A legacy of turmoil

Print edition : October 13, 2001

Zimbabwe's prolonged crisis over land reforms, involving agrarian violence in the context of a history of land theft under colonialism and the failure of democratic governments to remedy the situation, continues to defy a definitive solution acceptable to all.

IS the Abuja Accord, the outcome of a Commonwealth initiative brokered by Nigeria on September 6, the latest of the multilateral initiatives on the vexing land question in Zimbabwe, coming unravelled? Or is it only yet another minor punctuation mark in the ongoing saga which will come to an end when the outcome of the presidential elections, due early next year, becomes clear?

The Abuja deal, supposedly a 'total breakthrough', provides for 'partial financing' by Britain of Zimbabwe's land reform programme, with Zimbabwe in turn agreeing to curb incidents of agrarian violence, mainly attacks on white-owned farms. Incidents of agrarian violence have been reported widely over the past one and a half years when nine white farmers have been killed, though no such careful count has been kept of the rather larger number of black farm workers killed or injured.

South African President Thabo Mbeki (left) and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (right) at the South African Development Community initiative meeting on land development, held in Harare on September 10. The meeting took place amid mounting concern that Zimbabwe's economic woes might spread through the region.-AP

However, there have been reports that Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe's Information Minister and official spokesperson, has denied that any such 'condition' was attached to the Abuja deal. According to Moyo, the deal only required the government to implement land reforms within the framework of the country's Constitution and laws. Emphasising that the violence on the farms was only symptomatic of the more fundamental problem of land ownership, Moyo said: "Once there is a recognition of this fundamental problem, the symptoms will disappear."

At issue here is the interpretation of a passage in the Abuja agreement in which Zimbabwe provides assurances to the Commonwealth ministerial team that took part in the Abuja talks of its "commitment to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Constitution of Zimbabwe and to take firm action against violence and intimidation".

Zimbabwe has always maintained that all its actions have been within the framework of its Constitution - an interpretation not always upheld, but also not summarily rejected by the country's courts. The perceived hostility of Zimbabwe's judiciary to land reform measures initiated by the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front or ZANU-PF government may now change as the inescapable restructuring of the courts even at the highest level, including the composition of its personnel, proceeds apace. For instance, the Supreme Court has reserved its ruling on an application by the government seeking to overrun an earlier ruling by the court barring the government's drive to seize white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks.

The differences over what the Abuja Accord stands for only reflect the more fundamental divides on the political situation in Zimbabwe. While the government considers land as the central issue, to which every other problem including specifically violence on the farms is linked, for the white farming community, its organisations and the broader political Opposition in Zimbabwe, determined to remove Robert Mugabe as President, political violence and the absence of the 'rule of law and good governance' are the central issues.

In neighbouring South Africa, in what may well turn out to be its most significant reaction to Jonathan Moyo's clarification, Pallo Jordan, a leading African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament, introduced a motion in Parliament urging the Government of Zimbabwe to "fulfil the letter and spirit of the Abuja Agreement to restore stability in that country and to ensure the continued stability of this region".

This is not the first time that senior leaders of the ANC, both inside and outside government have expressed their concern regarding the situation in Zimbabwe, without however endorsing the more virulent criticisms of President Mugabe by his political opponents. COSATU, the principal federation of South African trade unions, a partner in the ruling tripartite alliance and a close ally of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, has been even more outspoken in its criticism.

The ANC's intervention comes in the wake of a breakdown of talks earlier in Harare between the government and representatives of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers' Union as part of a follow-up of the Abuja deal, without any progress being made on the two key issues on which agreement was supposed to have been reached in Abuja - distribution of white-owned land among the landless and the related issue of political violence.

South Africa's concern over the developments in Zimbabwe, as indeed its frustration over its inability to influence significantly events to its north, is understandable. Developments in Zimbabwe have consistently found their resonance in South Africa, where deeper divides exist over a far more intractable land problem. Individuals and groups claiming to advance the cause of the landless in South Africa have publicly lauded Mugabe for his efforts and have announced their intention to invite him to South Africa and address the land situation in the country.

The immovable object - the resistance by the small community of powerful and resourceful white 'commercial farmers' of Zimbabwe backed by their even more powerful and resourceful 'kith and kin' in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere, to the government's land reform programme - meets the irresistible force, the determination of the government to implement the programme. Specifically, the reforms envisage the transfer of the ownership of the majority of about 5,800 large, productive farms spread over some eight million hectares, out of the 12 million hectares of such fertile land in Zimbabwe, owned by about 4,500 white farmers, out of a population of about 12 million, to land-hungry black farmers, many of whom are veterans of the liberation war.

How did this situation come about? Central to the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe was the land question, as was the case with the liberation struggles in other colonised countries in Africa. Indeed, land was also central to the colonial occupation of these lands by European powers, though later other factors like mineral wealth and geopolitical rivalries that reflected conflicts between and among the colonising countries came in. These colonial interests were represented and advanced by apparent adventurers and freebooters, or statesmen and missionaries who were supposedly driven by humanitarian concerns. One of the most notorious of them all, Cecil Rhodes, was apotheosised by the grateful beneficiaries of his colonial enterprise in the very name they gave to the land he took over, Rhodesia, in 1895, seven years before his death, seeking to erase the very history and name by which the ancient kingdom of Zimbabwe was known.

The process of colonisation, specifically in the case of Zimbabwe, was marked by 'deception, invasion and repression', appropriately the heading of the chapter delineating the process in the book titled, A History of the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle. The simple and more comprehensive expression, theft, would do as well. The deception was inherent in all stages of the colonisation process. It began when three agents of the still incipient British South Africa Company - to be soon founded by Cecil Rhodes - travelled to the land of the Matabele and the Shona, drawn to the territory by legends of an abundance of gold and other precious metals. After prolonged palavers lasting over eight months (and after bribing of the King's advisers) they persuaded King Lobengula, the 'King of Matabele, Mashonaland and other adjoining countries', to sign away, on October 13, 1888, a purported mining concession giving "complete and exclusive charge over all metals and minerals situated in my kingdom, principalities and dominions", in return for a monthly rental of 100 and some rifles and ammunition. The deception continued in other forms. When the concessionaires discovered that gold was not in abundance in these lands, they turned over the lands, specifically acquired for mineral exploitation, to agricultural exploitation, making them available to white farmers from South Africa and Britain, and to the English and the Boer who were locked in rivalry in South Africa, but were complicit in unity further north, at fantastically cheap rates. Invasion, more formally organised, preceded by what a historian describes as "an incredible saga of chicanery", involving other European powers as well as 'explorers and missionaries' preparing the groundwork for projecting the invasion as merely a civilising mission intended to improve the lot of a barbaric people - followed soon thereafter. On June 26, 1890, an invading force consisting of 300 policemen recruited by Rhodes' company (which had received a royal charter from Queen Victoria on October 29, 1889) and about 200 'pioneers', selected out of some 2,000 applicants from all over South Africa for their ability to ride and shoot and other technical skills, was formed. The selected ones were promised vast tracts of prime farmland in Mashonaland. The invasion force occupied its objective, Mount Hampden, soon to become Salisbury, on September 12, 1890, completing the conquest. The date used to be celebrated as 'Occupation Day' until 1961, in which year the day was renamed 'Pioneer Day'.

Repression, following the first Chimurenga War of 1896-97 - the resistance by the Matabeles and the Shonas in which, according to one account, 10 per cent of the settler population at that time were killed - was severe. But it hardly broke the resistance. Indeed, the armed liberation struggle (1982-90) is known as the Second Chimurenga War, claiming a tradition of resistance going back to the very beginning of colonial occupation.

As popularly perceived, the land question in Zimbabwe is not the creation of an opportunistic Robert Mugabe, driven by rancour, personal ambition or keenness to retain power for another term - though these aspects of the political confrontation cannot be ignored. The land reform programme is not new; it was inherent in the liberation war and the negotiations that finally led to Zimbabwe's independence. During the Lancaster House talks that led to the country's independence, Britain as the colonial power - which role it did not abandon even during the years of the UDI rebellion by Ian Smith - had agreed to render financial assistance to the future independent government of Zimbabwe to put in place a land redistribution programme (Frontline, March 17, 2000). However, owing to various complex factors, among which is also the failure of the ZANU-PF government and its leader Robert Mugabe to put in place a workable land reform programme during the more than 20 years it has been in power, this has not materialised, though Britain is still committed to provide assistance.

Another complicating factor is that in the last 18 months or so, following the intensification of political opposition within the country and its consolidation as the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the policies of the ZANU-PF government and to President Mugabe, the land issue has got entangled with the broader issue of political violence as well. Though the focus has been on the incidents of violence caused by the war veterans' attempts to occupy white-owned farms, the violence has also affected people who are not directly involved in these confrontations. An idea of the scale of the violence affecting the white farmers in Zimbabwe can be had in the fact that in the last 18 months when this has become a major issue in the British and South African media, nine white farmers have been killed.

The land issue, and the related issues of controlling violence and good governance, were the focus of the campaign by both the government and the MDC early last year during the referendum on the adoption of a new Constitution, which the government lost and during the campaign for parliamentary elections, which the government won narrowly, and the promises to remain so during the mother of all campaigns - the Presidential poll, due early next year.

Irrespective of the outcome of these campaigns, the unresolved issue of land reforms will remain central in Zimbabwe. Not even Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, who hopes to win the presidential election next year, denies this. Admitting that land reform was indeed necessary, he told the Cape Town Press Club in August this year: "We want to address the crisis rather than Mugabe." Indeed, were he to become President, he may well have to carry on from where Mugabe has left the issue after 20 years of his presidency, emphasising continuity rather than a break from these years of turmoil.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor