President Robert Mugabe’s program of seizing white-owned farmland has brought Zimbabwe to the brink of famine but has genuine popular appeal in the region. Namibia has announced it will begin expropriating white-owned farms; South Africa is debating how to speed up its own program. Is Zimbabwe’s implosion only the first in a series?

Each foreign delegation to South Africa’s recent presidential inauguration ceremony was announced in turn and treated to polite applause. But President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe got a standing ovation. Which places him on a popularity scale somewhere below Nelson Mandela, whose arrival was greeted by sustained cheering and singing, but far above the Americans, whose announcement was met with stony silence.

This was a bit of a shock. Since 1998 President Mugabe has pursued a program of “land reform” involving the violent seizure of white-owned farmland in his country for redistribution to black farmers. This is now complete: of the 15.5 million acres owned by whites in 1980, 14.5 million are now in black hands. It has also caused an economic collapse. The country is on the brink of man-made famine. On top of which, Mugabe won his recent reelection by having his thugs stuff ballot boxes and beat up opposition candidates. So his popularity in South Africa is hard to understand.

But the politics of land reform in the region are complex. To over-simplify: (1) there are very good reasons to expropriate white-owned farms, (2) yet Zimbabwe’s program was undertaken for the worst of reasons, (3) which makes it unlikely that South Africa and Namibia, where these worst of reasons do not apply, will follow suit.

First, the good reasons. White ownership of farmland in southern Africa is, of course, a legacy of colonialism. Whites seized the best land and forcibly removed black farmers from their homes, resettling them on stony land in arid climes – a process that continued until as recently as 1980 in Zimbabwe, while the country remained under white rule.

This resulted in a land distribution of staggering inequity. As of 1980 some 4,500 white commercial farmers owned almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s fertile land. Hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans scratched out a living on the rest.

The ethics of this are muddled by history. The white farmers have in many cases now lived on their land for generations. They are Zimbabweans. Native Americans were forced off their land under similar circumstances, yet few white Americans would today support the return of, say, New York to the American Indians. The historical injustice is undisputed. But the appropriate remedy is not obvious.

Far less debatable are the politics of the issue. If Native Americans ruled today’s America, obviously the current land distribution would not stand. So it is for southern Africa. After decades of oppression, the blacks are now in charge. Which makes the current inequity of land ownership politically untenable. One way or another, much of the land is almost certain to go back. Moral or not, that is the reality of the politics. The only question is, will it go bloodily or peacefully?

Zimbabwe has pioneered the bloody approach, for the worst of reasons. When Robert Mugabe took power in 1980, he seemed his country’s savior – articulate and preaching reconciliation with the whites. Instead his misrule has brought disaster. Zimbabwe has the dubious honor of being one of only five countries on earth whose social indicators – education, health, prosperity – have actually declined since 1980.

By 2000 Mugabe was facing serious political opposition. He lost a referendum on a constitution designed to expand his powers. He looked set to lose control of parliament. He needed someone to take the blame for his government’s failings.

So Mugabe came up with a “fast track” land reform program, encouraging angry black Zimbabweans to direct their rage at the country’s whites. This brought Mugabe’s supporters onto the streets, often violently. Squads of angry young men were deputized to assault white farmers and seize their land.

Far from a land reform program, this was a project to keep Mugabe in power by any possible means. The angry young men, once mobilized, were directed to assault opposition politicians and their supporters. Some of the seized land was handed in large parcels to those who would back Mugabe. As the country’s economy collapsed, the outside world sent food aid. Which the government refused to distribute to anyone supporting the opposition.

In sum, Zimbabwe’s land reform program has been an economic catastrophe. But it has kept Mugabe in power. What is to prevent the leaders of South Africa or Namibia from attempting a similar scheme?

The bad news is that existing land reform programs in these countries have not worked. These have been conducted on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis. But the white farmers are not willing to sell at any price the government can afford to pay. Understandably so – at what price would white American farmers agree to sell up and move back to Europe? In the ten years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has managed to redistribute only three percent of the country’s prime farmland into black hands.

That said, in the final analysis, a fast-track program like Zimbabwe’s is a strategy of political desperation. Any land reform at that pace entails stripping land from high-tech, efficient, export-oriented commercial farms and handing it to impoverished farmers with no capital or training. The first rule of politics is “it’s the economy, stupid.” No politician – except a man as desperate as Mugabe – would risk causing a deliberate economic collapse.

And in South Africa, the politicians are far from desperate. In recent elections the ruling ANC won nearly 70 percent of the vote, against 12 percent for the largest opposition party. With little threat to its rule the ANC has no reason to risk economic collapse and will continue its gradualist pace of land redistribution.

In Namibia the SWAPO party is similarly dominant. However, there is an election coming in November which entails a delicate transition from over a decade of rule by Sam Nujoma. Hence the new expropriation policy – which sounds tough, but has been gingerly implemented. As long as a SWAPO victory is a foregone conclusion – as it is now – the government is likely to maintain the slow pace.

Hence the applause for Mugabe on his recent visit to South Africa. To be sure, Zimbabwe’s high-profile land seizures have made land reform a top issue in the region. But ruling parties facing minimal opposition are unlikely to take huge economic risks. Southern African governments are willing to applaud Zimbabwe’s implosion – but unlikely to repeat it.

This article was originally published on, before I sold the website to Roubini Global Economics.