Nationalism and Land Reform Reradicalized, 1997—2002

By the end of the first structural adjustment program in 1996, national politics had come to a boil, and the legitimacy of the ruling party as the “guardian” of the nation was under severe challenge. Strike action would spread from private to public sector workers, whose union (the Public Servants Association) would even become affiliated with the ZCTU, in open defiance of the government’s divide-and-rule tactics. In 1997, strikes would grip several industries, including construction, commercial, hotel and catering, clothing, cement and lime, railways, urban councils, and postal and telecommunications. In all, the year saw more than 230 strikes in 16 sectors. Most notably, farm workers downed tools for the first time, in what appeared to be a wildcat strike, in protest over poor working conditions and wages, which stood at less than one-sixth of the poverty datum line.

But the ruling party was not only being challenged from the outside. It was also entering a new period of internal polarization, marked by the open return of war veterans to national politics, through the National War Veterans Liberation Association. Precipitated by a financial scandal and collapse of the state-sponsored War Veterans Compensation Fund, the war veterans demanded that the state compensate them from the national budget. While this appeared to be a “self-serving” demand—in both media and academic analysis—it was indicative of a class split within the ruling party, between the elites at the forefront of “indigenisation,” on the one hand, and the lower echelons, on the other, which had never been accommodated by the postindependence state and many of whom were indeed living in poverty. Moreover, the demands resonated with a reradicalized nationalism and discontent with the fate of national liberation. The government succumbed to their demands and disbursed a large compensation package, which had not been foreseen in the national budget. Moreover, the government would turn its sights back to the land question and designate 1,470 white commercial farms for compulsory acquisition, promising 20 percent to the war veterans. These moves, in turn, sent the economy into a downward spiral, led by a crash in the Zimbabwe dollar by 74 percent, in one day (November 14). These moves, too, appeared as “self-serving”—in this case on the part of President Mugabe—but in fact, the war veteran challenge was of a different magnitude, for the war vets were also firmly embedded in the state apparatus and, indeed, were in charge of security, including the President’s office.

Thereafter, events in Zimbabwe began to move in a markedly different direction. The second structural adjustment program (ZIMPREST) was abandoned, balance- of-payments support from the IMF was suspended, and the economy continued on a rapid decline. But this was not yet the time of radical land reform and structural change, for the white farms listed by the government were not acquired. Instead, the threat of compulsory acquisition would galvanize the land question nationally, and even internationally, giving rise to a new round of negotiations with foreign donors, including the World Bank and the British government. In 1998, a Donors’ Conference was held in Harare, where a tense agreement was reached to proceed with both compulsory and market acquisition, as well as other complementary approaches. Importantly, on the eve of the conference, a wave of high-profile land occupations swept through the country for the first time since the early years of independence. This was loosely organized at the local level, by dissident ruling party politicians, traditional leaders, displaced workers, and the war veterans association, further demonstrating the class cleavages within the ruling party.64 This wave of land occupations was intermittently condoned and used by the government as an instrument against the donors, but it was clear that government was not firmly in control. Before long, the government would resort to the use of force to control the occupiers, together with promises to accelerate land reform. The peasants, in turn, agreed to “wait.”

Between 1998 and 2000, no progress was made on the land question, despite the conference agreements. Instead, national politics continued to boil ever more fervently, especially with the launch of the MDC and the euphoria over the prospect of defeating the ruling party at the millennium elections. Indeed, by 2000, the ruling party was in its most severe crisis of legitimacy since independence. And at this time, the balance of class forces within the ruling party was tipped in favor of radical nationalist solutions. In February 2000, mass land occupations, led by war veterans, began in the southern province of Masvingo and spread to every province, such that at the height of the land occupations in June about 800 farms had been occupied, and government was implementing compulsory land acquisition and mass redistribution. By the end of 2002, “fast-track” land reform had compulsorily acquired some 10 million hectares of land—approximately 90 percent of white commercial farmland—and redistributed most of it to 127,000 peasant households and 8,000 middle capitalist farmers (to be discussed). In the course of this rebellion, national elections were manipulated and civil society subjected to violence, resulting in over 100 politically related deaths in 2000—2002. Violence would also lead to deaths on the farms (including six white farmers and eleven farm workers) and would also involve cases of rape and torture.

As national politics boiled over, international politics also entered a period of renewed conflict, including an international propaganda war, a financial boycott, and regional instability. The private national press and international media networks, led by the British, denounced the land reforms as “land grabs” and the ruling party as a “corrupt and brutal dictatorship,” even likening President Mugabe to Milosevic.

The MDC and the ZCTU joined the imperial repertoire, demanding “free and fair multiparty elections” and joining in an alliance with white commercial farmers against the land reform. Foreign donors and their funds fled the country to begin a long international boycott, except for “humanitarian” purposes. And regional states and civil societies themselves were forced to choose sides, with the former cautiously backing the land reform, and the latter generally condemning it. For its own part, the new Landless Peoples’ Movement of South Africa entered the realm of civil society and was immediately confronted with the contradiction of forming civil alliances and supporting a radical nationalist strategy on land; in the event, members of the LPM defended the occupations, but the LPM did not issue an official position.

There is certainly much to criticize in Zimbabwe’s land reform process. But this would be impossible without identifying its class structure and dynamics, its weaknesses, and its failures, but also its successes and, indeed, its fundamentally progressive nature.

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