We Share the Blame for Zimbabwe

Britain’s Debt to its People Runs into Billions

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th April 2000

The British establishment is poorly qualified to lecture Robert Mugabe about racism. The government’s condemnation of the murders of two white Zimbabwean farmers contrasts oddly with the blandishments with which it greeted Vladimir Putin, the killer of thousands of Chechens. Just as it revealed that Zimbabwe’s white refugees are welcome, for “reasons of ancestry”, to settle here permanently, it announced that it would expel 3,000 Kosovan Albanians. While the newspapers devoted hundreds of column inches to the horrible killings of the two white farmers, they scarcely mentioned the equally horrible killing of the black foreman who worked for one of them. The dispute between London and Harare is a dispute between racists.

Like Jack Straw and William Hague, Mugabe is using racism as a cheap – and not very effective – means of winning votes. But while he has made life miserable for Zimbabwe’s white population, he has also compromised the survival of millions of blacks. For he is destroying the very cause he claims to espouse: Robert Mugabe has become the enemy of land reform.

The recent land seizures mirror the thefts which first enabled the whites to control so much of Zimbabwe’s economy. In the 1890s, Cecil Rhodes and the settlers he led first cheated and then forcibly dispossessed the Shona and the Ndebele. The whites stole their land, their cattle and, through taxation, their labour. When they rebelled against these impositions, the blacks were cruelly suppressed and their leaders were hanged. From 1930 onwards, blacks were forbidden to own land outside the barren and crowded “reserves”. Even the cities were secured by the settlers: native people were confined to rented property in peripheral townships.

Today, though the laws have changed, the distribution of land has scarcely altered. Zimbabwe’s 4,500 white farmers occupy 70 per cent of the best land, while some seven million blacks still inhabit the old reserves. Some of the white farmers claim that if this dispensation were to change, Zimbabwe would starve, but any visit to a British supermarket shows that this is nonsense. Much of Zimbabwe’s most fertile land is used to grow not necessities for the hungry, but luxuries for the sated: mange tout, radicchio, french beans and tobacco. Redistribution would enable the poor both to support themselves and to produce staple crops for the landless: all over the Third World it is smallholders who keep their own countries fed.

Land reform in Zimbabwe, in other words, is an urgent necessity. But by manipulating the distribution programme to secure his own survival, Mugabe is keeping his people hungry. He is, however, not solely to blame for its failures.

The 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, which oversaw the transition to majority rule in Zimbabwe, ensured that the Zimbabwean government could use local currency only to buy land from farmers who were willing to sell. If it were to expropriate their property, it would have to compensate them with scarce and precious foreign exchange. The agreement bound the country to a programme of land reform, in other words, whose comprehensive implementation would have cost billions. Having hinted that we would pay for it, our government handed over only a fraction of the money required – £44 million – to make it happen.

Had a sterner settlement been struck, in other words, or had Britain been more generous, there might not have been a land distribution problem in Zimbabwe today. Our meanness, compounded perhaps by an unwillingness to undermine the white economic hegemony, perpetuated Zimbabwe’s racial segregation. Mugabe, unable to oversee a full and fair redistribution, acquired an excuse to turn land into a gift, to be deployed as political imperatives demanded. When the Lancaster House Agreement expired, he changed the constitution to allow the government to make compulsory purchases in Zimbabwe dollars, but he used the new power to reward his friends and purchase his enemies.

So Robert Mugabe is right about one thing: Britain does have a moral obligation to pay for a comprehensive land reform programme in Zimbabwe, to absolve not only the theft of land and labour by British-born farmers, but also to correct the inequitable settlement of 1979. And the foreign office minister, Peter Hain, is right to suggest that any money we hand over should bypass Mugabe’s regime. But he is wrong to imagine that he can implement “a programme of genuine land reform” with “some millions of pounds.” Our debt to the people of Zimbabwe runs into billions.

If we fail to recognise that Britain sits at the heart of this problem, then we condemn Zimbabwe’s poor to decades of manipulation, segregation and starvation. If our politics are to be distinguished from Mr Mugabe’s, then we must extend to Zimbabwe’s blacks the munificence we have offered the whites.