Reading these three fine books on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe produces something of a Rashomon effect, so different are the elements they emphasize and the information they put forward. Godwin's harrowing account of events at the peak of the political violence in 2008 fits most neatly within the dominant narrative of events. A somewhat less autobiographical sequel to his 2006 memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, his new book examines the violent crackdown Mugabe engaged in after his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), lost the elections to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in March 2008. Godwin recounts gruesome stories of MDC stalwarts being beaten, tortured, and killed by the regime's goons, in the context of a country that has collapsed both economically and morally. Although Zimbabwe's small white minority features prominently in the book, it is less about race than about the horrors of arbitrary and cruel authoritarian rule and the attempts by courageous men and women to promote democracy and the rule of law.
The other two books represent critiques of this dominant narrative. Neither ignores the violence, but both portray the current standoff between the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF government and the pro-democracy opposition in Zimbabwe as the inevitable denouement of a long tale of colonial exploitation and inequality. The Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which resulted in Zimbabwe's independence, left 42 percent of the country's arable land in the hands of 6,000 mostly white commercial farmers. Economic expedience led Mugabe to largely neglect land reform until the late 1990s, when the government made the relatively popular decision to forcefully expropriate white-owned farms, a move that set in motion the current crisis. Whatever the outcome, the books by Tendi and Scoones and his colleagues suggest that no future government will restore the white commercial farm sector to anything like its past prominence.
As Tendi explains in his absorbing discussion of the debates within Zimbabwe's intellectual and media elites, colonialism had generated a powerful set of nationalist grievances focused on race and land, which gave ZANU-PF's hard-line positions legitimacy. The book is forthrightly critical of Mugabe's repression, but its main purpose is to argue that ideas have mattered in Mugabe's hold on power. Mugabe's intellectuals advanced a "patriotic history" that put the MDC on the defensive and weakened the claims of white settlers, who were viewed as having stolen the land they now farmed. Tendi is surely right that Western outrage has been too focused on the fate of the white farmers and that Westerners are too indulgent of the historical injustices that continue to simmer in the national imagination. The book helps readers understand why Mugabe still enjoys significant support, even if, in the end, political ideas have less to do with his regime's longevity than does brute force.
According to Scoones and his colleagues, although much of the land reform process has been violent, chaotic, and illegal, it has been relatively effective in redistributing land to previously landless peasants. With a careful ground-level analysis of land reform in the southern province of Masvingo, the book shows that a large number of previously landless peasants are now making productive investments and have bettered their prospects for long-term food security. Some political cronies have benefited from the program, but the authors contend that this phenomenon has been grossly exaggerated by the media. They do not, however, analyze the land reform's opportunity costs, which arguably include a decade of political violence, the decline of GNP by a third, and a 50 percent increase in the poverty level.