After years of propagandizing and venom against the strongman rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe by the Western press, a recent study at Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies has concluded that it has in fact roughly succeeded in its goals of distributing the land more fairly among the general population, while it also is not to blame for the food problems that have struck Zimbabwe in recent years and caused a significant exodus of labor to South Africa and elsewhere.(1) While this is not to say that the stories of violence and excesses during expropriations are untrue, and while the study confirms that the Mugabe government has distributed land on nepotist and cronyist grounds as well, it concludes on the basis of research in southern Masvingo province that the latter constitutes only 5% of the people newly given land under the program. As the authors, who are British and Zimbabwean, cite in the summary of their study:
“This book challenges five myths through the examination of the field data from Masvingo province:
Myth 1 Zimbabwean land reform has been a total failure
Myth 2 The beneficiaries of Zimbabwean land reform have been largely political ‘cronies’
Myth 3 There is no investment in the new resettlements
Myth 4 Agriculture is in complete ruins creating chronic food insecurity
Myth 5 The rural economy has collapsed
By challenging these myths, and suggesting alternative policy narratives, this book presents the story as it has been observed on the ground: warts and all. What comes through very strongly is the complexity, the differences, almost farm by farm: there is no single, simple story of the Zimbabwe land reform as sometimes assumed by press reports, political commentators, or indeed much academic study.
The study details that the land reform has distributed about 20% of the total land area of Zimbabwe (i.e. including non-arable land) formally among the population, with ‘informal’ land transfers, sometimes violent seizure of land, adding to this amount. Most of the land has gone not to cronies of the Mugabe regime per se, but to low-income Zimbabweans, who constitute two-thirds of the new recipients. The rest mainly consist of former civil servants and agricultural laborers on white-owned farms.(3) The result has been a rise in the real living standards of most of these poor people now that they have become small farmers, although lack of access to capital is limiting their ability to benefit from the land and especially the former teachers and civil servants lack the skills and support to make it work. Since most of these newly minted farmers are not familiar with the work for generations, unlike the white large landowners, their initial skillset is clearly limited and this has led to a shift from tobacco cultivation as a cash crop – which requires greater knowledge and a larger-scale production – to cotton and other produce. However, contrary to the persistent claims in the hostile media this has not meant a complete disaster because of the ‘inability’ of these people to farm; rather, it entails if anything a welcome diversification of agriculture, away from the soil exhausting tobacco production.
None of this necessarily implies that it should be seen as a justification of the Mugabe government. But what it does show is the positive effects land reform following colonialism always has, whether this is in Africa or in Asia or in South America, and it also shows to what degree skepticism is warranted when it comes to the simplistic narratives by liberal newspapers abroad when it comes to political and economic reforms in poor countries. All too often liberal media are used by various liberal and reactionary comprador elements in such poor countries as outlets for misinformation and propaganda for their domestic political purposes, leading even ‘well-meaning’ intellectuals and the like to readily take over clichéd, anti-socialist nonsense. The Zimbabwean opposition, now part of the so-called power sharing government, by no means only consists of white reactionaries and comprador figures; there is much legitimate criticism of the militarist and autocratic rule of Mugabe and the persistent whiff of corruption surrounding him, and Mugabe is no friend of the workers of Zimbabwe. The experience of the Zimbabwean trade unions, most of which are on the anti-Mugabe side, and his active interventions to prevent the development of an urban proletariat as shown in Operation Murambatsvina show this clearly enough. But this should not lead us to take over Western liberal narratives all too eagerly either, especially when they are aimed against essential policies of reform that socialists can and should endorse. Land reform is not the least of those, and the report underwriting these reforms should be seen as a boost not for Mugabe’s personal stature, but for the future of socialism in Zimbabwe.
1) “Zimbabwe’s land reform ten years on: new study dispels the myths”. Sussex University Institute of Development Studies, 16 Nov. 2010. http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/news/zimbabwe-s-land-reform-ten-years-on-new-study-dispels-the-myths
2) Ian Scoones et al., Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities (Oxford 2010).
3) Joseph Winter, “Zimbabwe land reform ‘not a failure'”. BBC News (Nov. 18, 2010).