In 1998, a small community of villagers from a place called Svosve (which means “ant” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe “invaded” white-run farms in Mashonaland East Province.
These “invasions” were also being played out in the Nyamandlovu area of southern Zimbabwe.
The Governor of Mashonaland East Province at the time was David Karimanzira, who is now late and interred at the National Heroes Acre in Harare.
Some will remember that at the time the Svosve villagers took land reforms into their own hands, the state sent security agents to evict them while trying to hold talks with Britain and other interested Western nations on how best tenure equity could be achieved.
As is known, those talks went nowhere and two years later, veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle replicated the Svosve “invasions” on a much larger scale that resulted in what is now known as the Fast-Track Land Reform Programme.
Back to Governor Karimanzira.
The politician said after the Svosve people vented their land hunger that a deputation of white commercial farmers approached his office to lodge complaints.
After hearing their side of the story, Karimanzira met representatives of the villagers to hear what they had to say for themselves.
Again he sat and listened and then turned back to the white farmers to give them feedback.
Karimanzira told his bemused audience that the Svosve villagers were denying they had “invaded” the farms.
Instead, Karimanzira reported, “your farms are on their land”.
Zimbabwean writer Tendai Manzvanzvike, who wrote on this encounter, described the riposte by the Svosve villagers as among the most profound encapsulation of the land problem in former colonies.
“This probably is one of the most critical statements on the Zimbabwe narrative and the land issue. It is a statement pregnant with symbolic meaning, and it cannot be naively interpreted.
“It also puts the land question into its historical context, and also places the whole land issue and property rights into perspective.”
The Svosve villagers, in their own words, were simply saying they did not want the white man’s farm; they just wanted their land back.
Land is more than just an economic tool for social advancement; it also has spiritual connotations that form the core of human identity and dignity.
In South Africa, indigenous people have been denied such identity and dignity since Jan van Riebeeck landed at what was to become Cape Town in 1652.
In the succeeding centuries, the indigenous people were continuously pushed to the margins of land ownership.
Today, a full 100 years since the ANC was formed to rectify this and other pressing issues affecting the indigenous people, and 17 years after we were told that apartheid had collapsed, the status quo remains the same. Millions of black South Africans lack the simple dignity that comes with owning land, of having what Frantz Fanon called a “national soil” under their feet and the identity that comes with it. South Africa is often warned about not going the “Zimbabwe route” to rectify this massive problem, because that will allegedly destroy agriculture and food security, scare away foreign investors and result in widespread economic malaise.
Never mind the fact that it is overly simplistic and a mere extension of a threadbare propaganda claim to say Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed because 4 500 white farmers lost land to 300 000 black families.
South Africa, ever-ready to toe the “reconciliation” line (or is it lie?) that Zimbabwe burdened itself with to the detriment of the empowerment of the majority for two decades of political independence, has tried to avoid confrontation with local and foreign white capital over the land issue.
The result has been that the willing-buyer, willing-seller system – which Zimbabwe also tried and dumped because it simply does not work, besides it being morally and politically indefensible seeing as the land was stolen in the first place – has failed to deliver in South Africa.
The status quo has remained the same and AgriSA brags about how it will oppose state-led land acquisitions.
In the meantime, the majority of the indigenous people remain without land, dignity and identity.
Yes, South Africa will continue to be urged by those who want to protect their farms that they should not do like Zimbabwe.
Maybe what South Africa should know is that Zimbabwe has been through all those paces that it is fiddling with right now and the result was a motley band of villagers from tiny Svosve reclaiming what was rightfully theirs.
South Africa has enough experts within its borders to craft a tenure reform programme that will significantly ease land hunger.
Namibia’s government also laments the slow pace of land reforms; saying the willing-buyer, willing-seller system just does not cut it.
So what is everyone waiting for? For people from a tiny village called Svosve to set in motion a difficult-to-control chain of events that can either make or break a nation? There really is no excuse for an independent nation to act deliberately against the wishes of the majority; that would make the state a predatory entity that lives off the people’s misery and foreigners’ goodwill.
The important thing to appreciate is that whatever the pace of reform, white commercial farmers will never be happy: they want things to remain exactly as they have been since Van Riebeeck arrived on their shores. The bitter pill will have to be swallowed, the tough medicine taken, and those farmers will have to be removed from our land.