By Mahmood Mamdani
In this four-part series, renowned Ugandan scholar Professor Mahmood Mamdani examines the historical causes of Zimbabwe’s political crisis.
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, and blame him for Zimbabwe’s descent into hyperinflation and poverty. The seizure of white-owned farms by his black supporters has been depicted as a form of thuggery, and as a cause of the country’s declining production, as if these lands were doomed by black ownership. Sanctions have been imposed, and opposition groups funded with the explicit aim of unseating him.
There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters. His policies have helped lay waste the country’s economy, though sanctions have played no small part, while his refusal to share power with the country’s growing opposition movement, much of it based in the trade unions, has led to a bitter impasse. This view of Zimbabwe’s crisis can be found everywhere, from the Economist and the Financial Times to the Guardian and the New Statesman, but it 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.
Many have compared Mugabe to Idi Amin and the land expropriation in Zimbabwe to the Asian expulsion in Uganda. The comparison isn’t entirely off the mark. I was one of the 70,000 people of South Asian descent booted out by Idi Amin in 1972; I returned to Uganda in 1979. My abiding recollection of my first few months back is that no one I met opposed Amin’s expulsion of ‘Asians’. Most merely said: ‘It was bad the way he did it.’ The same is likely to be said of the land transfers in Zimbabwe.
What distinguishes Mugabe and Amin from other authoritarian rulers is not their demagoguery but the fact that they projected themselves as champions of mass justice and successfully rallied those to whom justice had been denied by the colonial system. Not surprisingly, the justice dispensed by these demagogues mirrored the racialised injustice of the colonial system. In 1979 I began to realise that whatever they made of Amin’s brutality, the Ugandan people experienced the Asian expulsion of 1972 ‘” and not the formal handover in 1962 ‘” as the dawn of true independence. The people of Zimbabwe are likely to remember 2000-3 as the end of the settler colonial era. Any assessment of contemporary Zimbabwe needs to begin with this sobering fact.
Though widespread grievance over the theft of land ‘” a process begun in 1889 and completed in the 1950s ‘” fuelled the guerrilla struggle against the regime of Ian Smith, whose Rhodesian Front opposed black majority rule, the matter was never properly addressed when Britain came back into the picture to effect a constitutional transition to independence under majority rule. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, but the social realities of the newly independent state remained embedded in an earlier historical period: some 6000 white farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of prime land, 39 per cent of the land in the country, while about 4.5 million farmers (a million households) in ‘communal areas’ were left to subsist on 16.4 million hectares of the most arid land, to which they’d been removed or confined by a century of colonial rule. In the middle were 8500 small-scale black farmers on about 1.4 million hectares of land.
This was not a sustainable arrangement in a country whose independence had been secured at the end of a long armed struggle supported by a land-hungry population. But the agreement that Britain drafted at Lancaster House in 1979 ‘” and that the settlers eagerly backed ‘” didn’t seem to take into account the kind of transition that would be necessary to secure a stable social order. Two of its provisions, one economic and the other political, reflected this short-termism: one called for land transfers on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis, with the British funding the scheme; the other reserved 20 per cent of seats in the House of Assembly for whites ‘” 3 per cent of the population ‘” giving the settler community an effective veto over any amendment to the Lancaster House terms. This was qualified majority rule at best. Both provisions had a time limit: 1990 for land transfers based on the market principle, and 1987 for the settler minority to set limits on majority rule. The deal sustained illusions among the settlers that what they had failed to achieve by UDI ‘” Smith’s 1965 declaration of independence from the UK ‘” and force of arms, they could now achieve through support from a government of ‘kith and kin’ (as Smith called it) in Britain. In reality, however, the agreement drew a line under settler privilege.