Zim: the narrative swings

2013-06-11 00:00

THE images are burnt into our consciousness: farm buildings set alight; white farmers, blood streaming down their faces, their wives and children fleeing in terror. All around, a baying mob, the war veterans of President Robert Mugabe sent to drive them from their homes. Loyal black farm workers beaten and abused for daring to stand up to the political thugs.

These scenes were shown on television screens around the world following Zimbabwe’s land invasions of 2000. Food production fell off a cliff. The whole process was written off as an unmitigated disaster, driven by the political ideology of Zanu-PF, the ruling party. Little regard was paid to the fact that this radical redistribution of the land coincided with one of the worst droughts in living memory.

As the years went by, a different narrative began to emerge. This centred on the work of Professor Ian Scoones, of the University of Sussex. His path-breaking writing, together with a group of Zimbabwe-based agricultural experts, in Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths & Realities, was published in 2010. It was the result of a careful analysis of the situation in Masvingo province, south-eastern Zimbabwe, over a number of years. It showed that far from being a disaster, small-scale farmers had begun to turn the situation around. Many were improving the output of the farms they had taken over. Some were outperforming the white farmers they had displaced.

In Zimbabwe Takes Back I ts Land, Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart expand this analysis across the rest of the country. Their study is broadly supportive of the Scoones-led approach. They conclude: “In the biggest land reform in Africa, 6 000 white farmers have been replaced by 245 000 Zimbabwean farmers. These are primarily poor people who have become more productive farmers. The change was inevitably disruptive at first, but production is increasing rapidly. Agricultural production is now returning to the nineties level, and resettled farmers already grow 40% of the country’s tobacco and 49% of its maize.

There is much that is useful and informative in both of these works, which help to correct what was a distinctly one-sided picture of Zimbabwe’s agricultural revolution. It is, therefore, a pity that they swing so far in the opposite direction. So while African peasant farmers can do little wrong, white commercial farmers are portrayed as unproductive and indolent. As one chapter sub-heading puts it, “White farmland: Derelict, Underused, National Disgrace”. Statements by the Commercial Farmers’ Union are dismissed out of hand.

Worse still is the treatment of the major losers in the entire process — the black farm workers. It is not until the penultimate chapter that their situation is considered. Then, the authors admit that they remain “one of the most difficult issues”. Yet their treatment of the union (GAPWUZ) that represented the farm labourers, often at great physical cost to its organisers, who where threatened and beaten, is dismissive. The union, together with Amnesty International, is accused of “exaggerating” the plight of its members. The authors do acknowledge the suffering of the labourers, but appear to regard it as a residual problem that simply has to be tidied up.

Both studies rely on participants who were beneficiaries of Mugabe’s land-redistribution programmes. During a BBC programme that I made in 2011, I visited the farm of one of the authors of Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths & Realities. B.Z. Mavedzenge was kind enough to show us around his farm, of which he was proud, but he made no bones about how he had acquired it, describing how his farm was gained through a land invasion. Defending the practice of using researchers who were beneficiaries of the process, Scoones says their role was clarified in the book. He points to a passage in the preface which states: “The Masvingo province field team was led by B.Z. Mavedzenge, formerly the regional team leader of the Farming Systems Research Unit (FSRU) in the Ministry of Agriculture, but now of the Agritex (agricultural extension) department in Masvingo. He is also an A1 resettlement farmer in the province”. The book by Hanlon et al makes it clear that one of the authors, Jeanette Manjengwa, deputy director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, is also a resettlement farmer.

Replying to previous reviews critical of this involvement, Scoones writes: “All writing is inevitably positioned and partial. We all write from our experience, our history, our politics. But this does not mean that we can never engage critically with empirical realities. In our acceptance of a social-constructivist take on knowledge, we should not resort to a desperate relativism where anything goes”.

While this is an arguable position, it is not to demand “desperate relativism”, as the author puts it, to suggest that if the backgrounds and politics of the authors intrude in the study, it lessens its objectivity.

Unfortunately, this appears to be something that has affected both studies. The book by Hanlon et al begins with an analysis of what it terms “land apartheid” ­— the dispossession of black farmers by whites — which it traces back to the earliest days of settlement. “Land allocation has been a central issue in the country for more than a century. Settlers began forcibly displacing black Zimbabweans from their land in 1890, especially after Zimbabweans lost their first war against the white invaders, the 1896-97 First Chimurenga.”

This is entirely accurate, but why begin in 1890? What about the prior invasion of Zimbabwe by the Matabele (or Ndebele) from South Africa, who displaced the Shona people from the west of the country? If the book was designed to examine the origins of the displacement, why was this dispossession ignored? Shona-Ndebele tensions played a considerable part in the divisions inside the liberation movements — between Zapu (of Joshua Nkomo) and Zanu (of Mugabe). These tensions also played a part in the atrocities meted out in Matabeleland during the war known as “Gukurahundi” from 1982 to 1987, by the notorious Fifth Brigade, a period dismissed in the book as no more than an operation “against a group of 500 dissidents backed by apartheid South Africa ...”

This is essentially a Manichean perspective, locked into a narrative that relies on heroes and villains, while the reality of Zimbabwe is more complex. The country has undergone a profound agricultural revolution. Some of the new farmers have made an extraordinary success of their newly acquired land, despite next to no help from the state, or international aid. But there have also been real losers in this process. Tens of thousands of farm workers were beaten, killed and continue to live in poverty. Zimbabwe’s agriculture is not back up to the levels it was prior to 2000. Incomes per capita (in real terms) have not recovered. White farmers, many of whom spent their lives improving their farms, were driven into destitution or exile. All aspects of this reality need to be incorporated into our analysis if the land question is to be truly grasped.

Professor Tony Hawkins, of the University of Zimbabwe, has attacked this perspective for failing to come to terms with the realities of the country’s agricultural decline. “Despite these harsh truths there is no shortage of apologists determined to gainsay them. These range from itinerant United Kingdom academics seeking to establish a reputation for themselves using specious, carefully sanitised case-study data to the political scientists, journalists and politicians determined to prove that sub-Saharan Africa would be a better place without commercial agriculture”. This critique is too harsh. There was much that was wrong with Zimbabwe prior to 2000. The writings of Scoones, Hanlon et al have helped redress what was an entirely negative view of the land reforms. But we still await a really authoritative study of the question; one that attempts to fight against the biases of its authors.

• Martin Plaut is senior fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He is author of Who Rules South Africa?

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