Zimbabwe Masvingo farmerZimbabwe’s land seizure programme was controversial enough without well-meaning analysts inventing myths about the myths surrounding what took place.

One such article is a blog by Mikko Kapanen, which was recently tweeted by @land4peace – even thought it was written in 2011. The article is based on work by a team led by Professor Ian Scoones, which Mikko Kapanen admits he has not read.

The Scoones team produced some fascinating and subtle analysis, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but Kapanen seems to have absorbed only the most crude elements of what Scoones and his associates wrote.


Kapanen states that the ‘myths’ about Zimbabwe originate in bias among western journalists (or which I was one) and attacks the BBC in particular (for whom I worked until October 2012, when I retired.)

This is what he says: “First we need to understand that the now heavily demonised President Mugabe is one of the world leaders who chose not to be a western puppet. He hasn’t been taking orders from the north and he has been very vocal about it. I am not saying that he is a great leader – I believe he definitely was a great leader and one of the heroes of the independent Zimbabwe, who got somewhat sidelined and forgot to share the power, but his biggest sins, in this context at least, are not the ones he has committed against his people – especially the ones in the urban areas – but the ones where white people have been at the receiving end; the farmers and the western leaders, the BBC journalists and NGOs.”

Now anyone who thinks that Mugabe is anything other than a mass murdered, who killed tens of thousands of his own people, has been missing much of Zimbabwe’s history. Some 20,000 Matabele were killed by the North Korean trained fifth brigade during operation Gukurahundi.

So Kapanen’s first myth is that Robert Mugabe is someone whom we should respect.

But what of the land issue and the role of western journalists?

I went to the area of Masvingo in which Professor Ian Scoones team worked and came away with a very mixed picture. This is still available and I would invite anyone doubting this to listen to the programme.

Anyone who has listened across the BBC’s coverage will know that there is no intention to produce  some kind of simple-minded apologia for white farmers. Down the years my colleagues have covered every aspect of Zimbabwe’s politics – something Mr Kapanen appears to have missed.

Of course serving BBC journalists (of which I am no longer one) cannot defend themselves and have to read the nonsense people write about our work in silence. Having retired, I can speak out.

More myths

But it is also important to consider some of the issues behind the Scoones led work which were not made explicit in his study – let alone the Kapanen blog.

  1. It would be easy to miss the fact that some of those who worked on the Scoones team were themselves beneficiaries of the programme of land seizure. They were far from being objective academics. Did this invalidate their work? No, but it should lead any fair-minded observer to read their conclusions with some care and at least a degree of scepticism.
  2. While some of those who were given the land seized from white farmers have often gone on to make a go of farming and are now producing a surplus, the overall output of Zimbabwe’s agriculture has fallen. There is little point in quoting the growth in cotton and beans while ignoring other crops, like maize (as Kapanen does.) One has to look at the picture as a whole.
  3. If the new black African farmers were beneficiaries of the land seizures then there were certainly losers as well. Some were white farmers – some of whom had bought their farms entirely legally. But the largest number were the black farm-labourers and their families. As many as half a million may have lost out, since they lost their jobs and (because they had worked for whites) were seen as suspect and seldom got land in the redistribution process. Some ended in poverty in the rural areas, some moved to town and others left for South Africa. They are the forgotten victims of Mugabe’s “land reform” programme.
  4. Finally there is the question of whether it is the best use of land to split productive cattle ranches into small holdings. These may be productive when the rains come, but what when they fail? This area is notorious for its pattern of droughts. White farmers could sell off their herds and wait the drought out. Small-holders will be devastated.

These are some of the issues ignored in the Kapanen blog. It is a pity that these myths continue to be peddled as fact.