South African farmers’ fatal mistake

WHEN in 1999 President Robert Mugabe threatened to seize land owned by white commercial farmers without paying compensation, everybody said it was impossible. Such an act of madness had no historical precedent in modern times.

It was against property rights and the international community would not stomach such errant nonsense. After all the white commercial farmers had title to the land.

Sure, such an abomination had never been committed before. When the Bolsheviks and the Chinese did it, it was against the kulaks and other remnants of the landed aristocracy from the feudal era, not against the children of a former colonial power. It was a typical “internal affair”.

We all now know what Mugabe did soon after. Unfortunately white landowners and the opposition in South Africa don’t seem to have learnt a lesson. They are still in denial about the need for speedy land redistribution to avert a replay of the Zimbabwean tragedy. This became stark clear in their reaction to newly appointed deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s vexatious “joke” about South Africa learning “how to do it fast” from Zimbabwe’s experience.

“We may need some skills from Zimbabwe to help us,” she said. The anger quickly crystallised around the opposition Democratic Alliance’s response when its spokesperson Kraai van Niekerk warned Mlambo-Ngcuka to act “in a more balanced and responsible manner” during public appearances. “Zimbabwe offers a textbook example of ways in which land reform should not be carried out,” the DA said. They are right and wrong.

Just as happened here a few short years back, the South African government was accused of not allocating enough funds to buy land, as if it has limitless resources at its disposal. Farmers in SA should need no reminding that whatever the shortcomings of Mugabe’s disastrous method, it was partly in response to the failure of the “willing seller, willing buyer” approach to deliver as it was to Mugabe’s fight with Tony Blair.

More importantly, the land became Mugabe’s biggest largesse yet to stem a tide of discontent from the constituency of war veterans and the army who had not benefited from the expensive DRC debacle.

While the political imperatives for fair land redistribution should have been obvious to all, farmers behaved as if government was to blame for lacking money. Similarly, while South African farmers are keen to point out the legal framework for land reform, they deliberately ignore the political pressure on government and hope cynically that what happened in Zimbabwe cannot happen there. It is very dangerous self-delusion.

We understand very well how President Thabo Mbeki has tried to stick to the law and tread with caution even on the Black Economic Empowerment programme. He may not have Mugabe’s petty vindictiveness, but there is a danger in making him feel like an Uncle Tom in the eyes of poor blacks.

Mlambo-Ngcuka’s gaffe may be a timely warning against complacence by white commercial farmers and of the restlessness among the poor agitating for Zimbabwean-style farm invasions. There is a danger of the “right approach” frustrating Mbeki and his ANC party into ultimately believing that there is in fact a “method to Mugabe’s madness”. South Africa and the entire region will be the biggest losers from the fallout.

There may be no skills to be learnt from Mugabe’s approach, but South Africans have had ample opportunity to know what can be avoided by seeking compromise on the price of land. Their country has not yet gone down the tubes but its farmers and the opposition are proving just how difficult it is to learn from the mistakes of others, even when they are as close as Zimbabwe is.

It should also be borne in mind that there are black South Africans who regard Mugabe as a hero for tormenting whites. Mugabe would like to infect such South Africans and those in the land lobby with the fast-track virus.

The core group of potential hosts of the virus is already there in the form of the Landless People’s Movevement, the Northern Province Land Rights Coalition and elements in the Pan Africanist Congress. Merchants of terror in the country, notorious for murdering white farmers, mainly with the motive to rob, can also be roped in to form an alliance of convenience. The product will have a “made in Zimbabwe” sticker.

Zimbabwe’s mistakes can be avoided with some modicum of public spiritedness and a genuine sense of equity. If South Africans can achieve by moral suasion what Zimbabweans are trying to achieve through force, they
would have learnt something and can set a better example for other countries in a similar conundrum.

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