Land Reform Domino Hits South Africa, Inevitably

PICTURE: Brown Political Review

Similarly, the cost may be dear, but land will eventually return to its rightful owners who are the blacks. The domino has just hit South Africa, and it will be interesting to watch how we progress from here, writes CAESAR ZVAYI 

WHEN former President Robert Mugabe proclaimed a policy of national reconciliation at Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the white world loved it. It is recorded that whites in this country, if not their rebel leader himself Ian Smith, remarked that if they had known that all black people wanted was political power and not economic independence, the liberation war would not have taken so long, with the accompanying toll on human lives.

The message was; you can do the politics, we keep the economy. That is to say, whites could keep “their” farms; they could keep the economy. Late last year in neighbouring South Africa, one Helen Zille torched a storm when she extolled the virtues of colonialism to Africa. Without the benefits of colonialism, she insinuated, Africans could still be living on trees, uncivilised.

Of course, we know she wasn’t a lone voice. She spoke for a culture, a race, a Eurocentric worldview. She was speaking loudly what “decent people” snigger about in privacy or in their whites-only clubs. Still, she was forced to apologise. But even a child knows what an extorted apology amounts to. It’s a charade for purposes of the law.

Last week Madam Zille reincarnated in Zimbabwe in the person of one John Robertson. It was an article in the Zimbabwe Independent (Feb 23–March1), that protector of the colonial ethos and all the privileges of the defeated white master. What emerges from the article is that the white world is still furious over the land reform in Zimbabwe and black people’s ingratitude for the civilising impact of being colonised and enslaved.

The contrast couldn’t be most stark: while whites in this country celebrated the policy of reconciliation enunciated by then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe which left their colonial privileges intact, they are furious with President Mnangagwa now for insisting that the land reform is irreversible. This, according to Robertson, is unreasonable.

Typically, Robertson’s argument starts with a lie, a false premise. He suggests that by stating that Zimbabwe’s land reform programme is irreversible, Government has declared that everything has been “settled and there is nothing left to be debated”.

Don’t dismiss him as a madman. He has skin colour on his side. This is the propaganda that’s being communicated to the people we are trying to court to invest in our country, and there are Zimbabweans whose voice matters more than any pledges President Mnangagwa can make.

It is important to expose Robertson’s lie, because both Finance and Economic Planning minister Patrick Chinamasa and President Mnangagwa have not only said Zimbabwe is open for business. They have said white commercial farmers who lost “their” land under the land reform programme would be “compensated according to the law”. The quantum of compensation is being investigated to find out what was lost and how money can be raised and whether some could be allocated new farms.

That’s miles away from a debate that’s settled and closed Mr Robertson! Stop it. The lies and propaganda. Yet the likes of Robertson have a captured audience. Are we up to the task?

Robertson claims he is reopening the “closed debate” on the land reform programme. He says, “To start the discussion, I want to dismiss the claim that an attack on the land reform is an attempt to defend colonisation.” (We know it is Sir.) “I would rather argue that acceptance of (individual) property rights is a way to promote prosperity,” he declares. He laments that property rights which were introduced by the colonisers were set aside by the land reform.

(To his credit, lest we forget, Robertson, unlike our own young black reporters and editors, never for once in the article described the land reform as “chaotic”, a “land grab” or “violent”, as if colonial occupation was a church service. That is to say in essence, he is against the principle of returning land to blacks. He is honest about that.)

Then comes the clash of civilisations: “In this country, traditional chiefs did not want to see individual ownership introduced in their areas.” Two issues stand out. Robertson and ilk don’t accept that colonialism was a crime. They expected blacks or Africans to accept individual property rights as a way to prosperity. They don’t understand why “traditional chiefs” opposed “individual ownership” rights in their areas.

That problem will be with us for centuries more so long as we have people like Robertson and Eddie Cross who claim to be African by descent but see themselves as a superior species who can impose alien values, alien cultures and a western worldview and expect Africans to acquiesce. Africans don’t believe in “individual ownership” of land and frown upon individual “prosperity” from what should be a communal natural resource — land.

Land for the African was more than its “market value” — it was communal, it was spiritual and connected the living and the dead, that is why ancestral graves are so important. Land was not for sale. It’s not always about money. Instead of which whites came, stole the land and asserted their individual rights on it. And what are we supposed to make of this assertion of Lord Robertson: that white individual property rights made “Zimbabwe the second most prosperous country in Africa” while due to the land reclamation programme “Zimbabwe became one of the poorest countries on Earth”?

Who prospered under racist Rhodesia and who created the poverty in Zimbabwe to protest the land reform? Conveniently, in his article Robertson never for once alludes to the effect and impact of Western sanctions which were designed to make the economy “scream”. Tellingly, he sheds tears for the loss of 400 000 poor black farm labourers who made his race super-rich from their blood, tears and sweat. None of them earned anything close to US$100 a month while their masters bought private jets and had holidays in Europe — where they belong heart and soul, but make money on African soil.

Robertson and fellow white racists must resolve a simple question: Why is it important for President Mnangagwa (read blacks) to make a clean break with Mugabe’s policies (land reform and indigenisation) whereas it is not equally critical for whites to make a clean break with racist colonial privileges in land ownership patterns which made Mugabe’s decisions so popular? To all sane Zimbabweans the land reform became unavoidable once whites refused to give up their colonial privileges and made a farce of the policy of national reconciliation.

Let’s be clear about this: all the noise about the land reform programme in Zimbabwe and opposition to it was clearly meant to mask one big thing — that of the necessity of land reform in South Africa where ownership patterns are more skewed and inequalities entrenched.

In Zimbabwe, the liberation struggle was fought over land and the Lancaster House Agreement that led to Independence in 1980 recognised the centrality of the land question and set up mechanisms to resolve it. There was going to be a 10-year moratorium on land acquisitions, the land would be sold on the willing seller/willing buyer model and that the international community led by Britain and the US would help Zimbabwe with funds for the exercise, particularly with compensating farmers whose properties would be acquired for redistribution and amenities in resettlement areas.That was meant to work.

Well, in the end it didn’t, quite, thanks to the folly of one Tony Blair and his New Labour government that took power in Britain at the turn of the century. A situation developed that led to the inevitable war over land as the people of Zimbabwe, starting with ordinary peasants, reclaimed their land, the land of their ancestors, which Government of the day only moved to regularise in what came to be known as the Fast Track Land Reform Programme.

Zimbabwe gave birth to a new phenomenon in the 2st century. It showed the world that it — with its poor people in the forefront — would mount a revolution that could settle historical matters. It has been argued that the Government of the day had little power to stop the tide.

Just as well, it did well to champion the people’s cause with the then President Mugabe becoming the poster boy — or villain — of the revolution, depending on which side of history one belonged.

That story is well told now. As well storied is how Zimbabwe’s economy was targeted by sanctions to not only stop the process, but also remove the leadership that championed the programme. That’s how Britain influenced its bilateral, historical dispute with Zimbabwe with Western countries moving to isolate the southern African nation through sanctions. Zimbabwe had to be made an example of. An example of how small states in the developing world would be punished for challenging the wealth and property status quo and colonial imbalances.

And it was calculated that if land reform succeeded in Zimbabwe it would have a domino effect on the region in particular South Africa and Namibia. These are two countries whose land tenure systems have not changed a shade since the end of apartheid. It has been such a big shame, in particular for South Africa which likes to pose as a revolutionary country, led by the iconic African National Congress.

But the pace of land reform in South Africa has been ridiculously slow. On one level, there has not been the legal mechanism to implement land reform effectively. The so-called sunset clauses of the Independence negotiations in 1993/4 secured land and property rights for the minority white interests. It ignored the historical, social and economic imperatives for correcting the historical imbalances.

Black people, the owners of the land, were deprived of their land and livelihoods. The livelihoods depend on land — what’s on it and beneath it. But they owned, and still own, nothing. The best that blacks have achieved is to climb the ladder of whites to become executives of white capital and small time shareholders. The wealth, real wealth of the land and minerals, does not belong to the blacks whether the nominal ones or the real unvarnished poor majority.

Somehow, the world ought to accept that is normal. We ought to accept that the world beating inequalities and wealth gaps are natural. That blacks should be content with staying in the shack compounds of bordering opulent white neighbourhoods. Separated by wealth and colour of the skin. Separated by the land — ownership of resources — that determines power relations and distribution of resources. To challenge this is to demand to become “another Zimbabwe”.

Thus Zimbabwe was used as a scarecrow to shoo away land reform. Politicians would take time to assure their constituencies that Mzansi would not “go the Zimbabwe way”. Expropriation without compensation which is still very much in the lips of politicians. But things have just started moving in an interesting trajectory.

This week, South African parliament, led by the ANC and the EFF adopted a motion seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation. Expropriation without compensation is, in other simpler, words, taking land without paying a cent or dime for it.

Over the past couple of years the EFF, led by a Julius Malema, has been making noises for the adoption of the radical stance and was the one that raised the motion in the first place.

The motion was passed by 241 votes in favour versus 83 votes against. Parliament then instructed a committee to review the constitution and report back to it by August 30. Considering that the constitutional clause was a sticking point in legality, the amendment will pave way for a “legal” process.

It will change the course of history. “We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land,” says Malema.

It remains to be seen. The involvement of the government, and new President Cyril Ramaphosa, certainly raises important questions as to how such a high stakes programme will be handled.

On the other hand, the white right wing groups have promised to campaign globally against land reform. Which makes the case for a mini Zimbabwe playing all over again. But one can be assured that, if South Africa does the inevitable, it is unlikely to go the “Zimbabwe route”, which in fact should have provided lessons that we believe have been heeded.

Another key lesson though is that those that resist, the whites, will eventually lose everything – a warning that has been sounded a lot of times, including by ex-farmers here, to their South African counterparts. And, just as in Zimbabwe, the loss could be more than what they had budgeted for.

Similarly, the cost may be dear, but land will eventually return to its rightful owners who are the blacks. The domino has just hit South Africa, and it will be interesting to watch how we progress from here.

Zvayi is the Editor-in-Chief of The Herald. This article first appeared in the Herald