Difficult lessons from Zimbabwe that some South Africans just don’t want to hear

Respected South African journalist Max du Preez put his head above the parapet a few weeks ago and commented on the new book, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. His article opened as follows:

“It is something many South Africans do not want to hear and would probably find hard to believe: Zimbabwe’s radical land redistribution has worked and agricultural production is on levels comparable to the time before the process started. What is more meaningful is that the production levels were achieved by 245 000 black farmers on the land previously worked by some 6 000 white farmers”.

A huge storm of Facebook, Twitter and newspaper comments resulted (literally thousands!), mostly from angry South Africans outraged at the idea that redistributive land reform involving small farmers could possibly work in any form.

As du Preez comments in a follow up piece: “I was truly astonished at the blind anger and irrationality of many of the reactions, even from otherwise well-informed and balanced people.” There was, he said, “so much heart, so little reason” and in their anger people rushed to comment before even reading the piece. This is a familiar pattern. I wonder sometimes if people ever bother to read our book, before launching off into derogatory commentary.

I have looked at some of the comments, and he is right: the irrational vitriol is plain to see. Joe Hanlon and I are attacked in extreme (although sometimes quite amusing) terms, accused of being communists from second-rate universities, bogus allies of Mugabe and more! It is all quite bizarre – and would be upsetting if it wasn’t so wild and weird. Having been involved in this debate for over a decade, I am quite immune to the insults and attacks these days, but in this concentrated form it is striking. Perhaps more so because it was from mostly white South Africans, showing beyond doubt that land remains an emotional subject on both sides of the Limpopo. Zimbabweans of course also joined in, including MDC MP Roy Bennett who weighed in with a similar line, tempered with some sensible points about the variation in agricultural production among crops.

As du Preez comments during the long Facebook exchanges following his articles, it is interesting to see how clearly educated people are immune to evidence and argument when they don’t want to hear it. The ‘evidence’ they use for their rebuttals is not further research, but usually some casual observations made while driving through some part of the country. They see it seems nothing but ‘destruction’ or ‘desolation’, but clearly don’t talk to the new farmers or leave the main road.  Alternatively, evidence is garnered from accumulated anecdotes from Zimbabweans living in South Africa or friends in Harare relayed by phone call; all offering it seems the same dismal narrative. And if the real research evidence is not to their liking they argue it must be biased, fixed or based on inappropriate research and sampling methods, and so is simply dismissed.

If white South Africans remain with their heads so firmly in the sand, the consequences of not dealing with gross, deep inequities will surely confront them at some point. As in Zimbabwe, doing nothing and hoping it will go away is not enough. Political dynamics will at some stage see to that, as discontent mounts. As du Preez notes in his article, South Africa is not the same as Zimbabwe, and only selected lessons can be learned. But if angry denial is the only way of dealing with the issue, there is a clear problem. As he correctly observes: “We urgently need to throw old, conventional thinking overboard and tackle our problem with more vigour.”

In summing up his second piece, du Preez argues:

“I think we should accept that, at the very least, the impression we in South Africa had that agriculture in Zimbabwe was still in a state of utter collapse after the land redistribution is wrong. We should accept that a substantial number of new Zimbabwean farmers, big and small, are actually commercially successful. That is significant, especially if one considers that a great historic wrong has been addressed and that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are now settled on the land of their ancestors. It still doesn’t make the way the redistribution happened right. It still doesn’t make it a model for South Africa to copy. It does mean we should make a mind shift around land reform. We should stop seeing it as a threat and start seeing it as a priority to redress past wrongs and further stability. Land reform is about people, not merely about hectares and statistics”.

I agree. I hope Mr du Preez continues to report on Zimbabwe, as this sort of debate is going to be essential for the region as a whole. He will have to have a thick skin, but good journalists who unearth uncomfortable stories usually do.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland




Filed under Uncategorized

21 responses to “Difficult lessons from Zimbabwe that some South Africans just don’t want to hear

  1. Batanai

    I was one of the participants on Mr. du Preez’s article in The Mercury. Boy, did I have a hard time trying to defend you and Joseph Hanlon’s honor!

    That debate left me convinced that sometimes facts alone are not enough. Otherwise very educated people can hold on to absurd positions so long as their emotions allow it.

    However, facts should prevail, regardless of these apparent insurmountable obstacles. Which is why I would urge you to become a more vocal participant in this debate in South Africa, especially. Ask the editors of The Mercury, M&G, Citizen, Sowetan and any other media there that show interest in this subject, ask them to accept a submittal from you on what your research revealed in Zimbabwe. Force the naysayers to challenge you on the facts, rather than the invectives they have used to demean you!

    Its unlikely many of these people will ever buy your books, however, if you were to reach them thru their favorite media, maybe, you will help peel the scales of their eyes!

  2. Dave

    The gist of this article is right, in that people need to recognise that reform is necessary and take steps to address it in a non-punitive manner. The one issue with most or your blog/Guardian articles is that you appear to argue from one-side only. This is why critics may make accusations regards sympathy for Mugabe, and something that you should seek to address.

    So, for example, the title of your book ‘Zimbabwe takes its land back’ implies that Anglo-Africans have no right to land-ownership, and that it was never theirs to own, even if they purchased it post-independence. Nowhere have you commented on the fact that the recent ‘Indigenisation Act’ (IA) is punitive along racial lines. Indeed The Herald recently said that this was a move to “fish out foreigners”, but the Act regards Chinese nationals as exempt (and curiously not ‘foreign’). The IA is therefore simply designed to marginalise Anglo-Africans (even bizarrely, from the hairdressing profession).

    Further, the recent constitution allows for persons holding land (now) to sell that land at market-price – but then includes a provision that explicitly prevents white Zimbabweans, who purchased land after independence, from compensation for that land, thereby marginalising them from the economic sphere. You fail to comment.

    You’ll recognise that the thread common to all acts pushed through by ZanuPF is the marginalisation of ‘non-indigenous Zimbabweans’ (but Chinese nationals are exempt) at all costs, and despite contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR is legally binding, and states that ‘international human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect’ and ‘where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual and group complaints are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced at the local level.’ You fail to comment.

    • Our book was Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, not Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. Do read it! In my commentary on this blog and elsewhere I aim to offer critique where critique is due based on the facts on the ground. I don’t like to frame the debate in terms of ‘sides’. This polarisation has caused immense damage, particularly as so much of the international comment is focused on a single individual rather than seeing the bigger picture. I am certainly a supporter of the UDHR, and am critical of the Indigenization Act, although like the MDC would argue for economic restructuring to allow for wider participation. As for compensation, I have commented on this before. Once compensation, in line with the Constitution, is paid then leases can be offered on A2 farms, and a land tax paid that will contribute to wider development.

      • Dave

        I wish I had the time to read your book …
        Were the findings published in the peer-reviewed literature? That will be easier to source, and read.

      • The book is of course peer-reviewed, and is available via Amazon for £12.91. A summary article can be found in the Journal of Peasant Studies atDOI:10.1080/03066150.2011.622042. This is part of a special issue including a number of other important articles. Alternative check out the materials at http://www.zimbabweland.net. Happy reading (if you get the time…).

    • Batanai

      For someone who has read many of Ian Scoones’ articles I can tell you I WISH he was one-sided! Because he is an academic, it would be foolish for him to side with anyone but the facts.

      He, however appears to be one-sided to someone like you because your view of Zimbabwe largely comes from the Afro-pessimist journalists who have gone to town in ONLY presenting the negative side and severely minimized the positives. When Ian brings out some of those positives in an effort to debunk the false narrative that has been prevalent over the past several years, I can see how someone with low information would see Ian as being one-sided.

      You criticize IA without understanding why its necessary in the first place. Off course, if an alien from mars where to drop into the country and hear about this policy, they would agree with you that it was unfair. However, for a human who has lived this earth and is aware of the racial privileges conferred on the Anglo race by colonialism, its VERY understandable that any attempts to seek economic balance has to be done thru RACE. How does one solve racial injustice without using race?

      I do not know where you get the Chinese preference clause from? A quick perusal of business deals involving the Chinese in Zimbabwe show that they ALL comply with the IA law! ZANU-PF’s strategy has never been marginalization of non-indigenes, how does one do that when the non-indigenes have the funding? Instead, they have sought to force the monied non-indigenes to INCLUDED the indigenes in any commercial enterprises that exceed a certain threshold. This is largely to insulate the country from foreign control than a dislike of the other. Many nations around the world have much stricter laws with regards to foreign investors than ZANU is applying. Just take a look at the laws in China and India with regards to these issues.

      Your comment about “not having time to” (more like not wanting to) read Ian’s book confirms the inadequacy of your arguments! You eagerly oppose issues you know nothing about, spend time arguing on a subject you have limited information on, yet decline to educate yourself on what the other side is!

      You are not just the true definition of a one-sided person, but you also exhibit a dangerous head in the sand mentality! Facts opposing your position not only scare you, they cause you anger and a greater drive to try to demean the bringer of those very facts!

      • Dave

        Thanks ‘ZimbabweLand’, I sourced the PDF from the Journal, and will read it. Of interest, have you written a blog on the devastation caused to conservation areas in the past decade (including the poaching of endangered species), principally in the lowveld? That would be interesting.

      • Try this and this blog – both on conservervancies, conservation and the lowveld. The blog has a search facility and there’s lots of material there that might interest you, so do have a browse!

  3. sogcinwa

    thank God that there are still some people like you who give themselvs time to analys our situation and events which tuk place in our thank u for revealing the good side of our deeds as Zimbabweans tho it hurts a lot of pple who like to put our country on nagetive pespective for it decision

  4. sogcinwa


  5. missubuntu

    Hat dies auf Miss Ubuntu rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Harte Lektionen aus Simbabwe, die einige Südafrikaner einfach nicht hören wollen

    „Viele Südafrikaner wollen es einfach nicht hören und finden es wahrscheinlich schwer zu glauben: Die radikale Landumverteilung in Simbabwe hat funktioniert und die landwirtschaftliche Produktion ist ungefähr auf dem gleichen Niveau wie vor dem Prozess. Noch bedeutsamer ist, dass dieses Produktionsniveau von 245 000 schwarzen Farmern auf dem Land erreicht wurde, das davor von nur 6 000 weißen Farmern bewirtschaftet worden war.“

    So zitiert der englische Forscher Ian Scoones die Einleitung eines Artikels des angesehenen südafrikanischen Journalisten Max du Preez, der darin das neue Buch Zimbabwe Takes Its Land Back kommentiert.

    Der Artikel habe einen Sturm der Entrüstung von wütendenen Südafrikanern hervorgerufen, und du Preez habe in einem Folgeartikel angegeben, von der blinden Wut und Irrationalität von Leuten, die ansonsten recht vernünftig zu sein scheinen, überrascht gewesen zu sein.

    Die gleiche Reaktion beobachte auch ich immer dann, wenn zum Beispiel in der britischen Zeitung The Guardian, die dem linksliberalen Spektrum zugerechnet wird, ein Artikel erscheint, der irgend etwas Positives über die Landreform in Simbabwe zu sagen hat, dann gibt es viele vor Wut schäumende Kommentare, in denen die Menschenrechtsverletzungen angeprangert werden. Die ganze Diskussion ist emotional aufgeladen, allein die Erwähnung des Namens Mugabe fungiert als emotionaler Auslöser, was eine vernünftige Diskussion sehr erschwert. Was nicht sein darf, kann einfach nicht sein, da können die Fakten noch tausendmal das Gegenteil beweisen. Wenn man sich aber mit dem Thema rational beschäftigt und sich die empirischen Fakten vor Augen hält, dann gelangt man zu einer viel differenzierteren und vielschichtigeren Sicht der Dinge.

    Scoones bemerkt: „Wenn weiße Südafrikaner ihre Köpfe so fest in den Sand stecken und nicht die ekelhaften, gravierenden Ungerechtigkeiten lösen, werden sie mit den Folgen irgendwann konfrontiert werden. Nichts tun und hoffen, dass das Thema weggeht, wie in Simbabwe, ist nicht gut genug. Wenn die Unzufriedenheit immer größer wird, wird die politische Dynamik das schon besorgen.“ Du Preez habe recht mit seiner Analyse, dass man altes, konventionelles Denken dringend über Bord werfen und das Problem mit mehr Tatkraft angehen müsste.

    Wie aus einem weiteren Zitat von du Preez klar wird, leugnet er nicht die Gewalt der Landreform in Simbabwe, er betont, dass Südafrika nicht Simbabwe sei, dass man nur bestimmte Elemente übernehmen könne. Doch das Prinzip Landreform sei auch für Südafrika ein dringendes Thema, um vergangenes Unrecht wiedergutzumachen und für zukünftige Stabilität zu sorgen.

    Es ist höchste Zeit, dass die Debatte um Landreform mit mehr Vernunft geführt wird, Leute wie Scoones und du Preez leisten dazu einen wertvollen Beitrag.

  6. T Hodson

    Are you going to put Tony Hawkins and Sholto Cross’s article (Cape Times Friday May 24th) on your website or are you going to conveniently ignore it. Also look at the Development Bank of Southern Africa report on Zimbabwe (Development Planning Division, Working Paper No 32).

  7. Thank you, Professor Scoones, for your research on the well-being that has come about for many Zimbabweans as a result of the land redistribution. However, your research lacks the discussion of important issues to do with ethics. First of all, the end rarely justifies the means. Whether or not there is in the end a net benefit to Zimbabwe of the land redistribution is a red herring in terms of a discussion about whether it was successful, and especially whether or not other countries in Africa should follow suit. What we need is a discussion as to the integrity of the PROCESS. Was the process is carried out violently (fairly uncontroversially, we can say that it was). Was the process fair? Perhaps this is arguable, but I think that the process was unfair on several levels. For example, it was not fair to the workers who lost their jobs (some even their lives) without compensation. Why is this group absent from your studies of the net well-being caused by the redistribution? Why is their voice not here? What has happened to them and to their families? The white farmers are educated enough to speak for themselves but you as a researcher should be making sure that the suffering of these displaced workers is also documented and added to the discussion. Also, it was not fair that the white farmers were given “certificates of no interest” by the government before purchasing their land – but then took the government took the land. The government lied to them. This is equivalent in principle to purchasing something which comes with a lifetime guarantee, only to find that the guarantee is invalid and that the items stops working after a few months. It is especially reprehensible because, based on the lie, many farmers invested large amounts of money in the form of infrastructural development, and they have not been compensated for this. Furthermore, it was not fair to the people of Zimbabwe that they should suffer for such a long period of time in terms of food shortages etc. If the process had been carried out in a more evolutionary (rather than revolutionary), non violent manner, such hardship I believe could have been at least reduced. Perhaps now, if you are correct, the land redistribution will provide food for everyone again, but this does not detract from the suffering that it initially caused all Zimbabweans. The life expectancy Zimbabweans over this period was purported to have been 45years (some placed it as much lower than this). Many had HIV and the lack of good food pushed them to death. This was definitely not fair. Also relevant is the allocation of the choicest land to government officials and ZANU PF favourites. Here is a reminder, of the corruption. It would be a humorous anecdote, if it was not so appalling: “Parliament was debating the Land Acquisition Amendment Bill, which seeks to amend a previous Land Amendment Act – both of which deal with the “fast-track land reform programme” … As soon as Chinamasa began his speech, opposition legal affairs spokesman David Coltart raised a point of order. In terms of Clause 17 of the Parliamentary Privileges and Powers Act, it is a criminal offence for any MP with a financial interest in a Bill to contribute to or participate in debate. Coltart tabled a list of MPs, and the farms they own, and pointed out that Chinamasa owns three farms taken under the “fast-track” land expropriation. The list was then grabbed by Jorum Gumbo (Zanu PF) who started remonstrating with other Zanu PF members about its contents. Chinamasa called Coltart a “racist liar”, and three opposition MPs – Tendai Biti, Gabriel Chaibva, and Willias Madzimure – were expelled from the House for arguing with the chairman. ” (SW Radio Africa, 22 Jan 2004).
    The point is this. Giving land back to Zimbabweans is OF COURSE going to improve the livelihoods of the beneficiaries. Why is your research that shows this so surprising? Of course, after time, the people will bring up the production levels again. This is an obvious end result, disputed perhaps by the odd racist who thinks whites are superior, so why make such a big deal out of it? Such racists are not worth arguing with. The fact that you are making a big deal out of it seems to indicate that you are using the figures to justify the PROCESS, and this is very irresponsible of you.

    • This blog focuses on both ends and means. Have a look at earlier posts on violence, law and compensation for example. However, 13 years on the important discussion is about outcomes and next steps for an agrarian reform that all sides agree is irreversible – and was both necessary and inevitable, even if the process was far from ideal.

  8. Pingback: Transforming Zimbabwe’s agrarian economy: why smallholder farming is important | zimbabweland

  9. Russell

    It’s hard to see 245,000 required to do the work 6000 previously achieved as progress.
    Come back Ian Smith all is forgiven.

    • Livelihoods, poverty reduction, equality, employment, broad-based inclusive growth, women’s empowerment, dignity, rights, entitlement? Not things that were high on the Rhodesian policy agenda.

  10. I so wish that the majority of White South Africans especially Afrikaners would reason like you and would ponder this book and absorb some capturing phrases in it. Yes, it is true that the land distribution and economic freedom debate in SA is a sensitive issue. They continue to live in ‘coo-coo’ land, denialism is the order of the day in an average White South African, ranting about Bantu South Africans are not indeginous and not being true owners of SA because they have hunged on to what their fore-fathers have written in their history books. Time will come when we the educated black youth would destroy and re-write our history books. SA environment is getting tensed day -by -day, the poor are being pushed more to abject poverty, we are sick and tired of being stucked to a situation whereby majority of us are forced to work and look after our parents, grandparents and extended families who were affected by apartheid system. The society gap is getting wider and wider and most annoying thing is that ANC is keeping a blind eye and not coming up with solutions of addressing the imbalances in our society but keep on squandering and looting left right and centre.

    Time will tell, God knows what’s gonna happen to SA. We want economic freedom and we urge White south Africa to think straight and stop labelling us blacks stupid, uneducated, lazy, incompetent ,etc . We are not asking much from you but we want to reach a compromise so that we all live in harmony and free from poverty in our ancestors land. You are welcome to stay in SA but Land issue needs to be put on the table soon before revolution starts.. Pambiri na chimurega pambori, viva economic struggle viva, Aluta Continua !!!!

  11. Pingback: Catch up time: the top 20 blogs from the past year | zimbabweland

  12. Pingback: Zimbabweland in 2013 | zimbabweland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s