A version of this post appeared on Africa and Asia. The views expressed are the author's own.
Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown is so severe, with its treasury unable to pay soldiers, police, and civil servants their monthly entitlements, that President Robert Mugabe, 90, has now resumed his decade-long scapegoating of his country’s remaining white farmers.
But it is a largely de-horned scapegoat. In 2000, when Mugabe began to target whites who farmed the land, there were about 4,000 whites owning tobacco, maize, sugar, wheat, and other profitable agricultural holdings. Now there are fewer than 150 white farmers.
In 2000, they employed about 400,000 Africans, and supplied a significant percentage of Zimbabwe’s export earnings. Zimbabwe’s Virginia tobacco crop was world famous and, before Mugabe sent young thugs and supposed war veterans to usurp white-owned holdings, the nation was comparatively wealthy. It could feed all of its citizens.
Six years later the World Food Program began feeding 10 or more percent of all Zimbabweans, which it still does. The 400,000 African farm laborers lost their jobs, a major contributor to Zimbabwe’s 80 percent unemployment rate. And nearly all of the 4,000 white farmers were forced off their farms in successive pogroms. They are now settled in Australia, New Zealand, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, and other more hospitable nations.
Zimbabwe is now impoverished, with a shrunken agricultural sector, low tax receipts, no African or international credibility, six failed banks, 70 newly failed local businesses, energy and water shortages – and few good prospects.
At the same time, a quarter of Zimbabwe's population has fled to South Africa, Botswana, and other neighbors.
It is in this very weakened state, when Zimbabwe needs all of the internal and external support it can muster, that Mr. Mugabe has decided to threaten the remaining whites who still grow cash crops in his country – with expulsion.
In a racist speech on June 30 he blamed whites for Zimbabwe’s ills and opined that they had no right to own land. All the country’s farms rightfully belong to Africans, Mugabe said.
Whites could continue to own businesses and live in towns, the president decided, but they could no longer stay on the land – even if they employed Africans or contributed significantly to his nation’s GDP.
Mugabe also tore into his colleagues and associates within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party who had dared to lease back to whites (presumably profitably) the farms that Mugabe’s men had grabbed earlier from whites. Mugabe promised to purge those who undercut him in such a manner.
Cooler heads in ZANU-PF might prevail, and persuade Mugabe to cease persecuting an enemy that no longer really exists. Many African politicians own stolen farms. The fact that they may in many cases require more experienced whites to run those farms testifies to nothing more than a reality for the nominal African owners and for the national economy.
Moreover, scapegoating so few (or any) whites serves no true national purpose. With so precarious an economy, Zimbabwe can ill afford to alienate the white business and mining community that now contributes to foreign exchange earnings and exports.
This is not the first, and may not be the last, time that Mugabe has vociferously trumpeted a destructive and unreal policy agenda that has no real rationale except to arouse the worst instincts of his followers.
Almost everywhere on the African continent countries are growing vigorously. Not so Zimbabwe, where Mugabe continues to deny good governance and to pursue a highly personalist, wildly corrupt, agenda – all to the detriment of his followers and citizens.