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By Christopher Coyle
With much of the world's present focus concerning Africa concentrated on the Darfur region in the Sudan, other senseless tragedies that are also occurring on the continent are seemingly given less notice. One such example is the ever-quickening economic collapse of Zimbabwe under president Robert Mugabe, a man who is proposing even more reckless and disastrous policies for a country he is desperately trying to keep under his tyrannical rule. Following in the footsteps of other wildly successful economies such as the former Soviet Union, Mao's China, Cuba, and North Korea, Mr. Mugabe now wishes to finalize his "land reform" program by nationalizing all land in the country and thereby abolishing private property. His original plan called for the confiscation of all private land (without compensation) and the leasing it back to the citizens with the proceeds obviously going to Mr. Mugabe's state coffers. Backtracking slightly on this, the new plan calls for the nationalization only of the land taken through the land reform program, yet this slightly scaled back socialization of Zimbabwe will still only hasten the destruction of what was once a breadbasket of the continent.
The land reform program, which took its current shape in 2000, involved the appropriation of Zimbabwe's 4,000 white-owned farms and the eviction of its white owners in order to redistribute the land to the native black population to rectify the theft of lands taken by English colonizers in the late 19th century. Despite whatever injustices that took place in the past, the effects of the current policy have been only to impoverish this once prosperous land and its people, both black and white. The process itself has been a bloody one with scores of white farm owners and their black workers having been beaten up or even murdered in some cases. Though 200,000 blacks have received land from this program, they have been hard pressed to obtain loans from the government agricultural bank to purchase to supplies they need to farm the land. The revocation of ownership will do nothing to help them obtain loans from any private sources. Furthermore, much of the prime farm land has gone, not to poor blacks, but to the ruling ZANU-PF party leaders and supporters in a blatant example of government cronyism, who lack the knowledge or ability to utilize the land efficiently, resulting in fallow fields devoid of crops.
Now with the nationalization of all confiscated white-owned farmed land, the blatant intentions of Mr. Mugabe can readily be seen, if they were not already. The land reform program, under the pretenses to help poor, black Zimbabweans, was only one step by the leader of Zimbabwe to maintain his own power and shore up his financial troubles at all costs, regardless of the pain and suffering which ordinary Zimbabweans must go through in the process. Just as he has used food as a political weapon in order in influence elections (as well as endless intimidation of the those supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change), land can now enter the realm of political patronage to a more effective degree than before.
And there is no denying the costs of such a politicization of society. Hundreds of thousands of black farm laborers employed by white farm owners have been thrown out of work at a time when more than half of the population is unemployed. Inflation is rampant, running at over 400 percent. In order to combat this inflation, the government implemented price controls on basic food stuffs, discouraging the growing of corn, the essential food for survival in the country, in favor of tobacco, which was itself once a prime export from the country, but has been stifled with the demise of property rights in the country.
The obvious result of such a misguided policy has been massive shortages, which has culminated in the making of a humanitarian crisis. Over the past two years, half the population has had to rely of imported food aid in order to survive. Yet this year, miraculously, Mr. Mugabe has declared that there is no need for any humanitarian food aid. This is despite the fact that farmers this year were unable to increase the planting of wheat compared to last year's already low harvest, which in itself comes no where close to meeting the country's needs. The United Nations believes that about 5 million Zimbabweans will need aid next year.
The Zimbabwe economy shows all the symptoms of a runaway, also known as a crack-up, boom, the final stages of a complete monetary and economic collapse, if they do not turn away from their massive credit expansion and transition to complete socialism. Direct foreign investment, which reached over $400 million in 1998, is now virtually naught. Investors are racing to invest in any real assets they can as hyperinflation and artificially depressed interest rates decreases demand for currency, which in itself is extremely overvalued by decree in its exchange rate with the dollar. Others, including the highly productive white farmers now without farm land, are racing out of the country to the delight of Zimbabwe's neighbors.
Agriculture is not alone in feeling the effects of Harare's disastrous economic policies. Industry in general is declining as fast as farm yields; businesses, especially those who are not supportive of the ruling party, find bankruptcy has their only option. National output and real incomes are falling as the national government struggles with large budget deficits of its own making.
Thus is the story, one sadly repeated too many times, of a once prospering country thriving under market-oriented reforms crashing into the ground under the foot of a dictator bent on strengthening the grip of his own power at the expense of the people. It just provides further evidence, if it is still needed, of socialism as a destroyer of economies and the people living in them, yet a successful creator of government oppression with the means of lording other those people. What is depressing is the fact that this suffering is entirely unnecessary. What is frightening is the fact that America (or anyone else for that matter), if it follows Zimbabwe's example of turning its back on free markets, private property, and economic law, can just as easily follow the same path towards economic destruction.
Christopher Coyle is the president of The Liberty Coalition at the University of Virginia.
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