Zimbabwe - The land-seizures and the British government's hypocrisy

May-Jun 2000

The land seizures taking place in Zimbabwe, which hit the headlines at the beginning of April, triggered a response of outrage from the British government and media, against what they described as a state of "anarchy". When two white farmers were killed in the confrontations, even the usually parochial tabloids devoted full front pages to the events while the British government claimed the high moral ground in the name of "human rights", "democracy" and "international law".

As if Robert Mugabe's regime had ever been "democratic"! For twenty years British governments did business with Mugabe. But they never found very much to say about the way political opponents, strikers and demonstrators were treated by the regime.

Nor did British governments ever find anything to say about the "human rights" of the seven million black poor who were struggling for survival in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, while 4,000 or so white commercial farmers, mostly left over from the colonial days, occupied 70% of the country's arable farmland!

Indeed, the fact that such a situation prevails in Zimbabwe is the real "outrage". And it is the British state which carries most of the responsibility for it. Because this situation is the direct consequence of the independence agreement it engineered in 1980 and of the subsequent failure of successive British governments to honour their part of the agreement - the provision of funds to buy out the land of the white commercial farmers and assist a fair resettlement programme for the black poor. And if Mugabe should be blamed, it is not for infringing the "human rights" of the commercial farmers, but rather for having respected their illegitimate rights over the land, in accordance with the independence agreement, for much too long.

Of course, Blair and Cook's talk about "democracy" or "human rights" is pure hypocrisy. The fact is that Mugabe has been in Britain's bad books for some time already. He has been providing troops - some 11,000 - for a war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supporting Kabila against Britain's friends, the presidents of Uganda and Burundi. He also broke diplomatic immunity rules this year when he impounded a British "diplomatic bag" - whose content was a planeload of suspicious "telecommunications" equipment - quite understandably, one might think.

And now, in addition to this, there is Mugabe's apparent support - for reasons which have certainly nothing to do with the interests of the poor masses - for the black poor who dare to assert their rights over the land owned by the white commercial farmers. Not only is Mugabe encouraging the violation of capitalist property by the poor masses, but in so far as many of these white commercial farmers are either British passport holders or trustees of imperialist landowners, Mugabe is also encouraging open defiance to imperialist rule in his country. And this is something that the Labour government is not prepared to tolerate in the backyard of British capital.

The land question, "settled" by Britain

Whatever Mugabe's political motives may be, land question as it is posed today for most of the Zimbabwean poor is the creation of a century of British occupation and the settlement engineered by Britain which led to independence.

Until 1923, what was then the Rhodesian Federation (comprising what are today Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia) was run by the British-South Africa Company (BSAC), more or less. In 1923, Britain took the territory over as a Crown Colony. In 1931 the first significant land legislation was enacted which made the existing segregation in land allocation "legal". For what is now Zimbabwe, this formalised a division of the land into "Native Reserves" accounting for 22.4% of the country and "European Areas" accounting for 50.8% of the country. There was a small "African Purchase Area" comprising 7.7% of the land where better-off Africans could buy or lease individual plots, the rest of the land being wildlife parks, urban areas etc.

Things did not improve in subsequent decades. In 1941 a new Act acknowledged the existence of urban African Townships allowing Africans to live - but not own property - in European areas. Rhodesia was experiencing industrial expansion and workers were needed in the towns.

The situation remained thus until the 1960s, when Southern Rhodesia, as distinct from "Northern" Rhodesia (which gained independence as Zambia and Malawi), was designated as a separate entity with its own constitution but still under British sovereignty. The capitalists involved in financial, mining, farming and manufacturing interests (like Tiny Rowland's Lonrho), did not want "Southern Rhodesia" to have black majority rule.

However in the meantime black "Rhodesian" nationalists intensified their struggle for independence, making the situation too unstable for the easy flow of profits to Britain. It was under this threat, that Ian Smith, the then Rhodesian prime minister made his notorious "unilateral declaration of independence" in 1965 and established his own local version of apartheid in order to prevent the introduction of black rule.

Then, in 1969 Smith replaced the Land Apportionment Act with the Land Tenure Act. It converted most existing unreserved land into European areas. The "European" territory was actually increased and land was seized in what had previously been "Native Reserves". This was done by force. As a Financial Times article, perhaps surprisingly, recalled on the 13th April this year: "Just before dawn on September 18, 1969, the homes and crops of Chief Rekayi Tangwenya and his followers were flattened by a bulldozer accompanied by nine police Land-Rovers. Almost 500 cattle were subsequently impounded. Although it was his ancestral home, in the eyes of the regime they were illegal squatters on land the law decreed was white. Five years later, the chief and his people were evicted. No compensation was paid. Nor did Chief Tangwenya have the option of sanctuary in Britain or Australia. Instead he took to the hills, a proud old man defying attempts to arrest him, but not a subject for the international media."

In the end, after 15 years of bush fighting, Smith's Rhodesian Front army proved unable to contain the two main nationalist guerilla armies of ZAPU and ZANU, which had joined forces to form the Patriotic Front, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. In passing, it should be noted that during these years the white farms served as outposts for Smith's army and the majority of white farmers were active participants in Smith's Rhodesian Front. Meanwhile, a significant section of the rural black population was herded into so-called "protected villages" which meant they lost the plots of land they cultivated to subsist. These villages were little more than concentration camps where the rural poor suffered near starvation and succumbed to endemic diseases like malaria and TB.

In 1979, to cut his losses, Smith agreed to have the British help him negotiate his way out of this war which he was going to lose. Finally, in 1980, an agreement was forged at Lancaster House, one which saved Smith's neck and gave the tiny white minority guaranteed seats in parliament. Mugabe and his co-leaders signed the Lancaster House agreement, knowing full well that it protected the property rights of white farmers, white businesses and mining companies for 10 years. Indeed, "European Land" could only be acquired if the owner volunteered it and was compensated in foreign currency (the "willing seller, willing buyer" clause). Britain and the USA were meant to finance a scheme of compensation for those white farmers who voluntarily gave up their farms and for the resettlement of Africans on the previously white-owned land. The sum envisaged as needed at the time was $2bn. But all in all the only sum that was ever paid came to the grand total of £44m shortly after independence! Since then every excuse in the book has been used by the "donor community" to avoid paying a penny.

The marginalisation of the poor

The provisions of the Lancaster House Agreement left the black population largely marginalised due to the concessions made to the white landowners and business interests. It was not surprising therefore, that right from the start, in the early eighties, unrest over the land question dominated political and social life.

In 1982, the regime promised to settle 162,000 families by 1985. But by 1985, only 35,000 families had been resettled on formerly white-owned land, mostly in the drier regions. And this still left the commercial farmers with 90% of the farmland they owned at the time of independence. To justify this policy, Mugabe maintained that he could not afford to damage the commercial farming sector because of its contribution to the economy (40% of foreign earnings).

Land purchases in the 1980s were dominated by purchases of abandoned and squatted land, since commercial farmers had no compulsion to offer their land for sale to the state. The result was the perpetuation of a dual system. On the one hand there were the poor communal lands, in mainly infertile areas, or land the commercial sector did not want anymore, and on the other, rich, fertile, well serviced private farms run by white farmers and private companies.

In the black settlement areas, the peasants found themselves in a "catch 22" situation. The state was meant to finance services, infrastructure, farm equipment, seeds etc., aided by the promised donor contributions, which did not, however, materialise. So the peasants got little help from that direction. And since most resettlement was on a communal or co-operative basis, because the peasants were too poor to buy their own land, they could not borrow money from the banks either, having no security to offer. As a result, in many cases, they were left high and dry without the possibility of acquiring even the most basic equipment.

After 1985, a five-year development plan had envisaged that 15,000 families would be resettled annually. However, though the government had 600,000 hectares available immediately, the resettlement plan ground to a halt through lack of finance. In fact, the Land Acquisition Act 1985 had a contradictory effect: because the government could or would not buy many of the farms offered to it for purchase, instead, a number went back onto the private market. Well over 1m hectares changed hands this way, many to senior members of the government and the new black ruling elite. In 1986 it was estimated that 300 black landowners had joined the 4,000 or so whites as "commercial farmers" and as members of the powerful Commercial Farmers Union (CFU).

By the late 1980s, the so-called commercial sector accounted for 80% of total marketed agricultural production and 35-40% of foreign exchange earnings. The "indispensability" of the commercial farm sector was taken for granted. The issue of resettlement was no longer considered a priority by the regime, at least not through transferring working commercial farms to poor black farmers. At best the emphasis was on seeking "unde-used" land comprised in commercial farms, so as not to reduce the contribution of the latter to the country's exports.

In 1990, the Lancaster Agreement protection of white-owned land came to an end. This meant that the regime could now decree the compulsory acquisitions of commercial farms. Mugabe amended the constitution so that the government could fix its own price for compensation without the owners having a right of appeal to the courts. But because of the consequent designation of white- owned farms for compulsory acquisition, donors (the USA, Britain, the IMF and World Bank) refused to provide promised finance. And in the end very little came out of these changes. At least not for the black poor, because by October 1994, no fewer than 17 cabinet ministers had become members of the Commercial Farmers' Union - which meant that increasingly, ministers found common ground with the white commercial farmers, quite literally.

Pressures from the poor

Eventually, the increasingly visible corruption of the regime around land ownership backfired. By late 1994, the government was forced by popular outrage to cancel land-leases for large state-owned farms given to 98 "political fat cats". A list was published of 345 white and black tenant farmers who had been given land this way, including the Cabinet Secretary who had got a 40,000 hectare farm, the Education and Culture Minister who had been given a five-year lease on a farm originally designated for the resettlement of 33 families, and the Deputy Secretary for Commerce and Industry. These farms were being leased for as little as 5% of the commercial "going rate".

Mugabe pleaded no prior knowledge of this corruption and the leases were cancelled. However this was not the end of this practice. In early 1996, 22 farms meant for resettlement were leased to political heavyweights instead.

In the meantime, the rural population was increasingly impatient and disgusted with the government's behaviour. Of course, "illegal" land occupations had been taking place all along during these years - in the late 1980s, already, Mashonaland West and Manicaland Provinces recorded squatter populations of over 35,000 people. Encroachment onto white farms as well as abandoned farms and farms owned by absentee landlords, remained a key tactic in the battle for survival by the rural poor. But in October 1996, an idle state-owned farm in Matabeleland was invaded in defiance of the government. Increasingly the anger of the rural poor was directed at the regime itself.

Clearly Mugabe had to be seen to be doing something. In 1998, he announced his so-called "land grab policy" whereby the government proposed to compensate white farmers for any improvements they had made on their farms, but not for the land itself - which was, after all, perfectly justifiable. But once again, this announcement stymied the donor talks for the next two years as the imperialist financial institutions refused to have anything to do with it. But Mugabe remained as careful as ever to avoid upsetting the CFU or the IMF and as a result, this policy came to nothing.

However, caught between the rising discontent which was shaking the country - expressed, among other things, by recurring waves of land occupation throughout 1998 and 1999 - and the refusal of the international institutions to offer any help, Mugabe decided to go on the offensive. In the first full rewriting of the 1980 constitution, which was to be put to referendum in February this year, Mugabe introduced a clause giving the government powers to carry out compulsory land acquisition without compensation. However, while introducing at the same time provisions limiting the term of office of the country's future presidents, he made sure that these limits would not apply to him. As a result this referendum turned into a plebiscite on Mugabe's own rule and he lost it - although by a small margin and on a low 20% turnout. Shortly after this, on 17 April, Mugabe reintroduced the clause on compulsory land acquisition as an amendment to the present constitution. Only this time, in a gesture of defiance which has infuriated Blair and his ministers, he added the provision that any compensation would have to be paid by the British state in its capacity as former colonial power.

As a result the land issue remains in limbo. To date, only 65,000 families have been officially resettled on 2.5m hectares against the 20-year old government target of 162,000 families. 11m hectares remain in the hands of white commercial freeholders. It should be noted that the reasons given by the liberation war veterans for their new spate of farm invasions (they staged similar invasions last year but withdrew on the reassurance that resettlement would be speeded up) are the continued slow pace of reform; the fact that 841 farms out of the original list of 1,471 farms targeted for compulsory acquisition were contested by their owners and actually withdrawn by the government from the process; and the "No" vote on the draft constitution which would have made land acquisition easier.

These war veterans led by Dr Hunzvi (but the land invasions do not seem to have been carried out only by them) are portrayed by the media as Mugabe's henchmen, loyal to the ruling ZANU-PF and the present villains of the piece. However, in 1997 for instance, it was these same war veterans who were among the first organised group outside of the trade unions to challenge Mugabe's austerity, in a fight to force him to pay a promised gratuity in full.

The imperialist screw

British ministers often deride Mugabe when he blames the colonial legacy for the poor state of Zimbabwe's economy. In a way they are right. It is indeed not the colonialism of the past which is the main problem in Zimbabwe today, but the colonialism of the present. In other words, the policies of the imperialist countries, and particularly Britain in the case of Zimbabwe, towards poor Third World countries which they force into a position of dependence - on aid, loans, foreign investment - and therefore into the position of exploitable backyards of the former colonial powers.

And this "colonialism" is not just manifested in the ownership by white commercial farmers of nearly half the land. The British-owned Standard Chartered bank is, for instance, Zimbabwe's main banking group providing loans secured by farmland to the commercial farming sector. Barclays has always been associated closely with Zimbabwe's major industry, mining. And the British giant BAT has a virtual monopoly over the country's main agricultural product, tobacco. In addition, two South-African companies closely linked to British capital - Anglo- American and Old Mutual - have a dominant position in mining and insurance respectively.

After a long period of resistance to the IMF's programmes of "structural adjustment" which makes loans conditional on public sector cuts and privatisations, eventually Mugabe's regime gave in in 1991. He heralded this official turn to a "mixed economy" with 32,000 public sector job cuts and since then the public sector has been under constant government attack.

Since the so-called structural adjustment programme was introduced in 1991, there has been a 37% fall in real wages. In 1992, Mugabe removed the subsidies on basic foods (beef, milk, maize-meal). By 1993 food prices had increased by 70%. Health spending dropped by one third, just as HIV was starting to hit epidemic proportions. In 1994, out of a labour force of 4.2m, only 1.2m (28%) were on a regular money wage. The rest were either totally unemployed (officially 34%), engaged in hand-to- mouth informal sector activities or communal farm in under disguised unemployment. By 1996, 60% percent of urban residents lived in illegal shanties sprouting up in the areas around the main cities.

But probably the degradation of social conditions would have been even faster had the working class and urban poor failed to fight back.

1994 was a year of strikes. Posts and Telecommunication workers, health workers, doctors, teachers, all joined in. The following year, the first large-scale food riots erupted. Then came the Civil Service strike of 1996, which was supported by other sections of the public sector, but opposed by the ZANU-controlled Zimbabwean TUC (ZTUC). Strikes and riots were again a feature throughout 1997 and 1998, exacerbated in October/November 1998 by the government's decision to increase the price of fuel by 67% - which pushed up public transport costs by 40%. These were crushed by troops and riot police. This time, unlike in 1996, the ZTUC leaders chose to take control of the discontent. They announced another programme of strikes, led by civil servants, to take place every Wednesday. At least one person was shot dead during this strike, strike leaders were arrested and demonstrations were brutally broken up by police and soldiers. At the time, no Labour minister made the slightest protest against the repression.

1999 began with more riots over food prices. At least 20 people were injured by gunshots and 1,000 people detained without trial. Two opposition journalists were abducted, imprisoned and later tortured. In March the ZTUC organised a nationwide strike over tax and price rises. Nationwide student protests occurred and the University of Zimbabwe and Harare polytechnic were closed indefinitely in June 1999. There were further strikes in November. All in all over the year it is estimated that 10 people were killed during demonstrations. Again, there were no exclamations of outrage over these events on the front pages of the British press, nor in Westminster.

Indeed it is rather Mugabe's non-compliance to all of the IMF's demands that has preoccupied the imperialist countries. While he proved quite dutiful when it came to public service cuts, the privatisation of state-owned companies has been a different matter. To the displeasure of the IMF, only the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe, the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, the Rainbow Tourism Group and Dairibord of Zimbabwe have so far been sold off - in the space of 9 years.

In August last year the IMF agreed further loans (which have been suspended since), but only on condition that the government committed itself to laying off 15,000 more civil servants; abolishing price controls on the staple food, maize-meal; refraining from imposing any new price controls; increasing electricity tariffs; and privatising the main state-owned companies - some before the end of the year and the rest in the near future.

In the meantime, food output has declined sharply over the past year - maize by 61%, cotton (a source of cooking oil) by 47% and vegetables by 49%. This is partly put down to the loss of workers and working days due to HIV/Aids (25% of the population is estimated to be infected with HIV), since more than half the staple maize and export crops of cotton and tobacco are grown by smallholders on communal lands.

And there is no hope of improvement. It is estimated that more than half the government's entire budget for the 2000 fiscal year is owed to foreign creditors. Today inflation is at 60%, the local currency has lost 70% of its value and petrol is in dire shortage. Unofficially, unemployment is as high as 50%.

It is an economic catastrophe which is affecting Zimbabwe. And the imperialist market is the main factor in this catastrophe. It takes politicians wholly devoted to the interests of imperialism to dare deny the black poor of Zimbabwe, as Blair does, the right to use their own land for their survival.

For the rights of the poor

If Mugabe's support for the land seizure is primarily designed to whip up support for himself against his political rivals, Blair, in opposing him, is defending the interests of imperialism in general and British imperialism in particular.

Whatever one may think of Mugabe's demagogy, his demand that any compensation must be provided by the ex-colonial countries is entirely justifiable. Just as it would be entirely justifiable for the poor masses of Zimbabwe to demand from the white settlers that they give up their land and share the fate of the black farmers on equal terms - that is, those white farmers who want to remain in Zimbabwe.

It is impossible to gauge from here the nature of the political currents which may exist within the land-seizure movement. But it is clear that the existing main political forces have nothing to offer the poor masses.

On the government side, Mugabe's 20 year-old corrupt regime can only offer more of the same. It cannot protect the poor population from the exploitation of the world market. It has proved this during all these years where its only answer to its failures was to become even more repressive and more corrupt.

On the opposition side, the only current that is visible from Britain is the recently-formed Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC). Originally the MDC resulted from a split within the leading circles of Mugabe's party, ZANU, led by the then leaders of the ZTUC, themselves old dignitaries of the party machinery. Not surprisingly, apart from general statements in favour of democratic changes, the MDC has nothing to offer the poor masses. In fact its main difference with Mugabe comes down to nurturing the illusion that by complying wholeheartedly to the IMF diktats, the country will return to its past (very relative) prosperity thanks to foreign aid and investment. Such a policy might benefit the thin layer of aspiring local businessmen and politicians, who will be able to cream off Western aid to their own advantage by parasitising the state. But it can only lead to aggravated poverty for the vast majority of the population, which will have to foot the bill both for the increased plundering of imperialism and the parasitism of the new enlarged elite. As to the land question, the programme of the MDC is first of all to generalise private tenure at the expense of communal tenure. This explains why the MDC enjoys the full backing of the Commercial Farmers Union. But it also means that not only does the MDC intend to uphold the property rights of the commercial farmers but also that it intends to deprive a large section of the rural poor living on communal land of their livelihoods, because they will be too poor to buy a plot of land large enough to survive on.

So today, it is unlikely that the poor masses who are invading the commercial farmers' land in the hope that it will improve their lot have a policy to guarantee that it will. And yet the expropriation of the country's landowners could indeed be the starting point of a major change. But only provided it was not aimed at producing hundreds of thousands of tiny privately-owned plots, too small and too poor for anyone to live on. Real change would require the wholesale nationalisation of the land - so as to prevent a new class of rich farmers from emerging, thanks to the bankruptcy of the less successful ones. It would require the systematic use of the resources of the state and industry to provide agriculture with the machinery and the technology necessary to increase productivity, not to produce industrial crops, but to bring subsistence production to a level sufficient to feed and clothe the entire population properly. But to achieve this would mean putting an end to the parasitism of the elite on the state. It would mean the poor masses, urban and rural, rising together, not as foot soldiers for one clique of privileged against another, but to take political power as the vanguard of the African proletariat, against all capitalist parasites, African and imperialist.

As Thomas Mapfumo, a well-known Zimbabwean musician whose popularity goes back to the days of the struggle for independence, sings today: "Corruption racks our country. Thieves are dispossessing us. But we'll chase you away. You shall run, run, run." But it is all the thieves that must be chased away.

8 May 2000