional change and then to launch the MDC as a full-fledged opposition party. Its enemies have claimed that, by the late 1990s, the ZCTU was dependent on foreign sources for two-thirds of its income. Once ‘fast-track’ land reform began in 2000, the Western donor community shut the door on Zimbabwe.

The sanctions regime, led by the US and Britain, was elaborate, tested during the first Iraq war and then against Iran. In 2001 Jesse Helms, previously a supporter of UDI, sponsored the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery bill (another sponsor was Hillary Clinton) and it became law in December that year. Part of the act was a formal injunction on US officials in international financial institutions to ‘oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe’. In autumn 2001 the IMF had declared Zimbabwe ‘ineligible to use the general resources of the IMF’ and removed it from the list of countries that could borrow from its Poverty and Growth Facility. In 2002, it issued a formal declaration of non-co-operation with Zimbabwe and suspended all technical assistance. The US legislation also authorised Bush to fund ‘an independent and free press and electronic media in Zimbabwe’ and to allocate six million dollars for ‘democracy and governance programmes’. This was fighting talk, Cold War vintage. The normative language of sanctions focuses less on the issues that prompted them in the first place – Zimbabwe’s intervention in the Congo war and the introduction of fast-track reform – than on the need for ‘good governance’. In citing the absence of this as a reason for its imposition of sanctions in 2002, the EU violated Article 98 of the Cotonou Agreement, which requires that disputes between African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and the EU be resolved by the joint EU-ACP Council of Ministers.

Clearly, the old paradigm of sanctions – isolation – has given way to a more interventionist model, which combines punishment of the regime with subsidies for the opposition. So-called ‘smart’ sanctions are intended to target the government and its key supporters. In 2002, the US, Britain and the EU began freezing the assets of state officials and imposing travel bans. Only four days after the EU imposed sanctions, the US expanded the list of targeted individuals to include prominent businessmen and even church leaders, such as the pro-regime Anglican bishop, Nolbert Kunonga.

Nonetheless, sanctions mainly affect the lives of ordinary people. Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, wrote recently that the country’s foreign exchange reserves had declined from $830 million, representing three months’ import cover in 1996, to less than one month’s cover by 2006. Total foreign payments arrears increased from $109 million at the end of 1999 to $2.5 billion at the end of 2006. Foreign direct investment had shrunk from $444.3 million in 1998 to $50 million in 2006. Donor support, even to sectors vital to popular welfare, such as health and education, was at an all-time low. Danish support for the health sector, $29.7 million in 2000, was suspended. Swedish support for education was also suspended. The US issued travel warnings, blocked food aid during the heyday of land reform and opposed Zimbabwe’s application to the Global Fund to Fight Aids – the country has the fourth highest infection rate in the world. Though it was renewed in 2005, the Zimbabwe grant is meagre. Agriculture has been affected too: scale matters, but no one disputes that subsidies are vital for agriculture to be sustainable, and sanctions have made it more difficult to put a proper credit regime in place.

Despite the EU’s imposition of sanctions in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 2002, Mugabe polled 56.2 per cent of the vote against Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC’s 42 per cent. There were widespread allegations of Zanu-PF violence and last-minute gerrymandering, with polling stations in urban areas – Tsvangirai’s electoral base – closing early and extra stations being set up in rural areas, where Mugabe’s support was assured. Nonetheless, it was clear that support for Zanu-PF was higher than in the pre-fast-track elections of 2000. Bush and Blair refused to recognise the outcome, but Namibia, Nigeria and the South African observer team, which had monitored the elections, concluded that the result was legitimate. Whatever the truth of the matter, the Africans could do little in the face of mounting Western pressure, from Britain especially: a three-member panel of Commonwealth countries – Australia, Nigeria and South Africa – was convened to consider the question of Zimbabwe. There were reports of intense pressure from Tony Blair on Thabo Mbeki. The panel suspended Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth for a year. Zimbabwe withdrew from the organisation.

The experience of land reform in Zimbabwe has set alarm bells ringing in South Africa and all the former settler colonies where land shortage is still an issue. In South Africa especially, the upheaval and bitterness felt in Zimbabwe seems to suggest that the ‘Malaysian path’ to peaceful redistribution and development is not inevitable. An anxious South Africa and less powerful members of the Southern Africa Development Community tend to feel that sanctions, along with other destabilising policies pursued by the West against Zimbabwe, have only made matters worse. SADC states have long tried to reconcile the need to resist Western influence with the fact that they serve as a bridge between Africa and the wealthy Western economies, but South Africa’s non-confrontational policy vis-à-vis Mugabe – which Mbeki pursued despite mounting criticism from the ANC and the unions in South Africa – along with its provision of fuel and electricity to its northern neighbour, set it at odds with Western governments. South Africa and the SADC states describe their approach as one of ‘non-interference’, ‘stabilisation’ and ‘quiet diplomacy’, but the West sees it as a deliberate effort to undermine sanctions, and critics in South Africa – most recently Mandela – have found the Mbeki line much too conciliatory.

In 2007, SADC called for an end to sanctions against Zimbabwe and international support for a post-land-reform recovery programme, but earlier this year Western countries brought their influence to bear on key SADC members – Botswana and Zambia – to split the organisation. Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, went so far as to announce publicly that he would not recognise the results of the 2008 elections. The pressure on SADC came not only from Western countries, but from trade-union movements in the region, in particular Cosatu of South Africa, which has strong links with the ZCTU. Here is another striking aspect of the current Zimbabwe crisis: it is not just Western and pro-Western governments that have joined the sanctions regime, but many activists and intellectuals, for the most part progressives, have aligned themselves with distant or long-standing enemies in an effort to dislodge an authoritarian government clinging to power on the basis of historic grievances about the colonial theft of land. Symbolic of this was the refusal by Cosatu-affiliated unions to unload a cargo of Chinese arms destined for Zimbabwe when the An Yue Jiang sailed into Durban in April.

The arguments, which are not new, turn on questions of nationalism and democracy, pitting champions of national sovereignty and state nationalism against advocates of civil society and internationalism. One group accuses the other of authoritarianism and self-righteous intolerance; it replies that its critics are wallowing in donor largesse. Nationalists speak of a historical racism that has merely migrated from government to civil society with the end of colonial rule, while civil society activists speak of an ‘exhausted’ nationalism, determined to feed on old injustices. This fierce disagreement is symptomatic of the deep divide between urban and rural Zimbabwe. Nationalists have been able to withstand civil society-based opposition, reinforced by Western sanctions, because they are supported by large numbers of peasants. The tussle between these groups has even greater poignancy in former settler colonies than it had a generation earlier in former colonies north of the Limpopo, for the simple reason that the central legacy of settler colonialism – the land question – remained unresolved and explosive after independence. Southern African leaders have tried, with some success, to put out the fires in Zimbabwe before they spread beyond its borders. It is worth noting that the agreement between Zanu-PF and the MDC signed in September and brokered by Mbeki accepts land redistribution as irreversible and registers disagreement only over how it was carried out; it also holds Britain responsible for compensating white farmers. In the wake of Mbeki’s resignation as president of South Africa it is vital that this agreement remains in place. Few doubt that this is the hour of reckoning for former settler colonies. The increasing number of land invasions in KwaZulu Natal, and the violence that has accompanied them, indicate that the clock is ticking.

Bibliographical Note

Moyo, Sam & Paris Yeros (2005b), ‘Land Occupations and Land Reform in Zimbabwe: Towards the National Democratic Revolution’, in Reclaiming the Land, edited by Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, London: Zed Books; Moyo, Sam and Paris Yeros (2007), ‘The Radicalised State: Zimbabwe’s Interrupted Revolution’, Review of African Political Economy, 111; Moyo, Sam & Paris Yeros (forthcoming), ‘After Zimbabwe: State, Nation and Region in Africa’, in S. Moyo, P. Yeros & J. Vadell (eds.), The National Question Today: The Crisis of Sovereignty in Africa, Asia and Latin America; Chambati, W. and S. Moyo, Fast Track Land Reform and the Political Economy of Farm Workers in Zimbabwe, Harare: AIAS Monograph Series, forthcoming For a critical point of view, see, Lloyd Sachikonye, “The Land is the Economy: Revisiting the Land Question,” African Security Review 14(3), 2005; and, Raftopoulos, Brian & Ian Phimister (2004), ‘Zimbabwe Now: The Political Economy of Crisis and Coercion’, Historical Materialism, 12: 4; Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya, Zimbabwe's Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice, Merlin Press, 2002; Henry Bernstein, ‘Land reform in Southern Africa in World Historical Perspective,’ ROAPE 96, 2003

On the non-Zimbabwean debate on the land reform, see, (accessed on 27 September, 2008); IRIN, “Small Scale Farming Seen As the Only Alternative to Food Insecurity,” 22 September 2008. For a contrary point of view, see, Henry Bernstein, ‘Land reform in Southern Africa in World Historical Perspective,’ Review of African Political Economy 96, 2003

On war veterans, see, Sadomba, W (2006) War veterans and the land occupation movement in Zimbabwe, forthcoming, Harare;

On climate change and the impact of drought, see, C.H. Matarira, J.M. Makadho, F.C. Mwamuka, "Zimbabwe: Climate Change Impacts on Maize Production and Adaptive Measures for the Agricultural Sector," Interim Report on Climate Change Country Studies, 1995,

On sanctions, see, Gregory Elich, ‘Zimbabwe Under Siege,’ Swans Commentary Zimbabwe Under Siege,; Dr. Gideon Gono: How sanctions are ruining Zimbabwe, opinion piece, African Business, 2007.

On the debate among progressive intellectuals in Zimbabwe, see, Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, ‘The Zimbabwe Question and the Two Lefts.’ Forthcoming in Historical Materialism, vol. 14, no. 4, 2007

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Vol. 30 No. 24 · 18 December 2008

It may be true, as Mahmood Mamdani writes, that some Ugandans felt their real independence began when they kicked the Asians out, though President Museveni says it was the worst mistake the country ever made and has tried hard to persuade Asians to return (LRB, 4 December). Authoritarian populism has always had its imitators: Kristallnacht excited anti-semites throughout Europe at the thought of how much Jewish property they might seize. But the opposite happened in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s brutal dilapidation of the country had the effect of making Ian Smith’s Rhodesia seem like a lost golden age to many.

Mamdani’s article is a compendium of errors. He should know that the reason for the suspension of British aid for land reform was that the land was going to Mugabe’s cronies, not to the poor. At the same time, farmers could not sell farmland without first offering it for land reform, but time and again the government said it wasn’t interested. Even when the government did buy such land it often left productive farms to rot: I have seen the collapsing farmhouses, the fields full of weeds. But when the radical Edgar Tekere ran against Mugabe in 1990, Mugabe suddenly began threatening land invasions and the takeover of white farms. Mugabe saw Tekere off, thanks to massive ballot-stuffing, but it was clear that the land issue was kept in reserve in case of political crisis. When Mugabe lost the 2000 constitutional referendum, the strategy was wheeled out again.

Mamdani writes of the ‘war vets’ as if they all wanted to be farmers: those who worked with them say that wasn’t so. He also omits the fact that very few of the alleged war vets of the post-2000 period were any such thing. Most were far too young to have fought in the 1970s. Mamdani describes them as a popular movement but they weren’t: the land invasions were orchestrated by Mugabe’s party and security services. I saw this for myself, as did others. He talks of the constitutional referendum as if there had been a free vote but there wasn’t: not only did Mugabe allow the MDC no access to state-controlled radio and TV but there was massive rigging in the rural areas. Still it wasn’t enough, for Mugabe had underestimated the size of the ‘no’ vote the cities would cast. Mamdani describes the trade unions as if they were an Anglo-American creation and represented mainly Ndebeles. This is nonsense: they were left-wing organisations which had supported the liberation struggle and were closely tied to the (Communist-dominated) Congress of South African Trade Unions. Most of their members and their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, were Shona – unsurprising, given that 80 per cent of the population is Shona. Their major foreign donor was the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the German Social Democratic foundation.

Mamdani talks as if ‘land reform’ was a popular revolution, which is rather like writing a history of Cambodia in which Pol Pot’s genocidal re-ruralisation was carried out by popular demand. I was part of a team that carried out nationwide polls in Zimbabwe throughout this period and we published all our findings widely. A steady 63 per cent said they wanted Mugabe out and no more than 9 per cent ever said land was the chief issue, a figure which soon dropped to 4 per cent. Mamdani does not mention the fact that the land invasions were a massive attack on farm workers, whose numbers he gives as 300,000, though together with their families there were 2.4 million of them living on white farms. They were principally blamed for Mugabe’s referendum defeat and were mercilessly beaten and tortured in dreadful weeks-long ‘re-education’ sessions. I had to deal with torture victims and saw things I never wish to see again.

Mamdani talks of the repression ‘in Ndebele areas in 1986’. Hasn’t he read the authoritative report Breaking the Silence, which shows how much wider than that the phenomenon was? Mamdani throughout underplays the huge role mass torture played in his supposed popular revolution, not just in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s but on farms in 2000-2 and thereafter in the specially constituted torture camps set up by Mugabe which still operate today. Why does he omit these atrocities?

Mamdani remarks ‘how little turmoil accompanied this massive social change’. The mass beatings, the torture, the killings have all been whited out. He must know that more than four million people have fled Zimbabwe, that in this period life expectancy has fallen to the lowest on the planet, that five million people are facing starvation and 1.4 million are at risk of cholera. In his account the main reason for the collapse in food production and the resulting famine is drought. Zimbabwe has often suffered droughts but up until the ‘land reform’ it always fed all its people and exported a lot more food as well. He also blames ‘sanctions’, yet there are no sanctions on Zimbabwean imports or exports and the reason international institutions won’t lend to Mugabe is that he has defaulted on repayment and reneged on their loan conditions. He also routinely steals any foreign exchange earned by his own people.

Colonial rule was racist and unfair and of course the whites took much of the best land. But in 1901 there were only 712,600 people in the whole country. Much of the land the whites settled was vacant. Under colonial rule, for all its faults, the population multiplied by ten (to 7,477,443 in 1982) and a thriving commercial agriculture became the main motor of national growth and prosperity. Those whites who stayed on after 1980 embraced majority rule and tried hard to make it all work. And it could have: the country is blessed with mineral wealth, huge tourist potential and a highly educated population. All this was blighted by Mugabe’s Marxism-Leninism and the would-be one-partyism that drove investment away. Economic development was crippled, the fast-growing population couldn’t be supported and Mugabe became increasingly unpopular. In his rage he then turned on the one productive part of the economy that still functioned, the commercial farms, reducing Zimbabwe to famine, plague and ashes in his determination to stay in power whatever the cost. The exact figures are still unclear but it seems likely that the terrible things he has done to his country have caused over a million deaths.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Mahmood Mamdani is correct to stress that Robert Mugabe is not just a crazed dictator or a corrupt thug but that he promotes a programme and an ideology that are attractive to many in Africa and to some in Zimbabwe itself. Mamdani takes care to balance this by recognising Mugabe’s propensity for violence. Yet this balance is hard to maintain and towards the end of his article Mamdani lets it slip.

‘Western countries,’ he writes, ‘brought their influence to bear on key Southern African Development Community (SADC) members – Botswana and Zambia – to split the organisation. Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, went so far as to announce publicly that he would not recognise the results of the 2008 elections.’ But Khama needed no Western influence to realise that the June presidential rerun in Zimbabwe was illegitimate. Every African observer mission – Botswana’s own, the Pan-African Parliament’s, SADC’s – pronounced that Mugabe’s victory was vitiated by the violence that went on right up until the polls, which the observers saw with their own eyes, and of which some of them were the victims. The problem is rather to explain why so many SADC states have continued to accept Mugabe as the legitimate president despite the first-hand reports of their own emissaries.

This isn’t a minor flaw in Mamdani’s article since it bears on his principal analytical point. He stresses the opposition between urban workers and rural peasants, the latter supporting Mugabe because of land restitution. Yet the violence between March and June this year took place overwhelmingly in the rural areas. It would not have been necessary had the peasantry of Mashonaland and Manicaland solidly supported the regime. The March election showed that they did not, despite land re-distribution. The regime lost virtually all the Manicaland seats and there were solid votes for the opposition even in Mashonaland constituencies which Zanu-PF had previously taken for granted. Indeed it was in such constituencies that the violence was concentrated.

Zimbabwean peasants confront hunger, disease, repression; they have no inputs of seeds, fertiliser and draught power. The redistribution of land has been conducted in a way that makes a mockery of the potentials of peasant production. Mugabe’s policy may be an inspiration to those in South Africa who want to redress gross inequalities in landholding. But it should also be a warning of how not to go about it.

Terence Ranger

Mahmood Mamdani rightly points out the British government’s refusal to accept its responsibility to comply with the Lancaster House Agreement. It is worth pointing out that the terms of the agreement were from the beginning designed to underfund Zimbabwe’s land reform. The agreement allocated £75 million for payment to landowners (of which, as Mamdani states, only £44 million was spent when Labour abrogated it). This compares to the £500 million Britain made available for land acquisition and settlement support in Kenya after independence. Even if one takes into account the difference in population, equivalent funding for Zimbabwe would amount to some £200 million, which would have given peaceful land reform a much better chance of success.

Matthias Tomczak

I was pained to find that the long bibliographical note accompanying my article ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’ was carried in the web version of the LRB but not in the printed text (LRB, 4 December). I also regret that acknowledgments to key Zimbabwean scholars were not made in the body of the work. As the director of the Centre for Basic Research in Kampala from 1987 to 1996, I became keenly aware of a tendency among externally-based writers to make use of local research but seldom to acknowledge it.

I wish therefore to take this opportunity to record my reliance on a solid body of Zimbabwean research, most of it produced inside the country, and some in exile. For anyone wanting to understand the historical trajectory of land reform, the work of Sam Moyo, who directs the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, is indispensable. In addition, I would like to acknowledge W. Sadomba’s work on war veterans; Gregory Elich’s on sanctions; Lloyd Sachikonye’s on land economy; and Brian Raftopoulos, Ian Phimister, Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya’s on the labour movement. This work has been exemplary, inspired by a tradition that joins sustained research to an ongoing, politically sensitive internal debate.

Mahmood Mamdani
New York

Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009

For a number of scholars, Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’ requires a further response, given Mamdani’s stature as a scholar and public intellectual (LRB, 4 December 2008). Some aspects of his argument are uncontroversial: there was a real demand for land redistribution – even the World Bank was calling for it in the late 1990s as the best way forward in Zimbabwe – and some of the Western powers’ original pronouncements and actions were hypocritical. There is a real danger, however, in simplifying the lessons of Zimbabwe. It isn’t just a matter of stark ethnic dichotomies, the urban-rural divide, or the part played by ‘the West’.

One of the more difficult tasks for scholars working on Zimbabwe is to convince peers working on other areas of Africa to look more deeply at the crisis and not to be fooled by Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimisation. Mamdani has, unfortunately, fallen in with this rhetoric by characterising Zimbabwean history and politics as fundamentally a battle between what he sees as an urban-based opposition, supported by the West, and a peasant-based ruling party besieged by external forces. This flight of fantasy portrays Mugabe and his Zanu-PF cronies as heroes of a landless peasantry (which is how they see themselves) and the state – backed up by the paramilitary violence of war veterans and others – as the vanguard of a peasant revolution. We suggest that Mamdani acquaint himself with the large body of Zimbabwean scholarship, which is easily available, rather than selectively using the arguments of scholars such as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros on land reform, and Gideon Gono, Mugabe’s Reserve Bank governor, as his source on sanctions. Citing Gono is rather like using Milton Obote’s writings as a source for conditions in Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s. A starting point for more informed scholarship is the recent Bulletin of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars, found at http://concerned

Mamdani’s portrayal of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics is insulting to those who continue to endure so much in their struggle to build a better Zimbabwe. He argues that urban trade unions have always been marginal to the nationalist movement because of their supposed ‘Ndebele leadership’, and that the current opposition follows in this ‘weak’ trade-union tradition as well as being in thrall to Western interests. What he doesn’t mention is the trade unions’ hard-fought battle against repression before and after 1980. There were many challenges to overcome, among which ethnic politics was hardly the most prominent. That leaders such as Morgan Tsvangirai managed to reshape the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) from what had been a pro-Zanu organisation into a viable political opposition by the early 1990s reflects an Africa-wide and Africa-based phenomenon that Mamdani apparently missed. By accepting Zanu-PF’s argument that the MDC is primarily limited to urban areas and is the product of the West, Mamdani’s account loses credibility.

Mamdani has also sugar-coated his portrayal of political violence in Zimbabwe. He fails even to mention that many ‘peasants’ in Shona-speaking Zanu-PF strongholds turned against Mugabe and major Zanu-PF leaders in the March 2008 elections. It was this reversal that sparked a new round of state-sponsored violence against the same Shona peasantry that Mamdani cites as the beneficiaries of Mugabe’s benevolent dictatorship. In addition, during the months preceding the run-off election (April-June 2008), food relief was denied to rural areas, leaving the World Food Programme and other groups to scramble to re-establish supply to the Zimbabwean peasantry Mamdani suggests are at the centre of Zanu-PF’s concern. Repressive legislation and actions by Zanu-PF activists are magically transformed by Mamdani into acts of generosity to outsiders. After noting discrimination against farm workers in gaining access to land on the grounds they or ‘their elders’ came from another country, Mamdani adds that ‘some were given citizenship.’ Yet he omits the fact that just before the 2002 presidential election the Zanu-PF government removed citizenship from many farm workers and other Zimbabweans whose parents or grandparents had non-Zimbabwean citizenship rights. The disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of perceived opposition supporters disappears in Mamdani’s analysis.

Mamdani’s contention that the West, not Mugabe and the Zanu-PF government, is responsible for the current crisis is as dangerous as it is wrong. By selectively citing instances over the past eight years when the West has cancelled donor funding, Mamdani gives the impression that the West has not been involved in sustaining life in Zimbabwe. The reality is that there are whole sections of the Zimbabwean population that the Zanu-PF leadership would rather punish with starvation than allow to support the opposition. ‘We would be better off with only six million people, with our own [ruling party] people who supported the liberation struggle,’ Didymus Mutasa, one of the key insiders in Zanu-PF, said in 2002, when drought again threatened to kill thousands of rural Zimbabweans. ‘We don’t want all these extra people.’ Western food aid has been a lifeline for ‘these extra people’ – when the state has allowed access.

Sanctions cannot excuse the callous disregard for human life Mugabe and his associates have shown, dating back to the Gukurahundi between 1983 and 1986 (which Mamdani glosses over as a brief bout of violence following from the tension between Zanu-PF and the ‘Ndebele unions’ in 1986), or the repeated land seizures which have been going on since the 1980s, the forced removals, violent reprisals, and the withholding of food aid. Furthermore, Mamdani’s suggestion that the fall in direct investment in Zimbabwe is the result of sanctions is dishonest. There are no sanctions against direct investment in Zimbabwe, as shown by Anglo American’s willingness to invest $400 million in Zimbabwe during the summer of 2008 to protect access to platinum mines. There have been large investments from South Africa, India and China, as Mugabe has bartered away the nation’s resources for short-term interests. It is the kleptocracy and violence fostered by Mugabe and Co that has scared off other investors, not sanctions.

At a time when thousands of people in Zimbabwe are threatened by a cholera epidemic – in part at least as a consequence of Zanu-PF’s decision to replace MDC municipal officials with Zanu-PF ‘urban governors’ – and international donors are scrambling to help deal with the collapse of the health sector and widespread hunger, intellectuals such as Mamdani should display more responsibility and less posturing in their attempts to draw meaningful lessons from Zimbabwe.

Jocelyn Alexander, Linacre College, Oxford
Andrea Arrington, University of Arkansas
Michael Bratton, Michigan State University
Bill Derman, Michigan State University
William J. Dewey, The University of Tennessee
Matthew Engelke, London School of Economics
Linda Freeman, Carleton University
Petina Gappah, Zimbabwean writer and lawyer
Kenneth Good, RMIT University Melbourne
David Gordon, Bowdoin College Amanda Hammar, Nordic Africa Institute
David McDermott Hughes, Rutgers University
Diana Jeater, University of the West of England
Tony King, University of the West of England
Bill Kinsey, University of Zimbabwe
Norma Kriger, Cornell University
Todd Leedy, University of Florida
JoAnn McGregor, University College London
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Showers Mawowa, University of KwaZulu Natal
David Maxwell, Keele University
Donald Mead, Michigan State University
John Metzler, Michigan State University
David Moore, University of Johannesburg
Shylock Muyengwa, University of Florida
Blair Rutherford, Carleton University
John S. Saul, York University
Richard Saunders, York University
Timothy Scarnecchia, Kent State University, Ohio
Anne Schneller, Michigan State University
Marja Spierenburg, Vrije University of Amsterdam
Colin Stoneman, JSAS Editorial Coordinator
Blessing-Miles Tendi, Oxford University
Wendy Urban-Mead, Bard College
Elaine Windrich, Stanford University

Timothy Scarnecchia, Jocelyn Alexander and 33 others

Mahmood Mamdani skates over a number of issues. First, why did Mugabe and the nationalists not opt for a much bigger ‘Kenya-style’ land reform package at their independence negotiations? Several civil servants involved in the process have said they could have got it. Why did they accept the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ clause at all?

Second, Mamdani is silent about the very poor economic performance that got Zimbabwe into the hands of the ‘structural adjusters’ in the first place.

Third, land reform programmes that put large farms into the hands of peasants always lead to reductions in marketed surpluses at first (they did in Kenya), because small farmers’ first priority is to feed their families. Reforms need to be enacted gradually, with as much help as possible to the new smaller-scale producers.

Fourth, I doubt very much whether it makes sense to distinguish the effects of chaotic reform from the effects of drought. Large farms usually have the means to protect themselves from drought, small farmers generally don’t – or not without a lot of help.

Mamdani’s account understates the incompetence of the Zanu-PF government as a factor in Zimbabwe’s economic decline since 1980. Zimbabwe’s land needed to be decolonised, there is no doubt about that. It should have been a priority for the nationalists even before they took power. Thereafter, the aim should have been to maintain and increase exports – and thus foreign exchange earnings from other sources, including inedible cash crops – while reform was brought to bear on food-producing land as quickly as possible. Attention could then have been turned to ‘cash crop’ land. Zanu-PF could, and should, have sought international aid funding to do all this once it was clear the British were not prepared to meet their original commitments.

Mugabe has never, from day one, exercised power with any real regard for the welfare of his people. And that is why he should be got rid of.

Gavin Kitching
University of New South Wales, Sydney

Mahmood Mamdani writes: Returns in the 2008 election suggest that Zimbabwe is a deeply divided society. This is so whether you go by the official count or that of the government. I have argued that this split has three fault lines: urban-rural, ethnic and class. R.W. Johnson (Letters, 18 December 2008) and Timothy Scarnecchia et al disagree, but they have not offered a satisfactory alternative explanation. Instead, they suggest, apparently in unison, that the splits in Zimbabwean society are a result of the machinations of those in power – ‘Mugabe and his cronies’ – who wish to hang on to it at all costs.

In a utopian variation on this argument, Gavin Kitching gives a blueprint of policies that ‘should have been’ followed: he assumes that the will of rulers translates into policies, with no intervening factors, internal or external, historical or contemporary, acting as checks and constraints. Terence Ranger (Letters, 18 December 2008) concludes that whereas ‘Mugabe’s policy may be an inspiration to those in South Africa who want to redress gross inequalities in landholding … it should also be a warning of how not to go about it.’ This is the same verdict I heard in Kampala in 1980 on Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan Asians: he should not have done it this way! My object is not to propose the ‘fast-track reforms’ as a model of land redistribution for South Africa, but to sound a warning about the kind of demagoguery that is likely to follow, should those in power continue to ignore historically just demands.

I do not question that Mugabe and Co desire to hang on to power – at considerable cost – but I do argue that this single fact cannot explain their ability to do so. Nor can fear or intimidation by itself explain why so many who have no power – almost half the Zimbabwean electorate – would vote for the regime. This is not just a split between state and society, as critics of my article suggest, but a case of a society itself being deeply divided.

In my article I identified two divisive issues in particular. The primary issue, in a predominantly rural society just emerging from the settler colonial era, was the land question. The second – whose importance is bound to grow in the aftermath of land redistribution – is the freedom to organise independently of the regime.

The government responded to the exercise of that freedom with a mixture of repression and incorporation. Critics of my article focus only on the former. Repression – especially of trade unions and civil society organisations – has been very marked in the urban areas. A far more nuanced relationship developed between the regime and the war veterans’ organisation, partly because of its historical links to the liberation struggle, and partly because it straddled the two major divisions, between state and society and urban and rural.

The explanation for the fast-track reforms of 2000-3 does not lie in the machinations of government, as these letters suggest, but in the success of the veterans’ mobilisation. The regime’s response evolved as the organisation grew: as I explain in the article, the same government that was initially showered with plaudits for using force to evict squatters was later condemned for using force to redistribute land. I do not believe the official embrace and co-option of the veterans’ organisation can be explained as a conspiracy; the debate on how to respond culminated in a split at the highest levels of power.

Scarnecchia et al dismiss the destructive impact of Western countries, both as drivers of sanctions and as powerful opponents of any regional effort to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis. Let me recall that the sanctions predated fast-track reforms: they were a response to Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Congo war. As early as November 2001, Jack Straw as foreign secretary publicly boasted of building coalitions against Zimbabwe. There were reports of British threats to withhold budgetary support – some claimed even food aid – from Malawi and Mozambique as the Extraordinary Summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) opened in Blantyre, Malawi on 14 January 2002. During the summit, the Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, said Baroness Amos, who was then parliamentary under-secretary for foreign affairs, had urged him in a phone call not to support Zimbabwe; when that failed, he said, Straw phoned and attempted to bully him. In 2007, the SADC called for an end to sanctions and for international support for a post-land reform recovery programme. In 2008, Western countries managed to bring their influence to bear on key SADC members – Botswana and Zambia – to split the SADC.

I am not suggesting that there is a single explanation of Zimbabwe’s rapidly accelerating economic crisis: the causes of the crisis are complex and multiple. My critics seem to think that the economic crisis is explained either by the regime’s repression and incompetence or by the draconian sanctions set in place by the West. The fact is that neither one nor the other on its own, but both – and other factors, including recurring drought – underlie the crisis.

My disagreement with Johnson, Scarnecchia et al is both political and methodological. They seem to imagine only two options: either to romanticise Mugabe as a liberation hero or to demonise him as a post-liberation despot. I have suggested that these caricatures overlap for one reason: the liberation struggle against settler colonialism did not end with the guerrilla war and political independence in 1980, but continued through the fast-track reforms. In any case, the regime that championed land reform is the same regime that unleashes repression against anyone who dares to organise independently of it. Scarnecchia et al cannot fail to see this, but apparently they refuse to accept it; whence their insistence on an either/or conclusion, and their tendency to scour all scholarship for a hidden agenda: is the author for or against Mugabe? Actually, that is beside the point.

Focused on Mugabe and eager to defend the opposition, they seek to portray my article as a piece of pro-regime writing, whereas it aims to free the debate about Zimbabwe from the narrow confines of a regime-opposition polemic by understanding Mugabe’s survival as part of a far bigger picture: that of land reform and the historic struggles which underpin it – struggles that Mugabe and Zanu-PF championed in the liberation era, opposed during the period of structural adjustment and ‘reconciliation’, and turned to their advantage when faced with an effective opposition.

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