Zimbabwe is a nation of vast natural beauty, blessed with fertile soil and a comfortable climate that produces some of the most valued food in all of Africa, hence the term “Breadbasket of Africa”. Whilst the geographical landscape of the country has remained generally unhindered in bearing some of the most valuable harvests on the African continent, the man-made process of politicisation has reared it’s ugly head for the past 150 years, with the ownership of the best land in Zimbabwe being an issue that has been bubbling under the surface for decades.
The paternalistic auspices of colonialism had been long eradicated, and for around twenty years or so after the disintegration of white-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe had been a model leader who utilised the ability to dispel the myths of rhetorical Marxism that he has been painted with during the Bush War of the 1960’s and 70’s.
Mugabe’s effort to reconcile the population regardless of colour had mixed results, but he generally oversaw a stable Zimbabwe throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, yet the traits of dictatorship had taken root as the millennium dawned, resulting in economic mismanagement and a mass exodus of both black and white Zimbabweans.
“Willing Buyer, Willing Seller”
As a by-product of colonialism, Rhodesia was one of a few settler colonies that had attracted a population of largely British immigrants. Alongside other colonies in Africa that harboured a European population, namely South Africa and Namibia, historically unfair treaties had been drafted to take advantage of the native population, in order to extract the most fertile of land for cultivation by the incoming British settlers. The issue of land reform had because pertinent as the decolonisation process spread through Africa, and although Rhodesia, soon to be Zimbabwe, was rather late to the relinquishment of colonialism.
The newly elected ZANU-PF president Robert Mugabe had addressed the issue under a Willing Buyer, Willing Seller programme, a scheme mandated by the United Kingdom providing £44 million pounds (GBP) in enabling structured land resettlement to take place without encouraging any government mandated confiscations. For the Mugabe government, the redistribution of land was slow to take off, and the discontent in some quarters of Zimbabwe, namely the War Veterans Association, had placed pressure on the government to speed up the process.
In order to rush through legislation mandating a fast-track programme of land reform, The Mugabe government had organised a referendum in February 2000 to enable a constitution that would stipulate a speedy push to acquire mainly White-owned farms without any monetary compensation. The referendum was not successful, and the proposed constitution had been rejected by voters in a 55% to 45% margin, yet this did not deter various ZANU-PF and War Veteran factions into taking the law into their own hands.
The self-mandated Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) appeared to supersede the constitution, and groups set about attempting to occupy and protest on White-owned farms with chanting and songs akin to the days of apartheid South Africa, and this was the start of the forceful farm invasions that signified the first vestiges of Robert Mugabe’s despotism. Despite being the sitting president presiding over unconstitutional behaviour from his supporters, Mugabe endorsed such actions, and adopted an anti-British agenda as the Blair government back in London had ceased all funding to the Willing Buyer, Willing Seller scheme. Either being forced off their lands through dubious legal action or occupations, the white farmers had essentially fled the country en masse without compensation, chiefly to South Africa or the United Kingdom, taking with them their agricultural knowhow and expertise.
Not All Black and White
The fate of the black farm workers was much worse, as their livelihoods had depended on the farms for which they had laboured on. Lacking the finances to flee the country, many of these black Zimbabweans had to stay, and they were denied any of the confiscated land even though they could be deemed to be in the most need of it. The fast-track redistribution process had not been on grounds of race; it had been for the supporters of Mugabe, not only to satisfy the agitated War Veterans Association, but the keep his allies closer by rewarding them with fertile land and grandiose country houses. These actions are typical of any paranoid leader, looking to keep their allies closer in a time of perceived discontent.
The economic legacy of these land reforms had a profound impact on Zimbabwe, both on the domestic stage as well as the international arena. By the mid-2000’s, Zimbabwe had become a pariah state, with hyperinflation famously producing a 100,000,000,000 Zimbabwe Dollar banknote, and 45% of the population was considered to be malnourished; a situation that would have been considered unimaginable ten years prior. Cronyism took hold, and harassment of the opposition parties had defined the political landscape in a negative light. Quite frankly, the country was a mess, having fallen victim to the vestiges of its colonial past, mixed with the continued paranoia of a president that had overstayed his welcome. Given these circumstances, the ones that had the resources to leave the country were considered to be lucky, but what was become of them?
In 1980 the country numbered 120,000 whites, but this has now dwindled to about 28,000, with only about 150 of these being farmers. Some of these farmers have resisted the land reform process, with farmers such as Ben Freeth having faced increased violence and intimidation by state-sanctioned groups looking to acquire his land. It was reported in September 2015 that some of these agricultural exiles had actually been invited back to the country from overseas, suggesting an apparent change of heart from ZANU-PF, but the results of these invitations have yet to be seen. The diaspora of white Zimbabweans based mainly in South Africa and the United Kingdom have had to diversify their skills base in order to sustain themselves and there lingers a consensus to return back to their country should the conditions improve.
Despite the challenges Zimbabwe faces in the future, Robert Mugabe will be celebrating his 92nd birthday in a couple of months, and his days are most certainly numbered. The coming years will see drastic change in this beautiful country, as the death of a tyrant can often mean two scenarios; either a peaceful handover of power to a democratic force, or violent regime change as a presumed successor is handpicked by the current government. Although much of the media’s attention, and indeed this article has documented the targets of the fast track land reform program, the collateral damage of these processes is equally devastating. Zimbabweans regardless of colour have been displaced, harassed and stigmatised to appease a paranoid, ageing liberator-turned- despot, but like most dictatorships, nothing lasts forever.
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