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September 19, 2012

Zimbabwe: who grabbed what land from whom?

Chido Makunike

An astonishing paradigm shift about Zimbabwe's complicated land issue and its much pilloried land reform exercise is slowly beginning to take place in some western circles. One of the most startling turns was the July 20 2012 New York Times article, 'In Zimbabwe Land Takeover, a Golden Lining.'

It was startling because it is rare for a conventional western news outlet, let alone one with the prestige and influence of the New York Times, to look at Zimbabwe's land reform as anything other than 'brutal dictator Robert Mugabe's land grab from innocent, productive white farmers to his corrupt, can't-farm black cronies.'

Since the controversial, messy, often violent Zimbabwean land reform began in 2000, the western narrative of it has rarely strayed from that simple, black/white, good/evil summation.

The NYTime's Lydia Polgreen stunned supporters and opponents of the land reform alike in looking at it from nuanced, non-political Zimbabwean perspectives almost never featured in western media. Certainly there has been a lot of favoritism towards the politically well-connected in the parceling out of land since the farm takeovers, but few in the West have wanted to hear that most of the beneficiary 'new farmers' can hardly be described as 'Mugabe's cronies.' 

Polgreeen based much of her article on how as controversial, messy and problem-plagued as the land redistribution exercise has been, it has also changed the fortunes, prospects and self-regard of hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans.

In a comment reflective of the thinking of many Zimbabweans, even those opposed to Mugabe on other issues, in reaction to the land-holding patterns the country found itself with at independence in 1980, Polgreen quotes one new farmer asking rhetorically, "Why should one white man have all this?" he asked, sweeping an arm across the lush, rolling farmland around his fields. "This is Zimbabwe. Black people must come first."

Polgreen also touches on the huge cost to white landholders at which the land reform has been done.

"Now that we are down to less than 200 hectares, there isn’t enough income to support everyone,” said one white farmer to Polgreen, who she said asked not to be identified because he feared seizure of even more land if he spoke out.

This brings out an irony about that last farmer's comment. Much of the long-festering black angst about land, and one of the reasons Mugabe is a hero to many black Africans while being such a monster in the West, is that colonial conquest brought to Africans a similar kind of dispossession to that which the white farmer speaks about.

Charles Taff, president of the once farming-dominant Commercial Farmers Union that represents the remaining white farmers, says, in response to the black gains in tobacco farming, "The tragedy with tobacco is that expansion, if they had the right policies, could have been done in the 1990s in conjunction with the commercial (i.e. white farmers) sector."

Polgreen closes her article with a comment from a land reform researcher whose take is that 'judging the success of land reform by looking at production figures misses a crucial point.'

He says, "No one ever argued that this is a more productive form of farming. But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? Those things have value, too."

Predictably, there was a firestorm of reaction to Polgreen's article, much of it outraged at a perceived white-washing of 'Mugabe's land grab.' The New York Times, perhaps in an effort to defend itself for going against the grain of the accepted western thinking on Zimbabwe, felt moved to follow up the article a few days later with a question and answer session between Polgreen and readers.

A day after her article was published, Polgreen twittered, "I'll be taking questions about Zimbabwe's land grab legacy." She didn't spell out whether by 'land grab legacy' she meant the colonial grab from the Africans, or whether she meant the more recent 'Mugabe's land grab.'

Largely in the western media, the latter is considered a terrible wrong against the rule of law and property rights, the former as a long-ago accident of history that is best forgiven and forgotten. Obviously there is a large body of opinion in Zimbabwe and in much of the non-western world that sees the situation differently. What was so shocking about the NYTimes feature was their giving the time of day to these usually unheard non-western perspectives.

 If there are winners in Zimbabwe's land reform, there are also losers, the white farmers being the most obvious example. Although not a major thrust of her article, many previous articles have pointed out that many of the labourers who were employed on previously white-owned farms have become destitute. As a group they may have been experienced farm hands, but were even less equipped than many others to become viable small-scale farmers in their own right.

Then of course there was the major economic hit which the country took as a result of the disruption in its agriculture, which was the base for many other parts of the economy. In that regard it could be said there was no Zimbabwean who remained unaffected by the manner of 'Mugabe's land grab/reform.'  

Most Zimbabweans have moved on to how the wrongs and mistakes of the land reform can now be corrected without the wholesale reversal to the previous status quo that many of the white farmers may have hoped for in the early days. The 'collapsed' Zimbabwe that is still described in much of the western media, much of which finds itself unable to see beyond Mugabe's treatment of white farmers, is fading into distant memory as people grapple with how to get ahead in a still tough economy. Many problems remain and will do so for a long time, but whether the hardships in Zimbabwe are any more than those in many other parts of the world where people get on the best way they can under their circumstances is doubtful.

Certainly Zimbabwe is in many ways a very different country from what it was in 2000. After the 10 year land reform-linked economic crisis that began to lift in about the year 2009, many who were middle class are poorer. But as Polgreen's article tries to show, many who were more or less locked into being low wage workers at the bottom of the economy now have opportunities for self-improvement (based on access to land) they could never have dreamed of before, even with with the difficulties of accessing credit and learning farming on the job. It's a situation of six of one, half a dozen of the other. 

Cathy Buckle is a white Zimbabwean who had her farm expropriated in 'Mugabe's land grab/reform.' She writes regularly about her perspective of how the country is faring.

For historical reasons, their place in society and how they wielded their economic power at the peak of their dominance, there is not very much empathy for the dispossessed white farmers in Zimbabwe. But if there is widespread support for land reform on the basis that white landholding dominance was established on colonially grabbed land, Buckle represents a subset of white farmer who did not neatly fit the colonial land grabber's descendent's stereotype.

As she explains, "I am a Zimbabwean with white skin. I was born, raised, educated and am permanently resident here. For the last twelve years I have been without constitutional rights because I am a white Zimbabwean who also became a farmer a decade after Independence."

"The farm was not an inherited family property, but was purchased on the open market in 1990, ten years after Independence, with the approval of the Zimbabwe government and their Certificate of No Interest. No compensation has been paid for this farm or any of the buildings and improvements on it since it was grabbed."

White farmers who fit into Buckle's category have a special reason to feel aggrieved at their dispossession, and for being lumped into the broad category of 'inheritors of stolen African land.' Naturally and understandably, Buckle is more consumed with her personal injustice than she is interested in the genesis of the whole race-based contestation for land going back a century ago, when the first colonial land grabs began in earnest.

If you're going to talk about 'land grabs' in Zimbabwe, you have to specify which grab you're referring to. There have been several grabs and counter-grabs, and which one seems more justifiable than the other does not depend on any widely agreed sense of what is 'right' or 'just,' but may depend more on who you are.

Who grabbed what land from whom? Whose sense of being wronged and of seeking justice should have the upper hand? Why? 

It's messy, it's complicated. The New York Times stunned many by being bold enough to split from the rest of the western media herd to begin to look at the issue of land in Zimbabwe in its full complexity, causing many of its outraged readers to bust some blood vessels in the process.

If little Zimbabwe's land issues could cause so much heated, emotional reactions amongst the readers of a newspaper all the way in northern America, imagine the gnashing of teeth that will come if and when South Africa's historically similar and also deeply racially charged land issue blows up as pressures build up in that country. The troubles in Zimbabwe and their reverberations, as seen by the spicy reader reactions to Polgreen's New York Times article, will then seem like a mere picnic.  

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