A man who causes famine is no hero

Tom Lodge argues that Mugabe squandered earlier opportunities for land reform.

Summary - Most successful land reforms in the 20th century were undertaken by authoritarian regimes after wars that weakened the power of landowners. Thoughtful apologists for Mugabe’s administration use that argument to justify what is happening in Zimbabwe. If that rationale is accepted, then the only question is whether the expropriation of white farms will create a more efficient, just and stable society. This seems unlikely. Successful land reform projects require all kinds of support, and the half million people who have moved onto white-owned farms since 1990 have received no such help. Few of them are producing surpluses, and any successful programme must take into account the fact that nearly half the Zimbabwean population lives in towns and depends on a productive agricultural sector for food. The tragedy is that Zimbabwe by 1990 had the experience to administer land reform properly on a fairly large scale. The government argues that it couldn’t afford to do so because Britain had reneged on its financial commitments. But Zimbabwe found the funds to conduct an expensive war in the Congo during this period. The ruling group clearly considered it more important to become a regional power than to address the needs of the rural poor. Furthermore, the reason Britain was unwilling to underwrite further land purchases was that Zimbabwean politicians claimed many of the farms intended for peasants. Harry Mashabela is right, however, in stating that if we want to avoid a similar situation, we have to accelerate land reform. It will not be easy. Our agricultural sector is a major contributor to our foreign exchange earnings, and we cannot afford disruptions in food supplies. Moreover, there could be vigorous opposition from both landowners and traditional leaders. However, these considerations are no excuse for the lethargy that characterises land reform at present. We have accomplished less in our first decade than Zimbabwe did, and lack of money is no excuse. If we can afford the arms deal, we can afford to quadruple our expenditure on land redistribution. The beneficiaries of most current schemes are black farmers who already have some capital; alleviation of rural poverty is not a prime objective. If we spend more on these schemes, the racial pattern of farm ownership will change significantly but the injustice of the present situation – 40 per cent of the population living in the countryside in abject poverty – will remain.

Land reform programmes that proceed according to constitutional proprieties in liberal democracies are very unusual. Most of the relatively successful land reform in the twentieth century was undertaken by authoritarian regimes (sometimes colonial administrations) during or after wars in which the political power of land-holding groups was weakened. Malaya, Philippines, Taiwan, Colombia, and Cuba are all cases in point.

The more thoughtful apologists for the Zimbabwean administration - Ibbo Mandaza for example - use that sort of argument to justify land seizures by Zanu-PF supporters. Once that rationale is pursued the criteria for what constitutes a defensible redistribution project concerns ends not means: will the forcible expropriation of white farms lead to more economic efficiency, social justice and political stability?

In the short to medium term that seems very unlikely. Successful land reform projects require more than simply resettling people on cultivable land. They need all kinds of support: new services, training, start-up capital - tools, seeds, know-how, and so forth.

The 55 000 Zimbabwean families that were beneficiaries of land reform in the 1980s received very generous support: the cost of the land (which for them was free) only represented one third or so of the total bill, most of which was paid through external grants from the British government and international agencies. The half million people who have moved onto formerly white-owned farms since 1990 have received no such assistance and under present circumstances are unlikely to do so. Few of them are producing surplus food over and above their own requirements or using the land they occupy intensively. In the process of the land seizures assets such as livestock and equipment have been destroyed and foreign exchange-generating export operations displaced.

Nearly half the Zimbabwean population lives in towns: any efficient land reform programme would have to address their food security and livelihoods: to a very large extent these were dependent upon a productive commercial agricultural sector. Transforming capital-intensive Zimbabwean agriculture into a predominantly small-holder enterprise need not necessarily be economically disruptive. The 1980's resettlements produced high crop yields as well as improved nutrition in the areas affected. But such a programme needs to be managed carefully and selectively.

The tragedy is that from 1990 Zimbabwe possessed the experience to administer land reform well on a larger scale and, indeed, fulfilled some of the conditions needed for a peaceful and constitutional reform project. By 1990, white farmers had lost most of their political influence, and African peasants, based largely in the old trust areas, produced a substantial proportion of the country's food needs.

Zimbabwean officials maintain that there was no money to expand the programme and that their failure to do so was a consequence of Britain reneging on earlier commitments. Is that true, though? During the 1990s there was money to expand a formidable military establishment and undertake an expensive war in the Congo - for which Zimbabwe received no foreign help. Zimbabwe faced no foreign threat and no national interest dictated its military commitments in central Africa: the ruling group chose its priorities and for its members attempting to become a regional power was a more important priority than addressing the needs of rural Zimbabwe. From 1990 the constitutional embargo on forced sales and government fixed levels of compensation no longer existed. Ironically, during the years of the Lancaster House settlement era the pace of land reform in Zimbabwe was quicker than in the second decade of independence.

It is true that Britain was no longer willing to fund land purchases but this was a consequence of Zimbabwean politicians and officials taking over farms intended for peasants.

No doubt Harry Mashabela is correct: many black South Africans - and black people elsewhere - admire president Robert Mugabe for reversing such a symbolically important injustice as the racially skewed land holdings in his country. But he could have done it earlier and better and without the economic damage that the seizures have caused. Is a man who causes a famine really a hero?

But Mashabela's article scarcely constitutes a serious defence of the Zimbabwean leader's actions. Does he really think that the 2000 and 2002 Zimbabwean elections were free and fair? Can he truly believe that there have been no human rights violations in Zimbabwe, and that the rule of law survives? Most urban Zimbabweans - to judge from their political behaviour over the last two years - don't seem to think so, irrespective of whether they are black or white.

Where Harry Mashabela is absolutely right, though, is in underlining the moral of the Zimbabwean land saga for South Africans. If this country wants to avoid a similar set of experiences in the next twenty years then it has to choose differently from Harare and make land reform a more important policy objective.

Certainly, changing patterns of South African land ownership will not be easy. With the disappearance of subsidies and tariff protection, South African commercial agriculture has become increasingly efficient and contributes vitally to foreign exchange earnings. Landless people in the former homelands often don't have the resources to farm even if they were to be given land. A significant proportion of South African farmland is of a quality that would not lend itself to intensive settlement. Nearly two thirds of the population lives in cities and depends on relatively cheap locally produced foodstuffs: we cannot afford disruptions in urban food supplies.

In contrast to Zimbabwe, landowners remain a well-organized minority and if they felt their interests were seriously threatened they still have the capacity to put up vigorous resistance. Moreover, as we have seen, any tenure changes that might produce more effective land use in the former homelands are also likely to encounter fierce opposition from "traditional" leaders. There are thus very good reasons for the South African authorities to approach land reform with caution.

But these considerations do not excuse the lethargy that characterizes present approaches to agrarian injustice. Comparatively speaking, we have done less in ten years than Zimbabwe achieved in their first decade after independence. This is attributable to neither shortage of money nor constitutional limitations. If we can spend twelve billion rands a year on maintaining an army we don't need (and a further annual nine billion on re-equipping it) then we can afford to at least quadruple our expenditure on land-redistribution.

About five per cent of commercial farmland changes hands every year, not all of it at inflated prices. In any case the cost of buying land is not the key factor in effective land reform: most of the expense occurs after the land has been purchased. To date South African land reform programmes have been mainly constituted by various schemes through which aspirant farmers have been helped to buy land; few other kinds of support have been offered. Currently black farmers who already have some capital are targeted as the main beneficiaries of government policy: official views of land reform do not include poverty alleviation as a prime objective.

If more is spent on the present programme it is quite likely that we will witness a significant change in the racial pattern of ownership. But the essential injustice of the present situation will remain: about forty per cent of the population living in the countryside without any real means of livelihood. That will be the consequence of choices made by the government's present leaders: choices, not compulsions, will leave a huge component of the rural population in a state of abject poverty.