Finding the "golden lining" in the Zimbabwean genocide

RW Johnson says the modest agricultural successes described by the NYT were built on the pyre of a virtual holocaust

In 2008 there was a sudden burst of articles by Samir Amin, Mahmood Mamdani and other left-wing Africanists suggesting that Robert Mugabe had been considerably misjudged and that his land reform programme had much to be said for it.1 

Quite what lay behind this clearly concerted ideological offensive other than embarrassment at the international media's treatment of white farmers as the tragic victims of the Zimbabwe crisis, remains obscure. More recently there have been a number of articles also attempting to suggest that the benefits of the "land reform" are at last evident. A notable example is Lydia Polgreen's "In Zimbabwe Land Takeover a Golden Lining" (New York Times, 20 July 2012).

Ms Polgreen attempts to be even-handed, bluntly accepting that for white farmers the whole process has been one of appalling loss and that crop yields today remain far below what was achieved before Mugabe's land-grabs began in 2000. Instead, she focuses mainly on the 60,000 new black tobacco farmers, toiling on tiny plots to produce 330 million pounds of tobacco this last year (still a far cry from the 2000 crop of 522 million pounds). She cites Ian Scoones of Sussex University on the "myth that land reform has been an unmitigated disaster" and the happy comments of the Zanu-PF-supporting black farmers, ending with the questions "But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? These things have value too." Hence the "golden lining".

Ironically, Ms Polgreen's article arrives along with a warning from the World Food Program2 that a new "hunger season" is almost upon Zimbabwe. 1.6 million people are expected to need food assistance - 60% more than during the last hunger season; this because of yet another disastrous cereals harvest of just 1,076,772 metric tons. Although the rainfall has been "erratic", this deficiency would hardly have caused much trouble before 2000 when the white commercial farmers were able to achieve adequate crops even during full-blown droughts, thanks to their sophisticated irrigation technology. The WFP attributes this year's miserable crop to "limited access to agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, a reduction in the planted area, poor farming practices and inadequate crop diversification". The starvation faced by this 1.6 million rather overshadows the happier situation of the 60,000 little tobacco farmers and thus the very limited nature of the "golden lining".

However, to contrast Zimbabwe's recurrent failure to feed itself now with its bumper food exports in the pre-2000 period is merely to show that "land reform" has been achieved at the cost of food security and the wider agricultural economy. The new constitutional draft agreed between Zanu-PF and the MDC effectively acknowledges that the seizure of commercial farming land after 2000 was a simple act of theft, for compensation is now promised - though, doubtless, this will only actually occur if foreign donors are found to foot the compensation bill. Prior to 2000 the World Bank regarded Zimbabwe's commercial farmers as models for Africa in their innovation, productivity and sophistication. All that has been destroyed, which makes it difficult to celebrate the few green shoots one may observe now. But in any case, all such comparisons very largely miss the point.

One must start with the pre-2000 situation. Mugabe had run the economy into debt, quarrelled with the IMF, kicked them out and cut himself off from credit. The economy stalled, unemployment soared amidst growing public disillusion and Mugabe awarded a large cash hand-out to Zanu-PF war veterans which, transparently, the state could not afford. Earlier in the 1990s the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) had repeatedly tried to interest Mugabe in land reform but he had ignored all such initiatives and the whole subject of land reform stayed where it had stalled when the British had earlier pulled out from their initial support when they saw Mugabe was only interested in awarding land to his wealthy cronies.

It was amidst this sour atmosphere of stasis that the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) was born in late 1999. Mugabe had already called a referendum on a new constitution (increasing his presidential powers) for February 12-13, 2000. The MDC, which was as yet unorganized, made no movement to fight the new draft for it was in any case seen as a foregone conclusion that it would pass. In fact it lost by 54.7% to 45.3%.

Closer examination showed that this was despite the fact that the results had been clearly rigged in Mugabe's favour in Matabeleland and perhaps elsewhere too3 Once this was taken into account, Mugabe had lost by at least 60-40 and probably by more: the poll we conducted simultaneously showed a 69-31 majority wanting fundamental change in Zimbabwe.4 

When one took account of the fact that the MDC had hardly lifted a finger in the referendum but that its presence was now rapidly growing amidst the sheer political momentum generated by the referendum result, it was clear that Mugabe was facing a complete electoral rout in the parliamentary elections due in mid-2000. It was as a response to this situation that the land invasions by Zanu-PF thugs, more or less openly organized by Mugabe's secret police, began.

How had Mugabe, long apparently unchallengeable, lost support so massively? Part of the answer is to be found in the survey which the Helen Suzman Foundation did right across Southern Africa in late 1996.5 Nowhere else in the entire region was there such a dramatic contrast between urban and rural sectors as in Zimbabwe. Urban voters had comprehensively lost confidence in the ruling party, while rural voters remained mainly loyal to it. There was not much Mugabe could do about this. It was no surprise that whites had no confidence in Zanu-PF or that the trade unions led by Morgan Tsvangirai had become bitterly opposed to the government, but in the countryside Mugabe not only controlled all sources of news and information but exercised close social control through his manipulation of food supplies during droughts and famines.

In a word, those who failed to support the ruling party did not eat and nor did they get supplies of seeds, fertilizer and implements. However, what the referendum of February 2000 revealed was that there had been a further large shift in opinion, for it was quite clear that the 2.4 million black Zimbabweans who lived on the 4,000 white farms had also transferred their support heavily into the NO column. Foolishly, indeed, the farmers had done little to disguise this fact and had ferried farm workers en masse to the polls where they had cheerfully demonstrated their contempt for the ruling party. With this further large shift in popular support against him, Mugabe looked doomed.

Why were farmworkers and their families so different? In a word, they lived under the protective umbrella of the white farmers who guaranteed that even in the worst drought they and their families would never starve. It was a cozy arrangement. Most farmers only employed one or two hundred farmworkers but allowed them to bring their extended families to live with them on the farms where they were trypically provided not only with food security but farm schools, Aids orphan clinics and so forth.

The fact that the white farmers - in utter contrast with their South African counterparts - felt perfectly easy about having hundreds of Africans living cheek by jowl with them showed only too well how comfortable the arrangement was for both sides. But the key political fact was that Mugabe lacked his usual means of social and political control over the farmworkers and their families, so when they became disillusioned with the Mugabe government they were perfectly free to express their opinions. Not only was this a dagger pointed at the heart of the Mugabe regime but it was obvious that the farmworkers would be bound to spread their dissident opinions among the surrounding subsistence peasantry living on the tribal reserves.

When the farm invasions began both Mugabe and the international media played up events as a collision between white farmers and landless blacks. There was no doubt that the whites were targets: a few were killed, many more were savagely attacked and beaten; and all were robbed. But politically, of course, this was meaningless. There were only 4000 such farmers and everyone knew they had seldom supported Mugabe anyway. But the main target was the farmworker population, on whom Mugabe now took a terrible revenge.

At one farm after another the farmworkers were corralled - grannies and babies too - into a farm building were they were ceaselessly beaten as they were made to sing Zanu-PF songs. This would go on for days on end and often the workers would be made to beat one another. Sometimes they were tortured with red hot metal or burning plastic dripped onto naked flesh, sometimes workers would be killed in front of the others to provide an example.

It was a hell which sometimes went on for weeks and of which the great continuous theme was that they must never again, upon pain of torture and death, go against the will of Zanu-PF. No white farmer or his family that I ever spoke to doubted that their own ordeal was as nothing compared with what their workers were put through.

At the end of this these workers and their families, often in an emaciated and traumatized state, were simply cast loose upon the roadside verges. The new owners of the farms - usually Zanu-PF high-ups - seldom wanted to farm properly and just treated their new properties as holiday homes where they parked their wives while enjoying their mistresses in town.

So there were few jobs for farmworkers and when they existed they quickly found that they were expected to work twice as hard for a fraction of the pay they had enjoyed in the past. Later, when I tried to ascertain what had happened to this group - a whole 20% of the Zimbabwe population - it was very difficult to understand their plight fully. Their death rate had been extraordinarily high - they were suddenly deprived of food, all their support services and of any idea what to do.

Naturally, the farm schools and Aids clinics were all smashed. Some were HIV+ and soon died. Others - especially the old and the small children - died of exposure and lack of food. But many seemed to die of sheer exhaustion and despair: they simply had no idea of how to fend for themselves in this hostile new environment. One often heard of people who just laid down and refused to move, bereft of any reason to live.

The attempt, in effect, was to annihilate a whole demographic segment - 20% of the population. Inevitably, some stragglers survived and gradually established themselves on the fringe of urban squatter camp life. These were the very same elements who were targeted once again in 2005 in Mugabe's "murambatsvina" (clear out the rubbish) campaign, when some 700,000 shacks and livelihoods were destroyed, affecting some 2.4 million people.

I later attempted to track what had happened to the victims of this campaign by going through local missionaries who had tracked the fate of their parishes. In the Harare area the death rate reported among those affected was 1 in 2. In the Bulawayo area it was 1 in 3. If one averages that figure at two in five, one comes up with a figure of something like 480,000 dead. Everyone agreed that this figure included a large number of ex-farmworkers and their families. Thus the murambatsvina campaign of 2005 seems to have finished off what the farm seizures of 2000 had begun.

This is what one has to remember. Only now is a new census planned and we may soon at last glimpse the true size of the genocide Mugabe has visited upon his fellow-citizens, though it will not be easy to gauge, for so many have also fled into exile. But have no doubt that well over a million farmworkers and their family members died, many of them in desperate and horrible circumstances. This, then, is what has to be remembered most about Mugabe's "land reform".

This is not to say that we should not be happy to see 60,000 small tobacco farmers flourishing today. We can, to be sure, regret that Mugabe did not agree to such an initiative in the 1990s, which could have avoided all the violence. But above all we have to remember that the very modest successes of today's Zimbabwean agriculture are built on the pyre of a virtual holocaust.

It is a bit like celebrating the (extremely modest) successes of Soviet agriculture in the 1950s without paying heed to the millions of productive kulaks annihilated on the very same land in the 1930s. So while there is nothing wrong with Ms Polgreen's article as it stands, one should not forget the absent and more productive farmworkers who died to make all of this possible.

RW Johnson


1See for example Mamdani's "Lessons of Zimbabwe: Mugabe in Context", London Review of Books, 4 Dec.2008 and my reply in the subsequent issue.

2WFP Press Release 27 July 2012.

3See RW Johnson, Political Opinion in Zimbabwe 2000, Helen Suzman Foundation (Johannesburg) March 2000.


5See RW Johnson, The Condition of Democracy in Southern Africa: Political Attitudes in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Helen Suzman Foundation, 1997).

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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