Still Standing: Zimbabwe

Mr. Mugabe, at the age of 88, is rumored to be in poor health. In April, rumors spread in Harare that he was on his deathbed in Singapore, but he appeared at the country’s independence day celebration a few days later, looking fit as he walked around a soccer stadium under a blazing sun for 30 minutes unaided to review a military parade.”


The New York Times is no friend of either President Robert Mugabe or Zimbabwe, not with lead editorializing like this: Mugabe, “remains one of the last of Africa’s ruthlessly autocratic ‘big men.’ But in recent years, his 32-year grip on power has weakened along with his popularity”. Without in any way amending the prominent third paragraph at the top of its Zimbabwe page, with its gross inaccuracies and loaded language, the New York Times editors thus continue to present this:

“In 2000, his government began a violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned commercial farms. The land upheaval was a disaster for Zimbabwe on many levels. It undermined one of Africa’s sturdiest economies, and as growth contracted and the country’s currency became worthless because of hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger grew. Large chunks of land were handed to cronies of Mr. Mugabe, many of whom did not farm them. It spurred a political crisis and violent reprisals by the security forces that have killed hundreds of people. Yields on food and cash crops plummeted.” (emphases added)

Yet, seven paragraphs later, and reflecting recent reporting from their own correspondent, the editors have now added this–while still ensuring a focus on “violent,” “chaotic,” and blaming the “government” (unaware of squatters, decades of land occupations by black farmers, and the virtual rebellion by the National War Veterans Liberation Association):

“Before Zimbabwe’s government began the violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, fewer than 2,000 farmers were growing tobacco, the country’s most lucrative crop, and most were white.

“Today, 60,000 farmers grow tobacco here, the vast majority of them black and many of them working small plots that were allotted to them in the land upheavals. Most had no tobacco farming experience yet managed to produce a hefty crop, rebounding from a low of 105 million pounds in 2008 to more than 330 million pounds this year.”

Rather than admit any error in their previous narrative (as reflected in the first quote above), which remains uncorrected, the NYT editors simply add an juxtapose, framing a story through emotionally loaded keywords and by keeping strongly related information separate. If there has been any change at the NYT, it is thanks in part to what their own correspondent has started reporting, even if it is almost 18 months after it became established news in Zimbabwe:

You used to only see white faces here,” said Rudo Boka, Mr. Boka’s daughter, who now runs the family business. “Now it is for everybody. It is a beautiful sight.”

“When Roger Boka started his auction business in the 1990s, this city’s tobacco trading floors were hushed places, save the mellifluous patter of the auctioneer. A handful of white farmers, each selling hundreds of bales of tobacco, arrived in sport utility vehicles, checking into the city’s best hotels while waiting for their big checks to be cut.”

“During this year’s auction season, a very different scene unfolded underneath the cavernous roof of the Bock Tobacco Auction Floors. Each day, hundreds of farmers arrived in minibuses and on the backs of pickup trucks, many with wives and children in tow. They camped in open fields nearby and swarmed to the cacophonous floor to sell their crop. The place was lively and crowded; two women gave birth on the auction floor. The most obvious difference, though, was the color of their faces: every single one of them was black.” (New York Times, July 20, 2012)

This new reporting comes just as EU sanctions have been lifted; foreign investors are looking for a way into lucrative mining contracts; and as Zimbabwe gets ready for new elections where everything is at stake, where the U.S. maintains direct pressure, and the government led by Robert Mugabe is pushing back with Indigenization of some of the wealthiest sectors of the economy.


When after restraining themselves for too long Zimbabweans finally began to institute the promise of independence for themselves, to realize the dignity of its war veterans and struggling labourers by acquiring productive lands, Settler “nations” began to scream. The U.S., Canada, and Australia were quick to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. That “disaster” for Zimbabwe, that “chaos” that “ruined” its economy, that precipitous decline of Zimbabwe which used to be the “breadbasket” of Africa, that gross “mismanagement”–as long as all the land and all the farms belonged to whites, Zimbabwe was praised, but as soon as land redistribution occurred, it was a failure. And the narrative has been proven wrong.

That so-called disaster has instead ended up being a success, and now even the Western media can no longer deny it. No far-reaching agrarian reform has been an instant, overnight success anywhere, but apparently it needed to be so in Zimbabwe’s case, whose pursuit of social justice through redistribution was judged a failure simply for having been conceived (see Polgreen, 2012). Besides, the notion that anything good could come out of poor black people knocking out rich white people and taking over productive resources is far too dangerous an idea to accept, and a powerful example that needs containment. From that point of view, a newspaper such as the New York Times, and the Center for Disease Control, have a lot in common.

Before Zimbabwe’s government began the violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, fewer than 2,000 farmers were growing tobacco, the country’s most lucrative crop, and most were white. Today, 60,000 farmers grow tobacco here, the vast majority of them black and many of them working small plots that were allotted to them in the land upheavals. Most had no tobacco farming experience yet managed to produce a hefty crop, rebounding from a low of 105 million pounds in 2008 to more than 330 million pounds this year. The success of these small-scale farmers has led some experts to reassess the legacy of Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution, even as they condemn its violence and destruction.”

tens of thousands of people got small farm plots under land reform, and in recent years many of these new farmers overcame early struggles to fare pretty well. With little choice but to work the land, the small-scale farmers have made a go of it, producing yields that do not match those of the white farmers whose land they were given, but are far from the disaster many anticipated.” [in fact, it was not anticipated, it was declared as a fact, by the correspondent’s very own editors above]

“The result has been a broad, if painful, shift of wealth in agriculture from white commercial growers on huge farms to black farmers on much smaller plots of land. Last year, these farmers shared $400 million worth of tobacco, according to the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, earning on average $6,000 each, a vast sum to most Zimbabweans.”

“The money that was shared between 1,500 large-scale growers is now shared with 58,000 growers, most of them small scale,” said Andrew Matibiri, the director of Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board. “That is a major change in the country.”

“The new farmers are receiving virtually no assistance from the government.”

“Mr. Mhavei said that like many of the other people who got land, he supports Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF.”

Why should one white man have all this?” he asked, sweeping an arm across the lush, rolling farmland around his fields. “This is Zimbabwe. Black people must come first.”

In fact, numerous press reports in Zimbabwe about the amount of tobacco cultivated and the dollar value of its sales, have been showing a consistent increase for over a year now (source, source, source). Similarly, 9,700 hectares of wheat were planted by mid-2011, which represented an increase of 56% over the previous year’s 6,222 hectares (source). Milk production began to increase even earlier, and Iran invested by launching three new dairy processing plants. And still earlier than that, the government was reporting an overall increase in cultivation of  tobacco, sorghum, cotton and maize (source, source). In other words, since 2010 there were clear signs and reports that Zimbabwe’s agricultural land redistribution efforts were starting to pay off, in economic terms. As a result of the successes of the land reform program, some farmers are now calling for additional land redistribution, such as those held by sugarcane plantations. In terms of affirming the dignity of Zimbabweans, the land reform effort was a success from the very first day.

Dignity: Class Struggle and Economic Self-Realization

When Obama lectures Africa about “dignity” as an adjunct of “opportunity,” all of his terms of reference are neo-liberal ones, with leadership firmly in the hands of banks, transnational corporations, and technocratic elites trained by the West and tied to international capital. The U.S., like other settler states, implicitly rejects indigenous peoples taking history into their own hands, rebelling against racial and class injustice, and settling their own affairs. When Zimbabwe became formally independent, only as recently as 1980, it “inherited a racially skewed agricultural land ownership pattern where the white large-scale commercial farmers, consisting of less than 1% of the population occupied 45% of agricultural land. Seventy-five (75) percent of this is in the high rainfall areas of Zimbabwe, where the potential for agricultural production is high. Equally significantly, 60% of this large-scale commercial land was not merely under-utilised but wholly unutilised.” Moyo & Yeros provide slightly different figures: with independence in 1980, some 6,000 white farmers retained 39.5% of the land, while one million black households were consigned to 41.4% of the land, largely marginal land–the white minority, with less than 3% of the total population, commanded almost two-thirds of the national income, while the black majority at nearly 97% of the population, took the remaining third (2005, p. 171). The white minority was also allotted 20% of the seats in Parliament, under the Lancaster House agreement, which expired in 1987. Britain, which had formally committed itself to funding agrarian reform on a matching-grant basis, only contributed $44 million U.S., which was entirely insufficient for dealing with Zimbabwe’s wide gap in land ownership. Failing to live up to its side of the bargain, Britain played a determining role in ensuring that any agrarian reform that did ensue would have to be one that was free, and thus compulsory, and therefore violent.

Zimbabwe’s agrarian reform program was launched to ensure that the dignity of black Zimbabweans was asserted, in a country where agriculture employed 70% of the population (Moyo &Yeros, 2005, p. 172), by directly tackling the historic, systematic expropriation of their lands by European settlers during colonialism. As the government explains, under the terms of the British South Africa Company Royal Charter of 1889, all lands became the property of the British Queen, thus nullifying Zimbabwean traditional ownership. Indigenous Africans were thus relegated to small pockets of marginal lands in so-called Communal Areas. In 1930, this system was further cemented, when the Land Apportionment Act allotted 51% of land to a mere few thousand white settlers, with Africans barred from owning or using lands in the Commercial Areas occupied by white farmers. Between the Communal and Commercial Areas, new laws established African Purchase Areas/Tribal Trust Lands. Zimbabwe ended up with a tripartite division in land ownership, that privileged majority ownership by the tiny white minority.

How anyone would or could expect a putatively independent Zimbabwe, emerging from a war against colonial rule and racist domination, to preserve such a system in the midst of class conflict and structural adjustment, remains to be explained, because the proposition is manifestly unjust and irrational, and the requisite social dynamics would be simply untenable.

The turn to radical nationalist solutions, as Moyo & Yeros term it, and the effort by the ruling party to regain legitimacy in the face of widespread discontent by unemployed labourers and uncompensated war veterans, led to the compulsory acquisition of 10 million hectares of land by the end of 2002, that is about 90% of what was white-owned commercial farmland, and redistributed most of it to 127,000 peasant households (2005, p. 188). Immediately, an international propaganda war was launched against Zimbabwe, led by Britain and the U.S., and backing Tsvangirai’s MDC in a long-standing effort to unseat the ruling ZANU-PF.

The Real “Occupy” and Unpalatable Dignity for International Oppositional Politics

In what was even then, in 2005, a realistic assessment, Moyo & Yeros stated that, “the land occupation movement in Zimbabwe has achieved the first major land reform since the end of the Cold War. It has also been the most important challenge to the neocolonial state in Africa under structural adjustment, and if judged by its effectiveness in acquiring land, has also been one of the most notable of rural movements in the world today” (p. 165). That some academics may feel uncomfortable in making such acknowledgments, is also addressed directly by the authors:

“The answer lies precisely in the co-optation of both academia and ‘oppositional’ politics, to the point where imperialism has become mystified, national self-determination demoted, the state obscured, and the agrarian question abandoned. Such intellectual reversals have had real political effects, perhaps most clearly in relation to Zimbabwe, whose radical nationalism and land reform have proved unpalatable to the ‘civic’ and ‘post’ nationalisms of domestic and international social forces” (Moyo & Yeros, 2005, p. 166).


Savior Kasukuwere, the ZANU-PF minister overseeing the process known as indigenization declared: “Zimbabweans must be masters of their own destiny. Indigenization is a core feature of the values of our party: freedom, equality, peace.” With a vast wealth of platinum, chromium, nickel, and diamonds, Mugabe’s government has begun to pressure foreign companies to comply with a law requiring that Zimbabweans own more than half their shares. After 51% of the shares in a company have been transferred to Zimbabwean hands, another 20% must go to community trust funds to pay for local development projects. Specifically the proceeds of the trust are to pay for projects such as the following:

  • the provision, operation and maintenance of schools and other educational institutions and facilities and amenities connected
  • educational scholarships, hospitals, clinics and dispensaries
  • the provision and maintenance of dipping tanks
  • the provision, development and maintenance of roads
  • the provision, development and maintenance of water works and water sanitation works
  • gully reclamation and other works related to soil conservation and prevention of soil erosion, and the conservation and prevention of environmental degradation. (source)

As advocates of the 2007 Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act argue, “democracy and political stability can therefore not be sustained in a situation where resources remain concentrated in the hands of a few non-indigenous people”. Nor can dignity be sustained where foreign settlers are presumed to be inherently or legally entitled to more than their fair share.

ZANU-PF will win this election because they are helping the poor people. People are getting something for the future”–this, in a newspaper that would otherwise prefer to equate Zimbabwe with an ash pit.

The pro-U.S. opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai‘s “Movement for Democratic Change” is, predictably, against the indigenization law, saying it spells “disaster” for the economy. The land reform was supposed to have been a disaster too. Also gone is Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation problem–which at least Tsvangirai acknolwedges. Not to be caught out again, Tsvangirai is out asking for international sanctions to be “suspended” (not very courageous) since all sorts of reforms have taken place, and since he has been investigated for treason.

Indigenization is the new Zimbabwean code for dignity, and many in Zimbabwe are talking about it. The Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Zimbabwe, Nolbert Kunonga, invoked the Bible in encouraging Zimbabweans to take ownership of their natural resources, proclaiming that “indigenisation was an act of God” thus it should not be challenged. Archbishop Kunonga is not alone:

“Evangelist Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa also received criticism from the same quarters for opening the Anti-sanctions Petition launch with a powerful prayer that called on the Almighty to rescue Zimbabwe from forces bent on destroying its economy, and its well-being. Various denominations, particularly Apostolic Faith churches, have also been lambasted for organising indigenisation and economic empowerment sessions and encouraging their members to benefit from the indigenisation programme”.

The government has also directly addressed Zimbabwean youth about the ways that the Indigenization program can work for them. Indigenization has also recently been applied to the management of tourist-oriented wildlife parks and the distribution of hunting permits.

Mineral Wealth: EU Sanctions Lifted; U.S. Remains Firm

Indeed, with all of the competition for access to Zimbabwe’s rich mineral resources, a couple of weeks ago the European Union announced that it was lifting most of its sanctions. Australia is reluctant to lift sanctions: inside the chests of proud Australian whites, they still scream when they remember how those good white Zimbabweans were beaten blue by the Natives, “their” lands taken from them, and how they wanted to offer white Zimbabweans refugee status, when they were denying it even to Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Afghans who were sequestered on islands far from Australia, or confined in detention camps out in the desert.

The U.S., however, will not lift sanctions: Charles Ray, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, said that “there are disturbing signs of potential violence” with the upcoming elections–apparently claiming psychic powers. The U.S. had no concerns whatsoever about actual violence before, during, and after the elections in Libya, which outlawed anyone and everyone who might have supported Gaddafi–and if the U.S. had any such concerns about its new pet project, Libya, it certainly did not choose to express its feelings through sanctions. Ray said the U.S. would only lift its sanctions after Washington is satisfied with the electoral conditions in Zimbabwe. There have also been violent elections in other nations that the U.S. supports, but Zimbabwe is something special. Indeed, Zimbabwe is special. And that also means that it could be next in the crosshairs of AFRICOM.


As this is part 4 in a series of 6 on “dignity,” a brief intermission is needed here to reflect on the meanings and value of the concept. Dignity has become complex now for having crossed the lines between the personal, the national, and the geopolitical, where we begin to mix individuals with collectivities, and where one speaks for the other. Dignity also crosses the lines of exchange value and emotional self-affirmation. U.S. national security strategy documents seem to essentially equate dignity with having modern conveniences and cash–in other words, an instumentalist or transactionalist view of dignity that sits well with capitalist values, and makes for easy policy options. In addition to instrumentalizing dignity, U.S. policy documents Westernize it, by reducing dignity to the property of the individual. However, ideas such as national dignity, and black dignity, speak of dignity as the possession of large collectivities–nor are they reducible to pragmatic calculations and seeking monetary gain. “Keep your money”–the lead idea in two of the previous essays, expressly rebels against pragmatism, cash reductions of dignity, and counters dignity as manipulated by men exploiting women, adults shopping for children, or superpowers trying to intimidate barely post-colonial nations. If U.S. policy documents speak of dignity, it is out of recognition that this concept matters to many, hence best for the U.S. to try to produce the representations that it hopes will stick and to define the field for everyone else. One reason why dignity matters so much, as a concept, is that it goes beyond freedom and rights and thus there is a risk for the West that some of the cherished concepts in its intellectual armory, used to wage international propaganda, could evaporate back into the thin air from which they came.

Rights–or more accurately, human rights–tend to privilege the individual, which is one of the reasons for long-standing and widespread criticisms of the idea as a Eurocentric and capitalist one. Freedom, especially in the pronouncements of U.S. political leaders, clearly means free markets, free trade, free flows of capital, and it implies an equivalent system of government where influence, access, and votes are bought and sold, and marshaled by competing groups of entrepreneurs organized in self-serving entities we know as political parties.

Dignity, however, does not imply that any one system of political organization is better or more needed than another. Dignity can exist and thrive in a multi-party state, in a one-party state, in a no-party state, and in a non-state society. No ruler, or form of rule, can take away someone’s dignity–dignity can be denied, suppressed, or ignored, but not taken away, and that makes it quite distinct from either rights or freedom. Moreover, the roots of dignity are fundamentally local, and given the very diverse ways in which it can be perceived and valued, it cannot easily be codified in legal instruments at the international level. In other words, don’t expect a United Nations Charter on the Dignity of Peoples anytime soon. Dignity has no universally agreed upon list of traits–so the concept defies measurement, and it escapes positivism, capitalism, and Western humanitarianism.

Imperialist logics are also defied by dignity, a term that often comes out in the open as a rallying cry in resistance and rebellion. When dignity means a man defending his land, with a pistol in his hand, then dignity can pose an obstacle to imperialist denials of self-determination (another concept which has been very problematic for the United Nations which has tried to co-opt it on the one hand, while denying it on the other).

Finally here, it is also interesting to note that dignity is often symbolized in English with a certain body language: getting up, standing up, staying up, keeping one’s head high, standing straight, lifting up, being uplifted, arising, etc. Certain mental states are also associated in some cases with dignity: consciousness, realization, recognition, and awakening. Here comes Peter Tosh, with Black Dignity, saying what some interpret as a clever adaptation of Psalm 24 encouraging self-respect:

“Lift up thine head, O ye Black Dignity
And be ye lifted up, ye ever-loving Black Dignity
And let the King of Kings enter thine heart….

….Wake up thine slumbering mentality
Come closer to reality
Recognise thy dignity, thy integrity, thy quality”


African Institute for Agrarian Studies

AFP. (2012). “Zimbabwe ‘must stop violence for US to lift sanctions‘.” Agence France Press, July 24.

Agriculture Reporter. (2011). “US$225m tobacco exported so far”. The Sunday Mail, May 27.

— . (2011). “US$318m tobacco sold”. The Sunday Mail, June 27.

— . (2011). “Tobacco worth US$331m sold”. The Sunday Mail, July 7.

The Australian. (2012). “Zimbabwe needs fair elections.” The Australian, July 25.

Chikwati, Elita. (2011). “More wheat planted this season”. The Sunday Mail, June 21.

Farawao, Tinashe. (2011). “Land reform a success: survey”. The Sunday Mail, February 5.

Government of Zimbabwe: Office of the President and Cabinet, An Overview

Government of Zimbabwe: Ministry of Lands and Rural Settlement

Government of Zimbabwe: Ministry of Youth Development, Indigenisation & Empowerment

Government of Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Government Online

Herald. (2011). “Sanctions won”. The Sunday Mail, April 7.

— . (2012). “Indigenisation of conservancies starts”. The Herald, August 10.

Masenyama, Kurai Prosper. (2012). “Christians should embrace indigenisation”. The Sunday Mail, August 5.

Moyo, Sam, & Yeros, Paris. (2005). “Land Occupations and Land Reform in Zimbabwe: Towards the National Democratic Revolution”. In Sam Moyo & Paris Yeros (Eds.), Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America (pps.165-205). London: Zed Books.

The New York Times: Zimbabwe.

Paredes, Américo. (1958). With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

The Sunday Mail. (2010). “Iranian firm to set up dairy plants”. November 27.

— . (2011). “120,000 hectares of maize planted in Mashonaland West”. January 3.

— . (2011). “Zim braces for bumper harvest”. January 8.

— . (2011). “Milk production on the increase”. January 23.

— . (2012). “Know your Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act”. July 13.

Polgreen, Lydia. (2012). “In Land’s Bounty, a Political Chip”. The New York Times, May 19.

Polgreen, Lydia. (2012). “In Zimbabwe Land Takeover, a Golden Lining”. The New York Times, July 20.

Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Richard Tsvangirai

Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front

ZANU-PF. (n.d.). “Youth have a role in indigenisation, Gumbo.”

Zindi, Emilia. (2012). “Redistribute sugarcane plantations”. The Sunday Mail, July 15.

3 thoughts on “Still Standing: Zimbabwe

  1. rolandrjs

    Excellent analysis. ” . . . a newspaper such as the New York Times, and the Center for Disease Control, have a lot in common.” Indeed: The New York Times functions as ‘The Center for Democracy Control.’

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