Zimbabwe: The end of a model
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Fri May 12 11:31:59 MDT 2000
Le Monde diplomatique
LEGACY OF UNJUST LAND DISTRIBUTION
Zimbabwe in the grips of strife and uncertainty
Zimbabwe is going through an unprecedented crisis in the run-up to general
elections that look risky for the ruling party. Now faced with a credible
opposition, Robert Mugabe is doing all he can to hold on to power,
violently attacking the few thousand white farmers who still hold the best
land. But this strategy could permanently destabilise the country and is
worrying its neighbours.
by CHRISTOPHE CHAMPIN*
On the face of it, the cause seemed a just one. Since February veterans of
Zimbabwe's war against the former racist regime have been illegally seizing
the properties of white farmers, who still hold most of the country's best
land, even though that land's recovery was the chief demand of the struggle
for independence. Nearly 1,000 of Zimbabwe's 4,500 farms have been occupied
in the space of a few weeks, and the violence has resulted in fatalities.
Not all of the so-called veterans really fought in the war, but they do
have the backing and support of a head of state who needs to court
popularity. Under fire from all sides for his running of the country,
Robert Mugabe, who has held the reins of power for 20 years, has clearly
made the expropriation of white landowners part of his platform for the
forthcoming general elections, which he will very likely lose.
The many excesses that have resulted are shattering the fragile racial
equilibrium that has existed since independence and are exacerbating the
serious economic and social crisis the country is passing through. The
situation is particularly worrying to Zimbabwe's neighbours and
international partners, concerned at a collapse of the region's second most
powerful country. The crisis is also being closely watched in South Africa,
where large-scale agrarian reform is needed but is not on the agenda (1).
Not so long ago, however, Zimbabwe was regarded as a model in a bruised
southern Africa. When it gained independence in April 1980, Rhodesia (as it
was still known) was one of the first countries to undergo a peaceful
transition in a badly troubled region. South Africa and Namibia (then just
a colony of Pretoria) were living under an apartheid regime. Mozambique and
Angola, hostages to the cold war, were torn apart by bloody civil wars. And
Zambia was sinking into economic crisis as the price of copper slumped.
Role model for the region
In such a difficult environment the Lancaster House agreements between the
white prime minister, Ian Smith, and the black guerrillas led by Robert
Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo in December 1979, which allowed the black majority
to come to power, was considered a great success. The other victory was
that the change of regime was not followed by economic collapse. American
political scientist Jeffrey Herbst notes that, having seen the effects of
the imposition of Frelimo's revolutionary policies in Mozambique,
Zimbabwe's future leaders realised that the nationalisation and economic
upheavals that socialism was bringing to Mozambique, not to mention their
own rhetoric, would have put the white population to flight and
destabilised the economy (2). In the constitution that emerged from
Lancaster House, the black opposition leaders therefore agreed to include
an article protecting private ownership, especially of land, and a clause
preventing any change to the basic law within seven years. Business was
thus reassured and the exodus of the white population limited.
This was quite a compromise, since what the mainly rural black community
wanted most was to get back the land previously seized from the Africans.
It also flew in the face of the Marxist rhetoric being spouted by Mugabe,
future prime minister and Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front
(Zanu-PF) leader. But like Nelson Mandela a few years later in South
Africa, the country's new strong man took the view that it was better to
satisfy expectations gradually so as to avoid destabilising a dynamic
private sector (3). Instead, he concentrated on education and health, from
which Africans had been largely excluded under the Smith regime.
Thus in its first ten years of independence Zimbabwe earned itself an
excellent image with the outside world and a leading place in southern
Africa - at a time when South Africa was excluded from the international
community because of apartheid. Mugabe, who became president following a
constitutional reform in 1987, has never been much of a democrat. Shortly
after independence he brutally crushed an uprising by his rivals from
Nkomo's Zimbabwe African Peoples' Union (Zapu). But he was clever enough to
offer them a "heroes' peace" by merging the two movements.
Zimbabwe has, therefore, been an example to the other countries of the
region for the success of its transition from a white regime to black
leadership. Many observers even saw its peaceful transition as an object
lesson for the white leadership in South Africa.
But the limits of the Zimbabwe model soon became apparent. In the early
1990s the economy showed serious signs of running out of steam. Starting in
1991, Harare had to concede to the structural adjustment already being
imposed on many African countries. It was a particularly difficult decision
for Mugabe, who had previously been resolutely opposed to the International
Monetary Fund's methods. The more so since it required unpopular measures
just when lack of progress on land redistribution was again becoming an
issue. Some 4,500 white farmers still held more than a third of the
cultivable land in the most fertile regions, in the form of vast commercial
operations, while over 700,000 black peasant families shared the remainder
in the "communal lands" - areas much less suitable for farming.
This was also the time of the first occupations of white farms by poor
peasants and young country dwellers. The head of state did not support
them. Instead, he decided to relaunch the agrarian reform that had been
mapped out at the time of independence but that, in a decade, had benefited
only 62,000 families out of an intended 162,000.
Since then, Mugabe has constantly told black peasants that their hour has
come, speaking in violently anti-white terms, and has then tried to
reassure Zimbabweans of European origin. In February 1992 parliament
adopted a law giving the government the right to take over any agricultural
property for a price set unilaterally by the state. But it had to retreat
in the face of the white-majority Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) and
pressure from donor countries. And when the first phase of the
redistribution programme, affecting 70 farms, finally started in 1993, it
was not the landless peasants who benefited, but ministers and other
Protest and disaffection
In the March 1996 elections Mugabe was re-elected head of state for the
third time, all the more easily in the absence of any credible opposition.
But the low turnout (31.7%) showed that Zimbaweans were tired of him.
August 1996 saw the first major demonstration by civil servants demanding
higher wages, and a series of strikes in the administration and public
services paralysed the country, disturbing the ageing president's sumptuous
second marriage to his young secretary Grace Marufu.
But it was the discovery, the following year, of a scandal involving the
embezzlement of pensions for war veterans by dignitaries of the regime that
lit the fuse. Until then considered the regime's most cherished children,
the former guerrillas demonstrated violently for more than a month, even
laying siege to the presidential office in order to get their due. With his
back to the wall, the president was forced to announce exceptional measures
in their favour. But he dealt only with the first of an endless list of cases.
With a constantly plummeting standard of living, Zimbabwe then experienced
the worst social unrest since independence. Protests hardened following the
dispatch in August 1998 of 6,000 and then 11,000 soldiers to Congo-Kinshasa
to support President Laurent Kabila, then facing a rebellion backed by
Uganda and Rwanda. Outraged by the cost of this military intervention,
estimated at $1m a day, the trade unions stepped up their action. They were
encouraged a few months later by the IMF which accused the Harare
authorities of lying about their military expenditure in order to get a loan.
The wave of protest facilitated the emergence of the first genuine
opposition to the ruling Zanu-PF, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)
headed by Morgan Tsvangirai, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of
Trade Unions. Formed less than a year ago, the new party has already scored
an initial victory in obtaining a majority "no" vote in a constitutional
referendum held this February. That was a bitter defeat for Mugabe who,
until then, had never been disowned by the voters. The fact that the
constitution, proposed by the president, provided for the expropriation of
land without compensation also showed that the question of the
redistribution of land is no longer necessarily Zimbabweans' main concern,
or at least that a majority no longer trusts the president to carry it out.
Strengthened by this first result, the opposition is expecting a victory in
the election due in May. But Mugabe has publicly expressed his resolve to
do all he can to stop them. Knowing he still enjoys some support in rural
areas, the president has actively supported - some say even organised - the
movement to occupy white farms. He has also got parliament to adopt the
constitutional amendment on expropriation that had been thrown out a few
At the same time, intimidation of opposition militants has increased. And
the expectation is that the forthcoming ballot will be rigged. The ruling
party is accusing opposition leaders of complicity with "white racists",
since members of the normally discreet white community have openly come out
in support of the MDC. They have also started to leave the country - a
situation that worries Zimbabwe's international partners. Most have
suspended relations with Harare, waiting for a sign of reassurance from the
president and calling for free and fair elections. Whatever the outcome,
this new crisis has well and truly buried what remained of the Zimbabwe
* Journalist at Radio France International
1. See "South Africa carries a big stick", Le Monde diplomatique English
edition, March 1999.
2. Jeffrey Herbst, State Politics in Zimbabwe, University of Zimbabwe
Publications, Harare, 1990.
3. The newly independent nation inherited an efficient agriculture, a
developed manufacturing sector and a powerful mining industry, which were
completely controlled by the white minority.
Translated by Malcolm Greenwood
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