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Review of When a State turns on its Citizens /Zimbabwe’s Lost Decade: Politics, Development & Society


By Lionel Cliffe

When a State turns on its Citizens: 60 years of Institutionalized Violence in Zimbabwe. Lloyd Sachikonye. Weaver Press, Harare, 2011. Pp. xxii + 121. ISBN. 978 1 77922 164 3 (pb). £18.95.

Zimbabwe’s Lost Decade: Politics, Development & Society . Lloyd Sachikonye. Weaver Press, Harare, 2011. Pp. xvi + 227. ISBN. 978 1 77922 171 1 (pb). £22.95.

Lloyd Sachikonye has an outstanding record of research and writing on Zimbabwe and southern Africa, on his own and in collaboration with compatriots and pan-African scholars, over 30 years. He has covered a range of topics under a broad rubric of political economy: labour and other class dynamics, on the state, democracy and political change, on land and rural development, on livelihoods and the overall economy. He has never shunned the awkward themes and has spoken truth to power. Both volumes show this readiness to challenge and tell it how it is, and also considerable methodological ingenuity in overcoming the official disapproval of such exposures. The fact that such publications come from someone who has been rooted in his base in the Institute for Development Studies in Harare, throughout the bad times, means it is well-informed by day to day interaction with realities on the ground.

The first book deals up front with repressive violence and how it became institutionalised. He sets the appalling patterns since 1998 in a historical context, showing how violent means were endemic to the racist, repressive settler-colonial regime’s control of the African people, but also how African nationalist parties, from the time they emerged, often resorted to violent means in competition between parties, and the coups and rebellions and repression within both movements as they engaged in armed struggle against the Rhodesian state. After independence these culminated in the savage Gokarahundi in Matabeleland – atrocities that have never been ‘dealt with’ by reconciliation. The major emphasis is placed on the use of violent means after 2000: against the new political party, MDC and other political foes of the regime, in the occupations of farm land owned by whites, in the fights between militias and youth of both parties, especially during elections in 2005 and 2008, and in ‘retribution’ after them. A systematic cataloguing of all types of violence is provided, drawing on a rich repository of information collected by brave and determined networks of NGOs, supplemented by the author’s interviews and focus groups and conferences in 2009-10.

The book seeks to go beyond the many accounts of such brutalities by offering some explanations for this long history of the use of violence politically. Whilst arguing that there is “no single cause of the violence...” (p. 105), he argues “at the heart of violence has lurked a combination of greed, self-aggrandisement by the ruling elite and its supporters” (p. 100). This has emerged as the “preferred instrument of choice for the regime” through a long process of “institutionalised impunity, improved technologies of repression and material greed”. But the ‘institutionalisation’ process has extended to society as a whole, which is now “severely scarred, ...traumatised and devastated from successive waves of violence during the last three decades” (p. 100). These deep roots and the societal impact are then used to offer some preliminary recommendations as to how the process might be reversed. Yes, start with documenting what perpetrators would like to remain secret – a job that is being done with courage and diligence. But it should go on to cover transitional justice, reconciliation, security sector reform and the promotion of an alternative political culture of peace and civic studies.

The second volume uses a similar historical approach and in fact reflects work done over a generation of engagement. It covers the broad themes of the political economy: in Part I the politics - colonialism and the national question, the state, parties and participation and constitutionalism; in Part II the social and economic dynamics – development and its deferral, land reform, livelihoods and migration, civil society, plus a chapter on foreign relations. But its core purpose is once again to explain, in this instance how and why the promise of Independence gave way to the ‘lost decade’ of the 2000s. In this endeavour he first, as in the first book, distances himself from the tendency to revert to one-man versions of historical causation:

It would be fashionable but simplistic to explain the rise and decline of Zimbabwe solely in terms of the leadership and role of Robert Mugabe. Historical, structural and systemic factors should loom large in any explanation. But it would be naive to ignore the strong imprint of Mugabe’s policies, decisions and personality on the direction and fortunes of the country. (p. xiii)

Instead he also sees the effects of the settler-colonial legacy, inappropriate economic paradigms later pursued, even in the relatively positive 1980s, the politics of authoritarianism (drawing on and broadening out the conclusions of the Institutionalised Violence volume), and the lack of vision and strategy in the lost decade. Here again he bothers to set out possible alternative futures.

Any reader might quarrel with some particular emphasis in analysis or diagnosis, given their sweep. For instance, his discussion of what “could be the path of (agrarian) recovery and transition” (p. 207) starts from “the consensus between scholars who support and criticise land reform” of the 2000-03 period was accompanied by declines in agricultural output, which is only a slight over-statement of the unanimity. But his call then for review of land policy, involving compensation, tenure security and a land audit as well as major investment leaves unspecified whether any re-redistribution should be on the agenda. Equally the review and recommendations about the role of civil society organisations, about which he has a wealth of participant experience, is realistically aware of problems of their existential context of repression and financial dependence and of their structural challenges, such as fragmentation and capacity limitations, but might be push further to explore further how they might interact with the state and parties given the present Global Political Agreement beyond the advice to “maintain political distance”.

Overall these two books provide both valuable explanatory background on the crisis of Zimbabwe and an agenda for debate about alternatives. They constitute necessary reading for anyone wishing to enter those debates. The University of Leeds can feel proud in being recognised by the author as one source of his “intellectual pedigree”. The publishers should also be congratulated for continuing to bring out such challenging titles.

Reviewed by: Lionel Cliffe, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 105-107]

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