New Hope for Zimbabwe?

by Lindy Davies

An agreement has been brokered in Abuja in which Britain has offered to pay compensation, administered by the UN, to the white landholders who currently control 90% of the farmland in Zimbabwe. In return, the government of President Robert Mugabe would issue the call for the many thousand "war veterans" to end their campaign of squatting on (and effectively shutting down) those farms. The agreement is being hailed as a triumph for a uniquely African diplomatic process (aided by a notably softer stance taken by the British Foreign Minister). However, Mugabe, who was not at the Abuja conference and was "on a brief holiday" on Thursday when the agreement was completed, has not yet issued the call, and the war veterans await his word.

Mugabe is by all accounts an interesting character. Interviewers remark on his penetrating gaze and cool demeanor, even as all hell seems to be breaking loose around him; his imminent demise has been predicted for many years. Yet he holds on, despite strong domestic opposition, international bemusement or contempt, and a basket-case economy that shows no credible signs of improving.

One factor in his astounding staying power is probably his tendency to thumb his nose at the West. He seems always to be teetering at the very brink of the IMF's patience, displaying a contemptuous attitude toward civilized globalization that particularly vexes the British. There seems to be considerable cynicism in this, for under Mugabe's leadership the people of Zimbabwe have not fared well at all. The government divvied up borrowed money among political patrons through the 1980s, failing to come up with any feasible scheme for development and utterly neglecting the needs of Zimbabwe's people. Now, unemployment is at 50% and climbing. Once a large exporter of corn, Zimbabwe is now importing grain to feed its people (and there are allegations of food-for-votes politics). The nation has the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world. It ranks near the bottom in the level of resources devoted to basic health care needs, much less the needs of a large population of desperately ill adults (and their orphaned children).

So, why, faced with such straits, would Mugabe not rush to embrace the Abuja accord? Probably because he's following the old advice of "being careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." The staunch and patriotic struggle of war-for- independence veterans for their birthright in land was a just cause that played well with people in the street. But, if those cadres of squatters, who have been shutting down farm production, destroying equipment, barricading people in their (nice, clean, well-provisioned) farmhouses are suddenly given those farms to actually farm, what will happen?

This is not to say that Zimbabweans would be unable to run modern industrial farms without white help. Running a farm is a sophisticated business, but it's not, as they say, "rocket science". However, experience (and a sensible capital base) counts for something, and when large "agribusiness-type" farms are sectioned off to peasants, without equipment, without training, without market contacts, in a dysfunctional national economy characterized by overt corruption, you have a recipe for chaos. That is, precisely, the legacy of "land redistribution" schemes around the world, and Zimbabwe gives no indication of being able to break the mold.

If anyone is listening, Zimbabwe has a clear and very attractive alternative. The land does not have to be confiscated. Clearly it is valuable; that is why the white landholders demand compensation. But there is the sticky question of who the land really belongs to, after all. Does it belong to the people of Zimbabwe? That certainly seems fair. So the people of Zimbabwe, instead of confiscating the land and facing the ridiculously difficult prospect of designing an equitable and efficient redistribution scheme, could merely collect the full annual rental value of the land from the current holders -- thus satisfying the Zimbabwean people's right to the land of their nation -- without confiscating the improvements that the current landholders have worked so many years to create.

Those white landholders who were productively using their land would gladly pay the land rent as a fair charge for public services, and then go forth to make as much profit as they could by operating their farms. Under-users and land speculators would be forced, by higher holding costs, to relinquish their land. Voila! Suddenly large areas would be available, either for free or for drastically lower prices, to all those Zimbabweans who wished to use them. But, while making land available to those who needed it, the land-value taxation mechanism would not disrupt existing productive channels of land and capital use. It would be a win/win proposition.

Robert Mugabe should study this plan, and propose it. It is his last chance to be a hero -- or, more to the point, it is his last chance to avoid ultimate failure in his responsibility as the leader of Zimbabwe.

Lindy Davies, September 7, 2001

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