Eric Bloch’s revisionist version of the origins of Zimbabwe’s land problem
Posted by CM on December 10, 2008
Zimbabwe Independent columnist Eric Bloch recently wrote an article on what he considers to be the changes necessary to get Zimbabwe’s land reform back on track to revive agriculture.
Bloch was responding to the ruling of the SADC Tribunal based in Namibia in favour of a number of evicted white Zimbabwean farmers who petitioned it for relief. The farmers went to the recently established regional court for redress after unfavorable rulings in Zimbabwe’s own court system.
The SADC court ruled that the farm seizures were racially discriminatory and violated international law. It ordered the Zimbabwean government to stop further farm takeovers, as well as to pay compensation for those already taken. Predictably, the Mugabe government scoffed at the court’s ruling and has made it clear it has no intention to abide by it.
Bloch’s overall conclusion is hard to fault. He ends his article with, “It (the government) should work vigorously towards the creation of harmonious inter-racial relationships and support to bring about the revival of the agricultural sector. If it would constructively reform its land reform, Zimbabwe would again become the region’s breadbasket, and its economy would be positively set upon the path to real recovery and growth.
It is how Bloch leads up to his conclusion that is preposterous. He goes out of his way to admit that Zimbabwe has had a long pre-independence history of aggressive laws to make the African majority population occupiers of only the most marginal lands. And he is careful to say that he accepts that the legacy of racially-based wealth and land-holding patterns had to be corrected.
He writes: At the time of government initiating its programme of land reform, resettlement and redistribution, it justified doing so upon the fact that for a prolonged period of time the black population had been legislatively barred from ownership of agricultural lands, and upon a specious contention that such lands had been “stolen” from the black population by the British colonialists of more than a century ago.
Bloch then embarks on an ingenious but utterly dishonest argument, one he has made many times before in his Zimbabwe Independent column, about how the widely-held view that the land was indeed stolen from the natives by British settlers is actually wrong.
No, you see, says Bloch, the natives’ population density was extremely low at the time of the arrival of the British visitors who then invited themselves to stay and dominate the natives. Citing population statistics of that late 19th century period, Bloch says, “Based upon the 1880s/1890s population of 250 000, if the entirety of the lands were stolen from that population, each member of the population, be they adult or child, male or female, elderly or young would, on average, have been possessed of 156 28 acres! That could not possibly have been the case.”
There you have it, the masterful exoneration of the early British settlers’ reputation as usurpers of African land by Eric Bloch! They could not have stolen the land because at the time (1890s) there were just a handful of natives roaming around mostly vastly empty space that belonged to nobody. Oh sure, admits Bloch, the settlers may have then gone on to mistreat the Africans in all sorts of ways, but at the beginning they just helped themselves to all the vast open spaces that had just been sitting there waiting for somebody clever to come along and stake Western-legal claim to it. It was not the settlers’ fault that the natives couldn’t produce title deeds, effectively says the intrepid columnist Bloch.
If I sound sarcastic and contemptuous of Bloch’s argument, it’s because I am. It is not only a historically and intellectually dishonest argument, it borders on meeting the standards of that oft-abused,over-used concept; racist.
As Bloch damn well knows, the concepts of ownership of the two clashing cultures were completely different. In the African setting land was communally held. There was no personal ‘title’ to land, but there was a consensual understanding of territories belonging to different levels of groups. This is why when what was understood to be an ‘outgroup’ invaded an area, the result was war. It was not, “Fine, help yourself to that vast open space over there, we don’t have title deeds to it so we can’t prove it is ours.”
Bloch is valiantly fighting an ideas war with an argument that is not just culturally, historically and intellectually dishonest. On a purely practical level he is continuing to fight a battle that in Zimbabwe has clearly been lost. The almost universal feeling amongst black Zimbabweans about the “stealing” of their land is one major why they pretty much unanimously agreed with the idea of waging a long and brutal war against the colonial system. It is also why the idea of radical land reform was quite popular even as some warned about the consequences of doing it the way it was done. It is also why even as many Zimbabweans today would like to see the back of Robert Mugabe for being a repressive despot and for the overall mess he has presided over, the idea of land reform remains widely popular, even if many would agree with Bloch’s broad idea that the reform itself now needs to be reformed.
Each time Bloch has argued the way he has done again in this article, after getting over my initial astonishment, I have often wondered if e could be really naive enough to believe it could have any currency beyond perhaps a handful of people in his circles. Bloch has every right to repeat this argument, but he stands approximately zero chance of convincing either any Zimbabwean government or a significant proportion of the Zimbabwean public of his fantastically revisionist view of the country’s colonial history.
In different contexts, I have heard people fighting the fight that Bloch does so poorly here argue the following: The Africans (Indians, Aborigines, Native Americans, whatever) were indeed dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs by subterfuge and force of arms, but hey, every people has gone through such unhappy experiences. Get over it and move on.
Many would find even this argument a provocative and controversial white-washing of history and of peoples’ legitimate grievances and rights to the same kind of redress today’s white farmers are seeking. Yet I believe this argument has more validity than Bloch’s crude attempt to re-write history to absolve the early white settlers of their many pretexts for dispossessing Africans. Bloch’s one century-later public relations effort on their behalf is a lost cause in modern day Zimbabwe.
To frankly admit the messy and painful events that have helped bring the society to its present pass is to respect the full historical record and its effects on people in the past and the present, rather than attempt a reductionist resort to misuse of statistics. Zimbabwe has continued under its present post-independence dispensation to be in denial about the ugliest parts of its violent present, the same way people like Bloch are in denial about the reality of its ugly, violent past. Part of our moving forward as a society is to learn to look at ourselves, past and present, with brutal honesty so that the many aggrieved can feel the validity of their grievances have at least been recognised in a way that allows forgiviness and moving on. Blochs’s crude article reminds us how far we have to still go in this regard by its virtual mocking of a central cause of African pain and anger about the colonial past.
It is not just a waste of time of an argument, it also illustrates the huge gap in how blacks and whites in southern Africa in general explain how they arrived at the tense multi-layered adjustments their societies are undergoing to get over a past that was certainly painful for the natives, if not for the likes of Eric Bloch.
Bloch’s ‘clever’ attempts at historical revision also work against his expressed noble desire for the society to work “vigorously towards the creation of harmonious inter-racial relationships.” His regular recycling of this crooked attempt at colonial absolution does not help to achieve his expressed aim.
This article was also published in the Zimbabwe Independent, on December 11 2008.
Bloch responded to it on December 18 with:
Many have urged me to respond to Chido Makunike’s attack in last week’s issue of the Zimbabwe Independent, upon me and my prior week’s article on land reform.
Makunike is entitled to his opinion (even if a wrong one), but is neither entitled to misrepresent, distort or misconstrue that which I have written, nor to libelously accuse me of dishonesty and racism.
If Makunike would remove the chip from his shoulder, he would have a more balanced perception. Accordingly, I dismiss his attack upon me with the contempt it deserves, and will not belittle myself to replying to his spurious contentions.