Monday, 20 May 2013

Difficult lessons from Zimbabwe that some South Africans just don’t want to hear

Respected South African journalist Max du Preez put his head above the parapet a few weeks ago and commented on the new book, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. His article opened as follows:

"It is something many South Africans do not want to hear and would probably find hard to believe: Zimbabwe's radical land redistribution has worked and agricultural production is on levels comparable to the time before the process started. What is more meaningful is that the production levels were achieved by 245 000 black farmers on the land previously worked by some 6 000 white farmers".

A huge storm of Facebook, Twitter and newspaper comments resulted (literally thousands!), mostly from angry South Africans outraged at the idea that redistributive land reform involving small farmers could possibly work in any form.

As du Preez comments in a follow up piece: "I was truly astonished at the blind anger and irrationality of many of the reactions, even from otherwise well-informed and balanced people." There was, he said, "so much heart, so little reason" and in their anger people rushed to comment before even reading the piece. This is a familiar pattern. I wonder sometimes if people ever bother to read our book, before launching off into derogatory commentary.

I have looked at some of the comments, and he is right: the irrational vitriol is plain to see. Joe Hanlon and I are attacked in extreme (although sometimes quite amusing) terms, accused of being communists from second-rate universities, bogus allies of Mugabe and more! It is all quite bizarre – and would be upsetting if it wasn't so wild and weird. Having been involved in this debate for over a decade, I am quite immune to the insults and attacks these days, but in this concentrated form it is striking. Perhaps more so because it was from mostly white South Africans, showing beyond doubt that land remains an emotional subject on both sides of the Limpopo. Zimbabweans of course also joined in, including MDC MP Roy Bennett who weighed in with a similar line, tempered with some sensible points about the variation in agricultural production among crops.

As du Preez comments during the long Facebook exchanges following his articles, it is interesting to see how clearly educated people are immune to evidence and argument when they don't want to hear it. The 'evidence' they use for their rebuttals is not further research, but usually some casual observations made while driving through some part of the country. They see it seems nothing but 'destruction' or 'desolation', but clearly don't talk to the new farmers or leave the main road.  Alternatively, evidence is garnered from accumulated anecdotes from Zimbabweans living in South Africa or friends in Harare relayed by phone call; all offering it seems the same dismal narrative. And if the real research evidence is not to their liking they argue it must be biased, fixed or based on inappropriate research and sampling methods, and so is simply dismissed.

If white South Africans remain with their heads so firmly in the sand, the consequences of not dealing with gross, deep inequities will surely confront them at some point. As in Zimbabwe, doing nothing and hoping it will go away is not enough. Political dynamics will at some stage see to that, as discontent mounts. As du Preez notes in his article, South Africa is not the same as Zimbabwe, and only selected lessons can be learned. But if angry denial is the only way of dealing with the issue, there is a clear problem. As he correctly observes: "We urgently need to throw old, conventional thinking overboard and tackle our problem with more vigour."

In summing up his second piece, du Preez argues:

"I think we should accept that, at the very least, the impression we in South Africa had that agriculture in Zimbabwe was still in a state of utter collapse after the land redistribution is wrong. We should accept that a substantial number of new Zimbabwean farmers, big and small, are actually commercially successful. That is significant, especially if one considers that a great historic wrong has been addressed and that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are now settled on the land of their ancestors. It still doesn't make the way the redistribution happened right. It still doesn't make it a model for South Africa to copy. It does mean we should make a mind shift around land reform. We should stop seeing it as a threat and start seeing it as a priority to redress past wrongs and further stability. Land reform is about people, not merely about hectares and statistics".

I agree. I hope Mr du Preez continues to report on Zimbabwe, as this sort of debate is going to be essential for the region as a whole. He will have to have a thick skin, but good journalists who unearth uncomfortable stories usually do.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland