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Following his intervention in the stultifying ‘debate’ on Zimbabwe (Mahmood Mamdani, ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’), a squad of 33 scholars, mainly from the US and Europe, placed Mamdani and his main accomplice on the land question, Sam Moyo, in the firing line (Timothy Scarnecchia and Jocelyn Alexander et al, ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’, London Review of Books, 2009-01-01). However, the executioners showed up with little but blanks and hubris, leaving this reader to ask more questions about their methods than their targets.

Scarnecchia and Alexander et al begin their response by chiding Mamdani for a simplistic take on Zimbabwe, leading one to anticipate the long awaited complexity of analysis on the Zimbabwe crisis. But their misrepresentation of Mamdani’s argument on ethnicity as a portrayal of ‘stark ethnic dichotomies’ in the opening paragraph gave early indication of more polarised polemics on Zimbabwe and an inability to deliver. By the second paragraph promises to enrich the debate had been abandoned for hand wringing over their difficulty in persuading non-Zimbabwe specialists like Mamdani to think as ‘deeply’ on the crisis as they do. One major obstacle they have encountered in this quest to produce deep thinkers on Zimbabwe like themselves, is the virus of anti-imperialist rhetoric unleashed by the cunning Mugabe, who has ‘fooled’ Mamdani, but, thankfully, not our alert experts. As a humanitarian gesture, our scholars, most of whom don’t see contemporary imperialism as a category for analysis in their scholarship, offer to help inoculate Mamdani from the dangerous anti-imperialist virus, noting that he is already showing symptoms of ‘fantasy’ from contact with it.

Relying on personal insults (Mamdani is ‘dishonest’) and attempts to link Mamdani’s arguments to Mugabe and ZANU-PF narratives (what better or simpler way to dismiss an idea on Zimbabwe than associating it with the demonised Mugabe), the Africanists implore Mamdani to abandon the scholarship of Sam Moyo and company for that of their ‘more informed scholarship’ if he wants to be healed. No explanation is offered as to why Moyo, who has spent the past 25 years in Zimbabwe researching and writing on the land question – publishing four books and over twenty-five articles on the subject – is a less informed source of information and analysis than Scarnecchia and Alexander et al and contributors to the special bulletin on Zimbabwe by the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS). The reader, one assumes, must simply trust in the wisdom of our self-declared deep thinkers, who, after all, are from the US and Europe, where true expertise on Africa resides. A reading of the literature recommended by the learned doctors as an antidote to the dangerous anti-imperialist virus and Moyo’s scholarship revealed more documentation on the repressive state acknowledged by Mamdani, and a complete avoidance of the issues raised in the scholarship of Moyo and company.

These more informed deep thinking Africanists are not alone in urging Mamdani to detach himself from Moyo’s work and see the light in their recommended sources. Emerging some distance to their left, Horace Campbell, a committed pan-Africanist and activist-scholar, also avoids an engagement with Moyo’s work as employed by Mamdani, while dismissing its relevance, in the most curious manner. He faults Mamdani for ‘merely recycling’ the work of Moyo, even though he himself depended on Moyo’s scholarship for his analysis of the land question in his book, Reclaiming Zimbabwe. It seems Moyo’s data and analysis can no longer serve Campbell’s polemics on the Zimbabwe crisis, but he offers no explanations of its shortcomings. He resorts instead to the diversionary tactics that have become stock in trade for many factions in the ‘debate’ on Zimbabwe, from the diaspora nationalists who can see no wrong in Mugabe and ZANU-PF to the human rights activists who must see all wrong.

He protests that the African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), which Moyo founded and directs in Harare, ‘claim[s] that [the] horrors of Operation Murambatsvina (the operation to round up hundreds of thousands of citizens) were exaggerated by the western media’, which Campbell seemingly presents as an abomination disqualifying their scholarship from critical engagement. How bizarre! I haven’t seen the claim from the AIAS authors as there was no reference for the source, but since when did Campbell begin to see criticism of the Western media as a disqualification for being taken seriously on Zimbabwe? Of course they exaggerated the horrors of Operation Murambatsvina, as they did and do on so much else relating to Zimbabwe. Recently I heard folks on the BBC equating the current violence in Zimbabwe to the genocide in Rwanda. Is Campbell in agreement with them on this? Does he, like other scholars, think of admitting to the Western media’s exaggeration while exposing the horrors of the repressive state in Zimbabwe as mutually exclusive projects? There might be a tension in these simultaneous pursuits of human rights and opposition activists, whose raison d’être in so many Zimbabwe instances centres on magnifying the horrors of the regime, but aren’t scholars and intellectuals supposed to subscribe to another mode of analysis, another relationship with difficult truths?

A scholar who has expended as much energy and intellect as Sam Moyo in attempting to understand the land question in Zimbabwe deserves better treatment from his detractors. At the minimum, they could engage his scholarship and identify the fault lines. Relying on breast-beating about being more informed scholars or attempting to represent him as a Mugabe crony is a retreat from ‘deep thinking’. Among other things, the scholarship of Moyo and the AIAS disrupts the dominant narrative around the war veterans as nothing but instruments of a violent state hell bent on maintaining power. It allows intellectuals like Mamdani to argue that outcomes in Zimbabwe cannot be seen only and simply as the ‘machinations of those in power.’ It also challenges those who insist that land reform resulted in all the land seized from settlers being transferred to the ruling elite by documenting a much wider distribution in the aftermath of land reform. Moyo and the AISA may be wrong on all counts, but it would take more than noisy polemics to prove it.

* David Johnson teaches history at The City College, City University of New York.
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