Thea Hood: Lessons from Zimbabwe

As I walked home under the hot African sun, I became uncomfortably aware of unknown faces along the dirt road. The university where I taught in Zimbabwe had fallen victim to President Mugabe’s war vets in their quest for reparations.

Reparations, meaning economic amends for past injustices, has been tossed around for years in the United States. In today’s column, I intend to highlight the lessons I learned about reparations from Zimbabwe, while my follow-up column will look at the total economic fallout and political mayhem which ensued. Hopefully the same disastrous results will be avoided in the United States.

In 1930, under British colonial rule, Rhodesia segregated land ownership into areas available to blacks only and whites only. Although representing 5 percent of the population, the Europeans were granted 50 percent of the land

In 1980, Robert Mugabe, the black nationalist leader, led a revolution against the white minority rule, taking charge of the country and renaming it Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s new government promised to:

∎ Redress inequalities of race and class.

∎ Redistribute land held by the white minority.

∎ Turn the republic into a one-party socialist state.

So, how well did that work for them?

When Mugabe took over, prosperous Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Africa, thanks to 4,000 commercial farms, exporting corn, cotton, beef, tobacco, roses and sugarcane.

As promised, land reform began immediately, with an attempt to alter the ethnic balance of land ownership between black subsistence farmers and white settlers.

By 2000, the people displayed impatience with the land reform movement, simultaneously voting down Mugabe’s referendum to increase his powers. Attempting to regain the support of the people, Mugabe played the race card and the land card.

He declared, “If white settlers just took the land from us without paying for it, we can in a similar way just take it from them without paying for it.”

While attempting to correct colonial injustices, Mugabe ignored the fact that today’s white farmers had actually paid his government for their land and he had given them title to it.

In spite of that, the land grab started anyway. The government, along with peasant farmers, youth and war veterans, seized the land from white Zimbabweans. And that is how I found myself surrounded by war vets who had come to claim our university’s farm — ironically, a totally black institution.

Enough white farmers were murdered (you don’t need guns to kill, just angry people with machetes or axes) or their farms burned to intimidate most of the remaining farmers to flee the country. This assault resulted in the seizure of nearly 25 million acres, or 90 percent of all farms, without compensation to title-holding landowners, and displacing more than a million African farm workers and their dependents. Unemployment soared.

My friend Bill, who worked as a dentist in Bulawayo, had dumped his life savings into buying land in the bush, receiving title to the land. He fenced hundreds of acres, constructed two houses and built two dams to provide water for his farm. All confiscated … no compensation.

With the land grab, the economic woes of the country worsened. The confiscated farms, instead of going to the war vets who had done the dirty work of expelling the farmers were given to ruling-party officials and friends of the president, none of whom were interested in or knowledgeable about farming. It was a status symbol to own as many farms as possible. Even Mugabe’s wife received two farms!

It only follows that with no experienced farmers left, Zimbabwe’s agricultural production tanked. This not only led to widespread hunger in the country, but with no crops for export, to a bankrupt economy and out-of-control inflation.

Of course, Mugabe blamed the drought for the rampant inflation engulfing Zimbabwe. What leader wants to take credit for their own failures?

Based on what I experienced, these are my conclusions and recommendations regarding reparations:

Reparations failed. Socialism failed. Segregating land unjustly during the colonial period was the first wrong. Stealing land from those who legitimately acquired their land years later was the second wrong. Distributing the stolen land to political officials and friends with no farming aspirations was the third wrong. Three wrongs never make a right.

Retaliation failed. “Do to others as they did to you” doesn’t work. Try instead, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The past can never be undone. It is better to move forward by legislating fair laws, and by providing skill training and work opportunities to those individuals, black or white, who were denied opportunities by past injustices or circumstances.

I recommend opportunities, not reparations.

Stay tuned for the next column to learn what happened to the university farm, to Bill, to me, to Zimbabwe and to Mugabe. And more lessons for America.

Thea Hood is a member of The Union’s editorial board. She lives in Nevada County.

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