Mugabe held back on land reform for SA's sake - Mbeki

Cape Town - President Robert Mugabe delayed his controversial land restitution programme to protect negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa, former president Thabo Mbeki said in his latest letter.

And when the land reform programme finally began, it was the fault of the British for reneging on an agreement that there was no money to compensate farmers, continued Mbeki.

Mbeki was regularly criticised for not speaking out against Mugabe's controversial land restitution programme, which saw commercial farmers in Zimbabwe systematically driven off their land by "war veterans", with no compensation.

Mbeki said that on the day Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980 through the Lancaster House agreement, then president of the ANC Oliver Tambo met then-prime minister Robert Mugabe in Salisbury, which later became Harare, to talk about setting up underground operations in Zimbabwe. The ANC duly started setting up operations in Zimbabwe, and some Zimbabweans working or studying in South Africa in turn joined the ANC there, Mbeki said by way of explaining the long relationship between the two countries.

In 1990, as negotiations to end apartheid began, then Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, tried to persuade Mugabe to not proceed with any programme to implement radical land reform, given that the Lancaster House Constitutional 10-year prohibition of this had expired.

"Chief Anyaoku and the Commonwealth Secretariat feared that any radical land redistribution in Zimbabwe at that stage would frighten white South Africa and thus significantly complicate our own process of negotiations," explained Mbeki.

"President Mugabe and the Zimbabwe Government agreed to Chief Anyaoku’s suggestion and therefore delayed for almost a decade the needed agrarian reform, which had been a central objective of the political and armed struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe."

'Firm fraternal relations'

The ANC setting up underground operations and Zimbabwe's delaying of its land reform programme for South Africa led to "firm fraternal relations" between the ANC and Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

"During these years of our interaction and working together with President Mugabe, the Government of Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF, we came to understand that all these were committed to such objectives as improving the lives of the people of Zimbabwe, defending the independence of our countries and advancing Pan Africanist goals.

"We supported all these objectives. However their achievement required that as a country Zimbabwe should remain a democratic and peaceful country with a growing economy of shared wealth, and a country which would continue to do everything possible to eradicate the legacy of colonialism."

When problems started arising over these objectives, the ANC prepared and gave Mugabe's Zanu-PF a document critiquing developments in Zimbabwe, with suggestions of what to do.

Called How Will Zimbabwe Defeat Its Enemies!, the document dealt with many issues, both political and economic.

The parties did not meet to discuss the document, which Mbeki considered a mistake.

Mbeki said that when the "war veterans" and others began to occupy white-owned farms, South Africa intervened first of all with Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 to encourage the UK government to honour the commitment that had been made at Lancaster House in 1979 to give the the Zimbabwe government money for land redistribution without compensation.

This led to the September 1998 International Donors' Conference on Land Reform and Resettlement in Harare, which the British government attended. "Very positive" decisions were not implemented by the British government.

"Unfortunately, contrary to what the Conservative Party prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major had agreed, Tony Blair’s [of the Labour Party] Secretary of State for International Development, Claire Short, repudiated the commitment to honour the undertaking made at Lancaster House."

Britain backtracked on Lancaster House agreement

In a November 1997 letter to Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture and Land Kumbirai Kangai, Short wrote: "I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new Government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know, we were colonised not colonisers."

Mbeki said Blair later told him that the British governments he led never formally decided to repudiate the Lancaster House Agreement and regretted it in the end, but that his government had to accept it because Short had succeeded in convincing the UK public that it was indeed government policy.

To help resolve the land conflict, South Africa also got commitments from three other governments to finance land acquisition by the Zimbabwe government which would then distribute the land to those who had started to occupy some farms. 

The Zimbabwean government had welcomed this initiative.

At the suggestion of the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assumed the responsibility implement this land acquisition and redistribution. 

"Unfortunately the UNDP acted in a manner which led to the failure of this initiative," said Mbeki.

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