Max du Preez’s fantasies on Zimbabwe

'Fast-track land reform' of the Zimbabwean style, as sought by Max du Preez

by TAU Bulletin

Anti-apartheid journalist and apologist for South Africa’s democratic dispensation Max du Preez has been caught short with his latest efforts to justify the unjustifiable. In a Natal Mercury piece (30.4.13), Du Preez tells us we can “learn from Zimbabwe’s flourishing farms”, and goes on to laud a new book by three London (where else?) left wingers: London School of Economics’ Joseph Hanlon, an anti-apartheid and commonwealth sanctions activist in the 1980’s; Jeanette Manjengwa, Deputy Director, Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Zimbabwe; and Teresa Smart, visiting fellow at the University of London.

Du Preez says the book “Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land” shows that Zimbabwe’s radical land grab “has worked” and that “agricultural production is on levels comparable to the time before the process started.”  What is meaningful, says Du Preez, is that these production levels were achieved by 245,000 black farmers on land previously worked by some 6 000 white farmers. He clearly does not see the irony in this – does it take 245 000 Africans to produce the same as 6 000 white farmers?

(It is interesting that euphemisms such as “the process”, “land redistribution” and “fast track land reform” are used in the book and by Mr. Du Preez to describe one of Africa’s most haunting and terrifying attacks on any country’s productive agricultural sector. Who can forget the horrifying television footage of mobs of so-called war veterans storming white farms, destroying farm animals, beating to death family dogs trying to defend their owners’ properties, while farm families who couldn’t flee fast enough met sometimes gruesome fates at the hands of these thugs, all in the name of land reform. Ironically, these destructive mobs received few farms at all – the choicer properties were taken by Mugabe’s cronies for, in some cases, weekend parties.)

From the book, Du Preez says lessons South Africans can learn is that new black farmers can actually farm successfully and commercially if given enough time and help, and that an “ambitious land redistribution programme (in South Africa) can play a role in alleviating poverty and providing employment and dignity to large numbers or marginalized people”.  (It is reported that the London team spent one month in Zimbabwe before writing the book, and that they used a simplistic method based on a very small section of agriculture – they used three farms that were “taken back” while more than five thousand farms were stolen by the Mugabe government.)

It is further common cause that many “flourishing” farms are owned by the Chinese, and that the few still owned by white farmers operate at the grace and favor of President Mugabe.(He, his courtiers and his army have to be fed after all!).  We are also told that when certain farms are targeted by the ubiquitous war veterans, all the owner has to do is phone the Chinese Embassy and nothing more is heard from the mob. Sizeable tobacco contracts have been signed with the Chinese government.

 What is to be gleaned from this puff piece by someone who clearly feels the need to continue defending South Africa’s current dispensation?


Black South Africans have existed in Africa for millennia. They never developed anything better than subsistence farming – maybe  food for today but little for tomorrow. They had no written language, and it was left to early Christian missionaries to formalize and put into script African languages which had been solely an oral tradition. Thus there was no recorded title to land – it is a non-African concept – so to entitle a book “Zimbabwe Takes its Land Back” is disingenuous. One commentator declared: Zimbabwe takes back its land from whom? It was taken back from Zimbabweans, seventy percent of whom had bought their farms after President Mugabe came to power and whose agricultural skills were the bedrock of a country that had been a savannah until they came.

Yes, in another way, land in Zimbabwe was “taken back” – it was plundered and stolen from white productive farmers whose accomplishments showed up the incompetence and inability of others to produce a surplus, let alone enough to eat for themselves. This highway robbery was based on racial resentment, fuelled by a tyrant afraid of losing an election and who used white achievement as a scapegoat to foster black pique.

The United Nations

Before Mr. Du Preez decided to wax unctuous about Zimbabwe’s “flourishing farms”, he could have visited the websites of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome, the World Bank and a few other organizations trying to keep Zimbabwe afloat. According to WFP director Felix Bamezon (14.3.13), Zimbabwe’s current food insecurity levels are “the worst in four years.” The WFP is presently providing food aid to 1,58 million people in 37 districts of the country. In March this year, the WFP said approximately 19% of the population of Zimbabwe was estimated to be in need of food assistance.

If a government cannot even feed its people, let alone have surplus production, this can hardly be termed “flourishing”. The Japanese government recently provided nearly $6 million for flood, drought and food relief to Zimbabwe. This contribution allowed the WFP to purchase maize for 215,000 people and pulses for 835 000 people for two months. During the last decade, Japanhas provided more than $29 million to the WFP’s operations in Zimbabwe.

In January of this year, the Zimbabwean finance minister admitted to journalists the country only had $217 in its bank account!  David Smith of the London Guardian wrote on 30 January of this year that “from 2000 the seizure of white-owned farms led to chaos in the agriculture sector and the economy shrank by half. In 2008 hyperinflation of 231,000,000% broke the national currency and left millions of people hungry.” (Emphasis ours)

Where did the money go? The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says that income from diamond sales is being stolen by President Mugabe’s Zanu/PF party to finance the forthcoming election. The watchdog “Partnership Africa Canada” said last November that at least $2 billion of diamonds form the Marange fields has been stolen by Mugabe’s ruling elite.

What flourishing really means!

In the October 2009 edition of THE ROSARIAN, a publication distributed by the Flame Lily Foundation (created to secure the interests of former residents of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe), Dr. Mick Gammon writes a lengthy piece on the destruction of Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, with particular emphasis on agriculture. (Dr. D.M. Gammon was a former specialist in the Department of Conservation and Extension in the Rhodesian Ministry of Agriculture.)

“The first white traders and missionaries who came to the region in the 19th century found a land devoid of infrastructure. The wheel was not yet in use. Travelers went for days without seeing any human habitation. With a population of around 250 00 at the time, most of the land was not occupied. Commercial farming started in the 1890s on what was for the most part, virgin land. There were no roads or railways, no electricity or telephones, no fences, boreholes, pumps, windmills, dams, irrigation schemes; no cattle dips, barns or any other farm buildings.

“These first farmers had to discover how to contend with predators that killed their livestock and other animals that consumed their crops; how to control diseases, pests and parasites of livestock and crops that were foreign to them. Knowledge and experience built up over generations in the developed world had limited application, since the local climate, oil and vegetation was vastly different.

“From this starting point, agriculture developed faster than it had anywhere else in the world. Soon the country became self-sufficient in most agricultural products. In many cases yields per hectare and quality equalled and bettered those in the developed world.

“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Year Book 1975 ranked the then Rhodesia second in the world in terms of yields of maize, wheat, soya beans and ground nuts, and third for cotton. In the combined ranking for all these crops, Rhodesia ranked first in the world.

Rhodesia’s Virginia tobacco was rated the best in the world in yield and quality, while maize entries in world championships were consistently placed in the first three places.

“The world’s largest single citrus producer was developed early in the country’s history. The indigenous cattle were developed through breeding and selection to highly productive breeds. Wild life was incorporated into farming systems to develop a highly successful eco-tourism industry, and endangered species found their most secure havens on farm conservancies.

“Zimbabwe was the world’s second largest exporter of flue-cured tobacco. This together with exports of maize, soya beans, cotton, sugar, coffee, tea, fruit, vegetables, flowers and beef, made agriculture the major source of foreign currency. It was the largest employer of labor, providing employment for about a third of the country’s work force.

“The country’s state departments of veterinary services, tobacco research, plant and seed research, livestock and crop management were world class.  Each farm was, to a large extent, an outpost of civilization and many farms established schools for the children of their workers. Every farm was a clinic and dispensary and ambulance service for the surrounding areas.”

What happened to these farmers has been splashed around the world. It is a tragic history. From prosperity to a government balance sheet of just $217; to perennial food aid, to a tyrannical dictatorship, corruption and government theft; to poverty and large-scale emigration. From a  bread basket to a basket case. The only thing flourishing in this scenario is the scary imagination of Mr. Du Preez.