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Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa, and Teresa Smart (review)
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"To make an omelet, one needs to break some eggs": so might a battle-tested observer summarize and justify the land seizures that began in 2000 in Zimbabwe, although the earliest assessments of these episodes cast doubt on the quality of the omelet. With varying degrees of violence, gangs and paragovernmental bands harassed and ejected white commercial farmers from the land. They did worse to farmworkers, killing many and immiserating many more. The turmoil undermined tobacco production and tourism, wrecking the entire economy by the mid-2000s. Against this dire picture, recent works by Prosper Matondi and Ian Scoones, among others, suggest a more positive, but still incomplete outcome—scrambled eggs, if you accept the metaphor.

Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa, and Teresa Smart outdo these authors by declaring that land reform created a large class of productive black farmers—that the omelet is finished. If this conclusion is true, then the three authors provide a useful corrective. The middle-scale and small-scale resettled farmers have returned the land to its 1990s level of productivity. More people inhabit the former commercial farms than in the past, and, on average, they seem to live better. (Manjengwa herself owns a new farm.) The dollarization of Zimbabwe's economy—which occurred as Matondi and Scoones were publishing their works—has facilitated further investment and trade. Elites have benefited disproportionately, the authors admit, but this inequality follows inevitably from a two-tier approach to resettlement. Perhaps, as the authors argue, it is time to look forward, rather than back. After all, the major political actors have declared resettlement irreversible. Surely, carping from the sidelines about violence and property rights—especially when they pertain to whites—helps neither development nor reconciliation.

I hesitate to endorse this deliberate forgetting—but not because I wish to restore land to whites. Achieving "closure" and "moving on" from the drama of the 2000s does not help scholars or activists to harvest the most useful lessons from Zimbabwe's land reform. One needs to know not only that many, many Zimbabweans benefited, but also that these and other Zimbabweans also bore certain costs. How high were those costs? Hanlon and his co-authors hardly say. They do mention that two million citizens—a low estimate—left the country, mostly to South Africa. Imagine a similar program of white-to-black land redistribution in South Africa! If Pretoria were to follow Harare's timing and proportions, occupations would start next year and ultimately eject almost nine million refugees into surrounding countries. Has Zimbabwe's land reform succeeded well enough to serve as a model for its close neighbor? If Mugabe's land reform indeed worked so well, is it not worth replicating elsewhere? Because of its Panglossian premise, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land implies a positive answer to that question, one that readers should interrogate vigorously.

To do so here and briefly, I would suggest that the authors overlook the entire question of power in Zimbabwe's land reform. To dislodge the whites, the sometimes overbearing Zimbabwean state transformed itself into a full-blown dictatorship, repressing dissent with every means available. The authors suggest a false equation in which pro- and anti-government "conflict entrepreneurs" (quoting Sam Moyo) provoked each other (213). Elsewhere, the authors blame victims outright. They admit that farmworkers have not benefited, by and large, from land reform, but the farmworkers union itself—having opposed land reform and then made friends with international donors—seemingly bears responsibility for this outcome. The authors seem to recommend and expect submission before Mugabe. They fault white farm-owners for "stealing" irrigation equipment and thereby undermining the success of resettled farmers. Such a judgment misconstrues the confusion of the early 2000s. Whites—occupied, harassed, beaten up—moved and sold whatever they could. Until the government legalized the seizures in 2002, whites were stolen from, not stealing. Land reform, then, criminalized the state and brutalized the population. Even if the balance has been restored—which is by no means certain—this cost matters. Should South Africa undertake what Zimbabwe has survived? Perhaps it should, but its leaders should do so knowingly.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land in its examination...



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