What is freedom? It depends. In Southern Africa settler colonialism and Apartheid defined freedom in terms of land. The very definition of “settler” placed a premium on land possession and elevated its conquest in terms of a world view. The dispossession of natives of their land elevated the cause of its recovery into a struggle for freedom. Accordingly, the struggle for independence and freedom in Southern Africa became a confrontation of settler and native world views that defined land as freedom.
The African attachment to land is legendary. Land is physical and spiritual. It nourishes the body and the psyche. In the African metaphysics, a person never truly dies. We exist amongst our ancestors; they are our spiritual guides who pave the way for us. This brings the spiritual element to land, where the bodies of our ancestors are buried whilst they exist with us in spirit. The ancestral land is a site for life and death, as a result.
But it turns out Europeans are also “sentimental” about land. Colonial conquest in the Americas, Australia, and Southern Africa where “settler” states were established, and the violent manner it was established, is ample evidence of the premium that Europeans place on land – albeit in material terms.
This world view was preserved by brute force everywhere, including in Southern Africa. Settlers could claim as much land as they desired. Naturally, they targeted the most productive arable land. Natives thus uprooted from their ancestral lands were bundled into Bantustans – Settlements for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
In Zimbabwe the settlers thrived. They established lucrative commercial agriculture and benefited from the links the colonial state could establish for them with markets in America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The settlers could count itself among the wealthiest communities enjoying some of the highest standards of living at par with the richest countries in the world. In Zimbabwe they built exclusive communities with some of the most advanced health and education facilities.
But the obscene inequality was one thing. Absentee land lords with residency in Europe, mostly Britain, held swathes of idle land. Natives who attempted to cultivate the land could be charged with trespassing, in a display of unfettered greed and contempt.
In other words, they build on the freedom the land provided them to expand this very definition of freedom. If land could deliver that much freedom for settlers, was there a cause greater for liberation?
Land became the key point of agitation for independence. The fact that settlers were – like in South Africa – willing to give up political power on condition that they remain with the land offers a glimpse into its utility as an instrument of freedom.
From the perspective of the liberation movement, land gave content to the independence struggle. It also gave content to resistance, from the settler perspective. The competing world views around land, freedom, and independence gave context to the conflagration of zero-sum dimensions: He who has land has freedom. In other words, the pursuit of freedom became a zero-sum game in Zimbabwe (and South Africa).
What such a conception did was to elevate the land question into a high stakes game of life and its preservation. In Zimbabwe, it invited the interest of Britain, partly as its former colony and largely out of racial – and familial – solidarity with settlers.
The land issue in the Lancaster House negotiations were, for instance, an effort to get the settlers and natives to reconceive land in non zero-sum terms. This is why Britain’s turn around to renege on its promise to pay for the “willing buyer-willing seller” compromise, was a short sighted victory on the part of the settlers: While this preserved freedom (land) for settler, it delayed it for the native.
Significantly, Britain also failed to appreciate that in so doing it was also withdrawing independence precisely because the native quest for independence was conceived in terms of land repossession, and so without the land the content of independence would collapse and retain only its cosmetic aspects.
The post-colonial Zimbabwean state under ZANU-PF was left with a contradiction of enormous proportions, of having to agitate against itself for independence. The longer it took to iron out this contradiction, the more it faced a loss of credibility, and the more it felt compelled to prove its credentials as a genuine liberation movement that was still committed to the people’s aspirations for freedom – the land.
However, with every move to prove itself worthy would be counter measures that threatened its very survival. Moreover, whether it pulled the trigger with immediate effect or delayed also had its implications: political, economic, diplomatic, and even military. If it pulled the trigger immediately, it exposed itself to, at best, economic sanctions and, at worst, military intervention. If it waited too long, the opposition gain and exploit from the subsequent receding credibility.
A series of events in line with the above threats transpired: the land was sized, sanctions declared, and Britain mulled military action – supported by Botswana’s president at the time and denied by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, respectively the countries that were to provide rear base – to take out Mugabe.
Mugabe stood firm, courageous, and undeterred. If Mugabe was still fighting over land, a condition of independence as identified by his people, then the war of independence was still on going. In this regard Zimbabwe might as well have gained independence in 2000 rather than 1970.
Mugabe leaves behind a legacy of a liberator who delivered independence and freedom in the very terms they defined them: the land. Land was the greatest aspiration of his people in his lifetime. He exits triumphantly having imposed his people’s world view over that of the settlers in a heated contestation for freedom. Like the settlers had done for themselves, future generations of Zimbabweans now have a chance to broaden the definition of freedom and independence in line with the aspirations of their times.
If land was not freedom, ZANU-PF would reverse the policy in order to appease settler interests and have the sanctions removed to revive Zimbabwe’s economy. However, trading away freedom for the economy would only serve to accelerate its demise. Indeed, the irony of history is that the greatest opportunity for Zimbabwe’s leading opposition party, MDC, to wrestle power from ZANU-PF is by declaring in unequivocal terms that it is committed to, and will not tamper with, Mugabe’s land policy.
But can it afford to do this without finding itself in the same shoes that ZANU-PF is wearing now? In other words, the challenge before MDC is to reinvent itself as a defender and guarantor – as Mugabe was for the natives and Britain for the settlers – of the people’s conception of freedom: the land.
Africans yearn for freedom. Yet, they can’t seem to notice the freedom fighter in their midst. Mugabe didn’t define freedom for his people. He only delivered it in the terms they defined it. That’s a hero.