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Robert Mugabe: a complex legacy

Robert Mugabe died on September 6th in Singapore after a long illness, and the press has been full of commentary about his legacy. There is a deep fascination with him in the UK. Despite the drama of Brexit, his death was top news across the papers and TV channels. I was taken aback  when I saw his image on a massive news screen at King’s Cross station in London announcing his death. Once feted by the Queen, now almost universally reviled, what is it about the dramatic tragedy in the narrative of a transition from ‘hero’ to ‘villain’ that so captivates people, but also blinds us to the complexities of history?

This complexity, and the importance of a deeper history, comes across in some of the better reflections on his death. There is much that’s already been written, but there are a few articles that have stood out for me. The piece ‘Mugabe: a man of more than one story’, for example, highlights the multiple threads of a complex narrative, as does Alex Magaisa’s BSR piece, which urges us not to forget the victims of Mugabe’s regime. Perhaps surprisingly, but like many Zimbabweans of his age, Tendai Biti, once tortured by the regime, says ‘I don’t feel bitterness. I feel indebtedness’. The missed opportunities of the liberation are reflected on in many pieces, including by Fadzayi Mahere, who argues that he ‘killed the freedoms he had worked so hard for’. Roger Southall, meanwhile, reflects on his legacy alongside other liberation party leaders in the region, pointing out that he is ‘as divisive in death as he was in life’. A typically quirky take comes from Percy Zvomuya focusing on deeper family backgrounds and historical contingencies in the piece, Robert Mugabe: the leader who shouldn’t have been. And my favourite of all is the 2017 article by Everjoice Win, widely recirculated in the past days, which captured the moment around the ‘coup’, but seems even more apposite today, and reflects the feelings of many.

Why has Mugabe’s passing attracted so much attention, particularly internationally? Some while ago, Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean scholar and professor at Oxford University, pointed to the roots of the media fascination with Mugabe in the UK:

“Mugabe is the British media’s bogeyman for everything that is wrong with Africa and one can never escape the naked reality that the fallout from ZANU-PF’s violent eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe from 2000 onwards, many of whom were British descendants, continues to attract a disproportionate amount of international focus compared to other more severe crises…”

In a similar vein, back in 2008, the renowned Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:

“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.

Mugabe’s death reminded me of the screening of Simon Bright’s film, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? at Sussex some years ago. An earlier blog observed that it is a powerful documentary, using fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe. It tells a sympathetic, historically-informed, but still highly critical, story about the man. With Mugabe gone, it is well worth watching again.

It is considerably more nuanced than much of the mainstream commentary that has emerged following his death. This typically follows the hero-to-villain storyline, often attached to the positive then evil influence of his two wives, Sally and Grace. Land reform in 2000 is often marked as the turning point, with the story of land reform being given the usual, misinformed gloss of disaster, turning Zimbabwe from ‘breadbasket to basket case’, the result of party cronies being given the land, and poorly qualified poor farmers making matters worse. I have largely ceased to engage with these narratives, coming from many who really should know much better by now, and I am not going to rehearse the argument again that these views are grossly misinformed here. There are now 360 blogs on Zimbabweland, and many more research articles besides, which together give a more nuanced story.

Too often in mainstream accounts, the role of the British in the Mugabe story is glossed over. Yet the British government’s complicity – for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s – was significant. The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House in 1979, and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ in 1997, are all part of the picture. The resentments and hostility rose to a head in the late 1990s, as Mugabe and Blair locked horns. And, while commentaries are critical of white Rhodesia and Ian Smith’s UDI rule, they often do not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following Independence.

At our film screening panel discussion back in 2012, this was an issue tackled by Denis Norman, who served in Mugabe’s cabinet after Independence, and came from being the head of the white Commercial Farmers’ Union. He conceded that more could have been done back then, especially on land reform. There was an unwritten political contract between white farmers and the new state that whites could farm and make money, but not be involved in opposition politics, and land reform, despite the liberation war rhetoric, was parked. This fell apart with the launch of the MDC, and the support of white farmers of an opposition movement. The failure of the donor-brokered land conference in 1998 was a key moment, as no side was willing to compromise. The land invasions that followed were then perhaps inevitable.

As a number of the more sophisticated commentaries highlight, countering the hero-to-villain narrative means emphasising the continuities in the way politics have been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence, with Mugabe at the centre. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been a consistent pattern, and stretch into the the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle (and indeed in particular the ‘struggles within the struggle’). A transition from militarised, violent liberation war struggle to peaceful, democratic governance did not happen.

It is not a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000. While there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. This is why the much-hailed 2017 ‘coup’ was doomed to failure, and perhaps no surprise that the Mnangagwa regime has seen much continuity, notably in violent repression of opposition forces. This is of course why a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, remains so critical; to shed once and for all this violent history.

In assessing Mugabe’s complex legacy, the positive legacies of massively improved education and health services for all in the 1980s and land redistribution to smallholders, especially post-2000, have to balanced against the persistent use of violence, gross economic mismanagement and the failure to develop a democratic state. As opposition politician, Tendai Biti, noted on his death, Mugabe was a ‘coalition of controversies’.

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

Photo credit: President of Zimbabwe Addresses UN General Assembly, 25 Sep 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/ via flickr)



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Zimbabwe’s land myths exposed – implications for South Africa?

Percy Zvomuya of South Africa’s leading newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, has recently published a review of our book (the full text is below). He offers a very positive review and argues that every bureaucrat in the region should read it!

But not everyone wants to hear the story we tell. There were, as usual, a series of weird and wonderful comments on the webpage and on twitter. One comment even accused me of wearing expensive specs which somehow made any views I had illegitimate! Sorry, Mr Christie, but they were bought cheaply in India and are almost certainly fakes! The comments – rather like the 169 added to the UK Guardian article we wrote in 2010 – show how important it is to engage in this debate with some solid evidence and based on fieldwork, not ideologically charged hysteria. Some don’t like engaging, but hopefully more will read the book and reflect on the facts as a result of this review.

So who is reading the book? Probably not many of those who take time to comment on newspaper websites, but there are others. Miles Tendi reflected on the readership among the political elite in Zimbabwe a while back. But exposure in the M and G helps spread interest in South Africa. Apparently at the World Bank land conference at the end of April in Washington DC, just after the revew was published, the deputy minister of rural development and land reform of South Africa, Mr Lechesa Tsenoli, urged people to read the book. Perhaps, as Percy Zvomuya suggests, he will get his bureaucrats to read it too!

Of course, as we discuss in the book, South Africa is very different. But there are important resonances and implications of the Zimbabwe experience over the past decade. As Zvomuya’s review says:

What is never hidden in South Africa’s keen interest in the story about the country north of the ­Limpopo river is a fear framed both as a question and a premonition: Will we become like Zimbabwe? It is something the scholars address in the concluding chapter of book.  “In the mid 1990s, no one thought that radical land reform might unfold in Zimbabwe.” And look what happened. So, unless South Africa’s land issue is resolved, a Zimbabwe could be replicated here.

Perhaps that’s why Mr Tsenoli is reading the book.

Zimbabwe’s land myths exposed

Percy Zvomuya

Thirteen years ago the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, most urban Zimbabweans and the international media were shrill in their condemnation when peasants and war veterans, soldiers, public servants and elites invaded white-owned commercial farms. The Western media was hysterical in its criticism of Robert Mugabe’s “land grab” that had transformed Zimbabwe from a “bread basket” into a “basket case”.

It was in these charged and uncertain times that my father, a man who had somehow managed to remain apolitical and indifferent, sat me down and said words along the lines of: “My child, Mugabe might be a dictator. In fact, I do not care whether he stays or goes, but as far as the land issue is concerned, I think he has a point. I was already a young boy when the Rhodesian government moved us from our fertile ancestral land to this rocky wilderness. What Mugabe is doing is right. It is called justice.”

A few other people I knew, born in the 1950s or before, shared my father’s position. They were able to untangle the knots of the complex, confusing situation that unfolded daily. Given that April 18 is Zimbabwe’s day of independence, it is apt to revisit a book that looks at the truths and lies surrounding the land reform process.
 Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities (James Currey and Jacana, 2011) was co-authored by six scholars: Ian Scoones, ­Nelson Marongwe, Blasio Mavedzenge, Jacob Mahenehene, Felix ­Murimbarimba and Chrispen Sukume.

They write: “The story [about land reform] is far more complex than the generalisations of the media headlines.” Because Zimbabwe’s land reform fatally intersected with its nationalist politics, one had to be really astute and attentive to know what was going on. And right up to the present, apart from truisms and clichés such as “Uncle Bob is mad”, most people are not quite sure what really happened.

Disinformation and misinformation

Were the invasions spontaneous or were they planned by the country’s intelligence agency? Did the ordinary villager benefit or did most of the farms go to Zanu-PF elites and their cronies? Yet, notes the book, “numerous reports, newspaper ­op-eds and consultancy documents have offered opinions about what to do. What is noticeable about most of these is their almost empirical lack of empirical data.”

A direct result of the years of disinformation and misinformation (and whatever is in between) is “the generation of a series of oft-repeated myths … which have gained the status of truth”. The five myths the authors set out to explode are “Zimbabwean land reform has been a total failure”, “the beneficiaries of Zimbabwean land reform have been largely political cronies”, “there is no new investment in the new resettlements”, “agriculture is in complete ruins, creating food ­insecurity” and “the rural economy has collapsed”.

In 250 pages, they examine and puncture each myth, finding most to be baseless and grounded in malice and ignorance. They conclude that land reform was “neither a populist revolution by the peasantry, nor a corrupt takeover by elites and political cronies”. Ordinary men and women, elites and the working class, public servants and other ­”unclassifiables” are among those who ­benefited.
Most of their research is based on Masvingo province, in farming regions three and four. This area, semi-arid and hot, receives less rainfall than the much-desired land on the highveld, the well-watered and fertile earth found north, west and northwest of Harare.

If I have reservations, it is mainly because Masvingo is not exactly prime agricultural land, which makes it difficult to use data from this province to dispel myth two.
But the book triumphs in going beyond the sensationalism and the myths and in the way the authors spoke to ordinary villagers and “new” farmers. The interviewees were not just a token few, but scores who talked about why they had invaded farms, whether their lives had improved (significant numbers said they had) and their hopes and aspirations. Even though data is notoriously difficult to get hold of in Zimbabwe, the authors are fanatical in their empirical approach.

Human touch

Yet their empiricism allows personal details, cultural idiosyncrasies and the lives of many ordinary folk to come through. The book does not have wodges of text written in technocratic speak, but writing in which human life lights up almost every page.

There are lessons for South Africa; after all, Zimbabwe is our tenth province. What is never hidden in South Africa’s keen interest in the story about the country north of the ­Limpopo river is a fear framed both as a question and a premonition: Will we become like Zimbabwe? It is something the scholars address in the concluding chapter of book.  “In the mid 1990s, no one thought that radical land reform might unfold in Zimbabwe.” And look what happened. So, unless South Africa’s land issue is resolved, a Zimbabwe could be replicated here.

It is a book that every bureaucrat in the region should read. It is a book that demands the attention of everyone who wants to know the “true”, unfinished story of Zimbabwe’s land reform.

Although the nationalists want us to think of the process as just revolutionary, which it was, much more happened that was reactionary — narratives with which these six scholars grapple. There was plunder, death and corruption and yet, for the one million ordinary people who benefited from the process, there was a sense of triumph, restitution and justice.
Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realitiesis fascinating, exhaustive and immensely readable. It goes beyond the myths to try to tell the story of a province whose reality might hold true for the rest of the country.

Source: Mail & Guardian Online Web Address: http://mg.co.za/article/2012-04-20-zimbabwes-land-myths-exposed

For other reviews, see http://www.zimbabweland.net/Reviews.html

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