Zimbabwe is not about Mugabe

Rhodesia's white only lands: in white.

That the western press is unanimous in it’s explanation of the crash and burn which is 2000’s Zimbabwe should give you pause.

Mahmood Mamdani, Africanist and Anthropologist at Columbia, and author of 1996’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (which I recommend), thinks we don’t know enough to explain Zimbabwe so easily. If we did, we’d see this isn’t about a dying dictatorship, its about a dying dictatorship being resuscitated by riding the first crashing waves of an economic storm brewing since the end of colonialism in Southern Africa. I think he’s right.

What follows is essentially a potted political history of post Rhodesian War Zimbabwe in which farmers without land are the blind thrashing giant on center stage. The characters you may know from news reports are on the sidelines here: prodding, beating back, or doing battle with this desperate, suffering mass. No one is really fighting for him, but when foes are pushed in his way, things get well and truly broken.

Or else this is a guide on how not to recover from colonialism. Former British Minister Claire Short is quoted in this piece saying since her family was Irish, the government she represented in the 1990s no longer had any responsibility to continue to fund fixing the land mess they made in colonial southern Africa. “We were the colonized, not the colonizers” could be the cry of every carrier of Liberal Guilt when they actually have to open their wallet.

Short recap: at independence large farmers (mostly white) owned all the decent land, as the colonialists took it and shuffled Africans off to bush (the Shona) and industry or mines (the Ndebele), and a few of each to cities. The British guaranteed peace by agreeing to fund slow land transfers, but because there was no compulsion to sell, nothing ever happened. Mugabe and Zanu-PF maintained single party rule the same way the colonialists did: played to their ethnic base (rural Shona), and to their true believers they gave praise rather than help (the war veterans, never given land or jobs got medals). In the 1990s Structural Adjustment crushed what favors Zanu-PF could give and drought started starving people clinging onto the desert reservations assigned by the colonialists. Business leaders, rural and urban poor, Industrial trade unions, all began to demand something, finally, to live on. The British pulled the funding for land purchases. The international community demanded greater austerity, in line with their economic dogma. When the rural poor started taking land, Zanu-PF did what it always did: it kicked them out and gave the land back to the rich. But the west now EXPECTED rather than rewarded this, and Mugabe came up with a gamble: let people keep the land they take. Recent scholarship is challenging the picture of forced redistribution from above, and it looks like the initiative was from below, with Zanu running to catch up. With something to give, Mugabe could finally not just placate his political enemies but crush them. The reaction of the West in trying to depose Mugabe have locked Zanu and the West in a death grip, and its everyone else who’s dying.

But the worst part may be yet to come. If the colonial powers and the world’s rich won’t fix the land mess they’ve created in southern Africa, South Africa and its neighbors could be next.

Mamdani sums up:

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.

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.

Mahmood Mamdani: Lessons of Zimbabwe. LRB, 4 December 2008

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