I have rarely read an article more wrong and dangerously amoral than Mahmood Mamdani's recent article in the London Review of Books (4 December 2008) on 'The Lessons of Zimbabwe' (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23/mamd01_.html ). What we might most profitably learn from the the man is how wrongly African politics can be conceived by those isolated from its realities, as this Columbia University professor surely is.
The article is insulting to Africans, and to Zimbabweans who have suffered mightily at the hands of Mugabe and his cronies. Mamdani's claims are predicated on what might be called a 'romantic' vision of this part of the world in which leaders like Mugabe could be said to have some moral standing and good intention. This is not the case. Mamdani's mistakes are many. Indeed, it is all but impossible to recognise the real Zimbabwe in what Mamdani has to say about it. The most charitalbe thing that can be said about Mamdani's "Lesson from Zimbabwe" is he has apparently learned very little from his previous life among the elites of Africa. In this article, he repeasts some of the worst mistakes made by these elites who despite long residence in AFrica, understand almost nothing about it. In this, Mamdani resemble much more the colonial masters that he claims to excoriate than he does any person of the African soil.
First, Mamdani labours under the misconception that Mugabe has somehow 'reformed' land holding in Zimbabwe. This is nonsense. There has been no land reform in Zimbabwe if by this term we mean, as we should, a productive redistribution of land resources that offer some benefit to society, the country's economy, or to some category of beneficiaries. This has not happened in Zimbabwe. He has indeed given 'ownership' to two categories of people. The first category is constituted by his cronies and janusaries, those who protect him and who live off his largesse. The second category is the so-called 'war veterans', many of whom are much too young to have actually fought in the Rhodesian war, or Chimurenga. Whatever they age, they are 'beneficiaries' not of land or largesse but of the bush. The land that has been 'returned' to them has been of little or no profit to them because they have had no resources to farm it, for the most part, and certainly no economy in which to participate as farmers. It means nothing to have land if the product of the land cannot be marketed, where and if a product can be produced at all. Even his cronies have, for the most part, simply allowed the land to lapse into bush fallow again.
In this part of Africa, that does not take long. Agricultural land will return to bush in a matter of a few years. The effort to reclaim it for agriculture increases exponentially with eahc passing year. This has happened all over Zimbabwe. The result has not only been increasing poverty on a vast scale, but the removal of most of this land from any productive use for many years, even decades to come.
This is one of the things that Mamdani's romantic notions does not allow for. Productive agricultural land has little to do with the land itself. The land is simply the physical site and substrate of huge and accumulated effort over many decades, and in most cases, many generations. It is not too much to say that the agricultural product of land has much more to do with knowledge--even culture--than it does have to do with the simple 'material' substances in and on which it is based. Agriculture is a social and cultural system, usually of great historical depth and cultural complexity. Its results--what we see as 'fertile land'--is the result of complex social orders, marketing networks, with carefully maintained institutions of knowledge production and application, and with social hierarchies and organisations.
This social and cultural basis for agriculture has been lost in Zimbabwe. It is at risk of being lost in South Africa, too. But it is not land that is at issue. This is merely 'redistributed' as a kind of political trick. Without the support of all of the other complex social and cultural structures, having land is a recipe for destitution and failure. This is clearly the case in Zimbabwe.
It is a romantic fantasy, then, to claim as Mamdani does that there has been 'land reform' in Zimbabwe. This however is the first premise of his mistaken belief that Mugabe can be redeemed in any way by means of his supposed land reform. He and his regime are unredeemable.
Mamdani's other bizarre claims pale somewhat in the light of this primary mistake. He is not alone in making this mistake, but he is certainly in the moral minority for believing that Mugabe is praised or revered in southern Africa for his land reform. That is, he is not revered among honest people. There is however a large and increasing category of criminals, politcal opportunists, and those who are involved in the illegal and often largely criminal economies of southern Africa. For them Mugabe is indeed a god send. Apart from his deliberate ruination of his own country, Mugabe has facilitated a criminal economy that now spans most of the southern part of the continent. By providing vast areas of ungoverned bush land, Mugabe's land reform has created the conditions under which an ungoverned exploitatio ofAfrican resources can take place without oversight or control. Much of this is indirectly managed by Chinese middle men, although middle men from many of the world's undergrounds are involved. These include European mafia(s), Lebanese gun and diamond merchants, Israeli gem buyers, Malaysian timber merchants, among others. The natural resources of Zimbabwe are being carried off for nothing by agents from around the world. Mugabe's palace was not built by the Chinese, with Chinese materials, for nothing. It came at a cost, and that cost is the rape of Zimbabwe's wild flora and fauna for Chinese "medicine" and aphrodesiacs, the exploitation of its gold and other high-value minerals by Libyan and other Arab business intereststs, among others. But it is not only Zimbabwe that is being plundered. By providing access to all of the southern Congo through the ungovered and literally 'unknown' parts of this darkest of African regions, Mugabe and his military oversee, and profit from the exploitation of Congolese forests. Trainloads of huge and ancient teak and other first-growth African timber are shipped out of this area daily. Most of this 'trade' is unregistered, and unrecorded. Most of its ends up in Arab or Chinese hands.
Thus, Mugabe's land reform is not reform in any real sense, but rather the covert creation of a context in which this illegal, ungoverned, unregistered, unsustainable, and brutally exploitative economy can operate. That is its first and greatest achievement.
Mamdani's comparison of the situation in Zimbabwe to Idi Amin's expulsion of the "Asians" in Uganda is one of the most bizarre of his efforts. He claims that 'many people' have indeed offered this comparision, and this may be true, but it does not make the comparison valid nor fruitful of any insight. It is true that Mugabe's regime and Idi Amin's regime both deliberately destroyed the countries over which they ruled. Both did this with what at first seemed to be "good intentions" (broadly and charitably conceived), and both quickly descended to a level of criminality and brutality that was unmatched in the countries that surrounded them. Idi Amin, however, was wiley but stupid; Mugabe is a undeniable genius. The principle difference between them is that Idi Amin ultimately appeared so foolish and so brutal that even "socialist" Tanzania under Nyerere eventually felt compelled to attack this hated distator and to unseat him. They sent him to exile in Saudi Arabia (where he was still hated but was cosseted and sequestered where he could do no more harm). Mugabe has been brilliant, by contrast. He has deflected every move to push him aside or even to mitigate his damages. He has increased his police force and military, and has handsomely rewarded those who have stood by him in his chicanery and deceit. (This probably includes the ex President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who is clearly also owned by Mugabe.)
Mugabe has been so clever, in fact, that he has deceived even the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government in the Departments of Anthropology, Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University. Somewhat to his credit, Mamdani is scarcely alone in this ignoble company. Maintaing this deceit in a publication such as the London Review of Books does no service to anyone, however.
As Mamdani knows very well, Uganda was not a colony. It remained a Protectorate under British rule. This meant that little or no land was 'alienated' to 'settlers'. All of it remained in Ugandan hands. Thus Idi Amin was not able to use land as a token in his demogoguery. Instead, realising that the Indians controlled almost all of the economy, including the sale of agricultural products, he expropriated the Indian traders and businessmen (called "Asians" in Uganda). But of course, while he was able to take their shops, factories, homes and stock (and even some of their daughters), he was not able to expropriate the knowledte and networks that made these mere things into an economic system. The economic system did not 'collapse'; it simply ceased to exist. This is a remote point of similarity gbetween Uganda and Zimbabwe. Mugabe, like Idi Amin, destroyed the social system and the knowledge on which it depended. While the old Indian shops still remain in Uganda, they are now merely historical architecture. The same could be said of the soil or earth of Zimbabwe: it is now no longer 'agricultural land' although it continues to be geologically what it always was. By 'returning' land, Mugabe has done far more damage than even a complete scortching of the entire earth of Zimbabwe. He has removed the possibility for recovery for a very long time to come.
The errors and misconceptions abound. But let's leave it here for now...
9 December 2008