Monday, 30 April 2012

Land and Freedom

A traditional homestead in Matabeleland
When I arrived in Zimbabwe my understanding of the political situation there, mostly based on UK media reports, but also from talking to a number of Zimbabwean refugees, went like this:
Robert Mugabe had started out 'good' but was gradually corrupted by power, turning into a classic African tyrant.

The land seizures which forcibly removed land from White farmers have been an unmitigated disaster, as land was given to ZANU-PF supporters who were incapable of farming it productively, destroying the economy and pushing Zimbabwe into starvation.

The vast majority of Zimbabweans support the opposition MDC, and Mugabe is only holding onto power through vote-rigging and widespread violence.

The people of Zimbabwe are living in desperate poverty, while a few ZANU-PF cronies and military leaders get rich from massive corruption and looting of the country's diamond wealth.
Living at Hlekweni, I gradually came to think that the reality is considerably more complex and ambiguous than this, and increasingly started to question the way our media represents Zimbabwe and other non-Western nations (especially those that are usually represented as outside the 'international community' of US allies).

There is certainly plenty of evidence for the view of Zimbabwe as a tyranny and economic disaster. My overwhelming impression of the Zimbabweans I met in Matabeleland was a sense of hopelessness. One woman said to me just before we left, when we were discussing possible elections this year “I won't even bother voting. What's the point? We know who is going to win. And we can't fight them – just look what they did to us before.” For most people the only chance of improvement they can see for themselves is to leave the country, as millions have already done; although a good friend of ours had the chance of a job in South Africa, and eventually decided not to go, saying “It probably sounds stupid, but I just don't want him to have won.”

There is also a real sense of having to be cautious when speaking about politics in public. It is a criminal offence in Zimbabwe to 'insult the President', a charge which is regularly used to harass dissidents, including the artist Owen Maseko, who is still awaiting trial at the Supreme Court for his exhibition of paintings at the Bulawayo National Art Gallery. There is also a very active secret police, the 'CIO', which is rumoured to employ large numbers of informers to eavesdrop on conversations in public places. When we were out in town and wanted to refer to Mugabe, we resorted to the children's enthusiasm for Harry Potter, calling him 'He Who Must Not Be Named'. The CIO also take a lively interest in the activities of NGOs, especially overseas-funded ones, and they came to Hlekweni to interview me shortly after my arrival.

I have met very courageous Zimbabweans who are opposition activists, including one friend who is an openly gay man and also a MDC-M candidate, who maintains his outspoken political activity despite suffering repeated harassment and violence. But I have also met people of integrity whom I respect and admire who are ZANU-PF members and supporters. At first I was incredulous that anyone could support the current Zimbabwean regime in good faith. But I was exposed to a number of experiences that gave me reason for reflection.

Rob Sacco is the Director of the Nyahode Union Learning Centre in the Chimanimani district of the Eastern Highlands. When I visited him in August last year he explained his view of Zimbabwe as 'the most advanced country in the world', because it has taken the land away from the colonialist and capitalist class and redistributed it to the landless indigenous people. In the Nyahode Valley, Rob is helping local landless people to claim their allotted 2.5 hectares of land to support their families. Entitlement to the land is free, although it comes with certain conditions, including being resident and using it productively. I met many smallholder farmers in Nyahode who have acquired land in this way, and Rob claims that their intensive subsistence farming is enormously more productive than the previous pattern of land use by White farmers growing cash crops for export.

I also visited a community-based NGO in Masvingo Province called the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Environmental Conservationists (AZTREC). AZTREC has a training centre on resettlement land (formerly owned by a foreign corporation) which is practising and promoting sustainable agriculture based on traditional African knowledge systems. Staff at AZTREC have also been involved with a University of Sussex research project to measure the impact of the land reform on local people's livelihoods in the region. 

The results of the research so far are perhaps surprising, showing that much of the resettlement land which has been seized from White farmers in the province is being worked productively to provide livelihoods for smallholder farmers, who are also re-investing significant capital to develop their farming operations. There is an interesting series of video interviews with some of these small farmers (made by Pamela Ngwenya who also filmed our Hlekweni video) here:

The biggest problem identified by the research is the continual monocropping of maize by smallholder farmers, without crop rotation or other practices to conserve and rebuild soil fertility. This is where appropriate training in sustainable agriculture such as AZTREC and Hlekweni are doing with rural farmers is so vital for the future of Zimbabwe's people and land. (One young agriculture trainee at Hlekweni told me 'I had never heard of crop rotation before I came here'). Rob Sacco is very critical of the foreign donors (including the UK's Department for International Development) who have withdrawn funding from any organisations that are supporting communities in resettlement areas, even including schools

There is of course also large-scale corruption in the allocation of farms to people with Zanu-PF and military connections, and a small elite within Zimbabwean society has grown extremely rich from diamond and mineral revenues. It is interesting though to travel on the Beitbridge road through Matabeleland South and to make the crossing into South Africa. While the landscape throughout Zimbabwe is studded with traditional homesteads, as soon as you cross the border into South Africa the roads are full of luxury cars but the countryside is largely empty of people. In South Africa, which is firmly integrated into the capitalist world, the land is owned by large companies and big farmers (just as in the UK) and is worked for profit using capital intensive methods. It is also striking to see the stark contrast between luxury mansions and sprawling shanty towns of makeshift shacks. In Zimbabwe it is rare to see a metal shack of the kind that provide a bare shelter for millions of the poorest South Africans. When one of the staff at Hlekweni built herself a chicken shed  Kate and I joked that if we were in South Africa there'd be a family living in it...

Of course South Africa is vastly richer overall than Zimbabwe, and probably given the choice most Zimbabweans would rather their country was more like South Africa (and millions of them have already voted with their feet by moving there). Still the downside of all that capitalist wealth accumulation is very visible in the townships and squatter camps of every South African city, and in the appalling level of violent crime that afflicts the country (again something that is very rare in Zimbabwe).

The forcible seizures of White-owned farms that started in 2000 (and are still continuing) are accompanied by threats and often physical violence, including against many of the Black farm workers. They are largely initiated by local War Veterans and other unofficial groups, rather than planned or orchestrated by the State, but the police do not intervene to protect landowners. This has inevitably led to a general atmosphere of lawlessness and insecurity, and encouraged the most aggressive or acquisitive people to target property that they will just take for themselves by force, confident that the authorities will do nothing to stop them. This can also include land belonging to Black Zimbabweans and local companies. The farm at Hlekweni was occupied in this way in 2008, by a group of residents from the nearby township, despite the fact that Hlekweni is a local Zimbabwean NGO. The police refused to intervene at the time (shortly before the elections), saying 'we can't touch politics', although after the elections they did eventually agree to move the squatters off the land.

Clearly this situation doesn't help to establish a climate of security and economic stability. From the perspective of a revolutionary Marxist like Rob Sacco of course, this is what revolution looks like, and the force involved in expropriating White farmers is certainly no greater than that originally used to seize the land from its indigenous inhabitants.

It is certainly instructive that the huge international condemnation of Mugabe, including trade sanctions and a credit freeze that helped to collapse the Zimbabwean economy, were prompted by the regime's support for the re-distribution of property. By contrast, the truly massive crimes of Mugabe's regime were carried out in the mid-1980s, when approximately 20,000 people in Matabeleland were massacred by the Zimbabwean military. This campaign of State terror, known as the 'Gukurahundi', was successfully aimed at the destruction of ZANU's political rivals after Liberation. It is still a source of unresolved trauma for the people of Matabeleland. My friend the MDC-M candidate told me that his father had been killed and his body thrown with hundreds of others down a mineshaft. Whole villages were destroyed and horrific abuses and tortures inflicted on the population. Robert Mugabe has publicly dismissed these events as 'a moment of madness', and no justice or reparations have ever been made. Despite this, throughout the 80s and 90s, Mugabe was portrayed by the Western media as a legitimate ruler, and people on the Left generally regarded him as a hero of the Liberation struggle. It was not until the property of White farmers and overseas companies was targeted that Mugabe suddenly became a dictator and Zimbabwe a pariah State, which is perhaps a revealing commentary on our own society's scale of values.

Personally, I cannot accept any justification for the continued rule of any leader who has been responsible for the wholesale murder of his country's citizens. The continuing intimidation and harassment of the Zimbabwean population certainly suggests a regime is determined to remain in power at almost any cost, whatever the wishes of the people. I can see good reasons, however, why some Zimbabweans might want to defend the outcomes of the fast-track resettlement programme, resisting the return to previous grossly unequal patterns of land ownership, and the incorporation of Zimbabwe's resources into the capitalist world.

Very few of the Zimbabweans I met in Matabeleland have expressed any hope of improvement for their country, even following Mugabe's eventual death. The legacy of violence and oppression has crushed people's sense of hope and possibility. As Quakers, I hope we will hold all Zimbabweans in the Light, and look for opportunities to work alongside them for healing and rebuilding.


  1. I knew of the Sussex Research and like you sensed the presence of a new world. It is so good to hear your judgement based on hard won experience. I finally feel we now understand enough to quietly, positively and firmly build an alternative to wealth creating corporate capitalism. We do need some polarisation of values and perspectives and yet we need also comprehensive dialogue but we can act differently to express our values. It sounds as if you are doing this now you are back.

  2. I am always pleased to see reports of visitors to Zimbabwe, and the positive outlook they often have. There is untapped potential in Zim. However there are several points I would like to raise,... 1) Your assumption that Mugabe was initially good. From the outset he was imposed as the only acceptable option by the West when the Lancaster House agreements were concluded. The country's first so called democratic election was rigged and so the rot began. 2) To assume the land reform program was a success based on a single view, a Marxist one at that, is short sighted and inaccurate. No farm is reaching the levels of utilisation previously achieved, and to justify wholesale theft of not only land that in many cases was paid for, but assets, improvements and in many cases the lives themselves of the farmers, is irresponsible. The failure is real, and subsistence farming is a survival mechanism, yes one that can be imrpoved, but hardly a model for country that was once a nett exporter of foods. 3) Mineral wealth was always at the crux of the issue, and the West's policy has since Colonial days revolved around it. Only now that it is being targeted can one hope for Western support for a new government that will protect their rights. The systematic rape of Africa's resources is not limited to Zimbabwe, but widespread and the media you refer to works in harmony to keep that engine running smoothly. After all there is a perception that white Zimbabweans are racist colonial masters...this is totally incorrect. You have been led to believe so to maintain another African country in a state that is at the mercy of foreign companies who benefit from our resources at a very low cost(labour rates below $3 per day), and with no regard for the environment and long term damage caused. Just look to oil in Angola and Nigeria. White Zimbabweans, since UDI in 1966, had a view that then Rhodesia, should be a non racist society that benefitted from it's resources in a way that Colonial rule was not achieving. This was an anathema to the Crown, driven of course by the likes of Anglo American and other investors that had interest in maintaining their operations raping the resources. And so the racist view of the White Zimbabwean was born, and a ruler of the likes of Mugabe installed to ensure continued plunder. The racist laws in place were British Colonial laws that were being phased out by the then Rhodesian govt. The very good education system, often accredited to Mugabe, was a Rhodesian govt initiative, one that was continued by farmers who financed rural schools themselves. They were not whipping slaves as you often were led to believe! Look now at what has happened and to accept that people with stolen land should be helped is akin to helping a bank robber invest his money. The problem lies in the fact that Western voters are brainwashed, that not even a short trip to Zimbabwe can rectify. You need to look more deeply into the country's history and realise here is a country, whose people have suffered untold hardships, for almost 50 years. Despite that, they are humble, hard working, intelligent, entrepeunerial to the point Harvard professors would not believe, and ever hopeful that their country will get what it sorely deserves, a responsible government built on democratic foundations.

  3. Best discussion on the subject of Zimbabwe Iv read in a long time. Saddest truth coming out of it is the hopeless resignation fast creeping into the minds of Zimbabweans with regards to ever achieving a responsible govt and the now so obvious double standards and dishonesty of the west in portraying reality to the international community. If I were in Zim I would surely be at a loss as to what to do with my vote.

  4. Robert - We surely need an alternative to the industrial capitalism that is destroying the actual wealth of our planet - the ecosystems that enable human and other life to flourish, very urgently indeed.

    Peter - It seems very unlikely that any Zimbabwean government which tried to protect the nation's mineral and other resources from exploitation by foreign capital would receive any support from the west. Governments that attempt to it tend to be quickly demonized, sanctioned, destabilized, and where possible overthrown (eg Congo 1960, Iran 1953, Chile 1973, Cuba, Venezuela etc).

    Webutani - Wishing you and all Zimbabweans the courage to keep on hoping and working for change. Salani kuhle.

  5. Craig yes that is the problem, and now it is not only the west but the resource hungry eastern nations, China in particular, that have always kept friendly relations with dictatorships in Africa waiting for payback. This has already come by way of Zim's diamonds that the Chinese are already exploiting and which no doubt will be used to finance the current regime. As more Western interests are affected (platinum is next on the radar) I do believe the support for a more responsible regime could develop and make space for a truly democratic government. The critical question is whether this will happen, or will Zim follow the other countries you have mentioned? All we can hope is that the world's awareness of the real problems Africa faces continues to grow in the media, and that voters in the west can take their eyes off their own problems and help us with ours. Not likely? Maybe not, the very problems they face in their own economies are as a result of a flawed system, one which has focussed on short term gains in financial markets and increased consumption which has helped build economies in the east and eroded their own. In Africa we have all the right stuff to build self sufficient and prosperous economies, more than any other continent on the planet!


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)