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Vol. 30 No. 24 · 18 December 2008

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Lessons of Zimbabwe

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

Nativism at Its Crudest

Although R.W. Johnson, in his review of my biography of Thabo Mbeki, acknowledges that I am ‘no Aids denialist’, he writes that my ‘determined sympathy’ with Mbeki’s position on Aids ‘really grates’, and condemns my ‘silence’ about it (LRB, 20 November). Actually, I describe Mbeki’s Aids stance as ‘nativism at its crudest’, as an assault on ‘common sense’, as ‘beyond reason’, and as ‘an obsession that came closer than anything else to compromising his legacy, and that scratches the deepest mark against his presidency’.

Mark Gevisser


I should like to thank Colin Kidd for his perceptive review of my recent work (LRB, 6 November). There is one point about the history of New Zealand which may be elaborated. The word kawanatanga, which as Kidd says expressed what Maori ceded to the crown in the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), is a rendering into Maori of the English word ‘government’. There are more authentic Maori words – rangatiratanga, manawhenua – which better express their sense of the union of land, ancestors and the living in a common spirit. When Kidd goes on to say that this linguistic encounter has been ‘a tragic site of disputation and mutual incomprehension’, he is right about much of New Zealand history; but in the last thirty years the treaty has been reactivated as a ‘site’ of vigorous retranslation and negotiation, making Maori energetic and supple participants in the New Zealand political process. Postcolonial angst and existentialism, while far from absent, are less prominent in New Zealand’s cultural dialogue than in that of other societies. This is part of what I am trying to say about the interplay of history and sovereignty.

J.G.A. Pocock


In his surprisingly generous account of Malcolm Gladwell’s use of physical phenomena as heuristic metaphors, Thomas Jones proposes ‘elastic limit’ as a concept that could have book-selling potential (LRB, 4 December). But doesn’t the coiled spring that suddenly collapses under rising stress convey the same idea as Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’? Perhaps Gladwell would be better off exploring the condition known as hysteresis (‘deficiency’), which describes a system that may be in any number of states, irrespective of the inputs it is subjected to. This transposition from magnetic field theory to human affairs would help disseminate to the general public the principle of ‘path dependence’ used by economists to explain why politicians facing a crisis tend to carry on doing the same thing – say, digging furiously when already in a hole.

Robert Picciotto
King’s College London

Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar …

Roger Bland has misread Who Owns Antiquity? (LRB, 6 November). My argument is that cultural property is a political construct put to the service of modern governments’ agendas. What I would like to see is the international sharing of antiquities and the return of partage, or the sharing of excavation finds as it was practised before the institution of modern, nationalist cultural property laws. That practice, almost nowhere permissible today, built museum collections not only where the artefacts themselves were found but elsewhere in the world, too, wherever they were valued as important reminders of our ancient, pre-nationalist history. Archaeological artefacts found in what is now Iraq, for example, were once shared between the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the University Museum at Penn and the British Museum. Since then all finds have had to remain in Iraq, where they were used to prop up the Baathist regime’s propaganda claims to the legacy of ancient Babylon (‘Yesterday Nebuchadnezzar, today Saddam Hussein’) and subject to decades of warfare, sectarian violence and wanton destruction. Bland calls my arguments ‘US cultural imperialism at its worst’. On the contrary, my book is an argument against the nationalism of culture (on the part of the US and all other governments) in favour of encyclopedic museums like the British Museum (Bland’s employer).

James Cuno
Art Institute of Chicago

Iraq’s Jews

Adam Shatz abruptly ends his article on the Jews of Iraq with their humiliating arrival in Israel as refugees: they were sprayed with DDT and curtly sent to transit camps (LRB, 6 November). He might have completed his story by recounting what happened next: the rather rapid rise of Iraqi Jews, as artists, government ministers, generals, academics, assorted professionals and businesspeople of all kinds in an increasingly prosperous and advanced society. But that would not have served the purpose of denigrating Israel. By the way, at the time DDT was the only safeguard against the Mesopotamian fruit flies that could have devastated the orange crops that were the country’s only export.

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Never mind the bad smells

Hugh Pennington says, ‘Bostridge is no revisionist,’ and goes on to perpetuate some hoary old myths himself (LRB, 4 December). The worst error in his account is his insistence on Nightingale as a miasmatist. In common with most other commentators, stretching back to Lytton Strachey in 1918, Pennington refuses to acknowledge that Nightingale was an eventual convert to germ theory. Certainly by the late 1870s, when Koch published his landmark paper on ‘The Etiology of Traumatic Infectious Diseases’, Nightingale was urging nurses to use antiseptic precautions. She was, above all, a great empiricist, willing and able to accept new evidence as it emerged, and she ought to receive full credit for that.

Mark Bostridge
London NW3

From Abkhazia

It is a shame that in his report from Abkhazia, Neal Ascherson (LRB, 4 December) did not find room to mention Abkhazia’s most famous author, Fazil Iskander, or his masterpiece, the picaresque epic novel Sandro of Chegem (translated by Susan Brownsberger for Faber in 1994). This darkly comic account of Abkhazian history, culture and attitudes helps to illuminate today’s situation in the northern Caucasus like no other work.

Paul Kriwaczek
London NW11


What Donald MacKenzie wrote in his piece about hedge funds, ‘An Address in Mayfair’, was that ‘Ireland has offered low tax rates’ in its effort to attract the business of hedge fund administrators: an evil genie made him say ‘low interest rates’ (LRB, 4 December). Our genie.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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