Thursday, October 4, 2012
A couple weeks ago, the South Africa Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in a case involving Mugabe’s controversial land reform program in Zimbabwe. The Court ruled that a white Zimbabwean farmer (Mike Campbell) who has been dispossessed by the government could take possession of government property as compensation. The case and the context of the farmer’s dispossession offer particularly troubling illustrations of how the postcolonial dilemma regarding land reform has unfolded in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe and the Dilemma of Postcolonial Land Reform, briefly
While many postcolonial states (for example, South Africa and India) struggled during the early years of their independence with how to enact land reform and simultaneously recognize a right to property (in a context of concentrated elite landholdings), Zimbabwe’s experience with land reform has been particularly inequitable and violent.
Unlike many other postcolonial states, the newly independent government of Zimbabwe had its hands tied when it came to distributing land to the large numbers of landless citizens. As a condition of independence in 1980, Zimbabwean leaders agreed to protect the large arable tracts of land held by
white landowners for ten years under the Lancaster House Agreement with Britain. After the ten-year period, the Zimbabwe government could compulsory acquire this land by providing compensation. (Britain agreed to provide some of the government compensation for both the voluntary sales during the first ten years and the compulsory acquisition afterwards.)
Unfortunately, when land reform was possible in the 1990s, the government took action very slowly, and often acquired land that was not ideal for farming. Then, in the early 2000s, the Mugabe government began to encourage violence and land invasions for personal gain through a change in law that allowed for “fast-track land redistribution”:
“To appease the landless masses and maintain political popularity, Mugabe's government officially encouraged veterans to occupy white-owned farms. In some instances, members of the army helped facilitate land grabs and police were told not to respond to landowners' complaints or to remove squatters. As a result of the land grabs, many white farmers and their black workers were killed or subjected to violent attacks.” (PBS)
“Mugabe. . . present[ed] the policy as a “redistribution” of land to the poor and as a triumph over greedy white imperialists. In reality the policy, spearheaded by a ragbag army of armed thugs — the so-called “war veterans” — was a ruse to cement Mugabe’s hold on power through the distribution of patronage. It thus became a scramble for the plum, mainly (though not exclusively) white-owned, estates among the country’s elite, most of whose members had little interest in farming.” (Telegraph)
Not surprisingly, this “program” did little to alleviate the vast inequity of landholdings throughout the country. In 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that:
“The fast track program has . . . violated rights to equal protection of the law, nondiscrimination, and due process. The violence accompanying land occupations has created fear and insecurity on white-owned commercial farms, in black communal areas, and in “fast track” resettled areas, and threatens to destabilize the entire Zimbabwean countryside.” (Human Rights Watch)
As a result of this violence, Zimbabwe, a once-richly agricultural country, is now dependent on food aid.:
"Farms seized in Zimbabwe often have landed up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and inner circle and have been left to lie fallow, turning the country that once was the breadbasket of the region into a net food-importer where the poor often go hungry." (Associated Press)
The Case of Mike Campbell’s Farm
In 1974, Mike Campbell, a white South African, moved to then-Rhodesia and purchased the Mount Carmel farm. He expanded on it subsequently, and built it into a profitable enterprise. In his obituary last year, the Telegraph noted that
He “plant[ed] mangoes, citrus trees, maize, tobacco and sunflowers, establish[ed] a herd of Mashona/Sussex cattle and dedicat[ed] a large area to a wildlife reserve, complete with herds of giraffe, impala and other animals. Their Biri River Safari Lodge became a popular tourist destination.
Campbell was described as a model employer, and by the end of the 1990s Mount Carmel farm was the largest mango producer in Zimbabwe, helping to generate much-needed export earnings. The farm sustained the livelihoods of more than 500 people...”
During the violence that ensued throughout the 2000s, Campbell’s farm was repeatedly invaded and significantly damaged. Attempts to gain relief in Zimbabwean courts did not yield results. In 2007, he brought his case to the inter-governmental Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal, the highest court in the region. Before that court issued its judgment (in favor of Campbell and other dispossessed white farmers), Campbell and his family were kidnapped and tortured. (He passed away last year as a result of deteriorated health caused by the torture and did not live to see the recent judgment from South Africa.)
The ruling from the South African Supreme Court attempts to enforce the SADC Tribunal’s order.
The Recent Ruling from the South African Supreme Court
On September 20, South Africa's Supreme Court ruled that:
“[A] white Zimbabwean farmer can take possession of a Zimbabwe government property to compensate for the seizure of his farm.
. . .
A tribunal of the Southern African Development Community in 2008 ruled that the takeovers of white-owned farmland in Zimbabwe were illegal and racist. President Robert Mugabe's government argued it was part of a land reform process to redress colonial wrongs. Hundreds of farmers were forced off their property in often violent government-sponsored seizures.
Zimbabwe refused to act on the tribunal's order to restore the farms to their owners, and the Southern African community dissolved the tribunal earlier this year.
In 2010, a South African High Court attached a Zimbabwe government property in Cape Town to satisfy the tribunal's order for punitive costs to pay for farmer Mike Campbell's legal expenses.
[The recent] dismissal upholds that ruling.” (Associated Press)
Enforcing this ruling will be a challenge in Zimbabwe – the Zimbabwean government has already “dismissed” it. Even if it is enforced, it sidesteps the issues of the thousands of landless black Zimbabweans and farm workers for whom a path to property, much less protection of that
property, has never been available.
Priya S. Gupta
For more on Mike Cambpell’s story (including the lawsuit), readers are encouraged to watch the 2010 film, Mugabe and the White African. The film, which is not without fault, especially with regards to its race, gender, and historical framing, does provides some visual context to the legal case and what has been at stake.