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The Truth About Mugabe’s Land Reform

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

As Zimbabweans go to the polls today, it is time to set the record straight about Robert Mugabe’s land reform. Some are now calling it a success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Eleven years ago, my father took me on a drive into the hills a few miles west of his home in rural eastern Zimbabwe.

From the top of an acacia-covered outcrop, we had a spectacular view along the western end of the Mutare Valley. The year was 2002, two years into the violent invasion of mostly white-owned commercial farms launched by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, and a week before the presidential elections of that year. As Zimbabweans prepare to go to the polls again today, it is worth revisiting what has happened to this once vibrant area.

A river wound through the valley and each side of it told a story: to the west were neatly tended rows of crops, modern greenhouses, and packing sheds. To the east was fallow land filled with scrub and grassland stretching to rocky hills in the distance.

The western bank was the site of Kondozi, a commercial farm owned by a white Zimbabwean, Piet De Klerk, and his black business partner, Edwin Moyo. One of the most advanced horticultural projects in Africa, the Kondozi farm exported vegetables to supermarkets as far away as Europe. It employed 6,000 local workers and operated on a sophisticated “out-growers” system that was the country’s – and perhaps the continent’s – most successful agricultural supply model. Kondozi’s agri-technicians traveled the Manicaland region training and advising small-scale contract farmers, providing them with seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs. Come harvest time, Kondozi would buy the vegetables from the small farmers, providing an instant market. Most of the 80 out-growers, like the 6,000 employees, were black, and made substantial profits.

On the east side of the river was another farm, Transsau, owned by the state’s Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (ARDA), a farm training school. Twice the size of Kondozi and sharing what was essentially the same quality land, with access to the same river for irrigation, it should by rights have had similarly productive fields. But Transsau had nothing growing on it.

You know where this is going. Kondozi was violently expropriated in 2003, several senior cabinet ministers claimed houses on it, and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment was looted. An entire way of life – and US$15 million a year in vital foreign currency – was destroyed.

There are many lessons to be drawn from Zimbabwe’s experience with land reform. A good start would be to tell the truth about what a disaster it has been for the country and its people.

Last week, I took another drive with my father to the same point in the hills. Kondozi has long since turned to bush, and looks no different from the ARDA land on the eastern side of the river. Indeed, the only change has been the recent construction of hundreds of low-cost homes by the Chinese diamond mining company, Anjin, for villagers forcibly removed from the lucrative ZANU-PF-controlled Marange diamond fields to the south.

If you’re looking for a case study on the failure of land reform in Zimbabwe, this could be it, although to be honest, you would be spoiled for choice. You could drive to hundreds of other expropriated farms across the country and see similar dereliction. The road from Harare to Mutare, once waist high on either side with maize and tobacco, and green with winter wheat, is now bushveld. Livestock are non-existent. Coffee production, once a thriving export crop, is down to one thirtieth (1/30) of 2000 production.

Mugabe’s Success Story?

None of this should surprise anyone with a basic knowledge of what has happened in Zimbabwe since 2000, but as the country goes to the polls again today, a new narrative has emerged among certain Western academics and media: that Mugabe’s “fast-track” land reform program has, in fact, been a remarkable success.

Consider a roundup of recent headlines: “In Zimbabwe Land Takeover, a Golden Lining,” – a New York Times piece by Lydia Polgreen from July 2012, citing the success of resettled peasant tobacco farmers. (More on that later.) “We can Learn from Zim’s Flourishing Farms,” – an April 2013 South African newspaper article by celebrated journalist and author Max du Preez. From the U.K. Guardian’s Jonathan Steele, in January: “Britain's Mugabe-phobia has Obscured the Good News from Zimbabwe.” The good news, according to Steele? “Production is now back to the levels of the late 1990s and more land is under cultivation than was worked by white farmers.”

You can find similar reports on the websites of Oxfam and elsewhere, all glowingly repeated by Zimbabwe’s state-controlled media and used as a ZANU-PF campaign theme in the current election.

What Mr. Steele, Mr. du Preez, and others were doing is accepting uncritically the claims of a recent book, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, by Joseph Hanlon, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, along with his coauthors Jeanette Manjengwa of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Teresa Smart of the University of London.

Hanlon’s book evades reality and contains so many errors it would be impossible to list all of them. But let’s focus on the most egregious of them. Hanlon argues that the farm invasions were a spontaneous uprising by disgruntled war veterans and land-hungry peasants, that Mugabe was taken by surprise by the violence, and that ZANU-PF did not support the invasions, at least at first. This, however, would be news to journalists, farmers, and tens of thousands of black farm workers who witnessed police and soldiers escort settlers and war veterans onto farms then stand by while looting, assaults, and murders took place. Contrary to Hanlon’s claims, the entire process was organized and controlled by the state’s intelligence apparatus.

A new narrative has emerged among certain Western academics and media: that Mugabe’s 'fast-track' land reform program has, in fact, been a remarkable success.

The real reason for the land invasions was the old, boring one: politics. Mugabe was threatened by the rise of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which had the overwhelming support of black farm workers, around 330,000 strong (over 1 million strong when one counts their families and dependents). It is no coincidence the invasions began in earnest immediately after Mugabe lost a referendum in February 2000 that would have entrenched his power. Much of Western media made the mistake in the following years of depicting the invasions as being all about race, and white farmers as the only victims. In fact, the destruction of black farm worker communities, and their subsequent disenfranchisement (descendants of immigrants from neighboring countries such as Malawi and Zambia had their citizenship revoked) was the bigger goal of ZANU-PF. Indeed, many farm workers ended up living in shanty-towns on the edge of the country’s cities where they become the target of 2005’s brutal Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out the Rubbish) pogrom.

And yet, in his Guardian opinion piece, Steele lauds Hanlon for having “the courage to criticize Amnesty International for exaggerating the plight of farm workers who were forced off formerly ‘white’ land taken over by Africans.” Apparently, black farm workers, hundreds of whom were assaulted and murdered, are not even considered African, let alone Zimbabwean.

Hanlon’s claims about agricultural production – that 245,000 new farmers have already equaled the production levels of the former commercial farmers – are flat-out false. Food production in Zimbabwe has collapsed. The United Nations has requested more than $100 million to feed 1.7 million Zimbabweans in 2013. From 1980 to 2000, the 20 years prior to the land reform, Zimbabwe had a food surplus in all but three drought years. The country was self-sufficient and a net food exporter. But in every year since 2000, post-land reform, there has been a food shortage. Maize is now being imported from Zambia where, it so happens, it is being produced by former Zimbabwean farmers.

Hanlon makes many dubious statistical claims and sources heavily from a 2010 study, “Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities,” by another British academic, Ian Scoones, and several coauthors, which follows the apparently thriving fortunes of resettled farmers in the Masvingo Province of central Zimbabwe. Masvingo may well resemble the thriving corn fields of Iowa these days (although I doubt it), but given that one of Scoones’s co-authors was a beneficiary of land reform (by receiving a farm), some skepticism is in order. But that is just one reason why we should question the statistics from this source.

The Real Story

The real story about the country’s supposed economic recovery is a much bleaker one.

According to University of Zimbabwe economist Tony Hawkins, who has been studying agricultural output figures and resides in the country, “In 2000, Zimbabwe farms produced 3.7 million tonnes of output (excluding estate-grown sugar). In 2012, the Ministry of Finance estimated output at less than half that (1.7 million tonnes). This year, the government estimates a 20 percent fall in plantings for the 2013 season that will translate into lower output.”

Ironically, Zimbabweans are dependent on the generosity of the very “Western imperialists” that Mugabe’s government and state media spend their time castigating.

Granted, Hanlon is correct to say that since 2009, when Zimbabwe got rid of its worthless hyper-inflated currency and adopted the U.S. dollar, shops are full and the economy and farm production have improved. But almost all goods in shops are imported, and prices are higher than those in the United States.

Hanlon also makes the questionable claim that “The economic crisis of 2005-8 was caused by hyper-inflation and not land reform.” This is like saying my hangover is not the result of alcohol – it’s caused by all the beer I drank.

Unable to pay its bills, the government simply printed money. And it kept printing money until it became the stuff of legend – a Z$100 trillion note

The Zimbabwean dollar began sinking in value in the late 1990s, when Mugabe made the mistake of printing money to pay disgruntled liberation war veterans who were not seeing benefits enjoyed by the elites. But true hyper-inflation only came later – as a direct result of the land reform. The land invasions destroyed commercial agriculture, which provided a third of the country’s GDP, dramatically slashing the state’s tax revenue. As went the farms, so went the agri-businesses (fertilizer plants, machinery suppliers), that supported the farms, and so went the middle class. By violently dispossessing farmers, the state scared off foreign investors and tourists and soon the middle class was decimated. Unable to pay its bills as result of all this, the government simply printed money. And it kept printing money until it became the stuff of legend – a Z$100 trillion note. For a fellow at the London School of Economics not to know the direct relationship between Zimbabwe’s land reform and hyper-inflation is flabbergasting.

Hanlon’s work has been accepted with few questions by many journalists, even respected ones like Max du Preez. Stung by criticism after his praise for Hanlon’s controversial work, du Preez doubled down: “I would be very, very surprised if respected, experienced academics and researchers like Hanlon and Scoones would put their credibility at risk, simply thumb-suck production figures, and perpetrate blatant lies.”

Really? So academics are immune to bias? And even if Hanlon and Scoones were honest brokers, surely the simple curiosity of the journalist would have compelled du Preez to venture north to investigate this astonishing miracle for himself? Instead, he took Hanlon’s words as gospel and in doing so did ZANU-PF’s propaganda for them.

Which brings us to the New York Times’s “Golden Lining” article.

The piece, published in July 2012, caused a huge stir in Zimbabwean circles and, like du Preez’s writings, was trumpeted in state-run media. Ms. Polgreen describes how resettled peasant farmers are now thriving as tobacco growers, selling their crop for big profits at the tobacco auction floors in Harare – once the preserve of wealthy white commercial famers. The statistics cited are accurate and intriguing. From a low of 105 million pounds of tobacco in 2008 at the height of hyper-inflation, the country produced 330 million pounds in 2012. True, it is not the 550 million pounds produced in 2000, and the quality is not as good – but it is a start, and some of it, although not all, is produced by resettled farmers.

From 1980 to 2000, the 20 years prior to the land reform, Zimbabwe had a food surplus in all but three drought years. The country was self-sufficient, and a net food exporter. But in every year since 2000, post-land reform, there has been a food shortage.

And yet this “success” has little to do with “land reform” and far more to do with the market: China has huge demand for tobacco, and after dollarization in 2009, it once again became profitable for local farmers to grow the crop. Indeed, since the price of cotton has plummeted, local cotton farmers have turned to growing tobacco. But it is the presence of foreign and local tobacco companies investing in tobacco growers – the contract farming of the exact type done with great success at Kondozi a decade ago – that is behind the rise in tobacco production. One local company, Northern Tobacco, contracts a number of new farmers as tobacco growers and employs a dozen white former tobacco farmers who lost their own land to train and advise them. I spoke to one such farmer, who explained, “I have a job, I get to stay in my country, and I love what I do.”

Ms. Polgreen quotes Tendai Murisa, a researcher who said that “judging the success of land reform by looking at production figures misses a crucial point”: “No one ever argued that this is a more productive form of farming. But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? Those things have value, too.”

But how did land reform share wealth more equitably? There are four million Zimbabweans in exile because of a collapsed economy. There may be 250,000 new farmers on the land, but there were over 1 million farm workers and their families on the land before that. What’s more, there is no “dignity of ownership.” After all this time, none of these new farmers actually own their land. They do not have title deeds and banks will not lend to them. Indeed, foreign tobacco companies are effectively acting as their banks, contracting them and providing them with inputs – much as what happened at Kondozi.

There are many lessons to be drawn from Zimbabwe’s experience with land reform. A good start would be to tell the truth about what a disaster it has been for the country and its people.

Douglas Rogers is a Zimbabwean journalist, travel writer and author of The Last Resort, A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa.

FURTHER READING: Anne Applebaum looks at “Mugabe’s Roman Holiday” while Mark J. Perry writes “Zimbabwe: The World’s First Trillion Dollar Ad Campaign” and “Price Controls Lead to Empty Shelves in Zimbabwe.” Tom Woods and Roger Bate detail a “Stimulus for Zimbabwe,” and Bate also writes “Blood Diamonds Are Mugabe’s Best Friend,” “Zimbabwe Could Use Some U.S. Attention,” “Zimbabwe’s Decline Did Not Happen On Its Own,” and “Zimbabwe’s Road to Ruin.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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