This week’s vote in the Parliament of South Africa to seize white-owned land without compensation shook world headlines. The most stunning part is that Julius Malema of the recently founded Economic Freedom Fighters party introduced the bill. The African National Congress supported it fully. However, Malema was recently a strong supporter of ousted President Jacob Zuma, but then he seemed to switch loyalties in 2012 and the ANC expelled him.

Since then, Malema promotes such left-wing populist causes as seizing white-owned land. He continues to gather headlines with colorful language about slitting white throats and crushing Afrikaner heritage. The worst slaughter in South Africa’s history was due to “Africa’s Attila” Shaka Zulu and his successor Dingane. This fact is no secret to almost all South Africans. The genocidal Mfecane or “dispersal” is a thing of pride for some in the Zulu nation. That white Afrikaner farmers settled on the depopulated lands afterward was an unpredictable consequence.

Similarly unpredicted is that they allowed Malema to bring his bill to a vote. But it does show he is not the revolutionary enemy of the ANC he’s made himself out to be. Rather, Malema is a creature of the new President, billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa. The South African President is treading a dangerous path very similar to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

To be sure, Ramaphosa insists that South Africa “will not do what Zimbabwe did”, which is to seize land in a violent manner, throwing the country into a death spiral.

But the process that he has sworn to honor is beginning the same way it was done in Zimbabwe and looks set to follow the same course. Let’s look back at Zimbabwe’s actions for guidance.

In 1980, Robert Mugabe came to power with agreement from white landowners who supported the previous Rhodesian apartheid government. In exchange, the whites would be left undisturbed with their possessions, but agreed to slowly sell land at market prices to black farmers, for which the British government would cover half the cost.

By 1999, Mugabe was approaching 20 years of rule in Zimbabwe. However, his rule was shaking from disputes in the army, mining strikes, and corruption in the Zanu-PF party. Morgan Tsvangerai, leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, tired of infighting and led his organization out of Zanu-PF and formed his own party, the Movement for Democratic Change. He successfully lobbied support from the white landowners, who withdrew critical support from Mugabe just when he needed it most.

The final straw came from London, when Prime Minister Tony Blair closed the black land-buying fund. The reason for this was unclear, but it may have been to put pressure on Zanu-PF to oust Mugabe, who in London’s mind, must have served his usefulness.

Mugabe must have felt his hand forced. So he undertook immediate seizure of white-owned land in retaliation for breaking the deal of 1980.

What happened next is well known:

  • Wanton terror and murder inflicted upon not just white landowners but black workers who were on an official list to purchase land. If they were not Zanu-PF members, they were targeted.
  • Arbitrary disbursal as reward to party loyalists and as bribes to much-needed allies.
  • The breakup of industrial combines as a consequence of splitting apart large land-holdings. (Mills, granges, waterworks, power plants, breweries, and all of the infrastructure to service farm-based industries were broken up and turned over to incompetent cronies. The result was a breakdown of services to rural communities.)
  • Wholesale collapse in national food production.
  • And finally, famine and disease.

In retaliation, the British government cut off Zimbabwe from access to much-needed credit. Within eight years, the nation was on its knees and hopeless due to hyperinflation and stalled economic activity.

The One Hundred Trillion Dollar note became a symbol of Mugabe’s arrogance. Only in 2017 did Zimbabwe finally report a surplus in food production.

Unfortunately for South Africa, the ANC seems determined to tread the same disastrous path as Zanu-PF. The recent ousting of President Jacob Zuma caused extremely deep rifts in the power structure of the ANC. Talk of a split continues.

New President Ramaphosa needs a way to reward his loyal supporters and bribe new allies to stay in power. With the mining sector still reeling from corruption and abuse at the hands of Zuma, there is only one easy target for exploitation, just as there was in Zimbabwe.

Ramaphosa may pledge to keep the seizures in South Africa orderly and honest to avoid the nightmare of Zimbabwe. But once the seizures begin, and the greed begins to flow like wine – or blood – there is little chance the actions won’t lead to catastrophe for everyone.


Sidney Petron is a historian and political analyst currently situated in New Haven, Connecticut.

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