Magazine | June 24, 2019, Issue

Land and Demagogy in Africa

Sand blows across a normally submerged area at Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, January 20, 2018. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
An author’s up-close view of how disregarding property rights entrenches misery

In starting to confiscate land from white farmers without compensation, the South African government is acting in one of Africa’s most destructive patterns. But to make that case I need the testimony of a most special inside-outsider, who died a number of years ago.

My friend John Broom, white and British-born, was a partner in the Zimbabwean branch of Deloitte & Touche, and then a long-term exile to South Africa and the finance director of the Quaker Peace Center. In 2000, shortly after the Zimbabwean farm invasions began, he nudged me into visiting his modest apartment in a Cape Town suburb: He had things he needed to say to me. Arriving, I found he had a small album lying ready on a table. It was a folder for business cards, more than a hundred of them from the Eighties, and he invited me to page through while he explained what this and that card represented.

Some of the businesses would have been small and ordinary — a picture-framing service and a gift shop, for example. The cards of individuals whose lines of work I couldn’t have identified on my own proved far more interesting. This guy, said John, was an engineer overseas, an expert in processing gold. He explained that, as a rule, Africa controlled too few stages in the addition of value to the raw commodities it produced. Gold, a big part of this natural wealth, was a painful example. Why couldn’t there be a broad-based jewelry trade in a place like Zimbabwe?

John was one of those people who know everybody’s business. He was talking to me because he knew I was stringing for a South African investigative magazine that I found too politically correct (it even supported President Thabo Mbeki in his AIDS denial) and also publishing in conservative journals back in the States. I was going to listen to him about the essential post-liberation role of capitalism.

About the gold processor, God alone knows how John had connected the dots over thousands of miles, but the 1979 end of the black–white civil conflict in Rhodesia, which turned it into liberated Zimbabwe and saw the lifting of international sanctions, coincided with the retirement of this man, whose wife wanted him out of the kitchen. He had agreed to set up shop in Zimbabwe if John would write him the business plan and obtain a license from the new government.

Two decades later, John outlined to me the magnificent possibilities this entailed: Africans trained to make jewelry from alloys of African gold, a nice short supply chain, indigenous designs, easy access to the tourist market, skilled crafts and profits spreading all kinds of opportunity, international fixed investment that would promote political stability. Foreigners with money in the financial markets of the developing world whipped that money away at the first sign of trouble and didn’t give a hoot. Those who built factories and hotels and malls had a stake to defend and leverage with governments prone to despotism.

John’s masterpiece of a plan, among those memorialized in the folder, had been for mining an important constituent of paint. The mineral had been found in abundance at a Zimbabwean site, but the mine would be capital-intensive. John had enticed the German government into pledging enough in development funds to cover the entire initial investment.

Rhodesia’s racist regime, which had more or less dug in its heels against liberation fighters instead of gradually negotiating away from its unsustainable position the way the South African apartheid leaders did, presided over an economy as backward as itself. It was mostly about very large-scale farming, with black workers attached to the land almost like serfs (if they were lucky enough to be working at all) — and functioning at a nearly feudal level of efficiency. Many of John’s accounting clients had been white farmers, and one of these confided to him that to have a tractor driver available whenever one was needed, he had to keep five drivers living on his land, so poor was their motivation. A build-up of productivity, compensation, expertise, commitment, collaboration — human capital, in other words — was impossible. A modern industry, such as high-tech mining, would be a godsend for improving ordinary lives.

It all did sound wonderful. But obviously none of it had happened. “So all of these were serious, pending investments?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. There was all kinds of interest. It could have been the most exciting country in Africa. South Africa was still stuck in its conflict. I wrote a business plan for each of these entities. The money, the experience, it was all ready.”

“So what happened?”

“I submitted all the plans to the new government. I was helping out in the finance department myself. I was also promoting the Young Farmers Association. The country needed smaller-scale, more diversified commercial farming; but blacks needed skills and loans and technical support to make a go of it.”

“How many of the business plans were approved?”


“Not one?”


“What did the government tell you?”

“Not much. After a year, I could see that they weren’t ever going to act. They even withdrew their support for the Young Farmers Association. They didn’t want to put their power at risk. A large middle class, a professional class, would have voted them out. I eventually left — I was divorced by that time — just packed the car full, because I wasn’t allowed to take anything else out of the country, and came down to South Africa, because I’d always wanted to learn to paint. But then African and Indian and Coloured people found out what I used to do and asked for my help, so I started teaching accounting.”

“But I can’t get my mind around this — what the government was up to, I mean. They had to know they’d run the country into the ground that way.”

“The leaders didn’t care. All they wanted was to stay in office.”

I went home and made notes, told anyone who would listen about the en-counter. But I couldn’t find an editor who was interested.

It came to seem to me later that it’s not as simple as liberation leaders’ preferring to rule over rubble and ashes rather than give up power. The worst ones, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, are afraid of arrest and trial once the protection of the army falls away. But in another sense, the resistance to diversified international investment is a wheel within a wheel of misrule.

Whether the resistance takes the form of corruption, or legal uncertainty, or fiscal frivolity (the post-apartheid government in South Africa spent billions of dollars on attack helicopters, fighter planes, and warships it will never conceivably need), or incitement of or indifference to medium-scale property invasions (common in South Africa), or mute intransigence (such as John encountered in Zimbabwe), or something else, the results can have an eventual upside for the rulers.

In a modernizing economy, people leave the land and forget about it as they thrive in cities and suburbs. The invisible hand of the marketplace sorts out the tiny percentage of people who are farmers by talent and temperament. But in a paralyzed or deteriorating economy, land is the demagogues’ trump card: the soil that sustenance and wealth immemorially came from; the old grievances of colonial dispossession; the rural employment arrangements of extreme inequality, stuck in place like so much else. Land is the perfect bait to divert people’s rational hopes into fantasies of recovering a golden age of freedom and natural plenty, before whites arrived.

The intense nostalgia for land that can be whipped up during the artificial frustration of people’s natural aspirations brings the despot’s ultimate goal into view: to redefine reality at whim. This has always been hard in Africa, where technology and communications lag. But ways can be found.

Not long after my conversation with John, I found in a church newsmagazine covering central and southern Africa an article by a Mugabe operative. She claimed that the Zimbabwean farm invasions were — though the term didn’t exist at the time — fake news. She warned against crediting the footage of farm invasions, which she claimed were staged as part of an international press conspiracy; those wounds and mutilations could well have been painted on, Hollywood-style. I lit into the magazine’s editor and the church leadership with pleas for decency, truth, mercy — or, failing these, concern for the church’s reputation. But the article was never repudiated. I simply had, I was told, to respect the way people felt.


Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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