There's nothing new under the sun. Not even in Zimbabwe. Robin Cook may have cajoled the Commonwealth into joining Britain in admonishing Robert Mugabe's government, but it is doubtful that many members of the Commonwealth share Mr Cook's enthusiasm for building pressure against Zimbabwe. Many African leaders, in particular, will agree with Mr Mugabe's contention that he is merely seeking to right the wrongs of history. For Mr Mugabe, the land question is the last colonial question, and it is one he now intends to resolve, whether Mr Cook likes it or not.
The issue of land distribution holds the key to Zimbabwe's history, from the colonial past to the present, and, in the words of Mr Mugabe himself, it remains the biggest single problem his government has yet to resolve.
There are good reasons for African bitterness over land. Whites in colonial Rhodesia simply took the land they wanted by conquest. They paid no compensation to the Africans they dispossessed. European farms, big and small, dominated productive Highveld by 1900 and still do today. Land was free. Labour was cheap. And throughout the colonial period, the state provided enormous financial subsidies to Rhodesia's white farmers.
By contrast, African agriculture was sorely neglected under British colonial rule. Confined by law to so-called native reserves and special purchase areas, African farmers were not encouraged to compete with whites. And by the 1950s, the reserves were grossly overcrowded and declining in productivity.
Growing rural poverty and a smouldering sense of injustice at the denial of access to farmland fuelled African political protest in the Sixties. Land was a central plank of the nationalist political platform. When the guerrilla war began, in the Seventies, both Joshua Nkomo's Zapu party and Mr Mugabe's Zanu pledged to bring about radical land reform on gaining power.
By the end of the Seventies, more than 40 per cent of the country was still in the hands of white farmers. Their community had been the backbone of Iain Smith's support since UDI, fighting against the rise of African nationalism and bitterly opposing any suggestion of African political advancement. Even in defeat, few of Rhodesia's white farmers were ready to give up their land. As the negotiations to bring majority rule to Rhodesia came to a head, the question of land redistribution still appeared to be the greatest stumbling-block to a peaceful settlement. Britain took some responsibility for helping with the land question at that time, and it was agreed that £75m would be given to offset the costs of buying out European farmers after independence.
That inducement helped to bring African nationalists to the negotiating table, but when they arrived at Lancaster House in 1979, for the final round of constitutional talks, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government sprang a surprise. The representatives found themselves confronted by an uncomfortable compromise that would commit them to respecting existing European property rights and debar them from any expropriation of land during the first 10 years of independence, while the constitution negotiated at Lancaster House remained in force. In return, Britain would meet half the costs of a resettlement programme. In 1980, the British government pledged £20m for that purpose. Under international pressure, the compromise was agreed. To Zimbabweans, it seemed a poor deal. And it has rankled ever since.
Maintaining the status quo on the land was to be the price of independence. These were the terms set by the British government: there would be no place for socialist solutions in independent Zimbabwe. To sugar the pill, Britain dangled the prospect of other forms of development aid in the reconstruction of the war-torn Zimbabwean economy, stressing the importance of stability in commercial farming to secure future prosperity. Since 1980, Britain has consistently used the land question as a bargaining counter with Zimbabwe, most recently in 1998, when continued support for the Mugabe government's settlement programme was linked again to the condition that there be no move toward compulsory purchase of commercial farms.
Why should the Zimbabweans have expected any more from the British? Many had hoped that Zimbabwe would benefit from a scheme similar to that adopted in Kenya after independence. There, under the much-lauded "million-acre scheme", more than 1,000 white settlers had transferred lands to African farmers between 1962 and 1966, with Britain underwriting the land values paid in compensation to the departing Europeans. Farms were often massively overvalued, securing excellent prices for the departing farmers. But the costs were high, amounting to more than £25m, of which the British government paid 67 per cent.
In Kenya, property had been transferred to Africans, but the reality was that the poor and landless seldom gained access to the farms. The vast majority of lands under the million-acre scheme were taken up by wealthier farmers who could afford the purchase costs.
By the 1980s, the Kenyan model was considered non-viable, both politically and economically. No donor could accept a scheme under which land was distributed to wealthier farmers while landlessness was so apparent among others, and it was recognised that the start-up costs for any programme in Zimbabwe would need to be considerably higher than in the Kenyan case if farmers were to make an economic success of things. It was a price the Thatcher government simply was not prepared to pay.
It was British policy, therefore, that in effect prevented any attempt to redistribute lands in Zimbabwe throughout the Eighties. And it was British capitalism that created the problem in the first place. White prosperity was built on the oppression and exploitation of Africans. It is not difficult to see why land redistribution remains such a live political issue.
On the international stage, the Zimbabweans have won the quiet admiration of many other Africans for refusing to be pushed around by their former colonial masters. If anyone has lost the plot in the Zimbabwe saga, it is not Robert Mugabe. He understands the importance of land in Zimbabwe's history only too well, just as he has a clear view of what must be done to retain power. And he knows that Britain is committed to paying further toward the costs of land redistribution in Zimbabwe. The only question that remains is: when, and how much. That may not be to the liking of some British ministers, but no matter how hard they huff and puff, it is not they who will blow Mr Mugabe's house down.
David Anderson teaches at the School of Oriental & African Studies, London
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