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Land Repossessions Were Disastrous for Zimbabwe. Will South Africa Repeat the Same Mistakes?

On March 6th, 2020, the government of Zimbabwe “gazetted new legislation under which former landowners may opt for repossession [of confiscated land] or monetary compensation [for confiscated land]. The new regulations will apply to indigenous farmers [i.e., Zimbabwean nationals] whose farms were appropriated, as well as to those whose land was [originally and supposedly] protected by bilateral treaties.” So reported press in South Africa (a country I shall return to below). For now, let me confess to mixed emotions. First, reports from Zimbabwe ought to be treated with skepticism. The rule of law in that country does not exist. So, whether the government gazettes a reasonable sounding legislation or not may prove to be irrelevant in the long run. Second, I am elated. I have been writing about the catastrophic moral and practical consequences of land expropriation in Zimbabwe for exactly two decades. The official reversal of “land-reform” in that country is a source of deep personal and professional satisfaction. Let me start there…

Beginning in 2000, the government of the late Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe abandoned its “right of first-refusal” land acquisition policy. Under that policy, Zimbabwean land holders who wanted to sell their land were first obliged to offer it to the government of Zimbabwe. If the government did not express an interest in buying that privately-held land, land holders were permitted to sell it on the open market. The ostensible goal of the “right of first refusal” policy was to gradually make land holding in Zimbabwe less “European” and more “African.” In practice, the land acquired by the government (and paid for by the British, as stipulated by the Lancaster House agreement in 1980) rarely went to ordinary Africans. More often than not, it was apportioned among Mugabe’s cronies. Refusing to be a party to corruption, the British ceased to pay for Zimbabwean land transfers early in Tony Blair’s premiership. Citing British cessation of payments, Mugabe started to expropriate private land holders without compensation.

That was, at best, a partial reason for Mugabe’s homespun land reform. Politics also played a role. Toward the end of the 1990s, the opposition to Mugabe’s economic mismanagement, human rights abuses and epic corruption grew in strength. When he lost a nationwide referendum on a new constitution in 1999 that would have extended his already considerable powers even further, Mugabe realized that a defeat in the next election was very likely. By expropriating the mostly European commercial farmers who formed the financial backbone of the largely African opposition “Movement for Democratic Change,” he intended to entrench himself in office. In that he succeeded spectacularly. Mugabe continued to rule over Zimbabwe until a soft military coup removed him from office in 2017. He died in a private Singaporean hospital in 2019. He was 95 years old.

The frontal attack on property rights of the country’s European farmers wiped out much of Zimbabwe’s export earnings and sent destructive ripples throughout the rest of the economy. Land titles became worthless and could not serve as collateral. The banking sector seized up. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe stepped in and unleashed the printing presses. What followed was the second greatest hyperinflation in history that is estimated to have reached 90 sextillion percent in 2008. The prices doubled every 24.7 hours and the Zimbabwean dollar had to be replaced by the US dollar. Living standards plummeted to levels last seen in the 1950s. The average life expectancy for men fell to 37 years and for women to 34 years due to combined effects of Mugabe’s death squads, grinding poverty, outbreaks of cholera, and an unchecked spread of HIV/AIDS. Unemployment skyrocketed to between 85 percent and 90 percent, and Zimbabwe became a failed country.

Throughout the first decade of this century, a small group of economists and policy analysts, myself included, continued to shine the light on the happenings in Zimbabwe. For our trouble, we were sometimes dismissed as defenders of imperialism and, even, painted as racists. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that a substantial number of the European land holders (possibly a majority) bought their farms after Mugabe came to power and could not have been, therefore, accused of unjust acquisition of land; that the European farmers provided employment for hundreds of thousands of African workers; and, finally, that the crushing majority of the people who suffered from the negative consequences of Mugabe’s “land reform” were Africans. The reason for that massive blindspot on the part of our detractors was very simple: The welfare of ordinary Africans was never a priority for the legions of Mugabe’s defenders in the African Union, the United Nations, and Western academia. To Mugabe, “land reform” was about staying in office where he was not wanted. To his defenders it was about extinguishing the legacy of colonialism–consequences be damned.

As I noted before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy in 2010, “Robert Mugabe and the criminal organization that surrounds him would not have lasted a year, had it not been for the explicit support given to them by South Africa and most, but not all, of the powers in the region… The governments of South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola… ought to be condemned for enabling the orgy of violence and destruction in Zimbabwe to continue. Their decision to hold on to the outdated concept of solidarity between the so‐called African ‘liberation movements,’ while ignoring the clearly expressed desire of the Zimbabwean people for change is a sad testament to the self‐serving and venal nature of much of the contemporary African ruling elite.”

Fast forward to August 2018, when I found myself on Fox News to discuss, mirabile dictu, a recent proposal by South Africa’s government to expropriate South Africa’s landholders without compensation. (The government is constituted of the leftist African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the trade unions.) The points I made to my host, Tucker Carlson, were the same points that I have been making about the mess in Zimbabwe for close to two decades–verbatim. I explicitly recognized the crimes of apartheid (I am, after all, a classical liberal who believes in equality of all people before the law) and I endorsed South Africa’s restitution program, which compensates people dispossessed by apartheid with land or money. That said, I also noted that by destroying private property rights, South Africa’s government was about to embark on a catastrophic repetition of Zimbabwe’s mistakes that must and will result in destroying Africa’s greatest and most sophistical economy, and reduce its 55 million people (though not its governing communist elite) to penury.

I thought the interview went well. Boy, was I mistaken! Unbeknownst to me, the current occupant of the Oval Office watched the show and tweeted his endorsement of the interview. Unfortunately, he also embellished the show’s content with his own views on South Africa’s farm murders that, for the record, Tucker Carlson and I did not discuss. Be that as it may, within 12 hours of the interview, I found myself in the middle of a vicious media storm, with outlets on two continents screaming “racism.” Mercifully, I survived. Today, I am happy to take a bit of professional satisfaction in seeing the Zimbabwean land expropriations (officially) reversed. For me, the matter is now closed. I only wish I could say the same about the hundreds of thousands of ruined Zimbabweans–whatever their color may be. Those broken lives will not be made whole that easily. Unfortunately, as one battlefront winds down, a new one is revving up. The matter of South African land expropriations is, remarkably and sadly, upon us. Let the battle commence.


Marian L. Tupy is Editor of HumanProgress and a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.  

Feature image: Zimbabwe farmer Jenny Gibson with her farm manager Darwindale, July 2000.  Photo: Peter Jordan / Alamy


  1. Thanks for an informative article! But:-

    “Unbeknownst to me, the current occupant of the Oval Office watched the show and tweeted his endorsement of the interview.”

    Now, who could that possibly be? Someone whose name cannot be spoken? Jehovah? Sauron? Voldemort? Ayesha? The Presidential dog or cat? I wonder…

  2. Why is Trump made out to be a jerk for mentioning farm murders? Whether or not they were part of the author’s interview with Carlson, they are a part of the issue. No matter how horrific the farm murders reported, the country’s ANC government has never said a single word of sympathy. It removed the commandos that used to protect the farms. It still sings Kill the Boer. It also did all it could to protect Mugabe, pronouncing every rigged election “free and fair”.

  3. The current SA situation is very much analogous to that of Zim when ‘radical’ political solutions were used to shore up a crumbling regime.

    SA is bankrupt. Economic growth is negative in real per capita terms.

    In both cases the de facto single-party state is doubling down on essentially anti-colonial (anti-white) rhetoric - ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘decolonisation’ of education, ‘radical economic transformation’, land restitution (which is purely race based and of dubious historical accuracy).

    The real problem is the state failure - rising costs of a flourishing and unproductive public sector, failing state owned entities (SOE’s), entrenched corruption and stagnant economy.

    All of these are easily blamed on the political philosophy of the liberation party which is a hangover from USSR support - west/white/capitalism bad; east/black/communism good.

    When this doesn’t bear fruit in practice then we double down because we’re not trying hard enough.

    It’s hard to see a good outcome here apart from complete immolation followed by regrowth from the ashes through more practical policy (see Rwanda for example). There is no way to exit without losing face and in a one party state power at any cost works.

  4. Whilst it might be fair to say faith in institutions in the West is at an all-time low, often with good cause, it is also worthwhile to ponder that most Western institutions- however tarnished in the current era- also possess the embedded wisdom and virtue of centuries of operational functionality.

    If our institutional terrain is now governed by self-interest and the pursuit of narrow ideological goals, the landscape is girded by Rubicons that it is still unthinkable to cross- perhaps one small area where partisanship actually serves us well, given the criticism which violating unspoken taboos is sure to bring.

    Unfortunately, Africa possesses no such institutional inheritance to draw upon. Worse still, often the cultures technologies which the West spread throughout the world can be seen as tainted for no better reason than they are European in origin. It’s a shame, because these cultural technologies, distinct from culture, are usually the best and only way to add to the common wealth of any country’s citizenry. One wouldn’t reject universal education or Western medicine out of hand for no good reason- it’s unfortunate that the benefits of property rights, an independent judiciary and limited government are more easily cast aside.

  5. Trump is a jerk! No doubt about that. Anybody who said the truth is a jerk! :rofl:

    PS. The truth is so ugly, the truth is microaggression, the truth should be wiped out - we have to live in the safe space.

    PPS. I think that every Policy Analyst should participate in a daily Two Minutes Hate of Trump. This is a guarantee of the preservation of the workplace.

  6. Group vengeance is so useless as legal policy. There is no living person who belongs to a group that can’t be found to have wronged some other group. In South Africa I surmise the most recent victims are Afrikaans, wronged by Boers. What tribes were there before the Boers? Who did the various Afrikaans suppressed by the Boers defeat themselves? We can’t go back in time and make everybody whole. Living victims of specific personal wrongdoing should have recourse under law. But that would require an actual crime beyond membership in a group. Every ideological conflict shouldn’t revolve around America’s experience, but America’s experience provides a handy example. No modern blacks were slaves, and no modern Americans owned slaves. Taking from any living American to compensate the descendants of slaves is gross injustice. And that injustice is compounded if the recipient doesn’t have a direct ancestral link to a slave, or if the robbed citizen isn’t directly related to a former slaveholder, apart from skin color or nationality.

  7. The tragedy of the decolonized Africa: land as a property that can be worked on by farmers behaving just like other enterprisers, protected by federal or national laws, is a European invention. In Africa, until about 100 yrs ago(so, relatively recent, culturally spoken), land was a needed condition for food and support , to be granted by the chief, a large family was given (for one growing season) the right to plough and harvest a much larger piece than a young mother with 1 child. The peasant could also plant fruit or nut trees, these were individual property of the planter, whatever happened lateron with that piece of land (as I found out to my dismay, when an African stepped on my lawn to pick the bananas of my (I thought) banana tree, happily my gardener told me that, following local law, the tree was his. No more fight, we all were laughing, he went with his bananas.

    But Africa now is no more a collection of traditional countries of mainly selfsupporting farmers. Colonial, western ideas and culture and laws have overrun the continent, but I still see the heritage as of old. Of course , this has to go wrong, it all has been explained by a Russian agronomist, Alexander Chayanov, who came with his concept of the differentiated optimum to produce and manage. For a farmer used to work with a hoe, an ox drawn plough or a tractor, these optima are something like 3, 15 or 300 acres per farm, resp., (which has to be adjusted for the type and amount of tractors and soils and other means). But this is not yet understood in many african nations, the idea is, land should be private property, with a proper title deed, just like in Europe and the US thus, whether sold or given out, and worked by tractors to have a decent income (the optimum for the hoe farmer is 2 dollars per day worked).
    In Zambia, plots (bordering the Chinese railway) of a minimum of 1200 acres had been given out to prospective farmers (who needed more than 1 tractor to work these plots), not only to white, European and Afrikaner farmers, also to local Zambians. I visited (on a mission for the worldbank) a few of these Zambians, the farmers were working only 10 or 20 acres by ox drawn equipment, and harvested with their 2 or 3 wives and 15 children, that was the optimum, the remaining 1180 acres was under bushland and shrubs. We asked the farmer about this waste, he was not amused, but defended his approach with: for later, to divide among my children, who then might work with a tractor (not very likely, they all rush to the cities when old enough).Oh, oh, oh, how long will the misery and uncertainty and denying of Chayanov’s laws throw their shadows on , especially, Southern African nations. Not perpetually I think, because, people have to eat, and land has to produce, by whatever means and whatever production situations, be this by hoe or by tractor.

    Edit lateron: in case nobody comes with it, I’ll put this burning question (to myself then): what hell were you doing in dark Africa, commissioned by that western (US) and powerful Worldbank? Who and what was behind that? And what for? There is not a day that I’m not asking myself such questions, even if they are decades old now already.

  8. South Africa is complicated. The original peoples are Khoi/San - (‘bushmen’ ) (who apparently have some Neanderthal DNA). They were mostly pushed into marginal desert areas by the Bantu and European tribes and decimated by smallpox in the SW of SA. The Khoisan culture is almost completely gone, but genetically they make up 40% of the “Cape Coloured” community.

    The majority population group now (80%) is Bantu - expansion - originally from West Africa who met the European tribes in the SE of SA in the 1600-1800’s. The Bantu didn’t get to the SW tip of Africa before European settlement there due to the winter rainfall regime disagreeing with staple crops.

    The SA bantu tribes are surprisingly recent. The majority Zulu tribe was established by conquest (Shaka Zulu) only in the early 1800’s, co-incident with the (white) Afrikaners’ migration from the SW (Cape Town) areas into the broader South African interior.

    The original European Cape settlement was a Dutch East India Company half-way house in 1652. Subsequent to that the British settled and colonized, fighting both the Zulus and the Afrikaners in pretty brutal wars - eg

    There were of course many pragmatic collaborations - the Khoisan fought with the British against the bantu Xhosa tribes in the Eastern cape and there were various alliances between the Brits and various bantu tribes, and also between the Boers and various bantu tribes.

    It’s complicated :stuck_out_tongue:

    Then there was Apartheid.

  9. In Afrikaans it’s “wynplase”, so pretty close :stuck_out_tongue:

    There are two angles here. Firstly the farm-workers who have lived across generations on the farms without land title (serf model). There are many endeavours towards communal ownership and land title but I’m not hugely familiar with them.

    Then there is a bunch of settlement (squatting) on open land, sometimes farmland, by internal immigration from the rural homelands in the Eastern Cape. This is trickier to handle.

    In terms of the original post-Apartheid land restitution process, 90% of successful claimants opt for cash rather than land, presumably because people are more attracted to modern urban life. Unfortunately this does not change the demographics of the current land ownership, and has led to some cases of multiple pay-outs for the same land. In general it’s very difficult to demonstrate historical ownership and ancestry from a time before the written word, and even before the concept of private ownership.

  10. Trump could announce that tomorrow is Sunday, and the NYT-Twitternazis would howl about how Sundays are Racist White Supremacy Racist Patriarchy Trans-Homophobic Misogynist Bigoted and Racist and dictated by Putin and should not be normalized.

  11. Good to see you appreciate my story, Eli, in fact, also am happy to be able to share these remembrances here where at times it is noted and upvoted. If I tell similar stories to friends or family, there is no interest whatso-ever, Africa? that’s really too far off to gain any serious interest or curiosity. But everybody having lived or worked there, carries this history with him/her for the rest of his life, without much chance to share it and discuss things any further with others.

  12. That one is a big no. Stop and frisk worked. And should be restarted. The policy is actually stop, question and frisk. When most crime is coming from one demographic it is neither surprising nor wrong that this demographic features more prominently in law enforcement actions. It is not racism, it is evidence of the cops doing their job.

  13. Gerrymandering does not cause a lack of polling places.

    As for African-Americans, they generally prefer the Democratic Party, so of course Republicans will try to gerrymander to their disadvantage because they are Democrats, not because they are black. If a black neighborhood tends to vote Republican (yeah, right), then that same gerrymandering works to their benefit. Again, no racist intent.

  14. I have a unique perspective on Zimbabwe, where I lived for about 5 years from 1983 and then visited regularly for professional reasons until 2003. I emigrated to Zim from a state in the US Intermountain region and arrived in Harare as a volunteer blissfully unaware of the racial history of the country and only slightly more knowledgeable about the bitter Bush War that had just ended. I was full of E.F. Schumacher “small is beautiful” and Wendell Berry farmer-poet thinking, and truly believed I could “make a difference,” but when I moved away at long last, I was severely educated about all that, good and hard. Zimbabwe is what happens when the social justice warriors are allowed to take their ideology to its vanishing point.

    During those years, we lived at a rural location west of Bulawayo, and at night, we often heard Alouette helicopters fly low overhead and sometimes, in the dark distance, we heard the rattle of guns. Whispered rumours swirled about killings by government soldiers in the nearby tribal trust lands and counter-killings by Ndebele dissidents. On my trips to town, I often passed army vehicles filled with North Korean trained 5th Brigade troops in their distinctive red berets. White farms were attacked, African villages were attacked, and whenever I drove home from Bulawayo, especially if it was in the early evening, I thought how I should react if I hit a land mine buried in the sand road or to a dissident kneeling in the road with an Ak-47 aimed at me.

    We carried a brooding sense of foreboding whenever we traveled. Something might happen at any time, because things were happening all the time. Not far from where we lived was a place called Adam’s Farm, where whites and blacks attempted to live together cooperatively. I can no longer remember many details about the farm, but I vividly remember when it was attacked. People were captured, locked in a shed, and over the course of several days, were taken from the shed one at a time, and hacked to death. Butchered. One young girl was left alive to tell the story.

    Once, I transported a load of medical supplies to a remote clinic south of Figtree. After a few kilometers beyond the main Bulawayo-Plumtree highway, I stopped to chat with an African foreman from a nearby white-owned farm. He was driving a gray Peugeot 404 pickup (in those days, you could get a Peugeot any color you wanted, as long as it was gray) and on the seat beside him was an ex-Rhodesian military FN rifle, of the type all farmers carried when they traveled. He warned that dissidents might be in the area, and a few kilometers later, I saw smoke from a village burning near the road. At the clinic, I was warned to take another route home, which I did and I arrived uneventfully. The next morning, a friend called with the news that the foreman had been ambushed and killed and all the men and boys in the village I passed were burned to death when they were barricaded in one of the dwellings.

    I have many more stories that are variations on these and I think about them from time to time when I read about current events in Zimbabwe. I befriended many Zimbabweans, black and white, during my years there and none of them, not a single person, had an ideological axe to grind. They just wanted to get on with their lives, enjoy the occasional sundowner, and hope for a better life for their children in a good and decent Zimbabwe. Alas, that never happened and there is no reason to believe it can happen. Zimbabwe is what results when idealists unsullied by reality (Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young) abet proto-SJW Antifa despots like Mugabe and his ilk. There is never social justice; there is always facism. Zimbabwe is how America will look if people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad have their way. It is not a matter of intent; now it is simply a lack of opportunity.

    I might have one more Zim visit left in me, because I once promised my daughter I would take her to the city of her birth, Bulawayo, if Mugabe ever died, and he finally did, so I owe her but I am not happy at the prospect. Rhodesia died and Zimbabwe was murdered. To go there now is to attend the wake.

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