Moral arguments for land redistribution in contemporary Zimbabwe and Gracchan Rome: a comparative and critical analysis.

Author:Mlambo, Obert Bernard


Since the turn of the century, attempts by Zimbabwe to solve the land question through agrarian reform, and its attendant economic decline, have attracted widespread academic interest (See Chitiyo 2000, Moyo 2000, Chaumba 2003, Moore 2001, Chitando 2005 and Sadomba 2011). We seek to contribute to this burgeoning interest in agrarian reform from a classical history perspective, and thus draw comparisons between the moral justifications for land reform brought forward by the Gracchi (Roman brothers who tried to reform Rome's social and political structure to help the lower classes, in the 2nd century B.C. Events surrounding the politics of the Gracchi led to the decline and eventual fall of the Roman Republic) in the Roman Republic and by the Zimbabwe African National Union--Patriotic Front (hereinafter ZANU-PF) in contemporary Zimbabwe. Indeed, in both cases scholarly attention has focussed on the existence and nature of alleged crises but the validity of the moral arguments mobilised by both regimes is subject to debate. This article is therefore sensitive to the ethical complexity in the events both in ancient Rome and modern Zimbabwe. Instead of right versus wrong, in a fairy-tale narrative, this article demonstrates how difficult it is to judge. It advances the argument that no one uniquely occupies the moral high ground, and even when a cause for land redistribution is just, one may not always be able to predict the consequences of one's actions (this is true when one considers methods used by veterans and also methods used by politicians to get the land).

Even when unspoken, the importance of land will dominate all major questions of power and economics, especially in agrarian societies. Accordingly, corruption and its problems (which are inherently about the wealth of the government) compel us to focus on land. In this respect, we need to examine the relationship between politics and economics: land reform driven by political or economic imperatives or both, with the problem of the former at times masquerading as the latter (Mlambo 2013: 9). This is essential to interpreting what is happening in contemporary Zimbabwe, and it is also essential to the late Roman republic and especially, the Gracchi in the 2nd century BC. The article thus seeks to distinguish between the real motives for reform and the objectives proclaimed by the reformers. This distinction may especially be significant if the proclaimed objectives are imposed upon the reformers by political circumstances. For example, reformers may proclaim certain objectives (without any intention of enforcing them) to appease peasants, to reward war veterans and sometimes to undermine the opposition such that it became difficult to isolate the real from the proclaimed purpose of land reform (Onoma 2011).

We argue that the different faces of the land reforms in both case studies do not fit seamlessly into the moral argument. In fact, even if one accepts a good-bad dichotomy on the fundamental questions, the claim to moral influence is unmasked as mere political rhetoric or cheap propaganda. Tiberius Gracchus, who was the tribune of the Roman people in 133 BC, introduced his agrarian law specifically to eradicate poverty and the shortage of potential recruits, which was a result of the misuse of public/state land in Rome's past, by putting a limit on holdings in order to distribute the surplus in small plots to the landless poor.

During the process of distributing the land, commissioners were denounced for failing to account for the records of land holdings professionally leading to malicious accusations and lawsuits (App. BC 1.18).

In Zimbabwe, there are conflicting views of what benefits Independence brought to the country, as land appears to be one of the promised gains that were not immediately actualized in the first two decades, directly following the ascent of the Black majority, a gain which was realized in the upheavals over land ownership, early in the 21st century. Therefore we argue that in both cases the moral good of the exercises of land reforms leads to a messier and murkier moral zone in which the means do not appear to be justified by the ends. A comparative examination of the Zimbabwean agrarian crisis with that of Gracchi Rome can contribute to our understanding of the pitfalls and complex problems of land reform and how they impact on the general economic, social and political wellbeing of society.

The Roman Context

Debate on the crisis phenomenon of land redistribution in Rome during the Gracchi era has produced two schools of thought, the pro-Gracchan tradition and the anti-Gracchan tradition. The pro-Gracchan tradition is a version of interpretation that subscribes to the thesis of severe crisis in the second century BC Roman Italy, which the Gracchi attempted to alleviate through the lex Sempronia agraria (a law that would reorganize control of the ager publicus meaning land conquered in previous wars that was controlled by the state. Previous agrarian law specified that no citizen would be allowed to possess more than 500 jugera, approximately 125 hectares of the ager publicus (public land), and any land that they occupied above this limit would be confiscated by the state).

Appian and Plutarch mainly support this view. Appian presents the lex Sempronia agraria as the most appropriate response to the crisis (Gargola 2008:489, 490, 491, 492). In Appian, an extensive depiction of the use and abuse of public/state lands by the rich was evident (App. BC 1.9 35-11. 47, see also Plut. Ti Gr 8). Appian argues that the senatorial elite in Rome controlled the land from the time of the regal period, with power firmly entrenched in the hands of the oligarchy and that class struggles (the struggle of the orders, 494 BC-289 BC) over the status of the agerpublicus/public land which led to the creation of the office of the Tribune of the Plebs.

Thus, the tribune was a direct response to the unequal political field that the plebeians had to negotiate to secure some form of parity in the political discourse at that time. Ownership of land was not merely a symbolic representation of power, but it meant possession of actual power, as agriculture was the mainstay of the Roman economy. On account of their ownership of the land, the optimates (loosely speaking, a political party of the aristocracy, who were thoroughly opposed to ideas of reform at the expense of conformism and the spirit and tradition of conservative politics) controlled the livelihoods of a large part of the population.

This control propelled the political ascendancy of the optimates (the nobility or aristocrats). Landowners were able to furnish their slaves with arms; they were able to use their land as security to finance their acquisition of more land from those without the means to fully utilise it.

The ownership of large tracts of land dictated that the optimates hire more labour in order to augment their wealth. Since Rome was frequently engaged in wars against the other Italian cities, native Roman labourers also doubled as Roman soldiers. During their absence, the landowners acquired great numbers of slaves to work the land. Consequently, whenever the legionnaires returned home, they found their presence as labourers' surplus to traditional requirements. With no work, no land, and thus, no power, the citizens resorted to the extraordinary measure of voting for whichever orator promised them what they wanted. The beginning of this practice is obscured within the promises of returning land to the peasant population that had been deprived of the resource through no fault of their own. Later on, with the advent of the years, and the dearth of plebeians willing to work the land, monetary recompense was the preferred modus operandi (method of operation).

Plebeian politicians and occasionally patrician demagogues mobilised support for their candidature by claiming to desire the restoration of the ager publicus (public land) to those who had lost out in the creation of the latifundia (large farms that were formed when landowners bought up smaller farms), as well as to those who were citizens, but did not own land. The plebeian candidates almost always got elected on the promise of land allotment to disenfranchised citizens. The division between the patricians and the plebeians became more marked as the plebeians found champions for their cause for seeking land distribution. The establishment of the magistracy of the tribune of the plebeians was created to aid them in addressing the inequality of the land allocations.

The above discussion opens up a vast array of questions and problems regarding the aims and methods of the Gracchi. It also opens up the question of how the achievements and fate of the Gracchi exposed the flaws of the senatorial government in Roman politics. The Gracchan era poses serious questions in so far as the motives of the reformers were concerned. Tiberius Gracchus' argument emphasises action, based on moral grounds. Indeed, what Tiberius demonstrates is a moral crisis. He invoked the moral question of social justice. His programme allegedly sought to help the landless poor who were suffering at the expense of the vested interests of the rich and the politically connected. Did Tiberius Gracchus conceal other motives? These questions call for an in-depth analysis of his moral argument and to examine the extent to which land functioned as the focal point for mobilization of political support.

While we do not deny that there was a crisis in Roman Italy, we want to investigate the extent to which the crisis might have been exaggerated by the Gracchi. e also advance the argument that the selfishness and vested interests of the rich in government exposed the Roman state to populist politics and worsened the crisis. After the Gracchi episode, there occurred in the Roman political landscape a growing self-consciousness on the part of the...

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