We should not laugh at the disaster which has befallen Zimbabwe – the result of simply awful economic policies – but there is still some humour of a dark kind to be found. Robert Mugabe decided that who owned what would be something decided by the political system, not the law nor any recognisable system of property rights. His wife, Grace, was an eager participant in that seizure of farms from white owners to be reallocated to politically connected blacks. That being how it worked of course, such political allocation systems always mean the wealth ends up in the hands of those doing the political allocating.
But then having destroyed that rule of law, that impartial allocation of property rights, Bob and Grace lose that political power:
Illegal gold miners in Zimbabwe have seized a farm belonging to former first lady Grace Mugabe, local media reported, just four months after former President Robert Mugabe was ousted from power.
Hundreds of aggressive squatters have taken over portions of Grace’s Smithfield estate in Mazowe, 25 miles north of Harare, and refused to move when she confronted them on Thursday.
“Undeterred by the presence of the miners, who were waving shovels and machetes at her, Grace told them to leave the property but they would not budge,” the Daily News paper reported.
The casual miners uprooted citrus trees and dug tunnels on the property, vowing to remain there until Mrs Mugabe offered them work, the paper added.
“You no longer have any power to remove us,” said one of the miners, quoted by the Daily News. “This is the new dispensation – and we do what we want.”
The thief stolen from, there’s a certain joy and humour in that, no?
It’s even possible to think that the land allocations at independence were unfair in some sense of cosmic justice. Near all the good land was owned by whites in a majority black country. That’s not an argument I give much credence to myself. The Bantus (no, this is a technical term, not some racist epithet, for the members of varied tribes like Zulu, Shona, Ndebele, all derived from West Africa some 1,000 to 2,000 years ago) only arrived in the area recently by historical standards, displacing the previous inhabitants – varied groupings of Khoi San and the like. That another group arrives a little later, with a different technological package (the Bantu brought iron tools and tilled agriculture to replace the previous hunter gatherer lifestyle – very like the irruption of the Celts across Europe earlier) to then dispossess them is, well, that’s actually just how history has been everywhere.
But even if we do accept that argument, that land must be moved from white ownership to black, the manner of its doing was still wrong. Because of exactly this problem that Grace has now. If might makes right, which is what the system became, then when might is no longer on the owner’s side then the land isn’t either, is it?
All of which is rather why even those who have stolen their land and property come to agree to a system of legal property rights. It takes some places longer than others to come to this general societal agreement, England saw rather a violent change in such ownership as recently as 1066. But secure property rights benefit not only those who currently have the land but also those who would have it. Which is why the institution arises so many times independently, it’s a solution to a basic economic problem.
If that white land had been bought – and funds were made available to do this – at market rates then Grace would have a legal system to protect her farm today. It wasn’t, she ain’t, and it is to laugh, no?