The land question in Zimbabwe

Land seizures, the background

In recent months, more than 23 years after gaining independence and majority rule, the government of Zimbabwe finally expropriated the remaining approximately 4,000 surplus[1] commercial farms owned by white people – the whites having had up until now a virtual monopoly over commercial farming in Zimbabwe. According to Stephen Chan[2], “In 1992, 4,500 mostly white farmers owned 11.5 million hectares. This was one third of the entire country. 7 million peasants lived on 16.4 million hectares of ‘communal’ farmland.” Since Independence, “the government had purchased 3.3 million hectares” (for the resettlement of dispossessed black farmers).

It is obvious that this situation was iniquitous. Moreover it was one which was always at the heart of the liberation movement. In fact it is fair to say that the millions of Zimbabwean peasants supported and fought in the war of liberation against settler colonialism precisely because they were cut off from the land and their livelihoods. It is not always realised that for them their expropriation at the hands of white settlers was not a matter of the dim and distant past. As David Blair explains in Degrees in Violence,[3] after 1945 “thousands of new white settlers were flocking to Rhodesia and many had been promised farms by the British government. Demobilized soldiers were offered the chance to farm in Africa as a reward for service in the Second World War, and Rhodesia opened up new tracts to provide for them … “Quietly, with no fanfare, vast numbers of blacks were moved to make way for the new settlers. … No fewer than 85,000 black families were evicted between 1945 and 1955, totalling perhaps 425,000 people. Considering that the black population in 1945 barely exceeded 1.5 million, something approaching 30 per cent of all ‘natives’ were moved from their homes. …

“[A] burning sense of grievance certainly existed. Land had been stolen, with blacks herded into ‘Native Reserves’ while their white rulers took possession of the most fertile fields.”

At the height of the liberation struggle, members of ZANU, the organisation which was most representative of the demands of the peasants and which therefore became and has remained, the leading party in the Zimbabwean people’s struggle for emancipation, would frequently stress the importance of solving the land question. The reason the peasants could never be satisfied by simply seeing a few black faces sitting in government positions was that for them the war was all about land, and without gaining land, the war would have been fought in vain.

Perfidious Albion

Robert Mugabe, ZANU’s leader, was always at pains to point out that he wanted the transfer of land to the majority population to be done consensually, with the white farmers, on the one hand, receiving compensation (to be provided by the British government who had been behind the 19th century expropriation of Zimabwe’s soil by British settlers) and on the other being able to retain modest-sized holdings that would enable them to sustain their livelihoods. He duly undertook during the Independence negotiations at Lancaster House in London in 1978 that there would be no land expropriation without compensation, since at the time he did not believe forcible expropriation would be necessary. Stephen Chan[4] explains: “Mugabe was certain that John Major had reassured him that Britain would indeed assist with funds for compensation. Blair [i.e., the present prime minister, Tony Blair] … thought that Britain was not committed to such previous understandings. It had been an understanding in principle; figures had been loosely suggested, but there was never any formal document of binding agreement. To that extent, Blair was within his rights. However, from the very first great push to resolve the Rhodesian issue in the mid-1970s, under Henry Kissinger, the matter of compensation – subscribed to in hefty sums by the international community – was always an accepted principle. It was implicit in the Lancaster House talks, but Carrington ensured that, although he recognised that a future government (of Zimbabwe) would want to widen the ownership of land, it found no formal enunciation in the final agreement. Mugabe was asked why he had given way, at Lancaster House, on the land issue. ‘We had to. That is the ‘giving way’ that I talked of, having to compromise on certain fundamental principles, but only because there was a chance, in the future, to amend the position’ [5] Stephen Chan, who is certainly no friend of Mugabe’s, nevertheless considers he was a victim of perfidious Albion, i.e., British imperialist treachery.

Once it finally became clear that Britain was not going to honour its obligations, then Mugabe made it extremely clear that expropriation would proceed without compensation. As early as 1996 he was already saying:

“We are going to take the land and we are not going to pay for the soil. This is our set policy. Our land was never bought (by the colonialists) and there is no way we could buy back the land. However, if Britain wants compensation they should give us money and we will pass it on to their children”.

Imperialist hysteria

Even at this point, the hope was that Britain would fulfil its obligations once it was made clear to them that expropriation would go ahead. But of course, Britain responded not. The final order to white farmers to surrender their surplus farms was not made until August last year, 2002, after giving “the international community” more than enough time to do the decent thing. Since “the international community”, however, is nothing other than the hyenas of imperialism, it was only too happy to see Mugabe, the leader of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle to whom they had had to concede defeat, discomfited. And although he was only doing what was logical and necessary and in accordance with the demands of his people, he was depicted in the western media as a power-crazed despot.

Of course, what really turned him in the eyes of imperialism from what Margaret Thatcher called the “perfect African gentleman” into a major hate figure was his intervention in sending troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo in support of the latter’s nationalist government against imperialist determination to seize control of its vast mineral wealth through the encouragement of secessionist movements and proxy aggression by Rwanda and Uganda. This was an act of tremendous self-sacrifice on the part of Zimbabwe in support of a just anti-imperialist cause. Financially there was no way Zimbabwe could afford to do it. Morally there was no way she could afford not to. The cost of military intervention was tremendous, and could only be to some extent at the expense of ordinary Zimbabweans. Imperialism saw an opportunity to create a rift between ZANU and the Zimbabwean people and lost no time trying to exploit it by mounting a scurrilous media blitz to demonise Robert Mugabe.

Typical of this media blitz, which has been going on for two or three years now, as if endless repetition could turn lies into truth, is The Guardian, the oh so liberal Guardian, of 25 June 2003 uncritically reviewing the South African press, and citing such gems as “Thabo Mbeki knows very well that Mr Mugabe is an unscrupulous dictator” and referring to Mugabe’s government as “a rogue government”.

Yet we know that Robert Mugabe’s only sin is in consistently standing up to imperialism in the interests of his people. This is the reason why when, as a result of the successes of the liberation war of the Zimbabwean people, the second Chimurenga, as it was called, imperialism decided it would be counter-productive to continue supporting white minority rule in Rhodesia, it struggled in a determined manner to prevent Mugabe from coming to power. “One of the few points of agreement between white Rhodesians and the British government was that victory for Mugabe was a terrifying prospect. In the words of Lord Carrington: ‘I viewed it with the greatest possible horror. One felt he was a Marxist and one wondered how awful he was going to be’.[6] Another tactic was to proclaim that ZANU intended to abolish Christmas! The details of the serious struggle to keep Mugabe out were documented at the time by a ZANU support organisation in London called the Zimbabwe Solidarity Front, and relevant articles from its journal will later this year be published in book form by Lalkar Publications. Suffice it to say at this stage, that every effort was made to sideline ZANU by forcing it, for instance, into alliance with ‘moderates’ in an effort to palm off on the people of Zimbabwe a government that could be guaranteed to put the interests of imperialism above the interests of the people. Then more ‘flexible’ black leaders – Bishop Abel Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole – were taken on board by the settler government into a government of ‘national unity’, in the hope that this would satisfy the masses and undermine the liberation war. All that happened, however, was that these reverend gentlemen lost what little support they had left. Elections were held, and these were won by an overwhelming majority by the ZANU-PF party, which had taken 57 seats. ZAPU, the other party that supported the armed liberation struggle, took 20 seats, ie., all but one of the seats in the Ndebele heartlands of Matabeleland, while “Muzorewa was reduced to the holder of three seats. All the South African money that had clandestinely helped to finance his campaign came to nothing in the face of a genuine desire for change”.[7] Nothing imperialism or the South African white supremacists could do could prevent the anti-imperialist Mugabe from taking power from Independence.

Civil war

Neither imperialism nor white supremacist South Africa reconciled themselves to defeat, and they immediately set about, in their different ways, trying to destabilise the Zimbabwean government. Obviously reactionaries exploit every weakness they can to try and cause difficulties to their enemies. The obvious fault line in Zimbabwe was the traditional tribal rivalries between the majority Shona tribe (70% of the population) and the minority Ndebele tribe (16% of the population). The Ndebele were many years ago the rulers of Zimbabwe, and some cherished dreams of becoming so again. Allegedly the ZAPU leader, Joshua Nkomo, was at least to some extent affected by this culture:

“The two large provinces that constitute the west of Zimbabwe are Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South. The majority population there are Ndebele, of Zulu ancestry. … Near the provincial capital, Bulawayo, … lie the Matopos Hills, an area of great spiritual significance and sweeping beauty. Here, there are natural columns of great boulders sitting on top of one another … Lobengula, the last great king of the Ndebele, was deceived and defeated by Rhodes, despite his ambassadors being kindly received by Queen Victoria. Once a generation, a female shaman is meant to appear at Matopos to anoint the spiritual heir of Lobengula, the one who would restore his reign and extend it over all Zimbabwe. Every year Nkomo would go to the great rock columns, hoping to be greeted by the shaman – who never came to him.” [8]

These are just the kind of chauvinistic dregs that reactionaries love to exploit to cause their enemies to fight each other, and in the early days of ZANU rule in Zimbabwe, it was by incitement of the Ndebele to rebellion that South Africa, itself still a white supremacist state at that time, was hoping to be able to teach a salutary racist lesson to its own black majority population, i.e., that black majority rule is a recipe for disaster.

Following the victory of the liberation struggle, ZANU, ever with an eye to maintaining the unity of the Zimbabwean people as they fought to better life for themselves in the teeth of opposition from imperialism and white supremacist South Africa, offered Nkomo the post of president of Zimbabwe. He, however, turned that down. He wanted nothing less than to be, so to speak, “king”, although his own forces were not only smaller but had also contributed far less overall to the liberation struggle. He refused to be “a china ornament sitting in the showcase”. Instead he became Home Affairs Minister, responsible for law and order. His sense of grievance meant that within a year of Zimbabwe’s independence, disgruntled ZAPU members were working to plunge the country into civil war, and in November 1980 fighting in fact broke out between former guerrilla fighters from the two organisations. Clearly this was not a situation that could be tolerated. Having failed to maintain law and order, Nkomo was in January 1981 demoted to the position of Minister without portfolio. In February 1981, there were further confrontations between the ex-guerrillas from both parties in Entumbane, in which 300 people were killed. After a security forces raid on four farms occupied by former Zipra (i.e., ZAPU guerrilla army) fighters, where “Enough rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and cases of ammunition to fill 50 railway carriages were found” [9], Nkomo was finally sacked from the government in February 1982, as were all of his ZAPU allies.

South African involvement

In the meantime, white supremacist South Africa was also intervening in several ways. In July 1982, South Africa took it upon itself to destroy Zimbabwe’s airforce in an act of cowardly banditry that Chan calls “a superbly planned and executed commando raid”! Chan continues: “At the end of 1982, South Africa began organising, training and recruiting a several-hundred-strong dissident group, comprised mostly of former ZIPRA fighters. These called themselves Super-ZAPU, believing their political leaders in ZAPU proper could not longer help their people” (p. 29).

Is it any wonder, then, that Mugabe and his government took swift and decisive action to put an end to this rebellion. When you have reached power through the waging of guerrilla warfare, you do not pussyfoot around in the face of organised movements designed to deprive you of your gains. The rebellion was crushed, much to the chagrin of white supremacist South Africa which was left trying to muster what support for its nefarious cause that it could by denouncing the ‘atrocities’ and ‘brutality’ of the military campaign through which the rebellion was defeated. This kind of thing impresses bourgeois liberal ideologues such as David Blair and Stephen Chan, but does not cut much ice with those who have been subjected to imperialism’s real brutality.

What, however, has always characterised Mugabe is his willingness to embrace those he has defeated and welcome them into the fold, on the strict understanding, of course, that henceforth their destructive behaviour will cease. The same conciliatory attitude that had been shown towards whites who had formerly been enthusiastically committed to white supremacy was extended to Ndebele dissidents, and in particular to Joshua Nkomo. Agreement was reached in 1987 that ZANU and ZAPU should merge, and that Joshua Nkomo should become the country’s joint vice president, thus putting an end to South Africa’s attempts to use the Ndebele to destabilise Zimbabwe.

The Matabeleland rebellion was inspired primarily by white supremacist South Africa, whose interests at that time were to some extent in contradiction with those of imperialism which, as its acceptance of black majority rule in Zimbabwe shows, was happy to accept black majority rule in the larger interests of hoping better to promote imperialist exploitation. The liberation struggle of the Zimbabwean people against white settler fascism was not in the interests of imperialism, so it had decided – albeit with bad grace – to accept black majority rule. Not so South Africa. Nevertheless, imperialism was never, as we have seen, comfortable with ZANU because of the latter’s commitment to the welfare of the masses of ordinary people, a project which in the view of imperialism could only make Zimbabwe an unattractive proposition as far as imperialist investment was concerned as the profits to be extracted would be seriously reduced by such wanton and, in their view, unnecessary expenditure. Although the imperialist media at the time did not go into overdrive in support of South Africa’s efforts to destabilise the ZANU regime, nor did they get particularly hysterical about the means used to suppress rebellion – unlike the situation today – nevertheless they were happy that the Zimbabwe government was being forced to spend a great deal of money and effort dealing with the problems that South Africa had engendered. This was forcing Zimbabwe to apply to imperialism for loans, which imperialism intended to use as leverage against Zimbabwe to bend it to imperialism’s will.

Economic reconstruction

From the very start, ZANU set about fulfilling its promises to the Zimbabwean people. On 12 August 2002, at the funeral of Dr Bernard Chidzero, Robert Mugabe referred in his funeral oration to the magnitude of the task facing the ZANU government at liberation:

“Here was a war ravaged country in very great need but little resources; a people with severe scars of war holding on to a tenuous peace and of course to great expectations and dreams that were not commensurate with available means and prospects of them. We had fighters who needed to be either integrated or demobilized; refugees and war displaced who needed rehabilitation and resettlement; school children who needed schools, books and teachers; workers who expected the wand of independence magically to yield fabulous wages and salaries; peasants who needed not just durable peace but their forefathers’ lands and traditional systems restored. Roads, schools, homes, clinics and hospitals needed rehabilitation, reconstruction and expansion. Then, of course, we also had Ian Smith’s war-related debts to service … We also had apartheid South Africa, all the time threatening us, sabotaging our independence and thus forcing us to build on defence capabilities”.

In order to meet these needs, as well as to defend its government against destabilisation efforts and defend its export routes against the RENAMO guerrillas that South Africa was backing in Mozambique, ZANU decided to borrow from the World Bank and IMF – not a huge amount, but nevertheless a debt that would have to be repaid. Because it needed to borrow, it also needed to satisfy the lenders of its ability to repay, and this is probably another reason why ZANU did not proceed more speedily with the expropriation of the white farmers, feeling that it needed to consolidate its base before taking on the wrath of imperialism. For the white farmers were producing export crops, particularly tobacco, at competitive prices through use of modern technology (as well as cheap labour), and to expropriate them at this juncture would have definitely involved the loss of significant export earnings and inability to pay the debts incurred to international finance capital. If the total annual value of Zimbabwean exports is $2.4 billion (1996 estimate), agricultural products account for about $1 billion – tobacco alone for about $800 million. These are clearly sums which can only be sacrificed at a price, and at a time when the masses are ready for that price to be paid. To decide that, despite the well-known dire economic consequences of borrowing from imperialism, nonetheless for the moment such borrowing was a more viable option than steaming ahead with land expropriation was a very tough decision to make. It is not for nothing that in paying tribute to Dr Chidzero, who was responsible for such decisions, Robert Mugabe commented: “It was quite an intimidating Independence menu and one that would not encourage anyone to want to be my Finance Minister”. Yet “Bernard came and took on the challenge …”

In all events, the money borrowed was used to good effect. As Angie Todd writes in the Cuban English language publication, Granma International in October 2002, “In the first 10 years of independence education absorbed 10-22 per cent of the national budget. Primary education became free and compulsory, and schools and hospitals were built in the rural areas. “From 1978 to 1989 infant mortality dropped from 130 per 1,000 births to 65 …”

Devastation by SAPs

But then came payback time. Imperialism demanded implementation of a programme of structural adjustment that spelt “liberalisation of trade and capital flows, the abolition of food subsidies and cutbacks in the health and education sectors. The result: inflationary pressure due to increased import prices, businesses closing due to an inability to compete on the international market, the export of capital funds and increased prices on all staple foods. “In five years the IMF destroyed 40 per cent of industrial output. … Zimbabwe was forced to sell its maize reserves for IMF-ordered profits …” (ibid.). Unemployment increased from 45% to 60% and inflation from 100% to 300%. The sale of maize reserves obviously left the country open to famine in years when the crops fail, which in Zimbabwe periodically they do, and they did in 2001, as a result of a drought that engulfed the whole of southern Africa. All this the imperialist press has the gall to attribute to Mugabe’s ‘economic mismanagement’, when clearly it is the effect of implementing imperialism’s own demands. Every country which implements the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes is likewise bankrupted – the only difference being that not all countries make efforts to maintain welfare provision for the masses. George Monbiot points out:

“Throughout the coverage of Zimbabwe there is an undercurrent both of racism and of regret that Britain ever let Rhodesia go… Readers are led to conclude that Ian Smith was right all along: the only people who know how to run Africa are the whites. But, through the IMF, the World Bank and bilateral aid programmes, with their extraordinary conditions, the whites do run Africa, and a right hash they are making of it. Over the past ten years, according to the UN’s latest human development report, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than a dollar a day has risen from 242 to 300 million. The more rigorously Africa’s governments apply the policies demanded by the whites, the poorer their people become.”

Show down time

To add injury to insult, imperialism has, of course, gleefully been taking advantage of the discontent aroused by application of its structural adjustment programmes to endeavour to put together a pro-imperialist opposition in Zimbabwe – hence the so-called Movement for Democratic Freedom, praised to the skies of course by every ‘left-wing’ social-democratic toadie of imperialism in this country, despite the fact that its programme is one of absolute surrender to imperialism. If the people of Zimbabwe have legitimate grievances, they would certainly never be addressed by a government formed by the Movement for Democratic Change! Nevertheless, imperialism poured vast amounts of cash and Trotskyites into endeavouring to build this Movement for Democratic Freedom into a force that could defeat ZANU at the polls – but all to little effect. By mobilising the discontent of a significant minority, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) certainly creates nuisance value, but recent events have shown that the Zimbabwean people are not so naïve as to support it in large enough numbers to topple the Zimbabwean regime. Not only did it lose the 2002 elections in Zimbabwe (a loss attributed by the imperialist press to violence and poll-rigging on the part of the government – undemocratically interfering with the imperialist cheque-book ballot rigging), but it has been ineffective in mobilising the masses to overthrow the “unrepresentative” ZANU government, which is the least its imperialist masters expected of it. Imperialism was very disappointed by the MDC’s failure at the beginning of June to achieve its declared aim in a “week of protest billed as a ‘final push’ to unseat President Robert Mugabe” (Financial Times, 7 June 2003). The week of protest merely showed that the MDC had very little support and “a national day of marches planned for yesterday [6 June] fizzled out …” (ibid.). Although imperialism naturally tried to blame this on ZANU’s ‘brutal suppression of dissent’, Jono Waters in South Africa’s Business Week of 20 June 2003 wryly pointed out “the point that keeps getting missed is that most of Zimbabwe’s cowed and subjugated population appear to feel the MDC is not worth being beaten up for, let alone dying for.” The point, we might add, that Jono Waters misses is that the greater part of Zimbabweans are not at all “cowed and subjugated” – it is only the would-be comprador class that feels this way, and those who are “cowing and subjugating” them are the majority of the population who continue to support ZANU and would be ashamed to do otherwise, especially when the going is tough. In fact, Jono Waters is forced, in the same article from which we quoted above, to admit that “people do not see an opposition leadership that struggles and thinks and feels with them. They see a bunch of greedy, US-dollar salaried, Pajero drivers”, or what might be called in Kenya members of the ‘Wa Benzi’ tribe, i.e., those who flaunt their comprador status by driving around in Mercedes Benzes supplied to them for their services to imperialism.

Since it is now clear to all that there is little or nothing to be gained for Zimbabwe in co-operating with imperialism and being in a financial position dutifully to pay up on one’s indebtedness to imperialism, since in any event there are no more loans forthcoming from imperialism, which has subjected Zimbabwe to sanctions in its efforts to overthrow the ZANU nationalist government, then there is nothing to inhibit ZANU from going ahead with land expropriations. In fact, to do so is an essential first step in securing sufficient independent food supplies for the people of Zimbabwe during the years of showdown with imperialism that lie ahead. Imperialism, for its part, will try to use trade embargoes and other destabilising tactics – maybe even the kind of bombing campaign combined with electoral fraud that finished off Yugoslavia’s attempts to preserve its independence – to persuade the Zimbabweans to surrender. In the fight against imperialism, the people of Zimbabwe have to be prepared for hard times ahead.

Understanding this, Robert Mugabe appealed to them at Bernard Chidzero’s funeral:

“Today we lay Bernard to rest among men and women of his ilk, those men and women who dedicated and lost their precious lives in the service of our Nation and our people …

“Bernard and all who lie buried here worked for the people, sacrificed for their well-being and that of our children. Today, in the eerie silence of this sacred acre, they ask you and me many questions. What have you done for your country in your little sphere of activity? What are you doing with your life for your Nation, for your People, for our Children? Or are you negating the very illustrious essence of those proud and venerated men and women of honour we gather yearly to acknowledge?

“If Joshua Nkomo were to rise this hour, would you be fit to hold his hand and walk in step with him down the path that emanates from this very sacred shrine and ends in a great future for our country? If Leopold Takwira, Chairman Herbert Chitepo, General Josiah Magama Tongogara, Jason Moyo, Nikita Mangena were here with us today, would you embrace them and greet them in comradeship; would you be found among the trusted cadres they would have proudly inspected …

“What is your cause today? Does it derive from and connect with the lofty ideals of these men and women we honour today? Or are you, through your actions today, a willing traitor and second executioner of these heroes; willing posthumous betrayer of their cause, indeed the eager butcher of our revolution, our heritage and the future of our children? …

“Each grave here speaks to our Nation through the undying, immanent spirit of the heroic men or women whose transient remains it keeps. Each one of these lives will tell you a tale of fortitude; will chastise you when your courage and endurance weakens, reminding you that there is not a life too precious to be laid for this Nation; no battle too hard to be fought for this land, indeed no enemy too big, too powerful, too awesome to be fought and vanquished for this land. Each one of these lives will remind you with the harshest of language that there is no price big enough to fetch this Nation; no gold, no silver, precious enough, to buy its sovereignty. We are not for sale.”

He added: “Those who lie here struggled and died for a cause and that cause is fundamentally the land which must come back; which is coming back and, for the peasant, which has come back in significant quantities.”


1. We are never told this, but all white farmers are being allowed to keep at least one good sized farm. What has been confiscated is their second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. farms.

2. Robert Mugabe – a life of power and violence, I B Tauris & Co Ltd, London, 2003. Stephen Chan was a member of the Common wealth Secretariat at the time of Zimbabwe’s independence. As Professor of International Relations at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he is, of course, hostile to Robert Mugabe, but is nevertheless surprisingly informative about the imperialist-inspired sabotage of ZANU’s efforts to build a society delivering social justice to Zimbabwe’s population, including its 11 million black people who had before Liberation counted for nothing in the white supremacist regime that governed the country on behalf of imperialism.

3. Continuum, London, 2003, another anti-Mugabe book.

4. Op. cit. p.112

5. The quotation from Mugabe was excerpted in Michael Charlton, The Last Colony in Africa: Diplomacy and the Independence of Rhodesia, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990, p.152.

6. David Blair, op. cit., p.11

7. Chan, ibid., p. 17

8. Chan, op. cit., p.25.

9. Blair, op. cit. p. 30.

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