Following the 'Panama Papers' scandal, I observed the disproportionate backlash against Lewis Hamilton and noted that generally speaking, the financial affairs of British F1 drivers, only became a topical issue when the driver was not Caucasian. It was not a piece I wanted to write. Defending the behaviour of someone who utilises tax havens is not an easy one for me to swallow. It goes against so much of what I believe in. Similarly defending Mugabe, in any capacity, has always felt like a moral dilemma to wrestle with.
Robert Mugabe came to power three weeks before I was born and has ruled Zimbabwe ever since. Last week he was placed under house arrest and at the time of writing, his tumultuous reign is drawing to an end. He engaged in some of the most abhorrent conduct ever administered by a world Statesman in my lifetime. However, the uncomfortable truth for much of the world’s media outside of Africa is that land redistribution had been a huge issue in the country and desperately needed addressing. My regrets over Mugabe and the ‘Fast-track land reform programme’ (FTLRP) surround not its implementation, but that he took so long to do it and that when he did, it became a political issue of his creation. It has and always firmly will be a social justice one. It is about correcting the crimes of colonialism, as painful as they may be. The consequential cries of agony serve as a sharp reminder that for all the nostalgic love of Empire, it created a cruel legacy that became so complicated to untangle.
Between 2000 and 2013 some 4,500 Caucasian-owned farms were seized and redistributed among black citizens, often during violent confrontations. They generated images which horrified the world. In many ways, the decision taken in 2000 to pursue FTLRP was a defining moment in the career of Mugabe and ensured his permanent caricature as a 21st century African bogeyman. Visitors to my blog will feel like they have read this piece before, because if you change some of the details, the rise and fall of Mugabe as a “friend of The West”, loosely follows a similar tale to other dubious individuals around the world who later fell out of favour, such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden to name but two.
To understand the context of FTLRP, one first needs to go back to some of the origins of how the Zimbabwean State was established in 1980. This followed the Rhodesian War of Independence which had raged for the proceeding decade and a half and resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. This created a deal to end minority rule in Zimbabwe, albeit with conditions. It is those conditions which were to later form the basis for the appetite of the implementation of FTLRP twenty years later, when Mugabe believed that an agreement with Britain was no longer being honoured.
Without turning this piece into a history lesson drawing in everything from Ian Smith and the use of chemical weapons, the Nyadzonya raid, the Gukurahundi massacres and everything else in between, the key sticking point at the end of the talks surrounded land reform. The picture in 1979 was stark with 97% of Zimbabwean land owned by a minority Caucasian population. Joshua Nkomo and Mugabe’s perspective that Zimbabwe should be able to determine its own future was resisted by Britain who maintained that land redistribution would be restricted on a “willing seller, willing buyer” principle for the first ten years following independence.
Up until 1997, Britain continued compensating the Zimbabwean Government for the purchasing of farmland from Caucasian landowners in accordance with the principle set out in 1979. However when Tony Blair swept to power in May of that year, a new British foreign policy towards Zimbabwe was brewing and a desire to deploy funding elsewhere emerged. Of course it is at this point that one can easily slip into the mistake of finding an explanation for all of Zimbabwe’s 21st century economic difficulties stemming from a decision made at the British ballot box. For example, it would be churlish to dismiss the devastating impact that Mugabe’s disastrous ‘Economic Structural Adjustment Programme’ (ESAP) which commenced in 1990 (four years before Blair became Labour leader) or the hyperinflation it triggered.
This is the reason why Mugabe’s motives should be scrutinised and rightly bring into disrepute his status as a Pan-African icon championing social justice. However, leaving that aside, they do set the scene for a country facing economic hardship while tasked with the duty of juggling a promise to a minority population from an era of colonialism. Coupled with two severe droughts in four years, Zimbabwe was a nation in crisis and the last thing it needed had been London pulling the rug out from underneath them.
So set in motion a chain of events, Mugabe using the breakdown in talks with Blair as a pretext for a fight to uphold Zimbabwean Sovereignty. “It’s your money, keep it. It’s our land, we will take it”. The popular headline almost collectively orchestrated by every media outlet outside Africa has steadfastly maintained that the decision to implement FTLRP in 2000 is an obvious answer to the economic output which plummeted in the following years. Yet predictably they failed to take into account the crippling sanctions which were applied by Britain, the EU and the USA who were under pressure to retaliate.
They also fail to reflect a reality of success stories as a result of FTLRP. You would be hard-pushed to find many who would justify the violence or methods of intimidation that were enlisted, but the contrasts do make for interesting reading. Even with the principle set out in 1979, by 2000 some 4,400 Caucasian landowners still controlled 32% of agricultural land, compared to 1 million black families who occupied 38%.
Fast forward to 2013 when the FTLRP programme was completed, and no Caucasian owned farms remained. In the same year a book entitled ‘Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land’, showed that agricultural production had reached the same level of the 1990s, with more land now under cultivation than had been worked previously by Caucasian farmers. 6,000 Caucasian farmers had been replaced by 245,000 black farmers as a result of the programme.
It followed a trend, confirming encouraging signs seen from a study in 2010 which showed that over half of new agricultural landowning households were accumulating and investing. The study had been able to debunk five myths including the widely held viewpoint that FTLRP had been a total failure or that the rural economy had collapsed.
Mugabe can be criticised for so many poor judgements made on his watch as the President of Zimbabwe and the purpose of this piece is not to excuse any of them. Where land was appropriated by party associates or friends, this is indefensible and cannot be explained away so I make no attempt to do so. Where human rights were violated, where democratic principles ignored, none of these can ever be justified.
FTLRP should serve as a warning to other countries in the region, indeed I did predict as much to a Zimbabwean friend back in 2000 when the policy had been pursued. Neighbours like South Africa are still very much distracted by the novelty of being able to vote and have yet to question the enormous social inequalities which still exist in their country, nor indeed the disproportionate land redistribution which eventually must be addressed. That will not last forever. Zimbabwe has provided a glimpse of what may yet unravel next door, unless progress is made to remedy the hangover of minority rule. This must go far beyond the “willing buyer, willing seller” principles which remain in practice there. It is a solution so poorly devised under that Lancaster House Agreement and only offers sluggish progression.