Lies, damn lies and statistics. Or should I rather say, so much heart, so little reason.
My recent column regarding possible lessons South Africa could learn from Zimbabwe’s violent land redistribution provoked an awful lot of emotion.
Literally thousands of people reacted to it on Facebook, Twitter and the websites of newspapers.
I was truly astonished at the blind anger and irrationality of many of the reactions, even from otherwise well-informed and balanced people.
It was as if I wrote that Jacob Zuma was a neo-liberal feminist – it is so far removed from people’s perceptions that they couldn’t get their minds to actually engage with the topic.
It was pretty obvious that few of those who reacted in anger actually read the whole column.
It appears that people couldn’t read beyond the first few paragraphs where it was stated that perhaps the land grabs in Zimbabwe had “worked” because almost a quarter of a million households were now on the land, producing almost as much as the 6 000 white farmers before them had 13 years ago.
People couldn’t get their heads around that. The belief is clearly deeply entrenched that redistributing land on such a scale where black farmers replaced white ones would inevitably lead to disaster.
Some of the reactions showed that many believe that few black people actually have it in them to farm commercially.
I got the strong impression that failing black farms, and there are indeed many in Zimbabwe and South Africa, have become many white people’s main argument against land reform. If there’s evidence that it need not be a failure, these people resort to anger and insults.
My column was triggered by a new book, Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa and Teresa Smart. They say that Zimbabwe’s radical land redistribution had worked and agricultural production was on levels comparable to the time before the process started.
This was the work of 245 000 new black farmers working the land previously farmed by only 6 000 white farmers, the authors say.
I haven’t come across Manjengwa and Smart before, but I have read several of Hanlon’s other books on southern Africa and found him balanced and very well informed.
The information in the book surprised me, but after more research I saw that another British academic, Professor Ian Scoones of Sussex University, had come to similar conclusions after his research in Zimbabwe.
Most of those who reacted with much anger to my column preferred not to read my remarks about the price Zimbabwe had paid for the violent land grabs – the human rights violations, the instability, the severe damage to the economy, the massive brain drain.
An MDC politician said angrily that even if the information in the Hanlon book were correct, it would still not justify the violent way white farmers had been evicted from the land. I agree.
The majority of people who reacted to my column declared that the Zimbabwe model could never be applied in South Africa.
In fact, the whole second half of my column was saying just that, warning that such an event could ruin our economy and stability, even trigger a low-intensity civil war. How did they miss that?
I was bombarded with tons of statistics from many different sources, some dubious in the extreme, that appear to contradict the information given by the authors. The one set of statistics that seems to be incontrovertible states that there is still considerable food insecurity in Zimbabwe. The production of tobacco and cotton and the recent drought could have contributed to this.
I did not do a scientific study of agriculture in Zimbabwe. I have no way of telling what the real figures are. But I would be very, very surprised if respected, experienced academics and researchers like Hanlon and Scoones would put their credibility at risk, simply thumb-suck production figures and perpetrate blatant lies.
I think we should accept that, at the very least, the impression we in South Africa had that agriculture in Zimbabwe was still in a state of utter collapse after the land redistribution is wrong.
We should accept that a substantial number of new Zimbabwean farmers, big and small, are actually commercially successful.
That is significant, especially if one considers that a great historic wrong has been addressed and that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are now settled on the land of their ancestors.
It still doesn’t make the way the redistribution happened right. It still doesn’t make it a model for South Africa to copy.
It does mean we should make a mind shift around land reform. We should stop seeing it as a threat and start seeing it as a priority to redress past wrongs and further stability.
Land reform is about people, not merely about hectares and statistics.