Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

MDC agriculture and lands position paper avoids the tough issues

Posted by CM on August 10, 2008

What the MDC refers to as its policy document on lands and agrarian reform is remarkable for how little it says about one of the most crucial issues on which its performance would be judged if it gets into power.

The paper promises to tell the reader ‘how we will attend to the issue’ but really does nothing of the kind. The MDC’s positions on many of the day to day agricultural issues are hard to fault, and are not different from what any other government anywhere in the world would be expected to do. But this is precisely why the document is underwhelming. The centrality of the issue of land to the problems in Zimbabwe particularly require the MDC to boldly and clearly show how its stance is different from that of ZANU-PF.

The MDC says it would “rationalise” a land reform process that was “chaotic and outside the rule of law.” But “there will be no return to the pre-2000 status nor will the present regime of wastage, corruption, under utilization and multi-ownership be preserved.”

This is perhaps the only bold and clear-cut statement in the whole document. Over the years the MDC has been pilloried by ZANU-PF over its wishy-washiness in regards to what it would do about the controversial land takeovers that have taken place since 2000. Morgan Tsvangirai and his party have never been able to live down the image of them being partly representative of the hopes of white farmers to reclaim their farms. The image of white farmers excitedly surrounding Tsvangirai in the early days of the party’s formation to offer him financial support backfired very badly for him. It gave ZANU-PF plenty of propaganda ammunition against Tsvangirai and lost him credibility in much of the black world that to this day he struggling to regain.

The situation was not helped by confusing statements from party officials about their position on farms expropriated from white farms. “Outside the rule of law” seemed to reduce the issue to ‘lets see who has title deeds’ but the complexity of the land issue in Zimbabwe means it is far more than merely a legal matter. It is that in part, but it also involves un-avoidable issues of race, history, economics, politics, emotion and many others, which is why it is so intractable.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how ‘chaotic and outside the rule of law’ the ZANU-PF driven expropriations were, and regardless of the so far disastrous results, the idea of them retains much support amongst Zimbabweans across the many divides in the country. A wholesale reversal of them is not politically tenable, and the MDC statement is simply a reflection of how the party has come to accept this reality.

The MDC says it will seek to set up a commission to deal with land issues, and that this proposed statutory body would have the task of dealing with the nuts and bolts of what exactly to do about the many vexing issues. According to the position paper, this commission would, amongst other things, carry out a land audit to determine who has what land and what is being done with it. It would “ implement and coordinate a rational and participatory all inclusive and well planned resettlement programme,” whatever that means. It would also set out allowable sizes of land holdings and find ways to discourage multiple farm ownership.

All this is general enough that it cannot be said to constitute policy. These are all things that would need to be done in one form or another by any government, including eventually by ZANU-PF itself if it continues to rule. Apart from telling us they will not try to go back to the pre-2000 pattern of land holdings, the MDC position is to essentially say “the land commission will look at things after we get into power.”

It may be politically wise of the MDC to not allow itself to be pinned down to specifics on a complicated issue, but the lack of clear signs of fundamentally new thinking about land and agriculture is not an encouraging sign.

In typical MDC-speak, the party says it would ‘internationalise’ the issue of how to compensate farmers whose land has been expropriated since 2000. No doubt Britain, for one, would now be willing to be part of funding the pay-off of white farmers. This would be for ‘kith and kin’ reasons, as a reward to an MDC government for deposing a Robert Mugabe the British have come to hate with a passion, and to be seen as part of the solution to the resolution of this long-standing problems, rather than as part of the problem, as Mugabe has repeatedly, stridently argued. The EU and others may have their own reasons for wanting to contribute to a compensation fund under an MDC government.

But is expressing a commitment to compensation based on external funding not potentially problematic? The party reasonably argues that ‘the Zimbabwean economy does not have the capacity to offer just and equitable compensation while at the same time driving the economy forward.’ What happens if  ‘internationalising’ compensation does not yield the required funds? There could be many reasons for this: donor fatigue or unhappiness over one thing or another about the terms of the compensation, or the way forward politically or economically. These are after all parts of the reasons for why previous plans to raise money to buy the white farmers out did not materialise.

The ZANU-PF government’s stance has been that it would pay compensation whose value it determined, and based only on ‘improvements to the land, rather than including the value of the land as well, because of the history of colonial plunder. The white farmers who purchased their land rather than received or inherited it as part of the process of colonial subjugation of the Africans obviously take a dim view of this.

Yet even if the ZANU-PF position was one extreme that cannot meet the demand of ‘just and equitable compensation,’ what is the thinking that will go into meeting that requirement of justice and equity? The MDC could have used the opportunity presented by setting out its basic philosophy in regards to this, even if the details are to be worked out later.

That the white farmers lost money, assets, livelihoods is not in doubt. But if one looks at violent dispossession in its historical context in the country, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Previous violent dispossessions by colonial authorities against the Africans were done according to the ‘rule of law’ of the time, but it was stacked against the Africans and in favour of the white settlers. This happened within the lifetimes of people still living today, so it can hardly be considered as ancient history which can simply be written off. ‘Lawful’ and ‘just’ are not necessarily one and the same thing, which is why the innocent-sounding ‘rule of law’ can be a nebulous, loaded term.

Is the recent dispossession of the white farmers more horrific than previous one of the natives? If so, why and how? Is the fact that the white farmers had paper title deeds in a way that Africans did not when their land and cattle were grabbed from them the salient issue? If Africans have been expected to let colonial bygones be bygones, why would it be too much to ask the white farmers to accept the injustice of their loss in a similar light? Why is the native expected to live with his or her wounds of colonial dispossession as the price of moving forward and yet the white farmers of today are not?

The MDC is probably too beholden to western interests to be expected to broach this subject this way, but that is a shame. It should be an entirely legitimate part of the discussion over compensation. Of course there are many other things to consider than just the wounded feelings, lost property and investments of the white farmers. One of those would be the negative message that would be sent to potential investors in not compensating the farmers for their lost investments. But if the idea to scrap or to limit compensation were considered, it could be sold as part of a process of wiping a very messy, complicated slate clean in order to start another more just phase of the country’s development. Qualifying what ‘just and equitable’ compensation means in this case need not be taken to mean that in future expropriations would become routine, the way they have been for a good part of the nation’s recent history, although an ahistorical, jaundiced Western media often gives the impression that they were only began eight years ago by the ‘evil’ Mugabe against the innocent, hard working Christian white farmers.

Having discussions like this, even if they ended up with conventional ‘rule of law’-based compensation of the white farmers, rather than some resolution which looks at the issue in less conventional, more historically holistic terms, would show that the MDC was committed to dealing with the issue of agrarian reform from the roots, rather than from just the apparent surface.

The MDC document has its share of absolute twaddle. A prize gem is ‘the ultimate economic liberation of Zimbabwe will only occur after the destruction of the dual enclave economy and the transition of our country into a modern industrial State.’ Apparently what this means is a glorious, miraculous process of renewal ‘to free the country from direct reliance on land and agriculture but an (sic) industry and technology and software.’

The paper in some parts reads like a high school essay more than a serious work by a party hoping to run the affairs of a country. The sweeping, hopeful statement of how the MDC will lead Zimbabwe into being a technological powerhouse no longer dependent on agriculture directly is not backed up with any detail whatsoever about how this will be accomplished and it seemed un-necessary in a paper purportedly outlining the party’s agricultural policy. It is the kind of grand statement whose hopefulness one cannot disagree with but in the current context makes the MDC appear like a typical over-promising political party rather than one that has seriously engaged with how to address the pressing issues of today. Just reviving commercial agriculture would keep the MDC busy long enough that mentioning a hoped for future technology-based Zimbabwe in an agriculture position paper today does not make the MDC appear like a far-thinking party, but one throwing around platitudes in place of specifics about the great issues of the day, of which land and agriculture are two.

The MDC briefly lectures about the distinction between land reform and agrarian reform before promising us that under the latter, the party would ‘and industrialize the rural areas to make them productive and wealth generating.’ Assuming that it is a given that this would be a desirable thing to do, how would the party take us to this industrial promised land? No specifics are again, so I suppose this is another rabbit the land commission will be expected to pull out of its magic hat. These sweeping sorts of statements of the wonderful great things you would do as a ruling party when you clearly have not thought them through in any detail should be avoided.

The come a raft of promises to do the kinds of things that any government should do. The MDC mentions support for agricultural training and research institutions, provision of inputs and so on. They would all be good things to do, but probably beyond the capacity of any government to carry the full responsibility for. This has been the experience of most countries, and the MDC would have to make an above average commitment to agriculture to merely do most of what it promises in its paper.

In seemingly promising everything to everybody, the MDC comes off like any other political party. This is of course what it is, but even that is not good enough at a time when the depth and complexity of Zimbabwe’s problems requires unusual commitment and thinking power to solve. Getting Zimbabwe out of its current doldrums will require the kind of fresh, out-of-the-box thinking which the MDC’s policy paper on land and agriculture does not suggest the party has embarked on.

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