There are so many books on Zimbabwe coming out I cannot keep up. On the back of Freeth, Godwin, Barclay and others each mentioned previously in this blog, another appeared this month titled very dramatically:  ‘Catastrophe: What Went Wrong in Zimbabwe?’ by Richard Bourne, a former journalist now a research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.

Unlike some other books I have commented on, this one is actually (mostly) rather good. It’s an unfortunate title in many ways, as it plays into the disaster narrative associated with Zimbabwe, but it does offer a very insightful historical account of how today’s context is conditioned by past events. It switches focus from the ‘evil’ character of Mugabe to the cumulative historical process, with many different players. It is, as other highly knowledgeable and respected reviewers have said, in many ways very ‘judicious’ and ‘balanced’ (Stephen Chan), as well as ‘perceptive’ and ‘fair’ (Richard Dowden). It also offers some hope that reconstruction and reconciliation will occur, and despite the title has a more positive message.

But it is also annoyingly inaccurate on some important issues around land reform which affect my overall judgement.  As I have argued before in this blog – accurate figures really do matter. Bourne spins the standard argument about cronyism in the recent land reform. As we have said in the book, and elsewhere, this is part of the story, but yet again this book makes the mistake of claiming it is the only story. So for example, he argues that “Some 40 per cent of the best land had gone to this elite [he mentions politburo members, MPs, senators and senior military figures] in large holdings, while between 150000 and 300000 ZANU supporters, whom the reform was supposed to benefit, got between 10 and 50 hectares” (p.215). He footnotes as his source the infamous ZimOnline report which I highlighted as grossly inaccurate in an earlier blog post.

Even the presentation of the data in this sentence shows the problem. With around 7m hectares distributed as part of the ‘fast track’ programme, his top estimate for the smallholder allocation is 15m ha which would allow now room for the elite cronies! And who says that all new farmers are ZANU-PF supporters? Many are, but the electoral figures suggest there is a more complex story. What is surprising is that on such a critical issue, Bourne was not more careful. He makes an oblique reference to our book in a footnote (p. 167), but does not engage with either the data or the arguments. Data on land allocation has been widely available (from the Utete report to the various World Bank studies), and is now published in the wider literature (see for example Sam Moyo recently in the Journal of Peasant Studies). Minor inaccuracies in a big sweep, popular journalistic book are fine, but not on land in Zimbabwe!

And this colours the conclusions. On page 260 he outlines the usual litany of disasters that have arisen due to land reform – the collapse in food production, exports, input industries, insurance, credit and so on; all the result of the failure to recognise the legal basis of private property. Some of these impacts of course are very real, as we have documented, but the positive consequences of the dismantling of a narrowly based agricultural economy, and the opening up of the potential for new producers and new markets doesn’t get a look in. This is not a balanced appraisal and it undermines the overall argument, one which suggests rather naively that if Mugabe had been committed to a ‘one farm for one farmer’ policy, “he could have broken up the large white-owned estates at a stroke” (p.260).

Unfortunately, in this book, as so often in recent commentary on Zimbabwe, the sophistication and nuance that earlier historical periods are treated with is not matched in the discussion of the contemporary era. Somehow the polarisation that characterises commentary on Zimbabwe is just too difficult to overcome. This was illustrated in extreme form around the response to Mahmoud Mamdani’s intervention in the London Review of Books, when a deluge of responses from ‘concerned Africa scholars’ attacked his (admittedly problematic) attempts to bridge the divide. This book however does not fall into this trap completely, and is as a result a useful and sophisticated contribution, well worth the read.

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