The Nationalist Narrative


A narrative is a selection of simplified stories that supports a particular interpretation of history. It expounds a moral ‘truth’ in order to legitimise authority and power.1 In Zimbabwe an African nationalist narrative has been constructed around the ‘lost lands’ to justify the government’s land reform programme. It recounts how British colonists stole the best lands without compensating the indigenous African peoples. It speaks of a culture where land, sanctified by custom, cannot be owned, but is shared equally by wise traditional leaders for the benefit of the community. It celebrates heroic struggles to recover the lost lands, regain the dignity of a wronged people, and defend the country’s independence and sovereignty.

And, like all good propaganda, the narrative has a kernel of truth that is repeatedly reinforced by leaders to convince their followers that any means are justified to claim their moral right.

Why is it necessary to challenge this narrative?

Firstly, because it explicitly rejects inconvenient truths. It does not recognise, for example, that the international community and white Zimbabwean farmers consistently supported an equitable land reform process to correct historical injustices. It turns a blind eye to multiple farm ownership by the new ruling elite while communal farmers remain mired in poverty. And it ignores international law and the SADC Treaty whose tribunal ruled that the seizure of white?owned farms was both racist and unlawful. Secondly, the narrative has become entrenched as nationalist doctrine.

As such, it shuts out alternatives voices for constructive engagement on government policies based on principles of economic development and good governance. Any talk, for example, of strengthening property rights and developing land markets is dismissed as being foreign to Africans culture and its concept of ownership.2 Few policy analysts today dare challenge the current resettlement policy based on state acquisition, ownership and the reallocation of agricultural land. And, thirdly, the narrative is exclusive and divisive. Instead of ‘Zimbabwean’ meaning a citizen of Zimbabwe, it has come to mean a black Zimbabwean. It separates the majority ‘us’ from the minority ‘them’, who are demonised and denied their constitutional rights to protection or to own land on the basis of their race or political affiliation.

Above all, examining the nationalist narrative on land will open the door to understanding how it has been constructed by the ruling elite for its own political ends; how it has justified deeply flawed policy decisions on land; and how it has trapped policy analysts in a circular and stultified debate. Only when we unshackle the mental underpinning of this narrative can we re?enter the debating arena with the confidence that different policy options can be robustly contested with intellectual integrity, rigour, and goodwill.

The question that has baffled so many, including Zimbabwe’s friends and supporters, was why such a promising lower?middle income country, with one of the strongest agricultural and industrial sectors in sub?Saharan Africa, suddenly embarked on a controversial land reform programme which plunged the country into an intractable political and economic crisis? This article argues that a core contributing factor was the construction of a nationalist narrative of lost lands. This narrative initially justified state control over land and a command approach to policy implementation in the 1980s.

After 2000 it re-emerged to legitimise the seizure and nationalisation of white-owned commercial farmland. Today it is used to oil the wheels of a patronage system that includes the seizure of foreign?owned mines, banks and businesses.

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