One of the attractive-sounding ideas that I have is that “to dream the future look at what worked in the past”. But looking at what worked in the past will not suffice if we don’t ask a crucial additional question: why? So the full question becomes: “what worked in the past and why?”
This is particularly important in the Zimbabwean case because what we had in the 1980s and 1990s was an eminently working system, which has been slowly (and sometimes violently eroded). What has remained is an edifice of the old system, driving a new, imperfectly conceived system. I will explore these thoughts further.
Understanding the history
The history of Zimbabwe is intrinsically linked to the history of the land. It is basically a history of racial expropriation. The man behind Zimbabwe’s colonisation, Cecil Rhodes, was a speculative adventurer, and when the invading party failed to discover the envisaged “second rand”, they turned to land as the basis of wealth for the new colony.
A clear sighted vision
Once it was clear that the wealth from the new colony was going to come from the land, the BSAC and later the settler governments set about creating conditions for actualising the same. They advertised the land in South Africa and Britain, encouraging settlement by white settlers. At the same time, they started building the edifices of an administrative system and an efficient agricultural system comprising research, training colleges and advisory/extension.
The original extension system for blacks, established by Emory Alvord in the late 1920s was charged with educating Africans to adopt good husbandry techniques to conserve their lands, based on scientific principles. It was established to ensure that blacks could subsist within their allocated land, without the need for government to be pressured to offer them more land. It was never meant to teach them to become commercial farmers. That was for white farmers.
As history has recorded, agriculture in Rhodesia became hugely successful. The private financial sector helped (and profited) from the system. But the major investment came from the government that funded and manned top research institutions that sought to understand the physical characteristics of the land, limiting factors to production and how to mitigate the same. The large numbers of research station stations; agricultural colleges and well-resourced extension system was a result of the commitment.
A few lessons so far
Clear focus – From the beginning, the colonialists were clear-eyed about what they wanted, and how to get it.
Implementation -Their success came from ruthless implementation of their vision. They put their money where their mouths were.
Flaws– The systematic exclusion of majority blacks from benefiting from the economy was part of their modus operandus. Of course as history has recorded, that exclusionary ethos was to become the eventual cause of their downfall.
As a man in history, Mugabe is a giant in Zimbabwe, Africa and black people’s history. One of his major strengths were a grasp of the major picture; clarity of thought and resolve in implementation. His major fault: failure to grasp the economic imperatives
The land reform
As previously observed, colonisation was all about expropriation. The racial angle was secondary. Whites colonised the land because it was of economic importance to them. White supremacy was a justifying theory, not the main reason for expropriation. They wanted the land, and rationalised their methods on white supremacy (Charles Darwin?).
Mugabe repossessed and redistributed the land on political grounds. The justification was that black majority people were displaced historically from the land, hence that historical injustice should be rectified. The wealth distributive effect of such a move was seen as secondary: the initial impetus was political.
So then here we are. In 1980, the economy was working well. Successive white governments had put the basic infrastructure in place for the economy to work. There were people working the farms and mines and other productive sectors who were making a profit, and re-investing in the economy, with the general consequence of national wealth. So where did the trouble in the paradise come from?
Well, the land reform programme was actually triggered by many forces, working to put pressure on the system. The timing of the land reform was down to Mugabe aiming to re-invigorate his waning political fortunes. It became racially charged, allowing Mugabe to use it to re-energise his base.
Creating a new system
The land reform sought to build a new system on the old edifices. But what is clear is that some things have not gone quite according to plan, and things seem not to be working. What has gone wrong?
Without doubt, the post-independent government has been more politically-sensitive than economically-sensitive. In the later years of Mugabe’s rule, his lieutenants like Jonathan Moyo were more interested in winning the propaganda war, with jingles and catchy slogans. “The land is the economy and the economy is the land” was a perfectly crafted mantra. But to what end?
A number of measures were instituted to ensure that the land reform was a success. There were input schemes; fuel subsidies; mechanisation programmes; capacitation of agricultural support system, particularly extension…but fundamentally there were too many flaws to the whole effort. The system of input support was based on political patronage systems; the mechanisation system was based on politics; the support was not sustainable in that nobody repaid the loans; in most cases the inputs were abused and put to other uses other than the intended. All these flaws were tolerated because they resulted in political dividends. That bred a whole host of problems: impunity; predatory behaviour; short-term fixes; chikorokoza; whatever-goes-as-long-as-it-maintains-the-status-quo. Who cares about the environment, about the economy, about the future as long as they remained in power? It became increasingly clear that the ideology which moved the entire political edifice was power retention or “power at all cost”.
As an ideology, ultimately that “power at all cost” became Mugabe’s Achilles’ heel and paved the way for a very corrupt system that impoverished the country while making some individuals extremely wealthy. Ultimately Mugabe became the unwitting victim of his own system which tended to reward people with the worst instincts and alienated the more well-meaning ones. It has become an exclusionary, polarising system. Will that exclusionary ethos sow the seeds of its downfall?
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