Land, the Media and Mugabe by Bob Seery



Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave will come to expect a very predictable viewpoint expressed in the media on the subject of Robert Mugabe. We are told variously that he is a tyrant, a dictator or a monster and that his policies have turned Zimbabwe from breadbasket to basket case. All of this nonsense is unpalatable garbage of course but the wonder is that this myth has managed to sustain itself for so long. My only explanation is that when it comes to the punch most international journalists are willing to write anything that sells copy. Off hand, I can still remember what Mugabe said when there was accusations of tampering in the elections of 2002; “They talk to us of human rights, there was no human rights here, none at all, until the people of Zimbabwe began to fight”.

The thing is that most foreign press, academics and bureaucrats are institutionally hot-wired to accept the dominant explanatory narrative emanating from their respective political centres when it comes to issues of foreign policy, and especially when all their interests are entwined. All of it, the great tidal wave of negative emotion directed at that this single person has been deliberately engineered in response to the decision by the ZANU government to “allow” the War Veteran’s Association to reclaim thousands of hectares of prime arable land held almost exclusively by a white minority of the population. That is the issue in a nutshell. There are no other issues in Zimbabwe. Elections get rigged all the time in the developing world so we’re told and cholera is an ever-present, along with so many other deficits inherent in having a cash-strapped economy but when rich whites in Africa have their property forcibly seized by native blacks the heads of political mandarins everywhere begin spinning. Their world-view has been completely subverted and they are left with having to displace and falsify an essentially social phenomenon by licensing a campaign of personal demonisation.

What is at stake in any potentially seismic historical event if not ownership and control over the means by which that event will be depicted and portrayed to the world? Underneath the glossy fodder that we are fed daily; the spinball concoctions of the campaign trail, the market prices, the jobs figures, lies an uncomfortable reality attached to the ownership of the world’s resources. They are generally speaking not owned by indigenous peoples any more but held privately by corporate multinationals and wealthy investors. Just recently, for the first time since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia there were more people living in urban centres than making a living plowing their own land. There are many factors at play of course; the attraction of ‘higher standards of living’ is often cited, but for the majority of those who have become integrated into the cities the choice was not theirs to make – land has been appropriated from them either indirectly through the withdrawal of supports and subsidies, through competition with cut-price mass produced agricultural goods or through forced government seizures. Many of these dispossessed are now filling the slums and shanty towns on the outskirts of the very cities whom their land now feeds.

What the fuss is about with Mugabe and it is still is a considerable one despite the Unity Government is the question of his “re-seizure” land policy being repeated elsewhere; in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya or Botswana, all areas with comparable distortions in land ownership between whites and blacks. This is not a racial issue but one to do with the inequitable concentration of land ownership. Further afield we may look to Latin America whose swing to the left has been largely abetted by populist leaders promising either redistributive land reform or the more equitable sharing of raw resources. Fifty years ago, when most African countries had yet to decolonise, many of it’s brightest and most promising students received scholarships to study in Joshua Nkomo’s newly liberated Ghana. The philosophy here was simple; in order to survive, the new post-colonial states had to transcend their tribal differences and embrace the principles of pan-Africanism. Robert Mugabe was one of the earliest graduates and when he returned home he was quickly elevated to the leadership of ZANU. It was to be oppressed and driven underground and Mugabe would spend ten years in Smith’s jails in Rhodesia, essentially risking his life so that his people could cast a vote.

Leaders within the African Union would find it laughable at the media’s distortion of Mugabe’s character were it not for their awareness they too could be next in line for this focused villification by the west. It is no accident that China has become the heaviest investor in the continent. When the largest delegation of heads of African state ever to assemble on a foreign soil were greeted with a red carpet reception by the Chinese authorities three years ago one of the first words of the host was to comment on their mutual history of colonisation. When has the EU or the US ever attempted to hold a gathering of this nature? They don’t extend them this courtesy for the simple reason that they’ve always viewed and treated them as vassals of their own extended sphere of influence. Moreover, the Chinese were welcome to do business as they don’t lay down the endless conditionalities to assistance; the “neo-colonial” forced privatisations of natural resources in exchange for aid, debt relief and balance of payments support; a system which only fosters the corruption we never tire of talking about.

Mugabe has been villified not because he doesn’t uphold human rights but because he’s actually stuck his head above the parapet and attempted to enforce them. This process of his demonisation has been facilitated by the cross-pollination of share ownership with boards of directors at Newscorp, Time Warner and the other half a dozen media conglomerates that determine what’s on the global menu on any given day and what we’ll all be gabbling about over breakfast being indistinguishable in aims and ambitions from the rest of the Fortune 500 who have key investments to protect in the developing world. Open markets and porous borders certainly, but above all the sanctity of private inward investment.

The premium value of land has now become apparent with the rush to biofuels and the need to produce more grain to feed the livestock that will have to supply the increasing protein demands of growing populations and GDPs in south east Asia, a need which makes apparent the level of urgency with which “Capital” attended the Zimbabwean decoupling from the Washington Consensus.


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