Pop­ulist road to ru­ina­tion

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

In 2000, this lowly news­pa­per­man se­cured a ring­side seat to watch the un­rav­el­ling of Zim­babwe. The in­va­sions of white-owned farms by mobs led by war veter­ans was in full force. Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe had just lost the con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum and was livid. The op­po­si­tion had cam­paigned hard against him and the peo­ple had lis­tened to them, not him.

Once revered by the peo­ple but now scorned by them, the old man was fear­ful of what this meant for the up­com­ing par­lia­men­tary elec­tion.

He needed a love po­tion to “woo back lost lover”, as the traf­fic-light pam­phlets say.

His love po­tion was the land ques­tion and the con­tin­ued dom­i­na­tion of this cru­cial eco­nomic sec­tor by a mi­nor­ity.

Twenty years af­ter in­de­pen­dence, white farm­ers con­trolled most agri­cul­tural land. With agri­cul­ture – in par­tic­u­lar, to­bacco – be­ing a ma­jor com­po­nent of the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct and a huge foreign ex­change earner, white Zim­bab­weans were in the pound seats eco­nom­i­cally. They en­joyed ex­treme wealth com­pared to their black com­pa­tri­ots. This was a source of much re­sent­ment.

Mu­gabe knew what press­ing the land but­ton meant. Land was at the cen­tre of the two Chimuren­gas – the 1890s up­ris­ing against the colo­nial oc­cu­piers and the 20th-cen­tury lib­er­a­tion war. Be­cause so much blood was spilt get­ting the land back, the is­sue was, and is, close to the hearts of Zim­bab­weans.

So, the self-serv­ing Mu­gabe started spew­ing an­ti­colo­nial, anti-West and anti-white rhetoric. This spurred the in­va­sion of white farms, of­ten with the sup­port of the se­cu­rity forces. The Zanu-PF gov­ern­ment slyly at­trib­uted the in­va­sions to the im­pa­tience of the peo­ple.

The re­sult of this was the de­struc­tion of Zim­babwe’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor, which had a knockon ef­fect on all other sec­tors of the econ­omy.

In­dus­try col­lapsed, un­em­ploy­ment rock­eted, in­fra­struc­ture fell apart, in­fla­tion soared, the Zim­bab­wean dol­lar be­came worth less than sin­gle­ply toi­let pa­per and su­per­mar­kets could not even stock the most ba­sic prod­ucts. Zim­bab­weans fled south, west, east, north and be­yond the seas.

Within eight years, the coun­try was on the brink of be­com­ing a failed state as pol­icy and gov­er­nance be­came what­ever Mu­gabe and Zanu-PF’s hard­lin­ers woke up think­ing on a par­tic­u­lar day. The five-year Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Unity, bro­kered in 2008, brought some respite and ar­rested the de­cline.

But Zim­babwe is still suf­fer­ing from the wild, pop­ulist and self-serv­ing de­ci­sions of 2000.

Land is a word that has been very much on the lips of South Africa’s first cit­i­zen of late. The more he has be­come em­bat­tled, the more he has aped Mu­gabe’s land rhetoric. He has be­lat­edly dis­cov­ered the land ques­tion and made it a pil­lar of his legacy. He has upped his anti-colo­nial­ism and anti-Western pitch.

Cog­nisant of the racially de­fined gross in­equal­ity, he makes a point of stok­ing the al­ready high lev­els of anger among the black poor.

The rhetoric grew louder and cra­zier as he faced a re­volt from within his own party. The fre­quency in­creased af­ter last year’s damn­ing Con­sti­tu­tional Court judg­ment on the Nkandla saga and the Au­gust 2016 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion re­sults.

When ANC veter­ans and stal­warts chal­lenged his lead­er­ship, he char­ac­terised them as pawns of the pow­ers who were afraid of his rad­i­cal stance.

Some of the rhetoric is the stuff of fan­tasy. Who in their right minds would vo­calise a pri­vate thought about push­ing the resti­tu­tion dead­line a few cen­turies back, when South Africa is bat­tling with the 1913 cut-off date? On Fri­day, he added this idea to his file of lu­na­cies. Ad­dress­ing the Na­tional House of Tra­di­tional Lead­ers, he called for “a pre­colo­nial au­dit of land own­er­ship, use and oc­cu­pa­tion pat­terns”. He said once such an au­dit was done, a sin­gle land law would be “de­vel­oped to ad­dress the is­sue of land resti­tu­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion”.

Con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments would then be made to en­sure this hap­pened, and the Na­tional Land Claims Com­mis­sion would be made a chap­ter 9 in­sti­tu­tion, with pow­ers sim­i­lar to those of the Pub­lic Pro­tec­tor. In­ter­est­ingly, he made this state­ment just days af­ter his own party mem­bers had ar­gued and voted against such a move in Par­lia­ment.

In do­ing so, they were in­formed by the fact that the Con­sti­tu­tion is not a hin­drance to land resti­tu­tion and land re­form.

The process has been be­dev­illed by poor im­ple­men­ta­tion on the part of the state. It has also been hob­bled by the fact that black South Africans are not as ro­man­tic and sen­ti­men­tal about land as Zim­bab­weans and some of our other neigh­bours.

Men­tally, they have long moved on, and those with sen­ti­men­tal at­tach­ments have them be­cause there is a re­cent his­tory of ru­ral to ur­ban mi­gra­tion in the fam­ily.

Hunger for land is in the ur­ban ar­eas, where peo­ple are liv­ing on top of each other in in­for­mal set­tle­ments. And that is a to­tally dif­fer­ent headache, which re­quires the kind of en­ergy that is be­ing spent ob­sess­ing about im­prac­ti­cal fan­tasies.

So, inas­much as there may be this pop­ulist ag­i­ta­tion around land from high up, this is a fire un­likely to catch. What will catch is the racially charged na­ture of the ag­i­ta­tion. It is this part that will res­onate with the ur­ban poor. Whether the pres­i­dent and those around him who are stok­ing this racial anger will be able to chan­nel it is doubt­ful.

This is the dan­ger of pop­ulism. It pro­vides sim­ple an­swers to com­plex prob­lems and avoids proper think­ing and plan­ning. The af­ter­math is al­most al­ways ru­ina­tion. Just ask our neigh­bours.

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