A familiar scene is playing out in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s followers, roving bands of unemployed young men who thirst for land, are once again invading and occupying farms. But they are merely pawns in the old man’s game. Land is the board upon which Zimbabwe’s politics are played and Grand Master Mugabe always manages to maneuver his pieces into the right places.
To anyone who follows Zimbabwe, it should come as no surprise that Mugabe, the country’s nonagenarian dictator, is still using the land issue to reward loyalists and punish dissenters.
When mostly white-owned farms were seized by similar bands of young men just over a decade ago, for the most part they weren’t distributed to poor black farmers. Instead, choice farms were handed out as patronage to members of the ruling ZANU-PF, Mugabe’s party, and many of these farms underperformed or were left fallow, for their new owners—well-connected politicians, lawyers, and military types—had little experience with farming. With Zimbabwe’s commercial farming industry in shambles, exports of tobacco and cut flowers plummeted. Harvests of staples like wheat collapsed as well, ushering in a major malnutrition crisis in a country that had once been the breadbasket of southern Africa.
But a recent NYT piece has a curious gloss on the land reform disaster in Zimbabwe:
In 2000, two decades after Zimbabwe’s independence, the country’s best farmland remained in the hands of descendants of white settlers. Mr. Mugabe’s government forcibly removed white Zimbabweans from their farms, which were supposed to be distributed equitably to black Zimbabweans.
Thousands of poor black farmers suddenly got access to land, often small plots, bringing them into the economy and spreading the profits from crops like tobacco to a much broader share of Zimbabwe’s population.
But high-ranking officials in the governing party received the best farms. Or, like Mr. Mutambara, the former ambassador, they were given the best tracts of a large farm, usually with the main farmhouse and farming equipment.
“Contrary to what we had expected, some people because of their position in government have gone on to acquire multiple farms, huge farms,” Mr. Mutambara said.
The oddly muted account of Mugabe’s terrible policy would be the most striking part of this passage, were it not for the irony of Mutambara’s quote. The former ambassador complains about how well-connected government officials were given “huge farms.” But Mutambara was one of those well-connected officials who got a farm. Does he really expect us to believe that the way land reform went was actually “contrary to what [they] had expected”? Did anyone actually expect most of the land to be evenly distributed to poor black farmers instead of well-connected officials like him? Or, alternatively, perhaps he is suggesting that his 530-acre farm isn’t all that big compared to the larger farms given to higher-ranking government officials. Either way, it is difficult to sympathize with his plight. Once Zimbabwe’s government dispensed with property rights, and a dictator was empowered to hand out land willy-nilly to his cronies, it opened the door to a cycle of predation that vitiates whites and blacks alike.
The entire piece speaks to the need for more critical distance between interview and subject. It is not entirely clear that Mutambara is an honorable dissident suffering a terrible price for speaking out. The piece should reflect some ambivalence about Mutambara’s motives and should dwell longer on his previous 30-year record of supporting Mugabe’s regime and benefiting from it.
Another suggestion for the Times: better contextualize Zimbabwe’s politics and allow readers to understand the role Mutambara plays as a dynamic actor, not a passive victim, within it. This brings us to the matter of Mutambara’s switch from the ruling party to the opposition. When it comes to journalistic accounts of African politics, “opposition” usually bears a positive connotation, and “government” a more negative one, but it is not clear that the opposition in Zimbabwe is deserving of such a warm portrayal. The lead opposition party, Zimbabwe People First, began in 2014 as an offshoot of the ruling ZANU-PF. Even the shortened name, ZimPF, rings with obvious echoes of ZANU-PF. The opposition is headed by Joice Mujuru, Mugabe’s former Vice President who has long been angling to succeed him.
Mugabe won the liberation struggle against a repressive and ugly white-minority regime, but he has not secured Zimbabwe’s liberation from its colonial past. More than a century after Cecil Rhodes’s pioneer column marched into what is now Zimbabwe and ushered in the rule of a white elite, extractive rule by the few, powerful, and connected remains the superstructure of Zimbabwean politics. Yes, the new black elites displaced the old white elites, but the rapacious colonial order remains much the same.
Something is structurally wrong in Zimbabwe, and it will take more than a change in leadership to make up for the problems Mugabe inherited and exacerbated. A remarkable leader could do a great deal of good, but only if his or her program is one of structural reform. A new face is not enough to hope that things will get better in Zimbabwe, especially when the only new faces primed to succeed Mugabe are actually quite old.
It is easy to read this story and receive the impression that actors like Mutambara and Mujuru are new hopes for Zimbabwe and noble victims of a capricious regime. But they were active at the highest levels of Mugabe’s regime for decades and were complicit in, if not responsible for, many of its crimes. Might Mutambara be less of a devoted public servant making a principled stand for Zimbabwe’s future, and more of a clever opportunist jumping ship at the right moment to ensure good relations with a powerful political figure who may well become the country’s next ruler? Should it really be so surprising that a disloyal Mugabe supporter is poised to lose his ill-gotten farm?
In Zimbabwe, the only clear truth is that Mugabe giveth and taketh away.