THE tobacco crop in Zimbabwe has made a fully fledged output revival. This news is more than a piece of agricultural data — the remarkable turnaround cultivated by 90,000 black small-and commercial-scale farmers who received the farms taken from 3,500 white landowners, is a unique story in which many tensions in African geopolitics cross paths.
It’s a milestone in considering issues such as the upside of Chinese investment in Africa and the effects of such investment on western interests. It has even helped stabilize a Southern Africa stressed by race and land conflict.
Zimbabwe exported 216-million kilograms of tobacco last year, compared with a record 237-million in 2000, before the start of expropriation of white-owned farms. China comes into this story because a blend of "nutrients" revived the yield.
Planted by Zimbabwean farmers, the harvest was from an ecosystem of Chinese state-sponsored investment, financing and corporations. The blend starts with Chinese policy that has for more than 15 years incentivized state-owned enterprises to invest in Africa. China Tobacco, the state tobacco monopoly, invested in processing, gave technical assistance and provided farm loans in Zimbabwe. This investment amplified the support of a $198m loan for Zimbabwean agriculture disbursed by China’s Export Import Bank. It came when Zimbabwe’s economy was about to collapse. The tobacco crop had fallen to less than 50-million kilograms in 2008, hyperinflation was at unfathomable levels, and 25% of the population had fled, mostly to SA.
The revival of tobacco was of broad economic significance, creating employment in rural Zimbabwe, export income, and even national economic renewal. Buoyed by tobacco-led growth, President Robert Mugabe was re-elected in 2013, giving credence to the contention that China’s investment in Africa entrenches elites that western governments disfavour. But China’s investment extended credit to farmers to buy fertilizer, tractors and irrigation pumps. However opposed westerners are to the political outcome, direct poverty alleviation cannot be objectionable.
There is also anxiety in the West that if Zimbabwe’s expropriation is a lasting economic success, sympathizers in SA will be emboldened and also move against minority property rights. This fear drove western media to excessively publicize the failure of Zimbabwe’s land policy.
As Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed, stories of untilled fields after the departure of white farmers, and misery for black citizens, were cliched dispatches from Africa. But these stories were a one-sided presentation of white farmers as capable and black farmers as poor substitutes. As seen in tobacco farming, with loans, inputs and demand from China, black farmers have matched experienced white farmers.
When the last leader of Rhodesia before majority rule died, a major British newspaper ran a column titled "Ian Smith has sadly been proved right", implying that white minority rule had been ethical because of indispensability. Derision by the former colonial power caused humiliation for black Zimbabweans and, in turn, the rest of Africa. This effect does not contribute to stability. Humiliation provokes more racial enmity and will ignite tumult in the long term for minority property rights in Southern Africa.
China’s state-backed investment in tobacco is not therefore just an economic turnaround. It has redeemed land expropriation but promoted a new conservative ethos that boosts regional stability. The thriving sector has restored the confidence of Zimbabweans and pan-Africans in African economic agency through cross-cultural co-operation.
Zimbabweans now see foreign investors as complementary. Taking ownership from minorities and foreigners is now seen as undesirable by most Zimbabweans. What is sought is foreign investment that drives job growth. This message is making its way through Southern Africa.