Black farmers: the untold story

Date: August 14 2002

By George Monbiot

The most evil man on earth, after Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, is Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. That, at least, is the view of most of the Western world's press. This week he insisted that 2900 white farmers will have to leave their land. He claims to be redistributing their property to landless peasants, but many of the farms he has seized have been handed instead to army officers and party loyalists. Twelve white farmers have been killed and many others beaten.

His assault on white-owned farms has been cited by influential Western newspapers as the principal reason for the current famine. Now, we are told, he is using food aid as a political weapon. As a candidate for the title of World's Third Most Evil Man, he appears to possess all the right credentials.

There is no doubt Mugabe is a ruthless and racist man, or that his policies are contributing to the further impoverishment of the Zimbabweans. But to suggest his land seizures are largely responsible for the nation's hunger is fanciful.

Though the 4500 white farmers there own two-thirds of of the best land, many of them grow not food, but tobacco. Seventy per cent of the nation's maize - its primary staple crop - is grown by black peasant farmers hacking a living from the marginal lands they were left by the whites.

The seizure of the white farms is both brutal and illegal. But it is merely one small scene in the tragedy now playing all over the world. Every year, tens of millions of peasant farmers are forced to leave their land, with devastating consequences for food security. For them there are no tear-stained descriptions of a last visit to the graves of their children. If they are mentioned at all, they are dismissed by most of the press as the necessary casualties of development.

Ten years ago, I investigated the expropriations being funded and organised in Africa by another member of the Commonwealth. Canada had paid for the ploughing and planting with wheat of the Basotu Plains in Tanzania. Wheat was eaten in that country only by the rich, but by planting that crop, rather than maize or beans or cassava, Canada could secure contracts for its chemical and machinery companies, which were world leaders in wheat technology.

The scheme required the dispossession of the 40,000 members of the Barabaig tribe. Those who tried to return to their lands were beaten by the project's workers, imprisoned and tortured with electric shocks. The women were gang-raped. For the first time in a century, the Barabaig were malnourished. When I raised these issues with one of the people running the project, she told me: "I won't shed a tear for anybody if it means development." The rich world's press took much the same attitude.

Now, yet another member of the Commonwealth, Britain, is funding a much bigger scheme in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Some 20 million people will be dispossessed. Again this atrocity has been ignored by most of the media.

These are dark-skinned people being expelled by whites, rather than whites being expelled by blacks. They are, as such, assuming their rightful place, as invisible obstacles to the rich world's projects. Mugabe is a monster because he has usurped the natural order.

Throughout the coverage of Zimbabwe there is an undercurrent both of racism and of regret that Britain ever let Rhodesia go. Some articles in the British newspapers may as well have been headlined "The plucky men and women holding darkest Africa at bay". Readers are led to conclude that Ian Smith was right all along: the only people who know how to run Africa are the whites.

But, through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the bilateral aid programs, with their extraordinary conditions, the whites do run Africa, and a right fist they are making of it.

Over the past 10 years, according the United Nation's latest human development report, the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than $US1 a day has risen from 242 million to 300 million. The more rigorously Africa's governments apply the policies demanded by the whites, the poorer their people become.

Just like Mugabe, the rich world has also been using "food aid as a political weapon". The United States has just succeeded in forcing Zimbabwe and Zambia, both suffering from the southern African famine, to accept genetically modified maize as food relief.

Both nations had fiercely resisted GM crops, partly because they feared they would grant multinational companies control over the food chain, leaving their people still more vulnerable to hunger. But the US, seizing the opportunity for its biotech firms, told them they must either accept this consignment or starve.

Malawi has also been obliged to take GM maize from the US, partly because of the loss of its own strategic grain reserve. In 1999, the IMF and the European Union instructed Malawi to privatise the reserve.

The private body was not capitalised, so it had to borrow from commercial banks to buy grain. Predictably enough, by 2001 it found it could not service its debt. The IMF told it to sell most of the reserve.

The private body sold it all, and Malawi ran out of stored grain just as its crops failed. The IMF, having learnt nothing from this catastrophe, continues to prevent that country from helping its farmers, subsidising food or stabilising prices.

The governments of the rich world do not like land reform. It requires state intervention, which offends the god of free markets, and it hurts big farmers and the companies that supply them. Indeed, it was Britain's refusal either to permit or to fund an adequate reform program in Zimbabwe that created the political opportunities Mugabe has so ruthlessly exploited. He manipulates the genuine frustrations of a dispossessed people.

The President of Zimbabwe is a very minor devil in the hellish politics of land and food. The sainted Nelson Mandela has arguably done just as much harm to the people of Africa, by surrendering his power to the IMF as soon as he had wrested them from apartheid.

By all means, let us condemn Mugabe's racist attacks on Zimbabwe's whites, but only if we are also prepared to condemn the far bloodier war that the rich world wages against the blacks.

George Monbiot ( is a columnist for The Guardian, London, where this article first appeared.

This article reprinted on the Koori History Website with the kind permission of the author.