Can Zimbabwe Become Africa's Cuba? - Part 1

by Mukoma Ngugi
November 08, 2005

Introduction: The Three Zimbabwes

On stage, there are two young men discussing the merits and de-merits of Zimbabwe's Look East Policy. "These Chinese products, it is all in the packaging otherwise they are the same things we have always had" one says. And the discussion goes on to Chinese beauty products, wigs and cosmetics petrol queues, inflation, foreign currency etc. The two comedians in a downtown club in Harare were satirizing the influx of Chinese goods in Zimbabwean stores since ZANU-PF's Look East Policy, an attempt to minimize dependence on the West, took effect. This was in July of 2005, when I was in Zimbabwe for the Zimbabwe International Book Fair where I had been invited to present a paper on Pan-Africanism and Nationalism.

A few weeks after I returned from Zimbabwe, I was invited by Allen Ruff of Madison's WORT for a radio interview on my first book, an Africa Awareness Rally that I was helping organize, and my trip to Zimbabwe. In spite of it being made abundantly clear several times by Ruff that I am a Kenyan, one caller hoped "that it was safe for me to speak". She was under the impression that Mugabe has secret agents in Madison, Wisconsin who are willing to assassinate a Kenyan national for speaking about Zimbabwe or at the very least monitoring the radio waves and would face the music if I was ever back in Zimbabwe. She was worried for my ability to speak freely thousands of miles from Zimbabwe. Most of the other callers asked questions that were along this vein and the other things that I had talked about such as the need for thinking about Africa not as a humanitarian case but as a continent whose resources are plundered were overshadowed by Zimbabwe.

I begin this article by giving the above seemingly inconsequential details to hint at a discrepancy between a Zimbabwe that is not doing too well, has its own share of fatal and even tragic flaws and the Zimbabwe of the Western imagination of pure murder and mayhem arbitrated by black skin. There is the Zimbabwe of land redistribution, Look East, petrol queues, Operation Clean Up, the Congo War, of ZANU-PF, the MDC, Third Way etc. Depending on race, nationality, class, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ideology etc, this Zimbabwe will have different meanings. This is the Zimbabwe with its own sets of contradictions that I would like to term the Zimbabwe on the Ground.

Then there is the Zimbabwe of the Western imagination, equally multi-layered and rife with contradictions. Within it we find the racist view of the machete armed African hacking away at civilization again, a historical guilt over slavery and colonialism, a paternalism that excuses unjust practices under cultural relativism, a fear of black liberation and a naturalized Western dominance over Africa as point of reference and source of comfort. This view cannot and does not desire to distinguish between a white dead body in the streets of Somalia, Iraq or Zimbabwe. No matter its point in this scale, it remains a Western imagination that sees the world through both a racialized and nationalist lens.

But as if that is not enough, there is another Zimbabwe with its own sets of facts and myths. This is the Zimbabwe that carries the hopes and frustrations of Africa - Zimbabwe the symbol or more aptly the metaphor. This is the Zimbabwe that symbolizes for the African that the dreams of independence have not been fulfilled, can be fulfilled or can never be fulfilled. This is the Zimbabwe that African leaders will not condemn for fear of calling attention to betrayed dreams within their own national borders. This is the Zimbabwe that those in the Diaspora who are black nationalists, progressives and radicals applaud or condemn for fulfilling liberation, betraying liberation or not doing enough to see a true liberation through. But the one constant of the Zimbabwe of Africa, Diaspora and Friends is that Zimbabwe, and therefore Africa must not be returned to the round tables of another Berlin Conference.

Before jumping into the article- a quick note. Since my return from Zimbabwe, I have found that amongst my colleagues, I am expected to either applaud or denounce Mugabe's Zimbabwe upon their asking what I found. Any sign of hesitation has been dooming and fatal. No matter who is asking the question, my hesitation seems to affirm the position he or she brought to the table. Since for the most part no one has let me tell them what it is I think I found, I offer them this essay as an elaboration of that hesitation with the hope that we can re-open up a dialogue that does right by Zimbabwe.

Land Redistribution, Politics of Race and the Zimbabwe of Western Imagination

I would like to suggest that to get to the Zimbabwe on the ground and that of Africa and Diaspora, we have to first go through the Zimbabwe of the Western imagination for it is only then that we can genuinely have a dialogue over what is happening in Zimbabwe and the role Africa and Diaspora, the international community, and political activists can play. It is only then that we can be left with the a Zimbabwe that is not distorted by a view that from the very beginning de-legitimizes Africa's search for a democracy that talks back to colonial legacies and a democracy that seeks content.

In Zimbabwe, during the land seizures ten white farmers were killed [1]. By contrast in South Africa, where even after the fall of apartheid whites still own 80% of arable lands [2], over 1,500 white farmers have been killed since 1994 according to the BBC [3]. The South African government blames criminal elements but given this high number, it is hard not to imagine that the murders are tied to the history of apartheid. While the acts are certainly criminal, the numbers are too high not to suggest that a history of apartheid and a lack of redress have colluded. In Zimbabwe government policy created the conditions in which ten white farmers were killed. In South Africa lack of government policy has led to the conditions in which 1,500 whites farmers have been killed. It is in a sense part of the same movement.

But in Zimbabwe, the infinitely much smaller number of white farmer deaths has created uproar whereas the South African murders are not common knowledge; international media does not report them and Western politicians have turned their gaze elsewhere. A petition aptly titled "Help Save South African Farmers" gathered 495 signatures [4]. It is safe to speculate that had the petition been for the Zimbabwean white farmer, the signatures gathered would have been in the thousands if not millions. While acknowledging that there is no evidence that suggests the A.N.C government has sanctioned white farmer murders, it is still worthwhile to look at the reason why there is such a discrepancy in how the two situations have been received in the West.

The reason why the West has latched on 10 white murders in Zimbabwe and has skated over South African 1,500 murders is complex - there is an intersection of racial mythology, natural rights and entitlement, colonial history and legacies, politics of reparation and redistribution and ideology of private property. In South Africa, the contradiction of a country with a black leadership that protects a large body of white interests (who became apartheid's upper-class because they are white) and a growing black elite (whose role in the words of Kwame Ture is to give individual success the illusion of collective success) has yet to come home to roost. True there are murmurs to be found in the COSATU led strikes and the growing radicalization of those calling for land reform [6] in South Africa but they have as yet to rise to an extent where they force the A.N.C. into taking radical measures that end neo-apartheid.

Therefore in South Africa, the myth of white skin, of a naturalized racial hierarchy, where class and power find expression through race has not been violated. And even though the murders are atrociously high, because the A.N.C. government has not made it a matter of conscious policy to violate this socio-economic order, the murders can be ignored. It is a paradox of sorts. To put it badly and perhaps crudely, in South Africa, white lives are being taken, but white property is not. The ideology of private property, inheritance, an unspoken but understood natural order of things and the ideologies of capitalism remain intact in spite of the murders.

Zimbabwe on the other hand has violated the myth that naturalizes racial hierarchy. Blacks are not supposed to kick out whites from their farms and their homes. They are a mass of faceless laborers who each morning file to the factories and the farms looking for work. This black mass is not supposed to do tribal chants at the same gates wielding machetes, making fun of whites and showing such audacity by "forgetting their place". They are not supposed to raise their hand and strike the white man in his home and essentially treat him and his family the same way he has for years treated the black man and his family. (As always, women remain a conversation between men. In the rapes and counter-rapes - the actors are men in a masculine affair). It seems to me therefore that Zimbabwe's original sin is indicating to a world full of blacks and whites that there is nothing inviolable in the myth. More than threaten the whites in their very own homes, in Zimbabwe white natural right to vast land and property is being threatened as a matter of governmental policy.

It is important to briefly note that Zimbabwe while threatening white property and life has not violated the basic principles of capitalism. There are no demands for state ownership of land or taking redistribution to the factories and mines - rather, redistribution of land is attempting to restore balance between races without disturbing the very principles of capitalism. What has happened is simply a redistribution that targets white people who accumulated the largest farms under colonialism. Capitalism in general is well and alive ideologically. What has been threatened is white monopoly but monopoly over the production of wealth remains alive and kicking.

Here it is also important to add farms were taken from farmers who had several or had farms over 500 acres. There are still about two thousand farmers left. The ones who left are those who refused to have smaller farms. There are also some who left but now are now coming back after accepting the new conditions. A recent US visitor to Zimbabwe told me that she has was surprised to find whole sections of Harare town and suburbs that are predominantly white. There is a way in which we are speaking about Zimbabwe as if racial genocide against whites took place. But the reality on the ground speaks to the contrary.

The United States and Standards of Democracy

Certainly, Western media and politicians have drummed up the racial-nationalism that has been unleashed on Zimbabwe. President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, the BBC and the New York Times are at the forefront of the save Zimbabwe agenda. But a cursory glance reveals that neither President Bush nor Blair have developed a sudden sense of fair play when it comes to the African. As a result of war in the Congo, the Guardian in December 2004 estimated the death toll to be at 3.8 million [7]. The United States supported both Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo wars even as they were busy plundering the Congo. The Washington Post reports that:
In a recently published UN sponsored report on the illegal exploitation of the DRC's natural resources and other forms of wealth, it was estimated that up to 100 tons a month of tantalum was exported by the Rwandan army. Likewise, Ugandan exports of the mineral rose from 2.5 tons in 1997 just before the war, to nearly 70 tons in 1999 [8].
Now, this is not to say that other intervening countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad etc. were not also following the glitter of diamonds - perhaps all involved in the Congo with an exception of the victims are implicated and there should be calls for a United Nations investigation - but the point is that if the U.S. cared about African lives, then it ought to be slightly wary of Uganda. Instead, Uganda's Monitor reports that Uganda continues to receive "millions of dollars from the United States [9]. But more telling is the question of Darfur where an estimated 400 people are dying a day. The United States has not as yet taken the same economic measures against Sudan that it has taken against Zimbabwe.

Does the United States meet the same democratic standards it sets for the rest of the world? Political activist and poet Assata Shakur has been exiled in Cuba since 1979. A bounty of 1,000, 000 dollars has been attached to her head making her a walking scalp for bounty hunters. The United States as we speak has political prisoners who were criminalized and jailed in judicial processes so flawed that there is no other term for them other than Kangaroo courts. Mumia Abu Jamal for agitating for African American freedom and Leonard Peltier for agitating for Native American freedom were imprisoned under circumstances that those in 'third world' countries would consider suspicious at best if not outright criminal. Even though, figures like Nelson Mandela and organizations like Amnesty International have called for Mumia's retrial [9] and Peltier's release [10] the American leadership has not responded to these calls or the massive demonstrations that take place through out the year.

With the Patriot Act, President Bush has detained people without trial. Those detained for justice can be turned over to military tribunals and Guatanamo Bay has become an island of injustice away from a mainland of injustice. President Bush has power that most dictators would eye jealously. Internationally the United States recently conducted an illegal war and is now occupying what was a sovereign country and was recognized as such by international law. And the catalogue continues... The United States has not declared Sanctions against Zimbabwe in order to save poor African lives (New Orleans should point us to this if nothing else) or to restore democracy.

The United States needs to apply the same standards at home and restore democracy. This is not say that an injustice by the US validates an injustice by Zimbabwe, but it does suggest that the United States cannot be the best protector and enforcer of justice in Zimbabwe - it has no moral legitimacy. Civilizing missions never worked for the native in colonial times, democratizing missions will not work in this age of globalization while serving the same mercenary principle of conquest and domination.

Zimbabwe on the Ground

Operation Clean Up

With the above in mind, we can now turn our attention to the Zimbabwe on the ground. Without a doubt, even amongst ZANU-PF supporters that I spoke to, there was a general agreement that Operation Clean-Up was problematic at best and tragic at worst. I heard numerous justifications for the project from different people. The first was that the Central Information Organization (CIO) got wind of British attempts to create a mass Ukraine-type uprising. Britain I was informed was giving money to the lumpen-proletariat around the cities of Harare and Bulawayo with the hope that they would begin mass protests which in turn would grow to such a level that ZANU-PF could only stay in power by committing mass murders. But some of the people in Zimbabwe I spoke to asked, "Why disperse whole communities? Why not identify those who are guilty and bring them to justice?" Also, even if we take it to be true and given all sorts of machinations that have taken place in Africa it is possible, the predictable international out-cry should have given the government enough pause to find another solution. Internationally, the image of homelessness being created further eroded already low support amongst natural allies in Africa and Diaspora and for others only confirmed the worst and recommitted them to the defeat of Mugabe.

Another theory was that there was a rift in ZANU-PF. On one side, there was a group that wanted to discredit Mugabe and hasten his downfall and on the other a group that wanted to keep him at the helm. This argument suggested that Operation Clean Up was instigated by the Mugabe detractors and done without his approval. However it seems to me that an anti-Mugabe arm would have had to be powerful enough to instigate a government policy that undermines the President and his supporters and at the same time make it impossible for him to retaliate. In any case, Mugabe did come out in full favor of the operation. And more to the point, this argument takes the responsibility away from the hands of the government.

Then there was the argument that the clean-up targeted MDC supporters. Most MDC supporters are in the urban areas but a good number of those whose homes were demolished were ZANU-PF supporters from what I gathered. If this was the case, I think the government would have been more careful and disperse the MDC supporters while at the same preserving its own power pockets. The elections in which ZANU-PF was declared the winner had just taken place and therefore, given the national and international fall-out from the clean-up, the gains were outweighed by the losses. It seems to me more logical to argue that in terms of illegal structures, the middle class suburbs were spared while those most vulnerable were targeted. This position of targeting MDC supporters also struck me as flawed.

The official government line was in its election manifesto, it had pledged to clean up the city and that while it targeted illegal structures it also targeted the black market. But if this is the case it would have been more prudent to first build the required number of houses as a way of protecting innocent citizens. No matter the reasons for the clean-up one thing is clear: it was a costly move in terms of legitimacy and I think history will eventually judge it as heavy handed if not all together without justification.

Outside the possible reasons that either wanted to exonerate or blame the government, what was alarming to me was the ease with which the government destroyed places people called home. In an Africa where our collective memory includes constantly being up-rooted and forced into Bantustans such careless action recalls this painful history. It recalls forced colonial migration and dispersal. By forcefully moving an African people, collective memory and the legacies of colonialism make it such that only an injustice can come out of it.

But with the above said, there are still questions to be asked of our response to the house demolitions in Zimbabwe. In a world where we have become used to turning our backs on the dead and the dying, why were Zimbabwe's actions greeted with a response that bordered on the hysterical? Are Zimbabwe's actions any worse than let's say Nigeria's? The Vanguard writes that:
...More than 1 million people have been forcibly evicted in Nigeria since 2000. In April 2005 some 3,000 residents were forcibly evicted from their houses in the Makoko area of Lagos, on the basis of a court order, issued in 2000, granting ownership of the land to a private family. Houses, churches, and medical clinics were demolished as part of the forced evictions and the officials involved kicked and beat residents, including five young children[11].
The article goes on to give other eviction numbers: in Zimbabwe, 700,000, in Kenya, 50,000, in Ghana, 30,000 etc. In Botswana, in an ongoing attempt to clear land for diamond mining by DeBeers Company, the government is forcefully evicting the Baswara people from their land. On this, CNN on October 4th reports that, "An estimated 2,000 people have been relocated to camps[12]". The contending figures are between Zimbabwe and Nigeria and even though forced removal and dispersal in one place do not justify them in another place, the question remains why our attention solely remains focused on Zimbabwe.

Operation Stay Well

In my two weeks in Zimbabwe I went to several of the sites where houses had been demolished and to some of the by-then empty holding camps where people were herded together before being shipped to other destinations. Luckily they were moved from the holding camps before the unsanitary conditions bred diseases like cholera and my understanding of it was that it was purely a matter of luck that no such outbreaks occurred.

The government has embarked on an ambitious project dubbed Operation Stay Well for those it rendered homeless. Construction had begun at multiple sites I visited around Harare and Bulawayo and some units were close to completion by Mid-August. But there has been very little international media coverage of the reconstruction. In fact, had I not been an eyewitness to the houses being built, spoken with architects and workers in about five of the sites that I visited, living outside of Zimbabwe I would not be aware of such efforts. It seems to me that there is such a concerted effort by the international media to completely vilify Zimbabwe, that even an acceptable journalistic standard like weighing the reconstruction on its merits and demerits is not being met.

However, as some government officials conceded, the progress was being hampered by a lack of petrol and building materials whose prices were steadily climbing as the demand increased. Lack of petrol of course touches all sectors but this is only a symptom of the larger problem - lack of foreign currency. Without foreign currency the government cannot trade in the international market and therefore cannot buy petrol and cannot import goods from the international market. U.S. led sanctions have had the consequence of scaring off potential investors and lenders. And by all but declaring Zimbabwe a death-trap, tourism, formerly a major foreign exchange earner is now down to a trickle. In addition to a four year drought, land redistribution can only be one of the factors adversely affecting Zimbabwe's economy. The world's reaction to the redistribution itself is as much of a factor. It still remains to be seen whether the declared and undeclared sanctions will cripple the rebuilding effort.

Zimbabwe and Contradictions

Some of the farms that I visited were so huge and demanded such a large labor force that in addition to a school, some of them had a dispensary, a small shopping center and a bar - all for the black workers courtesy of the owner. It is this fact that shocked me the most. That one could have a farm so large and indenture so many people that a primary school, a dispensary and a small shopping center become a matter of course. The farm owners in essence are running their own economy with one goal in mind - profit. First the farm is far away from any town so that for the black family whatever lacks in store literally lacks in their lives. The store mediates between them and their needs and how much it will cost to meet them. The store is eager to give credit to the black workers to keep them ensnared in a vicious cycle of credit and debt. Each month's paycheck goes to clearing the debt accumulated at the store which means that the worker had to borrow more in order to survive till the next pay check. The dispensary patches up injured farmers just well enough to see them working the following day. The primary school ensures that the black child learns just enough maths to count chickens coming home to roost and enough English to take instruction from the owner. In short, it is slavery.

One of the redistributed farms that I visited was about an hour's drive from Harare. This farm, or rather region, was formerly named Avoca after the owner. The part of it that I visited has been renamed Mazikhana Farm which translates to ladies/women's farm. It was redistributed to a woman. Mrs. Mutumbwa, the owner, in a tone that carried pride and accomplishment, said that she "worked for an international NGO for seventeen years and could not even afford a car" but "Now I can". She pointed to her old BMW. She has children who are studying abroad and has been able to visit them, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. The farm has yielded tangible benefits and she can point to them. But there are also intangible benefits. Able to feed and clothe her family - she has the pride that comes with controlling and deciding her life. Her choices at the very least are not hampered by deprivation.

Mrs. Mutumbwa's farm was without a doubt a success and there were a lot more farms like hers that I saw. But I did hear of some instances where the new owners instead of working on the land sold off equipment or simply let the farm go to waste. In such cases the government has repossessed the land. There have also been incidences of corruption involving government officials whereby land was allocated to them or their friends illegally and the government has confiscated such land from them. There is, as a general rule, more to be learned and the government did at some point declare a moratorium on land seizures.

There are questions to be asked however. For example, Mrs. Mutumbwa "inherited" her workers from Mr. Avoca: but is the point not to eradicate land classes and instead have a more egalitarian society? For the workers themselves, does it matter whether the boss is black or white if they are still living in poverty? And more than any other, the latter question is more pertinent for in some ways the process of land redistribution might mean more to new black farmers and less to underpaid black farm and industrial workers. And overall, land redistribution should become a symbol and metaphor of what is possible with other sectors of the economy. Land redistribution should be pointing to what is possible for all of society.

And there are other ways in which Zimbabwe remains a country mired in neocolonial contradictions. In spite of how it might seem, a quick glance at who really controls the Zimbabwean economy will reveal this: its economy, much like the rest of Africa, remains dependent on the West. The dependence on foreign currency and the need for IMF and the World Bank loans (in spite of the rhetoric on both sides) attest to this. I visited some of the rich neighborhoods and the opulence on display was as bad as I have seen it in Kenya or in the United States. One massive house, right in a suburb in Harare, resembles a yacht. I was shown another mansion owned by a man who on making it rich bought the mansion where his mother used to work for the whites as a maid. He had it demolished and built another in its place for her. And others who imported marble, competed in buying expensive cars, taking expensive holidays etc. This aspect of Zimbabwe recalled Fanon's caricature who on taking over the master's house can only imitate and who in the end serves as the gate-keeper for Western interests.

And then the little big things -Victoria Falls is still named Victoria Falls and on visiting, a distressingly large statue of Dr. Livingstone welcomes you and along the trails there are plaques that celebrate the likes of Cecil Rhodes. Certainly a country on a revolutionary march or an anti-western binge depending on the on-lookers political stand would have demolished these emblems of colonialism. Unless of course they are still doing imperial work. But not to worry. Victoria Falls is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The half of the fall on the Zambian side is named Livingstone. And on crossing to Zambia, you cannot buy anything using a Zimbabwean dollar and vice versa, you need a U.S. dollar, pound, euro or yen. The two currencies cannot talk to each other - they have to be mediated by Western currencies- thereby becoming the perfect metaphor of Africa's relationship to Africa and to the West.

But the difference between Zambia and Zimbabwe, (and it is a big difference) is that in Zimbabwe the questions of inequality, who owns and doesn't own land and how historical imbalances and injustices can be redressed are being asked. The answers given can be debated but the questions are being asked. As a consequence perhaps, tourism on the Zambian side is flourishing.

Continue to Part 2