Why Mugabe is right ... and these are the facts

JUNE 2000
New Africa

Since his party lost the referendum on the new constitution in February, President Robert Mugabe has been portrayed by the British government and media as a "man gone mad". But has he? For obvious reasons, Britain has deliberately confused the two issues of land reform and economic difficulties in Zimbabwe. Yet the two issues are distinctly separate. Mugabe may have ruined his economy (and voters may or may not punish him for it in the coming elections) but, as Baffour Ankomah reports, any suggestions that the land issue will go away when Mugabe goes away, is a dangerous fallacy that Britain and its supporters are putting in people's minds.

The land question is an emotional issue in both Zimbabwe and Britain. It has always been for 110 years. In fact, it goes back to 1889 when Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) who made a fortune in gold and diamond mining in that area of Africa, helped extend British imperial interests there. Rhodes set up his British South Africa Company (BSAC) in 1889 after signing the so-called Rudd Concession the year before with the Ndebele king, Lobengula. "What for Lobengula was seen only as an agreement for the company to mine gold was interpreted by Rhodes as virtually turning over sovereignty to the company," says the New African Yearbook, the sister publication of New African magazine. In 1890, Rhodes sent in an invading force of 200 white settlers and 500 armed men to take the territory. Calling themselves the Pioneer Column, they set up their capital at Salisbury (now Harare). Feeling hugely affronted, Lobengula went to war with the BSAC in 1893 and lost badly. As a result, he was made to forfeit his people's land. Three years later, the Ndebele were up in arms again, this time fighting together with their neighbours, the Shona, against the "foreigners" who had taken their land. This revolt, now called the first chimurenga (war of liberation ) by Zimbabwean patriots, was finally put down by Rhodes & Co in 1897, after much native blood had been shed (though few whites were killed). After that decisive victory, the settlers enacted a series of legal instruments to take more native land, ("grabbing" is the modern word for what they did). Interestingly, in the eyes of the British media, "grabbing" has today become President Mugabe's middle name.

In 1889, the Lippert Concession Act which preceded the actual occupation of Zimbabwe in 1890 encouraged the BSAC to buy concessions in Zimbabwe from the British government - the colonial overlord. The revenue was then repatriated to the British Treasury in London. The native population, the original owners of the land, got nothing!

In 1898, another act, The Native Reserves Order in Council created the infamous Native Reserves in which black people were shepherded into reserves (much like the Europeans did in America and Canada with the native Americans). But Zimbabwe's Native Reserves were set up haphazardly in often low potential areas which would later become the "communal areas" of today.

By 1914, white settlers who made up only 3% of the population controlled 75% of the economically productive land, while black Africans (97% of the population at the time) were forcefully confined to 23% of the land scattered into a number of Native Reserves.

In 1930, another legislation, The Land Apportionment Act, formalised the separation of land between blacks and whites. This Act was the result of the recommendations of the Morris Carter Commission of 1925.

Says the New African Yearbook: "The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 excluded Africans from that half of the country that contained the best farming land, despite the fact that Africans constituted over 95% of the population. This confinement to the poorest land accomplished the desired end of forcing Africans into the labour market.

"At the same time, the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1934 banned Africans from entering skilled employment. Thus Africans were forced to work for mere subsistence wages on white farms, mines and factories in virtual servitude. In this manner, the state, through the control of black labour, subsidised the growth of white agriculture, mining and industry."

The 1930 Act effectively handed the fertile, high rainfall areas of the country to whites. It divided the land as follows: Native Reserves 29 million acres; Native Purchase Areas 8 million acres; European Areas 49 million acres; Unassigned 6 million acres; Forest 3m acres. The population of the country at the time was: black Africans 1.1 million; whites 50,000.

In 1965, The Tribal Trust Lands Act changed the name of the Native Reserves to Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs) and created trustees for the land. By 1976, 4.5m blacks (seven-tenths of the population), forcibly removed from their traditional home areas, had been crowded into these infertile TTL lands. The overcrowding on the tribal lands naturally led to massive problems of land degradation, low productivity, over-stocking and over-grazing.

No wonder, the war of liberation, which saw Mugabe coming to power in 1980, was based on the land question. Zimbabwe covers 39m hectares of which 33m hectares are reserved for agriculture, and 6m for national parks and urban settlements.

At independence in 1980, almost 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5m hectares (45% of the most productive land in the high rainfall regions where the potential for agriculture output is greatest). Small scale commercial farmers (8,500 mainly black farmers) controlled 5% of the land, in mostly drier regions; and 700,000 black farming families occupied the remaining 50% of the land (75% of which was in the low rainfall areas with very poor soil fertility).

At the independence negotiations in London (popularly called the Lancaster House Conference), Mugabe and his colleagues threatened to walk out over the land issue because they felt Britain was not giving the black population a fair deal.

The Conference resumed only when Britain and America made certain commitments to assist the Zimbabwean government to acquire land from white farmers for distribution to blacks.

Willing settlers, willing buyer

In reality, the Lancaster Conference did not resolve the land issue, it merely postponed it by inserting into the new constitution (which Mugabe recently tried, but failed, to change through the referendum), a provision requiring that land could only be acquired by the government on a "willing seller, willing buyer basis." And that provision could not be changed for 10 years!

It was a terrible provision - the sort that has kept much of the best traditional African lands all over that seaboard (from Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and Kenya) in minority white hands.

It meant that Mugabe's government could not acquire land "when" and "where" it wanted, because the white farmers were either unwilling to sell, or asked for higher prices. As a result between 1980 and 1990, the government acquired only 3.5 million hectares and resettled only 71,000 families out of a target of 162,000.

Today, Zimbabwe's population is officially put at 12 million - 98% is black, 0.8% (70,000) is white and the rest are Indian and mixed race. Yet, the land figures still read as follows:

- 1,000,000 black communal areas families are still farming the poorest lands (16.3m hectares in all) - each family sharing an average of 3 hectares.

- 4,000 large scale white commercial farmers (with an average of 2,000 hectares each) still dominate the scene (occupying 11.2m hectares), in a country where the single largest foreign exchange earner is agriculture.

- 10,000 small scale commercial farmers (mainly black) occupy 1.2m hectares.

- 70,000 black resettlement families own 2m hectares.

- State farming sector, 0.5m hectares.

When the 10-year "willing seller, willing buyer" mandatory period expired, Mugabe's government passed the Land Acquisition Act of 1991, which allowed for acquisition of land when and where the government required.

The Act was intended to speed up the land redistribution programme through land designation and compulsory land acquisition. But the government did not have the money to pay for the exercise. The British government, which had contributed 30m to the exercise (British papers are quoting 44m), withdrew its support claiming that Mugabe was giving the land to his "cronies and political allies".

Meanwhile, more and more white commercial farmers, with thousands of hectares of prime land to spare, diversified into horticulture, tobacco game ranching, tour and safari operations.

In a country where 70% of the population farm the poorest of soils, the sight of some of the most fertile lands lying fallow and being used by a tiny ethnic minority for game ranching and safari operations where foreign tourists pay money to go and watch animals, was a major political destabilising factor for Zimbabwe.

It would be a major destabilising factor for any country, even for Britain which is stridently against Mugabe's attempt to right this historic wrong. In no way will the people of Britain accept the control of nearly 50% of all land in the UK by an ethnic minority group which makes up less than 1% of the population! It would happen only over the dead bodies of the British!

Thus, natural justice demanded that Mugabe's government did something about the land issue - 20 years after independence!

In November 1997, Mugabe's government, smarting under political pressure from the black population, was moved to act by announcing that land would be acquired compulsorily for redistribution.

Even here, it was made abundantly clear that: "It is not the intention of the government to drive commercial farmers off the land... No farmer will be without land in Zimbabwe. Even those farmers whose properties are designated by reason of their proximity to communal areas will still be invited to select from other properties elsewhere," the government said in an official statement in December 1997.

House of Lords landlords

In sum, the following types of land were earmarked for acquisition:

- Derelict land or under-utilised land, ie, land undeveloped by farmers and lying fallow. For example, if a white farmer has 2,000 hectares and is only actively farming 1,000 hectares, the 1,000 lying fallow will be acquired by the government.

- Land owned by absentee or foreign landlords (mainly British, some of whom are former and current members of the House of Lords in London).

- Land owned by farmers with more than one farm.

- Land contiguous on communal areas.

In fact, before any action was taken, the government called an international conference on land reform and resettlement in Harare, from 9-11 September 1998.

The objective was to inform and involve the donor community in the land resettlement programme. Forty-eight countries and international organisations attended the conference, at the end of which the donor community unanimously endorsed the need for land reform in Zimbabwe. This was essential for poverty reduction, economic growth and political stability, the donors said.

On 6 February this year, before Britain took a nationalistic position in favour of the Zimbabwean white farmers (20,000 of whom are of British ancestry and have been promised evacuation by London), Joseph Msika, chairman of the land reform and resettlement committee in Zimbabwe, repeated in an official statement: "Government would like to assure all concerned that the land reform and resettlement programme would be carried out in a transparent and peaceful manner and in accordance with the laws of Zimbabwe."

In all the heat spewed over Zimbabwe by the British government and media, the following basic facts have conveniently been ignored:

- By July 1998, Mugabe's government had bought 3.5 million hectares for resettlement purposes, and compensation had been paid. Not a single piece of land had been seized without compensation.

- The oft-repeated fact that Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on the output of white farmers, is balanced by the equally important fact that black small-scale farmers now produce 70% of the country's maize, cotton and groundnut output. In 1986, the country's small-scale farmers were awarded the Freedom and Hunger Prize for their efforts.

- Mugabe is accused of giving land to his "cronies and political allies", but the Zimbabwean high commission in London tells New African: "The position is that state land can be leased by anyone and that there are white farmers who are also leasing state land."

- Studies conducted by the World Bank have shown that large-scale commercial farmers have utilised less than half of the 11.2m hectares of land owned by them. The rest lies fallow.

- That, some white farmers have two, three, four or five farms. "There is one farmer with 10 farms. And another with 18 farms," says the Zimbabwe high commission in London.

"No mention [has been made] of the damage to the environment as a result of overcrowding on poor lands," adds the high commission. "No mention of the increasing population drift into urban areas. No mention of the fact that commercial farmers have moved into tobacco, horticulture and game ranching."

Last year, the Commercial Farmers Union freely offered some 1.5m hectares for resettlement. The government estimates that it would need US$1.1 billion for the land reform process - to cover land acquisition, land development, infrastructure and services such as roads, water supply, first crop tillage, schools, clinics etc, and farmer support and credit.

In early April, the Zimbabwe parliament went ahead and passed an amended constitutional provision authorising the government to acquire land for redistribution without paying compensation. The provision envisaged compensation to be paid by Britain (which pocketed the revenue from the land acquisition by Rhodes' BSAC in the 1890s), but London has said it won't pay any compensation.

As the situation has fast deteriorated into nationalistic (some say racial) positions, and more white farms have been "invaded" by blacks (usually singing and dancing as they move into the farms), America has suspended assistance to Zimbabwe's land reform programme. Not that it matters - despite promising 20 years ago to help, America has so far contributed only $1m to land reform in Zimbabwe. At the time of going to press, the European Union was expected to announce its own measures against Zimbabwe, and Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was trying to mediate between Harare and London.

All said, the International Herald Tribune, (in a report on 28 March 2000) appears to see what Britain and its supporters pretend not to see: "In a country where farming is the single largest generator of foreign exchange," the American newspaper said, "nearly a third of [Zimbabwe's] most productive farmland remains in the hands of 4,500 white farmers, and almost half of all land is owned by the country's 70,000 whites. Racial economic inequities persist despite Zimbabwe's transition to majority rule."

This is what Mugabe wants changed. It behoves Britain, a nation that prides itself of its love for democracy and natural justice, to meet Mugabe half way and find a just and amicable way of resolving the issue than the current blind nationalism marching forth from London. Most Africans find it obscene!

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