Learn from the Venezuelan and Zimbabwe disasters

By Dr Eugene Brink

Someone recently told me that he didn’t really care what happens to land, because it does not belong to him. Such statements are not only ignorant and insensitive, but also very dangerous.

This person is obviously a city dweller from Pretoria, South Africa, with a home in a suburb. Why should he then care about a farmer’s used or unused land somewhere in the countryside? Or about people who invade state land in suburbs and start building houses there? Or about payments to claimants who never receive the land? Well, he should care. If he doesn’t feel strongly about it now, he will regret it later.

The reality is that the problems of the two most tragic contemporary case studies – Venezuela and Zimbabwe – both started with land. It later extended to all kinds of tyranny and calamities, but everything started with the violation of property rights and failed land reform. Eventually it became the whole country’s problem because people in cities like Caracas, Harare and Bulawayo also had to queue for food or go hungry because food was unavailable. The ANC uses these two disasters as a type of lodestar and model and regularly express their admiration for them. Deputy President David Mabuza recently visited Venezuela to show their support for the Venezuelan dictator Nicholás Maduro and his regime.

Zimbabwe

Land had been a thorny issue even before Robert Mugabe became President in 1980. “Land was a pressing issue,” writes historian Martin Meredith in The State of Africa. However, the transition from a white minority government to a black majority government was accompanied by the condition of “willing buyer and willing seller”. Mugabe reluctantly agreed at Lancaster House not to expropriate for ten years.

Paul Kenyon writes in his book Dictatorland: The men who stole Africa, that Mugabe had firmly placed this issue on the election agenda in 1990: “It makes absolute nonsense of our history as an African country that most of our arable and ranching land is still in the hands of our erstwhile colonisers.”

Mugabe, not bothered by international opinion, planned to obtain 13 million hectares – half of the white-owned farm land. Government already had access to half a million acres that it did not redistribute.

Farms were indeed transferred; however, the new owners displayed very little skill or willingness to learn. “They wanted trophy properties, and let them fall into disrepair, rearing up irrigation pipes to sell the lead, abandoning farm machinery, allowing the fields to revert to wilderness,” Kenyon writes. “Mugabe, with his degree in economics, knew that rendering fertile farmland unproductive made no economic sense, but this wasn’t about that; it was about rewarding the loyal, and punishing the old enemy.”

He later started distributing land to so-called “war veterans”. “We are going to take the land, and we are not going to pay a cent to any soul,” he roundly declared. The Zimbabwean Parliament was elated.

There isn’t room enough to relate everything that went awry from then on, but Zimbabwe is a textbook case of how land reform and land grabs can lead to complete catastrophe. Hyperinflation, food scarcity, a police state, international isolation, unaffordable fuel, grinding poverty and a complete loss of expertise as a result of emigration are just some of the many recent and current characteristics of Zimbabwe. Even if Mugabe and his comrades grabbed land “for free”, the whole Zimbabwe (and especially common people) eventually paid the price.

Venezuela

There are very few non-war-stricken countries so often in the news as Venezuela. Like Zimbabwe, things went shockingly awry there over the last 20 years. This can be traced back directly to a socialist dictator and government that wanted to occupy land and would have given it back to previously disadvantaged people. But, just like Zimbabwe, this land was never given back to “the people”: It was an enormous corrupt plot to benefit the regime and reward loyalists.

Venezuela was still the richest country in Latin America in the mid-80s. Hugo Chavez amended the constitution in 1999 to declare that the existence of large unused country estates (latifundios) were against the interests of society. Please note: The President decided what the interest of “society” (defined in whichever way) should be – and he basically equated the state to society.

Land grabbing were also incited; productive land was transformed into unproductive land so that it could also be taken. No title deeds were awarded to new farmers, despite promises that this would have been done. They received land on a tentative basis, and it could be taken back at any time.

Neither was land given to deserving people to farm, and agricultural production plummeted. By the mid-2010s people were standing in queues – à la Zimbabwe – to obtain food and other necessities. 80% of Venezuelans are urbanised and have no wish to farm but can neither obtain the daily necessities of an urban existence.

It was calculated that the hyperinflation in Venezuela reached 80 000% in 2018. You literally no longer know what you will be paying for something from one minute to the next.

South Africa and AfriForum

Although South Africa is nowhere near the levels of these countries, the citizenry cannot rest on its laurels. There are great perils in our midst. If our government said it was going to expropriate land without compensation, there should be an element of seriousness and truth to it, shouldn’t there? Mugabe was also not taken seriously everywhere, and we know what happened. And if they can take our land, why not also take other property (even legally)? Or commit other types of oppression? This happened in Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and this cannot be excluded as a possibility in South Africa. Our economy is already torpid, the fuel price has soared, and investors are currently very weary of President Ramaphosa’s empty promises.

The difference thus far between Venezuela and Zimbabwe on the one hand and South Africa on the other is that the first two never had an AfriForum. The Zimbabwean farmer Ben Freeth has acknowledged this frankly and often. In Zimbabwe opposition parties were weakened and cheated from the outset, and agricultural unions left it too late. In Venezuela, opposition parties were largely divided and weakened, and could not offer any unified resistance.

AfriForum recently started to oppose a land claim in Centurion that affects 2 000 families and several businesses. Government and the claimants want to force through a false claim, which boils down to theft. In the end, it is a corrupt ploy where civil servants team up with claimants to share the pay-out (compensation) of billions of rand (and for which the tax payers must foot the bill). Land, homes, tax money, core principles and even the stability of the country are at stake in this fight. If you thought that something like this does not affect you, I have hopefully convinced you that it is in everyone’s interest that such claims and land grabbing are not tolerated.

Dr Eugene Brink is Strategic Advisor for Community Affairs at AfriForum.

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