HomeStandard People.Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

.Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

IN the first of a series of forthcoming major highlights from Blessing-Miles Tendi’s book Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media (Peter Lang) the Zimbabwe Independent reveals a little-known but important historical fact that Robert Mugabe deferred land redistribution from whites to blacks in the early 1990s following appeals from the former Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku. This diplomatic deal helps to explain South Africa’s “quiet diplomacy” on the Zimbabwe crisis, argues Tendi’s book (page 84):


When pressed to explain the state’s lethargy on land reform in the early 1990s, Zanu PF politicians Didymus Mutasa and Nathan Shamuyarira argued that considerations of the possible implications of rapid land reform on South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy inhibited radical land redistribution. They argue that there was a strong clamour from some Zanu PF members for total redistribution of white-owned land following the termination of the Lancaster House constitution’s 10-year property clause in 1990.


They also contend that in 1990 the Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku held a diplomatic parley with the Zanu PF government in order to dissuade it from engaging in radical land reform, subsequent to the expiry of the Lancaster House constitution’s property clause. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island prison and his ANC party was locked in negotiations with the Apartheid regime in 1990.

According to Mutasa and Shamuyarira, Anyaoku implored the Zanu PF government to desist from radical land reform because the resultant flight of white Zimbabweans would destabilise the Apartheid transition talks in South Africa. Shamuyarira maintains that Mugabe reluctantly agreed to begin extensive land seizures only after South Africa’s transition period was complete. However, Mutasa argues that this led to rising frustration amongst landless Zimbabweans, which set the ground for radical land seizures of white-owned farms in 2000 and after.

Zanu PF felt it had done a deal for South Africa. Mutasa explains the ANC’s later reluctance to criticise the Zanu PF government’s seizure of white-owned farms publicly as recognition of Zanu PF’s contribution to ensuring South Africa’s peaceful transition from Apartheid. “Zimbabwe was supposed to be an encouraging example for white South Africans that blacks and whites can reconcile and work together peacefully.”

Tendi interviewed Anyaoku in London to verify the authenticity of Mutasa and Shamuyarira’s claims. Anyaoku confirmed their claims:

“My diplomatic mission was to warn Mugabe not to touch the land when the Lancaster House Constitution’s protection of white farmers’ ended. The end coincided with the beginning of negotiations to end Apartheid in South Africa. I told Mugabe that taking over white farms would scupper what (FW)de Klerk was trying to achieve. South Africa’s white community was very powerful. Taking over white property in Zimbabwe would alarm white South Africans. Fearing for their material and financial assets, they would use their influence to scupper the negotiations. I put this strongly to Mugabe. He was reluctant to agree but saw the force of my argument. He agreed to protect white farms until the transition was finished. He wanted speedier land reform and said he was under pressure from his party to do it. I was closer to Joshua Nkomo than I am to Mugabe. Nkomo was one of those who felt 10 years had been a long enough wait for land. Nkomo wanted all the land returned to Africans. I urged them to be patient.”

Subsequent to this meeting, Anyaoku communicated Mugabe’s assurance that he would not risk destabilising transition talks in South Africa by taking over white farms to the ANC via Thabo Mbeki. Tendi asked Anyaoku why he did not document this diplomatic dealing in memoirs on his tenure as Commonwealth Secretary General from 1990–1999. Anyaoku expressed “regret” for not having documented this because it “explains why Mugabe waited that long to complete land reform and Mbeki’s response to land takeovers in Zimbabwe”. Anyaoku argues that at the time of writing up his memoirs, he did not realise how relevant this diplomatic deal would be in helping to make sense of events in Zimbabwe after 2000.

South Africa received considerable criticism from Western media and governments for not taking a firm and public diplomatic stance critical of the Zanu PF government during the “Third Chimurenga”. South Africa preferred a brand of private diplomacy labeled “quiet diplomacy” by various commentators. But the Anyaoku narrative partly explains South Africa’s response to the land seizures after 2000.

In 2003, Mbeki delivered the 20th anniversary lecture of the Guardian, a leading Nigerian newspaper, in Lagos. Anyaoku was present at this lecture. During the question and answer segment of Mbeki’s address, a Nigerian journalist asked Mbeki why South Africa had not been resolute in criticising the Zanu PF government over the land seizures. Mbeki turned to Anyaoku and responded, “Chief Anyaoku knows better”.

In May 2010, in a speech about the South African transition from Apartheid to democracy, Mbeki told the Fifth Al Jazeera Annual Forum in Doha that: “We must also mention the decision taken by the government of Zimbabwe to postpone any action to resolve the land question in their country. The leadership of independent Zimbabwe understood that radical land reform in their country would have alarmed the apartheid regime, encouraging it to oppose the negotiations, on the basis that the ANC would follow the Zimbabwe example and dispossess the South African whites of their land and property”.

It is not improbable that Mugabe reminded Mbeki of the Anyaoku diplomatic deal and presented the post-2000 land seizures as born out of slow land redistribution in the 1990s. Indeed Mbeki is likely to have felt indebted to Mugabe for what he cast as a sacrifice, helping to explain why the South African government chose to adopt the “quiet diplomacy” approach to the land upheavals.

The book is available via Weaver Press in Avondale, Harare. –– Staff Writer

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading