When patronage takes away your freedoms

By Charles Frizell

DURING the height of the land grab in 2000 I received a call from a local district administrator asking me to put forward the names of 50 people who would be allocated land on “seize

d” farms in my area. When I asked whether I qualified as well (I was landless and lived in rented accommodation, and was also a councillor), the lady said yes and that I could put my name down as well.


I must admit that I gave this serious consideration because I had wanted to buy some land and build myself a small house but could not afford it. Who would turn down such an opportunity?


Of course I knew that it was morally wrong, as did every other beneficiary of the land grab, but surely I could come up with some justification to ease my conscience? In my case I could tell myself that I was working for the good of the people, so why should I not benefit by receiving some land?


However, I did not do it. I neither took up the offer of land myself nor gave the administrator the 50 names. I discussed it with my workers and friends who at first were very keen — who wouldn’t be? But then when we discussed it further the disadvantages became too great.


Had we agreed to accept land, we knew that we would not own it in any real and legal way. We knew that there was no way we would ever receive legal title. And besides, what good had legal title been to the rightful owners who had been thrown off their land?


Thrown off for no other reason than being the wrong colour, though they were citizens of Zimbabwe and had bought and paid for their property. Of course what is not widely known or publicised is that non-white farmers who were believed to oppose the government were dispossessed as well. This did not fit in with the general thrust of propaganda.


Naturally a great number did accept the offer, and then found themselves trapped. Once you had accepted, there was no way that you could go against or disagree with those whose patronage you had accepted. You could not vote to choose who you wanted to represent you, because then you would lose your land.


You could not criticise those from whose patronage you had benefited, because then you would lose your land. You found that you were now no better than a slave, stripped of all your rights and freedom of choice. You found that someone else controlled you totally.


In the middle ages there were many folk stories of people who had sold their souls to the devil in order to achieve some immediate goal or advantage.

However, the end was always terrible when the devil came to claim his dues, and the people always bitterly regretted having cut their deals with the devil. And so it is with accepting patronage; it may seem so sweet at the time, but the payback is inevitable and usually terrible.


All people have a sense of right and wrong, a sense of natural justice that has been an essential part of all human societies since time began.


Therefore some excuse was needed so that people could square their consciences with their actions. That was how the mantra of “they stole our land” was conceived. It was obviously ridiculous in the present time because at least 80% of farms had been bought since Independence, subject to certificates of no interest for resettlement by the government.


Also the racism and envy inherent in all people was used for all it was worth. This made it easier for people to bury their knowledge that it is manifestly unjust to take from others what was never yours in the first place. Righting historical injustices was yet another empty slogan used to ease troubled consciences.


But patronage is not confined to the land grab. Many, many businesses in Zimbabwe prosper only because of patronage — they could never survive otherwise. We have seen in recent months, without naming names, how easy it is to pull the rug out from under the feet of these people when they are thought to be getting out of hand.


Patronage is a very insidious method of disempowering and enslaving a whole nation. When 15 High Court judges are themselves beneficiaries of patronage, what happens to the rule of law? Can the average citizen expect justice when those whose job it is to dispense justice are themselves beholden and enslaved to others?


This was specifically written with the Zanu PF hierarchy in mind. These people might say: “Okay, you know how it works. So what? We hold the power of patronage and you do not.”


That’s true, but the first step in fighting a lie is to expose that lie as widely as possible. Once a lie becomes widely known as a lie it is far harder to defend.

Which is of course why Zanu PF are so desperate to control all information coming into or leaving the country, because that way the party can hide the lies and continue to perpetrate those lies.


And each one of you must be trapped in the web of the politics of patronage. Patronage is the ultimate pyramid scheme, each layer owing allegiance to a smaller number above and so on right up to the peak of the pyramid. No doubt that loss of freedom, loss of independence must worry you? It would worry me, which is why I am happy to be beholden to no man.


*Charles Frizell is a Zimbabwean based in the United Kingdom.

Top