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Chinyoka on Tuesday: “Whoever owned the land in Rhodesia, the natives certainly did not”

By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

“Kare kare, pasi pasati parohwa nenyundo…..” thus began many stories that I encountered in secondary school. Like most things in vernacular, a lot is lost in the translation, but literally it says “a long, long time ago, before the world got hit with a hammer…” I never could work out what hammer, where and why, but one thing my friend in school (RIP) always said if the story was bad was: “he should have kept his hammer to himself.”

Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka

Of course, these stories always filled one with wonder. Did it really happen? Are we descended from some of these heroes? Did the Rozvi really go around trying to uproot mountains so that they could take them to their king as a prize? Did they try to build a ladder to the moon?

Try as one might, there just is no way to tell for sure. One of the consequences of having no written history, is the excuse. Making it true what they say: when an old person dies in the village, a library gets buried in their grave.

The other day, I was talking to someone about our land question, specifically the can of worms opened by all that talk about compensation for white farmers. I said I was okay with compensating people for improvements, but not the land itself.

“But most of these farmers bought their farms”, my friend said. Being a lawyer, this to me is clear: if you buy stolen property, you do not get title. Theft, as lawyers like to say, is a continuing offence.

This means that when something is stolen, for as long as it is not returned to the owner, the crime is actively being committed. It doesn’t matter that the property changes hands numerous times, and is passed down by people that weren’t involved in the initial theft or even knew about it: it remains stolen property. This is why Chimbetu went to prison, after all.

“But it was their farms, what if they only kept cattle and made no improvements, surely they should be compensated for the value of the land,” my friend says. No, I disagree. On this one I get flippant and say yes, it was their farms, but they put their farms on our land. We didn’t take back farms, just our land.

But the point is the same: there should be compensation for what you put in, nothing more. An owner that fights a war to vindicate their property cannot be told, after all the sacrifice, that they should suddenly look for money to buy back their own property.

“But look, we are not utilising these farms the way they used to, we aren’t as good at farming as they were,” my friend adds. Now, I am on record as not being very fond of the former president but one thing he once said on this point I will always agree with, so I quote it to my friend. Slowly. “The fact that the person who stole my car has a driver’s license and I don’t does not justify him keeping it.”

If I owned a Ferrari, and used it as a kombi, and drove it below 40km/h all the time, you can grumble all you like, but it doesn’t make it any less my car. You cannot found a claim over my property just because you can use it better. It is just not on.

My friend says “you keeping saying ‘we’ but you were not there”. That, is where I realise that we are failing our children. We don’t write our history, still. We do not write enough. We do not tell our own stories. Our history is largely written by those that ruled us, and those that we removed.

I will tell you a story: kare kare pasi past parohwa nenyundo, a group of businessmen came to the plateau that is now Zimbabwe and looked around, and saw that it was good. They sent emissaries to the king in the west, asking him for part of the land, and he refused. So they hatched a plan. They saw that he was struggling with an ailment, drugged him with morphine, made him dependent, then when he was addicted, they stopped giving him. They told him all he needed to do was put an ‘X’ on a document, and they would give him the drug. He tried to resist, but finally succumbed to the pain, and signed. So they gleefully went to their Queen to inform her of the good news, that they had secured territory for her. And it was good. 

The king, realising that he had been duped, sent emissaries to the queen to complain. She was confused, but noncommittal. The businessmen, fearing that the king would be emboldened by the appearance of no support from their queen, arranged for the emissaries to board the wrong ship, going to Brazil, where they hoped the emissaries would be mistaken for locals and escaped mental patients. 

In time, the businessmen had taken over the whole territory on the plateau, killed the king and subdued the people in the north, south and east. But, the question of who owned the land remained.

So a question was sent to queen’s advisors. She had died, so there was now a king, but the question went nonetheless. It was a simple question really: to whom did the land on the plateau belong? The crown? The business? Or the natives? 

Exactly 28 years after the land was taken by these businessmen, the queen’s advisors had an answer. It belonged to the crown. The company could administer it, and had rights to the minerals under it, but the land belonged to the crown. 

What of the natives, you wonder. No, it was decided. They did not own the land, they couldn’t because when the Europeans arrived, they had no sense of ownership. Put differently, they couldn’t own the land because when the white people came the natives didn’t even know that they owned the land. In fact, they were lucky that they weren’t driven to the Kalahari, as to them that would have been the same. 

Ndipo pakaperera sarungano…..(the end).

Fact, or fiction?

We live in a country where soon, a majority of us will think that this is fiction. Where many people don’t know that what the story above calls advisors is in fact a judgement of the Privy Committee of the House of Lords, the highest decision making court over the colonies. That we lost our land because they told each other that it was never ours in the first place.

We live in a country where our history might recede into myth. Where the issue of whether or not to pay compensation for land is elevated into just that: an issue, instead of it being seen for the insult that it really is. We live in a country where holders of stolen property can say ‘our property’, and sponsor political narratives that mortgage our future on that claim.

We live in country where many think when you see the word ‘sanctions’ it is a Zanu PF alibi, and not the blackmail that the US is trying to use to force us to pay US$9 000 000 000.00 in compensation to white farmers for ‘their land’ just because some court based in Windhoek decided that that was the value of the land we took from ‘its owners’.

We live in a country whose history has been shaped by the politics of land, but with very little writing on said land or history by the ‘natives’, the original owners who allegedly didn’t know that they owned the land. This failure, to write about our own history, to record our own truths, risks making true what they said in London in 1918 regarding our land:

“Whoever now owns the unalienated lands, the natives do not….. 

Some tribes are so low in the scale of social organisation that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with the institutions or the legal ideas of civilised society. Such a gulf cannot be bridged. It would be idle to impute to such people some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.”

That then, is the history that is written about our land. A long time from now, our children will ask: ‘why then do you dispute what’s written in preference for legends.”  We need to have our own counter narratives on the same subject, if we are to change the conversation and bring it to the right side of truthsay. NoViolet Bulawayo said “we need new names”. We need new stories. True stories. Our stories.

We need to write our own history. About our land.