Heroes and Villains in the Same Body

An unmitigated disaster, or a product of his context?

An unmitigated disaster, or a product of his context?

We recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Mandela’s release from Robben Island. It’s hard to believe that was as recently as 1990. Not many independence heroes remain from the wave of Sub-Saharan liberations, though that wave spanned more than 30 years. The leaders of the independence movements which started with Ghana in 1957 and spanned the 1960s remain cultural and political touchstones for Africa: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (so famous his name is recognized by my MS Word spell-check); ‘Mwalimu’ (Teacher) Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; ‘Ngwazi’(Hero) Hastings Banda of Malawi; Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia; Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. In the mid 70’s more difficult, violent independences were won: Mozambique through Frelimo in 1975; Angola’s, so wonderfully evoked by Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life. And in 1990 Mandela’s release led to his election.

I’ve missed out many leaders, but by far the most obvious is Robert Mugabe, the only one still in power. Zimbabwe / Southern Rhodesia suffered the indignity of ‘independence’ in 1965 declared by white settlers, aiming to head off managed decolonisation by the British, so their privilege could be maintained through a restriction of the franchise to whites. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF was one of two leading lights of a guerrilla war for independence against white minority rule that ran until 1980, when true independence as defined by franchise for the black population of Zimbabwe, was won. It was a war won by the young – when it ended, two-thirds of the guerrillas who went through demobilization were 24 years old or younger.

It’s difficult for Westerners, particularly those who have come of political age in the last ten or fifteen years, to understand it, but Mugabe remains popular. Almost everyone accepts he has overstayed his welcome, but still hold affection for him. Malawi inaugurated a Robert Mugabe Highway just a couple of years ago; similar roads are found in most major African cities. Yet, in the West, his name is a by-word for economic mis-management, suppression of rights, and all that is wrong with governance in Africa. This is despite the fact that other, much loved, African leaders did similar things to Mugabe without incurring the same poor reputation. Nyerere seized property from Tanzanian Asians and forced socialization of villages in Tanzania, yet is still rightly revered as the father of modern Tanzania. How do we reconcile these views?

At root, these questions derive from selective memory on both sides, and differing readings of the land question. The first point to make is about the source of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic economic decline. Many in the West make the lazy assumption that Mugabe precipitated economic collapse through the land seizures. This is not true, though they certainly have in many ways contributed to the continuation of suffering. Economic collapse predated the land settlements. The ultimate source was structural adjustment. To quote from Africans:

Even more damaging was the [structural adjustment] programme devised in 1991 for Zimbabwe’s relatively successful economy. By opening its industries to South African competition, structural adjustment reduced manufacturing output by 21 percent in four years, exports declined, unemployment rose, debt increased sharply, and when world tobacco prices also fell at the end of the decade, the regime took refuge in an expropriation of surviving European farms, which devastated agricultural production.

However, this reading of the land question is also incomplete: it implies that Mugabe seized land because sources of revenues and financing for the complex patronage systems that keep leaders like him in power were devastated by structural adjustment, and therefore land seizures were undertaken as a means to spread patronage. I recently read an old-ish piece by Mahmood Mamdani in the LRB which roots the land seizures much more firmly in a historical moment, both as the culmination of pressures on Mugabe and the response to intense historical injustices.

The first point, one that we have to keep right in the forefront of our minds while considering Zimbabwe is that the land seizures were and remain overwhelmingly popular policies within Zimbabwe – because they rectify an injustice that was only a couple of generations old, and one which blacks had never been allowed to question until 1980. To quote Mamdani:

Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, but the social realities of the newly independent state remained embedded in an earlier historical period: some six thousand white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of prime land, 39 per cent of the land in the country…

The injustice of the system that set up this land distribution was not to be questioned by the agreement that Britain drafted in Lancaster House in 1979 that paved the way for elections in 1980. This agreement basically assumed that this land distribution was legitimate and sustainable: it allowed only for land transfers on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis until 1990. Land transfers proceeded only slowly, and only the most marginal land was transferred. This stimulated squatting by black families or farmers who needed land and had no legal access to it. So ingrained was the white privilege of land owners that even five years after the elections in 1980, Zimbabwean law still defined squatting on racial terms: only an African could be a squatter.

Despite this, Mugabe was initially anti-squatter – at one point even burning down the illegal constructions erected by black farmers on European land. Yet the pressure for forcible land redistribution kept gathering pace, led by those now-aging 24 year olds who had fought the liberation struggle and by the Zimbabwean businessmen who sought to expand their influence into the agricultural sector. The complete abdication of responsibility by the Labour government of 1997 on the issue, with Clare Short declaring that her Irish ancestry meant that neither she nor her colleagues had anything to do with the inequities of land distribution in Zimbabwe, meant that an internal solution was inevitable. This was never going to end well, because it would be politically driven and exploited by the politically powerful. Still, Mugabe resisted the pressure for land seizures until 1999, when his own lust for power meant that he bundled this issue of land seizures with an allowance for him to stand as President for two more terms.

When land reform finally occurred, Mamdani points out that in economic terms if not political ones, it was a democratic revolution: more than one hundred thousand small owners joined the base of the property pyramid. But the cost was great – land reform coincided with drought, and 2002’s was the worst in 20 years. The impact of land reform, coupled with drought, was different to different farm categories: the white commercial farms, focusing on export crops such as tobacco, have been devastated by land reform. Meanwhile, the large plantations run by corporations, untouched by land reform, have continued as normal, producing sugar, tea and coffee. And maize, the most important food security crop, is largely a peasant crop – land reform has not damaged it, though drought has reduced production by almost 90%. In fact, research by IDS in Sussex suggests it is these small farmers who have been most resilient to the political end economic turmoil, as well as drought.

The overall impact of land reform in Zimbabwe has clearly been an economic disaster. Labourers have lost jobs, major export crops such as tobacco have collapsed, and the damage to the economy has reinforced the impact of drought, with food shortage exacerbated by low purchasing power. Yet, even this story is complicated: food security would be much less of an issue had not the urban areas been so thoroughly destroyed by structural adjustment, with industry collapsing, jobs being lost and scarcity driving inflation through the roof.

The greatest sins of Mugabe have been in response to this economic crisis that was largely of a genesis outside of his control: his economic policies, increasing political repression and sanctioning of violence by his supporters have piled new miseries on top of the old. There is no doubt that the extreme spiral of economic discontent in Zimbabwe, if not originated from him, have been widened and deepened by his actions. Yet Zimbabwe is most definitely not a case of ‘fix the Governance, fix the country’. The heavy focus of Western commenters on Mugabe ascribes an unbelievable (in the literal sense) amount of agency to him. It’s almost as if all of the problems in Zimbabwe have been crystallised in one immense figure of villainy.

When he finally loses power (and his grip is weakening, as MDC successes against him demonstrate), the joy of the Good Governance brigade will be have to be tempered. The central problems of contemporary Zimbabwean politics and economics will remain to be dealt with: the land seizures were popular, remain so and will not and should not be reversed – they simply address an older injustice. The agriculture sector will need to be reimagined as one split between plantations and small- and medium-sized farms. To make this work will require an explicit economic strategy. The urban economy is still in complete tatters: no industry still stands in Zimbabwe, and the process of rebuilding them after the damage of structural adjustment will take far longer than it took to break them down. And like it or not, Mugabe is the symbol of a divided society. He is not a simple villain who people want rid of: he genuinely commands support, if not as much as he claims. Whoever succeeds him will find that governance of a country so divided and with such a difficult history to manage is very difficult indeed.

11 thoughts on “Heroes and Villains in the Same Body

  1. Adam

    February 14, 2010 at 1:06pm

    For once I have no comment except to say: an outstanding piece.

  2. Stanléy

    February 14, 2010 at 5:58pm

    A very comprehensive and interesting take on this topic, well done. Having lived in Zimbabwe, there is probably a dimension that also needs addressing, the inactivity and regressive nature of Mugabe and his governments. Yes, structural adjustment or ‘ESAP’ as it is known locally, created a new reality in the country, but similarly, the tools for adaption to that reality, exploitation of the high human capital wasn’t realized. The impressive education programmes created many graduates, both locally,and abroad, and none have been enticed back. Former education minister, Fay Chung, recently stated that the educated population were not empowered to drive the economy, there is an abundance of educated people, but Mugabe somehow suppressed them with restrictive measures in I.T. and Banking. These services are critical to restarting the economy.

  3. Stanléy

    February 14, 2010 at 6:05pm

    And you are right, Mugabe is still widely liked, few would like to see him sent to The Hague, but similarly, we would just like him to retire. Who comes after, that is probably more scary than him being there, we are unsure of the current batch behind him, the other party in the GNU, the MDC, have no experience of governing and have been very naive and switch positions very quickly, under them, chaos would ensue, the brass after Mugabe may seek to cement power. The land question cannot be reversed, there is nobody with the aura and authority to persuade many to abandon it, or get small holders to sell. This also brings grave concerns in the future, what is the agricultural policy, is it just self sufficiency, if so, what about exports? If exports, which small holders will be ‘told’ to sell, who controls the bigger farms etc etc.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    February 15, 2010 at 5:31am

    Thanks for the comments.

    The point about education is very interesting – but I think an abundance of educated, even over-educated people is characteristic of lots of Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly of its diaspora. The problem is that jobs don’t exist for the educated (though rapidly expanding NGO sectors are creating them), or for the mass of the less educated. Interesting if Mugabe has actively restrained jobs for the best educated – which seems to me a suicidal policy, given that it’s such classes that lead (if not power) political opposition to dictatorship or repression.

    And Stanley – I do completely agree that the future is very uncertain – agricultural policy as I allude to at the end, is going to be of crucial importance. I don’t see one emerging, though to be fair in the context of drought, sanctions and land reform it’s a pretty difficult time to do that. Doesn’t excuse not doing it though.

  5. didier

    February 15, 2010 at 6:05pm

    Didn’t his desire for total power emerge early when he knocked off Nkomo? Now he’s just trying to keep his sons rich and fronting for his cronies who have nowhere to go but down!

    Nice economic explanations can’t rationalize the human carnage a man like Mugabe can wreak. We should have learned that long ago when we forgave so many African leaders their trespasses in the name of decolonization; but dead is dead and Mugabe has a lot of blood on his hands.

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    February 16, 2010 at 6:07am

    Well, I’m not trying to excuse the repression or trying to argue he’s some kind of great man: I’m simply pointing out that the problems Zimbabwe faces are not solely (and in economic terms not largely) of his genesis. Trying to blame him for everything is just a form of sticking heads in the sand, because when he’s gone, Zim will face the same problems. They need to think now of how to deal with these issues now, or at least regardless of leadership, because bad governance (and there is absolutely no doubt that Mugabe provides very bad governance) is not the root cause of the problems there.

  7. bsanchez

    February 17, 2010 at 12:12am

    “The greatest sins of Mugabe have been in response to this economic crisis that was largely of a genesis outside of his control”


    Given Mugabe has been accused of mass murder in Matabeleland in the early to mid 80s (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/1844779.stm) it seems a bit of a hyperbole to state that his greatest sins have been committed as part of his response to the economic downward spiral.

    That is, unless you have assessed the claims about the Ndebele massacres and concluded they are grossly exagerated. I don’t know enough about it to have a strong opinion about it.

  8. Ranil Dissanayake

    February 17, 2010 at 5:44am

    that’s true – and I don’t know enough about the claims either (I do know that since the 1990s Ndebele leaders, particularly from the union movement have been more prominent in Zimbabwe). I’m not really assessing his repression here (which is awful, though there are plenty of awful leaders who have committed acts of violence within Africa without incurring sanction), but why Mugabe in particular is singled out (he’s awful, but one among many awful leaders) and why there seems to be a perception that he has single-handedly destroyed the economy – which is patently untrue.

    The question here is not about wholesale revaluation of him – he’s a terrible man. Much more about actually understanding Zimbabwe’s economy and current plight, which amounts to much more than bad man / bad governance = terrible poverty.

  9. Iyinoluwa Aboyeji

    February 20, 2010 at 5:37am

    Thank you Ranil for this piece.

    I am a undergrad in Waterloo, Canada, home of the Blackberry and I just took a course in African politics this semester.

    My white female prof hates Mugabe and she is indoctrinating my class with really weird versions of imagined atrocities.

    I will bring this piece to class and show everybody so Mugabe can finally be human again!

  10. E Aboyeji

    February 20, 2010 at 5:43am

    Also, Ranil,
    On land reform, I want you to watch with me as Zuma follows exactly in Mugabe’s footsteps. This is just the fact. Southern Africa is boiling…..and land reform is just unfortunately their reasoned xenophobic reaction to injustice

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