GLW: Why Britan fears Mugabe's land gamble

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Tue May 16 18:27:21 MDT 2000

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
Australia's radical newspaper.


ZIMBABWE: Why Britain fears Mugabe's land gamble

The loud complaints from the British Labour government and
hysterical coverage by the international capitalist mass media
have given undeserved credibility to Zimbabwe President Robert
Mugabe's populist claims that he suddenly intends to ``resolve''
his country's unjust distribution of land, the legacy of
Britain's brutal colonialism. The fevered communiques, the
panicked headlines and the breathless BBC dispatches reflect
imperialism's fears that Mugabe may not be able to control what
he has unleashed.

Mugabe's state-sanctioned occupations of plantations owned by
some wealthy white Zimbabweans began as a desperate pre-election
ploy to revive fading support for the ruling Zimbabwe African
National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) among the country's
millions of land-hungry peasants.

Once the bedrock of ZANU-PF's support, the rural population's
mass abstention in the constitutional referendum in February (and
the sudden emergence of the popular labour-based opposition
party, the Movement for Democratic Change -- MDC) starkly
revealed just how cynical the peasantry has become towards
Mugabe's on-again, off-again threats of radical land

Shocked at the drubbing he received at the hands of MDC-aligned
activists, and with a parliamentary election due before June,
Mugabe realised that ZANU-PF needed to be seen to go beyond
issuing more empty threats if it was to recapture the support of
the sceptical peasantry.

The go-ahead for paid pro-government ``war veterans'' to occupy
1000 white-owned properties -- accompanied by a crescendo of
government race-baiting and ``anti-imperialist'' rhetoric -- was
given to create the impression that this time ZANU-PF was finally
going to deliver.

Under the cover of the farm occupations, it is becoming
increasingly apparent that Mugabe's hired thugs -- organised and
coordinated by members of the feared 5th Brigade presidential
military guard -- are more concerned with intimidating farm
workers who might support the MDC, murdering and bashing MDC
activists and obstructing the MDC's efforts to organise in rural
areas than with mobilising peasants to carry out a genuine
radical land reform (it is notable that the 30% of commercial
farms owned by black capitalists, as well as those of prominent
white supporters of ZANU-PF remain untouched).


The land question remains key in Zimbabwean politics and the
British government bears the responsibility for its unjust

In 1890, the British conquistador Cecil Rhodes and his 700 white
settlers and armed mercenaries invaded what is now Zimbabwe. In
1893, the Ndebele people unsuccessfully fought back when they
realised that they had been tricked.

Ndebele leader Lobengula had signed an agreement with Rhodes in
1889. Lobengula believed it only granted Rhodes' British South
Africa Company mining rights. Rhodes interpretation was that the
deal meant BSAC had effectively annexed Ndebele land. In 1896,
the Ndebele joined forces with the majority Shona people in the
first chimurenga (liberation war) but were bloodily defeated in

The process of stealing most of the prime agricultural land from
the African people was rapid. Under the provisions of an 1889
British law, the BSAC paid the British government for the land
rather than its true owners. In 1898, the British government
passed a law that established the infamous native reserves, on
the most unproductive land, into which the African people were
herded. These areas today are the ``communal areas'' in which 1
million families struggle to make a living.

By 1914, white settlers -- 3% of the population -- controlled 75%
of the most fertile land, while 97% of the population was
restricted to the native reserves. Southern Rhodesia became an
official British settler-colony in 1923. The 1930 Land
Apportionment Act formalised the apartheid in land, excluding
Africans from 50% of the country with the best farming land.

The brutal white minority regime of Ian Smith fought to the
bitter end to maintain this situation. Throughout the 1970s, the
Zimbabwean people fought a fierce war of liberation to regain
their land and their right to rule their own country.

Before Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, Mugabe agreed with London
that land redistribution must take place only if white farmers'
land was obtained on the ``willing seller-willing buyer''
principle. This made radical land redistribution impossible.

For 20 years, Mugabe has stuck to his side of the bargain,
despite his periodic populist threats to do otherwise. Fewer than
72,000 black families were resettled on redistributed land
between 1980 and 1990, well below the target of 162,000. Since
1990, much of the redistributed land has not benefited poor
Africans but capitalists and cronies well-connected to ZANU-PF
and Mugabe.

Mugabe has no intention of fundamentally altering the pattern of
land ownership in Zimbabwe in favour of the poor. ZANU-PF has
maintained the status quo for 20 years, in an uneasy alliance
with imperialism.

Britain's fears

What worries imperialism is not that Mugabe will carry out his
threats -- on every previous occasion he has privately backed
down -- but that the rural masses, having had their expectations
raised by Mugabe's rhetoric, may refuse to obey Mugabe's almost
inevitable order to demobilise. This may spark a genuine mass
land reform movement that is outside ZANU-PF's control. Even more
worrying for imperialism is that Mugabe's grandstanding could
inspire similar movements in other parts of southern and east

British capitalists have extensive economic interests in southern
and east Africa, and London maintains close political, economic
and military ties with the region's ruling classes. The economic
and political interests of both British imperialism and the local
capitalist classes cannot be disentangled from the unjust
distribution of land.

The dominance of large capitalist farms -- usually in the hands
of descendants of colonial settlers, but a growing proportion
owned by ``indigenous'' capitalists -- is a common feature
throughout the region. Such land inequality is central to the
structure of the capitalist economies that have evolved there,
upon which the local capitalist classes that collaborate with
imperialism derive their wealth.

The ``willing seller-willing buyer'' principle has stymied radical
land reform in South Africa, Namibia and Kenya. Calls have been
raised recently in each of these countries for the landless to
follow the example of the Zimbabwean ``war veterans''. Such a
development would send a shudder down the spine of the British
ruling class.

A mass movement of the landless that successfully demanded that
the ``willing seller-willing buyer'' principle -- based as it is on
guarantees against expropriation without compensation at market
value -- be abandoned would strike at the heart of imperialist

This is why the British government's loudest demand is that
Mugabe abide by the ``rule of law''. It is the rule of law
throughout the region that prevents the restoration of the land
to those from whom it was forcibly seized by white settlers.

According to figures from the British foreign office, British
capitalists have a lot to lose in the region. In Zimbabwe -- the
second most industrialised country in the region after South
Africa -- more than 400 companies have British connections.
Britain is the largest foreign investor, with around £350 million
invested, and the second largest exporter to Zimbabwe. It is also
one of the largest importers of Zimbabwean goods -- much of it
produce like tobaco from the commercial farms.

One gauge of how ``anti-imperialist'' Britain really considers the
Mugabe regime to be is the fact that Britain is one of Zimbabwe's
major military suppliers (on May 3, Britain announced all new
export licences for arms and military equipment to Zimbabwe would
be refused) and that a British military advisory and training
team remains deployed there.

In Kenya, almost 80% of the population work on plantations that
produce exports, including tea (the world's fourth largest
producer) and coffee. Britain is the largest foreign investor. In
1998, combined trade between Britain and Kenya was £440 million.
British investment and trade are similarly significant in Zambia,
Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

Britain's largest economic partner in the region is South Africa,
with two-way trade worth £3 billion per year. Britain is South
Africa's largest foreign investor (at more than £10 billion) and
South African capitalists have significant investments in

Too reckless

Mugabe has become too politically reckless for imperialism.
Despite Mugabe largely following the dictates of the Western
powers and their financial institutions, they have never been
comfortable with his regime's origins in the victory of a mass
liberation struggle.

Mugabe's past role in the struggle gave him and his party a
legitimacy that most neo-colonial Third World leaders lacked and
thus greater political room to move. Mugabe's goal of developing
a strong, independent local capitalist class (in partnership --
even if it is somewhat tense -- with the existing white
establishment) has also put him at odds with the West and his
powerful southern neighbour, South Africa.

Mugabe has often found himself caught between the West's demands
for greater austerity and economic ``liberalisation'' and the
expectations of the masses. To retain his struggle credentials,
Mugabe must sometimes be seen to be responding to the people's

Until now, there has not been a political alternative in Zimbabwe
with any real chance of replacing Mugabe, so the West has had to
grin and bear ZANU-PF rule. With the rise of the MDC, led by
moderate ``social democrats'' who have made it clear they will also
abide by the West's economic institutions, and with Mugabe's and
ZANU-PF's popularity at an unprecedented low (ironically because
he has attempted to impose the austerity policies demanded by
imperialism in 1997-98), Britain and the mass media no longer
feel the need to disguise their hostility.




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