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Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice/ Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

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Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice. Cheryl Walker, Anna Bohlin, Ruth Hall, and Thembela Kepe (Eds). Ohio University Press, Athens, 2010. Pp. 335. ISBN. 978-0-8214-1927-4 (pb). £np.

Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media. Blessing-Miles Tendi. Peter Lang, Bern and Berlin, 2010. Pp. 286. ISBN. 978-3-03911-989-9 (pb). £37.

One of the first measures to be taken in South Africa in 1994 to begin to reverse the inequities of the apartheid years was the Restitution of Land Rights Act. It was an instrument which allowed and encouraged black people who had been dispossessed by measures since 1913 to register claims for return of their land or compensation. The first book provides what is perhaps the most comprehensive documentation and assessment of what have been the outcomes in the intervening 16 years.

One of the several significant contributions of the accumulated cases is to bring out the need to see Restitution as a broader process than just one dimension of land reform, which has been the emphasis in most published work thus far. It does indeed represent a rights-based means of redistributing farms that complements the Land Redistribution Programme, whereby groups benefit from government-assisted purchase of farms, and that aspect is evaluated critically in the volume. But the studies bring out two under-studied features. The fact that much of the restitution is concerned with urban property: the great number of the actual claims (although not the total area) and certainly those that have been settled already. This concern is reflected in the Contents, three out of nine case studies are urban, while four are concerned with agricultural land, leaving two other claims that are for land in national parks that raise a set of different analytical issues. Secondly, many claims, especially in towns, have been settled by cash compensation payments not resettling on land – a process that is given due attention in the book.

Insofar as restitution was in one sense a dimension of land reform it was seen as a means of delivering not only justice but also land tenure security, reducing impoverishment and overall rural development. Those case studies and general essays that assess restitution in terms of these goals suggest that realisation has been disappointing. The explanations are sought in the low priority government has given this and all dimensions of land reform, in the protracted and often inappropriate bureaucratic and legal processes involved (although one Southern Cape case questions whether speed is always desirable), and the limited and untimely provision of resources devoted to post-transfer planning, investment, advice and infrastructure, and the debate about the relative roles of state bodies, NGOs, market mechanisms and private ‘partners’. But contributions to the book raise the prospect of fundamental contradictions between the aim of justice and redress, and those of poverty-reducing rural development (in cases in Eastern Cape from de Wet & Mgujulwa); and Limpopo from Aliber et al.; and in strategic issues raised by Fay & James, and by Derman  et al.) and with plans for restructuring commercial agriculture and even political reconciliation, raised by Hall).

The second volume reviewed here is concerned with broader issues of current Zimbabwe politics but there is still a crucial link with land issues. There is a core chapter that offers a useful summary of the policies and the policy-making processes over land stretching back to the deal made for Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, containing original material from interviews with key actors, from Zimbabwean Ministers responsible for land, like Didymus Mutasa, to the Labour Minister for Overseas Development, Clare Short, to former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku (a Leeds Honorary Doctor!). The last interviewee provided a particularly interesting and unexplored suggestion, that the Mugabe regime postponed any action on land reform throughout the 1990s so as not to upset the delicate negotiations over the end of apartheid in South Africa. This assertion was endorsed, not surprisingly, by Zimbabwean ministers interviewed, although that cannot be easily squared with the explanation that there was a general resistance to radical action on the part of ministers which was only jolted into action by liberation war veterans (see this proposition in Sadomba[1]). But in offering his central thesis, that a notion of Patriotic History was constructed by Zimbabwe leaders in the last decade and drives a diverse range of policies, Tendi argues that its “primary theme is land dispossession”.

This basic concept was originally coined by Oxford Professor, Terence Ranger, who provides a Foreword[2]. Tendi sees it as “a repackaged, authoritarian version of Zimbabwe’s liberation history”, which was elaborated systematically by a wide spectrum of intellectuals and politicians, and not just Mugabe and a few leaders It has been orchestrated and relentlessly propounded through the media and public statements, in every form from speeches to jingles. He refers to it as having an “ideological coherence”, but there is no attempt to spell out what this is beyond a certain view of local history, let alone critically take apart the world view and social project that it might embrace. Such summary as is offered is reduced to a handful of messages: the primacy of land in the liberation struggle; the unfinished business of the land question in a new phase of revolutionary struggle, the Third Chimurenga; the necessity for this struggle to be led by ‘patriots’ bred by earlier phases of struggle, with everyone else ‘sell-outs’, justifying subsumption of human rights; and an implication that the patriots ought to be the main beneficiaries. It is certainly the case that there is a continuous outpouring of this view of history, and that it does serve the interest of those in power, both in terms of justifying their personal accumulation of wealth and the survival of their regime.

But to this reviewer it looks simply like self-serving propaganda, the likes of which are put out, with varying degrees of insistence, by a variety of authoritarian regimes. In Egypt or Pakistan or Pinochet’s Chile or other states where the military dominates, the army may be depicted as the saviours of the nation who deserve privileged political status and freedom to pursue their greed. Elsewhere, other elites do a similar p.r. exercise in legitimising their rule. To develop an elaborate intellectual edifice of a counter view, seems to run the risk of according this propaganda conjuring trick with an inflated seriousness it scarcely deserves. In this critique ‘Patriotic History’, especially as the words are always capitalised, is reified into something which gives it a degree of seriousness and respect it scarcely deserves. The most appropriate response maybe is to ridicule these mouthings – after all this is the same party leadership which, searching for a cloak for sloganising in the 1980s embraced Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong Thought’! Can they be taken seriously?

This would be the one qualification about this work, even though it does succeed in offering the nuanced account of these polemics and policies that it seeks. It does in the process offer some detailed and well-researched material into the articulations in the current Zimbabwe debate, and the polarising divide that opened up between the whole intellectual class from 2000, and which makes difficult any genuine exchange of views in what is today a somewhat different political and economic climate.


[1] W. Sadomba, War Veterans in Zimbabwe’s Land Occupations: Complexities of a Liberation Movement in an African Post-colonial Settler Society, Wageningen University 2008.

[2] T. Ranger, ‘Nationalist Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: The Struggle over the Past in Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies. 30.2, 2004.

Reviewed by: Lionel Cliffe, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 98-101]

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