Since its declaration of independence, the Zimbabwe government has engaged in a crusade against its white minority. At first, it was a bureaucratic battle to confiscate land from white commercial farmers. Twenty years later, former President Robert Mugabe and his corrupt thugs seized white-owned property without compensation. Bloody violence, socialist policies, and incompetence – these were the characteristics of the ZANU-PF land reform campaign. In 2020, the government has conceded that it got it wrong, attempting to correct for the past with financial remuneration. But, to quote the great James Baldwin, perhaps the state would be better off if it would “leave us alone.”
Zimbabwe Compensates White Farmers
President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF government signed an agreement with former white farmers to pay them $3.5 billion in compensation for land confiscated 20 years ago. The roughly 4,000 farmers initially demanded between $5 billion and $7 billion from Harare, but they settled on the lower figure.
The agreement is a bit complicated, however. The Zimbabwe government is broke and is facing hyperinflation shortly after reintroducing the Zimbabwe dollar. Officials are requesting that the farmers participate in a “joint resource mobilization committee” to raise cash, which so far includes tapping international capital markets and issuing long-term bonds. Mnangagwa anticipates the money will be repaid in five years:
The agreement reaffirms the irreversibility of the land reform and is a symbol of our commitment to the rule of law and property rights. It is a testimony to the fact that as fellow Zimbabweans, we can peacefully resolve our differences. We cannot change the past; we can only learn from it. Let us build on the trust demonstrated today. Let us choose dialogue over confrontation and let us move forward together.”
Although the president noted that the deal brings closure for both sides, farmers tell The Sunday Times that this is a “little more than a propaganda exercise.” When its gross domestic product is about $20 billion, you can only imagine how unlikely it is that Mnangagwa will succeed in repayment.
A Primer: Land Reforms
One of the first acts of President Robert Mugabe was a land reform campaign, joining his neighbors in similar efforts. This was an expected move by his government as he made it clear that compulsory seizure without compensation was critical for the redistribution of land to pay for the inequities produced by colonialism.
The Lancaster House Agreement, a deal between the newly independent Zimbabwe and the British government, added a few provisions. One of them was a so-called Willing Seller, Willing Buyer measure that lasted for a decade. White farmers could take their time to sell their properties at a price of their choosing, although the exception was if the farm were unoccupied and not utilized for agriculture. In the first seven years, the amount of land owned by white farmers was reduced by one-fifth.
In the 1990s, Mugabe and his henchmen exacerbated the endeavor, forcefully confiscating nearly 1,500 farms and eventually seizing 50,000 square kilometers every year between 1998 and 2003. After this period, the government fast-tracked the process and prevented white landowners from making legal challenges in court. Years later, only a couple of hundred white farmers remained in Zimbabwe.
The government went as far as mandating that banks extend secured loans to borrowers who had resettled on this land. If any lenders rejected applications, their licenses were revoked.
The results could only be described with one word: disastrous. Despite being considered the “breadbasket” of Africa, Zimbabwe now imports most of its food. And, due to its collapsing currency, the country cannot import as much food anymore. The main problem, as was the case in Mao Zedong’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, was that the individuals who took over the land had no idea what they were doing. These same people eventually abandoned the farmland, and now malnourishment and famine are widespread.
Are These Reparations Justified?
What is fascinating is that the United States is engaging in a national conversation about reparations for black people who may or may not have had ancestors who were slaves. The estimated figure ranges anywhere from several trillion dollars to as much as $44 trillion, money that would require extraordinary accounting tricks by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. But while proponents seem indifferent to the dollars and cents behind such a proposal, the other discussion could be from a logistical vantage point.
The quintessential question is: What is the difference between repaying white farmers for their land that was stolen over the last 20 years and giving black Americans money for an injustice 200 years ago?
One of the primary arguments is that many of the Zimbabweans who had their property confiscated are still alive today to receive remuneration. They have a direct claim to submit to the state, so this makes the logistics a lot simpler. It is comparable to Jews who had their assets stolen by the Nazis. That said, a lot of white farmers have told newspapers that they are indifferent to financial compensation. They only want their land back, which can be viewed as admirable. Now, contrast this to the proposal in the U.S., which is vague and full of holes. Blacks owned blacks during the era of slavery. Many white people fought against slavery. Moreover, the government cannot determine most claimants had ancestors who were slaves, and all immigrants who arrived in the U.S. after emancipation had nothing to do with slavery. So, is the situation in Harare as illogical?
The Failure of Socialism
Zimbabwean leaders neglected to acknowledge the failure of socialism. But this is the closest you will get to seeing African statesmen concede that a vile, racist, and socialist scheme never works. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and it is unclear what Zimbabwe’s agricultural future will look like in the years to come. The southern African nation may be moving on from this lethal policy, but some of its neighbors are in the beginning stages of enacting comparable strategies. That said, even if Mnangagwa is indulging in some good old-fashioned propaganda, at least he is attempting to correct the wrongs of his predecessor.
Read more from Andrew Moran.