Wednesday, May 10, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Zimbabwe farm battles go deeper than politics

Special to The Times

EUROPEANS came to Zimbabwe in 1890, in the person of Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company. He had a charter from Britain to colonize the land, and he named it Rhodesia, after himself. Because of superior weaponry, he defeated the major African tribe, the Ndebele, and ran the country like his personal fiefdom.

The African tribes were kicked off the best land in the nation and it was divided among white farmers. Twenty years after independence, approximately 4,400 white farmers still control 32 percent of the best land in the nation. One million black families farm 38 percent.

Most of the land owned by white farmers is in fertile areas, while the black farmers own land primarily in drought-prone regions.

You hear all kinds of reasons why some of the veterans of the war for independence have now taken over and homesteaded land owned by white farmers. But basically they are saying that it's time for the land to be redistributed back to its original owners who were never compensated.

Many of the current white farmers bought their land from other whites fleeing the country after independence. They are using the argument that they had nothing to do with the sins of the past and this impasse has turned into mini-wars that have led to the death of people on both sides.

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's only president and one of the leaders of the war for independence, is siding with his old comrades, and some people believe that he is behind the entire thing to distract from his mounting opposition within Zimbabwe.

But I am amazed at how this story is being told in the West. It's as though these white farmers bought the land fairly and now are under attack by some black thugs. It's completely told from the white farmers' point of view and clearly anti-Mugabe.

I will be the first to say that Mugabe has outlived his usefulness as president. Knowing when to get out of the way is the most difficult thing for any leader to recognize. Especially if you know that once you are no longer in power you may end up assassinated or forced into permanent exile.

Mugabe's volatile personality would make it impossible for him to sit quietly by and allow someone else to restructure the nation he has controlled for so long. Great revolutionaries rarely make great leaders but Mugabe got close. But that does not make Mugabe wrong when he says that it's time for the white farmers to give back the land. It is.

The smart thing would have been for the white farmers to concede portions of their land back to the indigenous tribes. Instead, they have taken a hard line about their right to the land. It's a clash of more than just law. It's a clash of cultures.

Individual ownership of land was not a concept widely practiced in Africa. Most West African societies believe the gods owned the land and they were its caretakers. Europeans believe in individual ownership that it is passed down through the family for eternity.

It's difficult for black Africans to accept the notion that whites still control and own their ancestral lands years after independence has been gained. Mugabe did not invent these sentiments even though he is obviously exploiting them.

A New World Order is in the making, but the Old World Order, represented by slavery in America and colonialism in Africa (and other Third World countries), still plays a major role in the lives of people of color. Will the British still buy the tobacco being grown in Zimbabwe after the whites are gone? If not, what does that do to the economy?

These issues go to the heart of the relationship between Europeans and Africans as we go into this new millennium.

Our history goes back a long way, starting in 705 A.D. when the Moors invaded and occupied Spain and Portugal for 800 years. We have been at each others' throats ever since.

A lot has happened in the last 1,300 years. We have enslaved each other for hundreds of years at a time. Africans have invaded and occupied Europe, and now Europeans have invaded and occupied Africa. In between all of that we have both made significant contributions in creating the most powerful country the world has ever seen. This nation is playing, and will continue to play, a major role in the fate of both Europe and Africa.

But our policy must be balanced and we must be willing to import cash crops from Zimbabwe regardless of the color of the farmer.

This land battle can only end up one way and the whites will eventually lose. Their numbers are too small and their history in Africa too unsavory for it to be any other way.

But whites can still determine how they lose and may even be able to negotiate a different kind of relationship if they act quickly. Black Africans are determined not to end up with the same fate as indigenous people in Australia and the Americas. They have won their nation back, but they still don't have control of the land and that's intolerable for a people who worship the land they live on.

That doesn't have anything to do with Mugabe's politics - his days are numbered. That's just the story of a people and their land. How America responds to majority rule in other countries will have a major impact on Zimbabwe's view of democracy, as well as greatly define our power and influence as a nation.

Charlie James' column appears alternate Wednesdays on editorial pages of The Times. He is publisher of the African-American Business & Employment Journal and can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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