WHEN the late former president Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime seized land on a massive scale beginning 2000, it was rather difficult to set a narrative and hold it accountable, as there was a genuine historical grievance and injustice that needed to be addressed.
Even Mugabe’s fierce rivals and acerbic critics would agree that land reform was necessary, although they disagreed with the method and the motivation.
The majority of Zimbabweans generally agreed with the principle, hence supported the idea, but did not want to embrace the violence and chaos that were needless in some cases.
While people appreciated that a change in property relations, especially on land, is always accompanied by intense debate and contestations — sometimes such struggles become violent and bloody — Zimbabwe had an opportunity to have a well-planned and structured programme.
Although white commercial farmers were contesting and even actively opposing land reform, dialogue and political pressure without bloodshed would have achieved a better result.
Government would have obtained land to resettle the landless black majority, while white farmers would have retained measurable tracts land to continue farming. A win-win formula was possible, even though many doubt a compromise was feasible.
The Mugabe approach — the scorched earth policy typical of his leadership and rule — collapsed commercial agriculture and left the economy in ruins. The consequences and ramifications of that project are still being felt across the economy up to this day.
From being a potentially glorious revolution, land reform quickly degenerated into a racist enterprise, as the late Zanu PF maverick Eddison Zvobgo later put it in a damning indictment of the programme and corruption.
The historical land reform imperative and the self-righteousness on the part of Mugabe prevented profound analysis and dealing with some of the nuances of the issue, especially internally.
Even though the argument by Mugabe was losing credibility amid his waning popularity, alternative narratives never took root. The powerful historical and revolutionary posture and symbolism of Mugabe’s project was difficult to dilute and defeat.
Yet it is true that there were underlying political issues that needed unpacking. Zimbabwe’s recent history, from 2000- 2008, when government seized commercial farms using illegal and violent methods against a largely unarmed population of farmers and farm workers, cannot be told without the story of land reform.
Mugabe’s regime began the seizures on a small, targeted scale in a bid to suppress political opposition groups, but soon escalated the campaign into a frenzy targeting all farms in the country.
The state claimed that the confiscations occurred in response to a public cry for land redistribution and also to rectify colonial-era injustices, and were part of a structured land reallocation programme.
However, in practice, land reform became a Zanu PF political programme to secure votes against a nascent opposition MDC. Mugabe always had a political programme at any given time to retain, consolidate and sustain power. The grabbed farms were often distributed ad hoc to party supporters first and foremost, including those with little or no farming experience, sometimes those without even an interest in farming.
Inevitably, commercial agriculture collapsed and all downstream industries ceased to exist. The economy hit rock bottom.
Those companies that remained extant went bankrupt and were reduced to shells. As a result, the economy went into a tailspin, de-industrialisation accelerated, production plunged, while inflation and unemployment rose dramatically in what became a social and economic disaster for the country.
That problem still exists up to this day and maybe remain with Zimbabwe for decades to come. It is easy to destroy a country and economy, but far more difficult to build or rebuild it.
The question remains why Mugabe targeted his own agricultural industry and economy using such violent methods, while risking such dire consequences.
Looking at major actors that aided and abetted the campaign, and their motivations, it becomes even more clearer the seizure of the most valuable farms was largely carried out by politically influential individuals for financial and political gain, in some cases, prestige, rather than to address historical injustices.
In fact, the scale on which the farm invasions were carried out, the logistics and the violent methods used were evidently not part of a planned government land policy. Mugabe initially opposed the land seizures knowing they would wreck the economy, only to later support them to appease his supporters and retain political power against a rising opposition.
When former liberation movements begin to lose power, they adopt radical concepts to retain political support. There is a joke among the public that some politicians and well-connected political actors got the farms for weekend braaing and drinking instead of serious farming.
Some of these so-called farmers don’t even want to spend a day in the fields or get dirty in work suits. Yet there are people who got land and are utilising it productively, especially among small-scale farmers.
But the use of land as a political weapon, which Mugabe did effectively for political survival and as currently shown by on-going dispossessions of former Zanu PF officials like Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere, Patrick Zhuwao and human rights activists like lawyer Siphosami Malunga for partisan reasons, remains a bane of an otherwise noble yet badly done programme.
Mnangagwa must not allow the on-going land seizures from peasants and from politically targeted people to continue, as that further damages land reform and people against his government.