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The Third Chimurenga and Zimbabwe's crisis
Hugh McCullum
Extracted from Africa Files Issue eZine - September 2006 (vol. 4, no. 4)
September 04, 2006

Let us begin with two generalizations. Land reform is usually, in the developing world, a question of social justice. Land owned by a small minority should be equitably redistributed so that agrarian development can proceed for the benefit of the majority without destroying or damaging seriously a state-s economy. Second generalization: that most land reforms do not work for the good of the whole country and often cause violence, chaos and long-term problems for the agricultural sector. There have been exceptions through history but the clash of traditional land use with that of agro-business where indigenous land is taken, usually forcibly, by settlers to produce crops for profit using cheap local labour usually prevails. Zimbabwe-s agrarian revolution which really began in 1997 is a classic failure. Why? There has been heated debate but little consensus about the land crisis, the "fast-track resettlement" and even the "third chimurenga" (a Shona word which roughly means revolution or liberation of blacks from white domination).

Land has been a festering wound in Zimbabwe and its predecessors Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia. The country-s agrarian economy predates colonialism by centuries and until 1890 land rights were a communal process operating at family, village and clan levels. Chiefs, although entitled to their "own" land, were really functionaries who allocated land in the best interests of their people. Land use was based on crop rotation to ensure viable pasturage for the huge cattle herds and the traditional economy was mainly barter, trading crops, weapons, livestock and even people. An almost idyllic situation one might assume but historians point out that there were constant conflicts among the Shona and between the Shona and the Ndebele. The result was fortress communities, refugee communities and migrant communities fleeing the fighting.

In 1890, Cecil John Rhodes sent the Pioneer Column into Matabeland, home of the Ndebele people, an offshoot of the Zulu kingdom. The whites were looking for gold but found none so the British South Africa Company offered the disgruntled pioneers free land which was not theirs to give. The wily Rhodes got around this by "negotiating" a series of agreements and concessions with no legal basis whatsoever which allowed the white settlers to get tracts of land ranging in size from 500 ha to 3,000 ha.

The result was a number of conflicts between the invaders and the Shona and Ndebele including an all out war in 1893 which eventually destroyed the Ndebele kingdom, followed by the "first" chimurenga of 1896-97. It was a ferocious war, the indigenous people believing the whites were destroying the balance of nature. It was one of the first conflicts that was actually called a clash of civilizations. The "rebels" were defeated and the whites created a colonial state and institutionalized the land problem: it was centralized, racially exclusive, cash replaced barter and "natives" were resettled on reserves with nearly half the African population living on them. By 1930 there were 2,500 white farms with an acreage of 15 million ha and 114 reserves with more than a million Africans on 8.7 million ha of mostly mediocre to poor land.

By 1969 the Rhodesians, who had issued an illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain four years earlier, had stripped the country-s blacks of all the best land. After World War II, British soldiers were given choice farms as a reward so that by the time independence was won in 1980, more than half the commercial farmland had been taken from Africans. Many black Zimbabweans bitterly remember when their families were forcibly removed from their ancestral land and dumped on arid, rocky land on the edges of the fertile central plateau.

imbabwean independence was won in the "second" chimurenga, one of the most vicious bush wars in Africa (1971-1980), with Robert Mugabe-s election as prime minister in 1980, heading the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF). The second liberation war was a war about land and little more. Freedom, independence and above all an end to land discrimination were far more important than ideology or even political parties.

The new government, contrary to popular myth, recognized the paramounce of the land issue from the beginning but it was hampered by the narrow Lancaster House Agreement which ended the war and was adopted as the country-s constitution, much against Mugabe-s will. The agreement forced the ZANU-PF government to adopt a "willing-buyer, willing-seller" scheme as well as allowing state acquisition of unused or abandoned farmland. Even so, a Land Acquisition Act was passed in 1985 and plans to resettle 160,000 families were made.
The plans were never realised for many reasons, although by 1990 50,000 families were resettled on 6.5 million acres purchased from whites. However, the Lancaster House strictures reinforced the unwillingness of white farmers to sell their best land or to sell it at reasonable prices. But the government also suffered from lack of funds, poor infrastructure, water shortages and, above all, corruption.

The numbers were thought notable by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who continued to pour funds into ZANU-PF-s increasingly rapacious hands. But 50,000 families was a far cry from 160,000 and most of the projects failed to become productive. The resettled black farmers remained among Zimbabwe-s poorest and have required constant government assistance until the present day.

Much of the limited good land was quickly grabbed by state officials and party functionaries. The black peasant farmers who got the worst land did not have an aptitude for farming, especially on the marginal land they were offered.

So, by 1990, 10 years after the end of a war fought over land, some 4,660 white farmers held 11.2 million ha of prime farm land while 100,000 rural African families lived on 16.4 million ha. Still, in 1992 Mugabe-s government passed more legislation in an attempt to seek a politically acceptable land redistribution programme which would still preserve the commercial farming sector which was the best in Africa. It earned Zimbabwe some 39 percent of its foreign exchange from the sale of staple crops like maize and tobacco and other agricultural exports like flowers, coffee, fruit and meat.

The 1992 Land Acquisition Act was fought over by the white farmers who said taking 7.2 million ha of their prime land was "irrational" and "illegal". There were disputes over land prices and the law was never seriously implemented. With its economy humming, the Mugabe government for about five years just ignored land redistribution and rural development. The white farmers meanwhile enjoyed unparalled prosperity after independence. With peace and relative stability they built impressive irrigation systems that increased production. Their lifetsyles were often lavish and many began to treat their black workers better through education, housing, pay and healthcare. They employed 500,000 workers, the largest single source of employment in the country.

No one, even most white commercial farmers, doubted that land reform was critical especially as structural adjustment programmes began to bite but the government was unable or unwilling to produce a large-scale plan sufficient to address what many leaders, black and white, realized was a simmering national problem. Land invasions on a small scale were beginning as early as 1997. Mugabe was under pressure from all quarters — politically for the first time, and internally from his staunchest allies, the war veterans of the "second" chimurenga, many of whom were landless and poverty-stricken.

By late 1998 Mugabe had a plan — but it was one to ease his political pressures rather than a real commitment to genuine, rational land reform. The government held an international donors conference with experts on land. Top officials from Britain, the US, the European Union, the UN, aid organizations and many other potential donors, jetted into Harare to its five star (ZANU-PF owned) Sheraton Hotel.

The government appealed for a billion dollars (US) for land resettlement but observers noted that there were no new plans for the redistribution. The donors were singularly unimpressed and wondered aloud about where their money had gone citing misallocation of funds, lack of transparency, outright corruption and the same old plan which hadn-t worked.

The donors, too, were aware of revelations in 1997 that 300 farms purchased compulsorily by the government with donor funds had not been used for resettlement of poor black farmers but instead had been doled out to cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, top army officers and ZANU-PF functionaries.

When the pledging session began, senior government officials were furious and flabbergasted. The donors, until now ever faithful, were turning them down. They warned that unless the international donors came through with big money, violence would break out in southern Africa-s second largest economy. The donors would not buy it but they did come up with a plan which was a workable compromise. Based on a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) plan there would be a gradual but steady land resettlement based on compensation for white farmers, reduction of poverty of those resettled, considerable training programmes and improved infrastructure. The donors accepted this plan.

But, it was not what Mugabe had in mind. It would be tightly monitored and transparent. Within six weeks, the Zimbabweans had rejected the UNDP plan and chaos loomed. There is more than enough blame to go around. White farmers refused to accept widespread redistributions. Donors, long aware of the unrest in the rural areas, did not take an early lead. Britain and America who promised money didn-t pressure Mugabe to take their funds early after independence. But the largest share of the blame rests with the government who ignored effective land reform. It only returned to the issue at election time when Mugabe thought ZANU-PF could make political capital out of land reform.

Events in the new millennium shifted the entire Zimbawean political, economic and land scene in such a revolutionary manner that some analysts refer to the year 2000 as the beginning of the "third chimurenga". Others, especially the growing but fractured political opposition, argue the war has nothing to do with the first two chimurengas, nor was it about solving the real land issues. They said it was the ruling party-s desperate attempt to cling to power by brutalizing the people and turning Zimbabwe into a nation of peasants (The Daily News, March 3, 2002). Still others say the slogan is used to disguise Zimbabwe-s descent into anarchy.

Indeed, as the new century opened, Zimbabwe was hit with a triple whammy: first, there was the emergence of a true and credible opposition in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which coincided with the defeat in the referendum of February 2000 of ZANU-PF-s new draft constitution. The rejection was an enormous shock to Mugabe and ZANU-PF and was followed in the June 2000 parliamentary elections with an even greater setback. ZANU-PF barely squeezed through to a slim and highly controversial majority. International observers said the election was corrupt, excessively violent, incompetently run and refused to certify it as "free and fair".

The farm invasions were ratcheted up in 2000 partly as Mugabe-s revenge for the defeat of his constitution and also an attempt to drum up rural support for the June election. He was also getting a payback from the Zimbabwe War Veterans Association, numbering some 40,000 men and women who had fought against Rhodesian rule. Most of them lived in poverty and occasionally on Independence Day would be treated to free beer and food. In 1997 a new leader with the improbably accurate name of "Hitler" Hunzvi took over the war veterans and began to make life miserable for Mugabe. Embarrassing and violent demonstrations broke out since the war veterans were considered loyal to the president.

Eventually Mugabe agreed to meet Hunzvi who demanded bigger pensions and gratuities, as well as good land for the veterans. Astonishingly Mugabe caved in to all their demands and almost overnight bankrupted the shaky economy: each veteran would get an immediate $50,000 (US$ 4,500 at 1997 exchange rates) gratuity, a monthly pension of $2,000 and somewhat vaguer promises of free land. The money was unbudgeted and, following the announcement, the once stable currency dropped dramatically and the markets reeled. It was the beginning of the end and today is referred to as "Black Friday." On that day, currency dropped to about Z$11 to US$1; today it takes a million Zimbabwe dollars to buy one US, the price of a half loaf of bread.

Added to the economic woes leading up to 2000 was a decision to send troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to prop up the government of Laurent Kabila under attack from Ugandan and Rwandan backed rebels. The country was astonished and the costs of keeping 12,000 soldiers in the DRC was estimated at an unbudgeted Z$1 million per day. But for rich business people and defence officials the Congo offered rich pickings.

By 2000 it was time for Mugabe to strike back after all these setbacks. White farm invasions by war veterans and unemployed urban youth began to escalate. Using the militant language of the state media, the invasions were hailed as an exercise in "coercive liberation" and "national agro-retributive justice for 'evil' white farmers." (Knox Chitiyo, "Harvest of Tongues", 2003.)

For the proponents of the "third" chimurenga ideology, the war had begun and the rebels were urban veterans and youth, more tools of the ruling party than agrarian reformers. Gates to white farms were smashed down, houses and buildings ransacked and burned. Zimbabwe television showed pictures of people spilling into farms shouting "hondo, hondo" (war, war). It was the end of February and the state media quoted Mugabe as saying "the Zimbabwean people are reclaiming the land that is their heritage." He denied it was state-sponsored but also refused to call out security forces to enforce the law or protect the commercial farmers and their land. The invasion was billed as a popular uprising and labelled the "third" chimurenga.

Chitiyo (2003) says the "chimurenga mythology" has become a core element of state survival and agrarian transformation. He compares the Zimbabwean model ("a populist-coercive version of socio-agrarian reform") which, for better or worse, has revolutionized the agricultural system, with the current South African model — "incrementalist, rationalist and linked to the global agenda of development as governance."

However the academics analyze it, Mugabe had an election to win in June 2000. He knew he had lost the cities of Harare and Bulawayo to the MDC. With land reform he bet he could still win the rural areas where 70 percent of the population lived. Land was his trump card.

It was not long before the invasions turned ugly. Several whites were beaten up and one was killed but no one was charged. Mugabe egged the invaders on during an Independence Day speech and declared war on the white farmers: "Our present state of mind is that you are now our enemies because you really have behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe," Mugabe said on ZTV, April 18, 2000. "We are now full of anger. Our entire community is angry and that is why we now have the war veterans seizing land."

By mid-May at least 19 people had been killed, the majority of them black. But those who dub Zimbabwe a pariah or failed state over the farm invasions of 2000 should compare the numbers of whites killed with other land struggles and it becomes clear that although the rhetoric was high the violence was not. Many more white farmers have been killed in South Africa since its independence in 1994 although land redistribution has barely begun.

As an election issue, it may just have worked for Mugabe in 2000 but more likely fraud and intimidation gave him a narrow victory over the MDC. Yet it was enough. He also attacked the independent media, the law courts and police, replacing professionals with his own people. The next test would be the 2002 presidential elections against his arch-enemy, the trade unionist and head of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangarai. Once again, the tried and true trump card — land reform — would be the key issue, but this time it must be more than talk.

Although his majority was slim in Parliament, the constitution allowed Mugabe to make 30 appointments of chiefs and loyalists giving him a clear majority. In November 2001, he issued a decree ordering the expropriation of all white-owned commercial farms without compensation.

He then moved quickly to implement the now legalized fast-track resettlement programme, extending the number of commercial farms to be resettled to 3,000. Farmers were issued with eviction notices giving them 30 days to leave. In return, they were given vague promises of payment for "improvements" at some unspecified date in the future but nothing for the land, even though many farmers had bought their farms with government approval in the years after independence.

It was intended, Mugabe said, to assist the resettlement of landless peasants but it soon became evident that the process was controlled by ZANU-PF committees and the main beneficiaries were party officials, war veterans and card-carrying party members, many of whom had no farming experience. There was no plan to train would-be farmers or provide support services and infrastructure. Peasants were taken by army trucks to their land and left to their own devices.

Agriculture experts predicted the disaster that would follow. Farms designated for expropriation were mainly growing export crops. Within four years production would slump by more than 75 percent and Zimbabwe-s foreign exchange plummeted with it. Food shortages, even starvation, are now routine and the plight of 500,000 black farmworkers is dire.

While approximately 300,000 small farmers were provided with five to 10 ha of land, and land was set aside for 51,000 black commercial farmers, the entire process was extremely chaotic, legally unclear and characterized by extreme violence, intimidation, and displacement. Moreover, at the end of 2002, although 11.5 million ha were transferred from white commercial farmers to black Zimbabweans, much of this land again went to government ministers and elites or was taken over by dubious war veterans.

But Mugabe achieved his main goal. On March 13, 2002, he was re-elected Zimbabwe-s executive president (head of state and government) for the fifth consecutive time at age 80.

Although the government claimed the fast-track programme was over at the end of 2003, evidence proves otherwise. By 2003, there were still 2,500 white commercial farmers in the country, and 1,000 still had their property. Of these farmers, approximately 650 were farming, but only about half were meeting with success. Furthermore, land seizures have continued, as many small-scale farmers who were resettled from the communal areas are now being removed from their farms because ZANU-PF officials want that land.

Determined to remain in power, Mugabe used all the resources at hand to attack his opponents using land reform as a key strategy but the cost has been enormous. Zimbabwe has been reduced to a bankrupt, impoverished state threatened with economic collapse, living with catastrophic food shortages and kept alive by remittances from many of the three million exiles in the Zimbabwean diaspora.

For the supporters of the "third chimurenga" the future is grim. As Chitiyo (2003) writes "... [it] has largely been about retributive justice — true social justice has yet to be achieved."

Select bibliography:

  • Beach, David. War and Politics in Zimbabwe. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1997.
  • Chitiyo, Knox. "Harvest of Tongues: Zimbabwe's 'Third Chimurenga' and the Making of an Agrarian Revolution", in Margaret C. Lee & Karen Colvard, Unfinished Business: The Land Crisis in Southern Africa. African Institute of South Africa (AISA), 2003, pp. 159-193.
  • Meldrum, Andrew. Where We Have Hope: A memoir of Zimbabwe. London: John Murray Publishers, 2005.
  • Meredith, Martin. Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe. New York: Public Affairs, 2002.
  • Moyo, Sam. The Land Question in Zimbabwe. Harare: SAPES, 1992.
  • Rukuni, Mandivamba, and Eicher, Carl S., eds. Zimbabwe-s Agricultural Revolution. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publishers, 1997.

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