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Power and Ideas: Peering behind the veil of Command Agriculture

Politics without ideas?

A charge is often made against Zimbabwean politics that it is bereft of ideas and is instead obsessed only with personalities. So commonplace is this charge that it has almost assumed the status of fact. The prosecutors of this charge do so often out of frustration over the rate at which the media and the public invariably focus on the dominant political figures, rather than the ideas they offer or represent.

The charge itself is not inaccurate. But it is also only partially correct. Sometimes the prosecutors who press this charge are also caught up in the avalanche of personality-focused debate, to the point that they end up missing the ideas represented or offered by these personalities . A closer look suggests that it is possible to identify ideological and policy-orientations associated with these personalities. People may not like them, but this does not mean they don’t exist. One day, perhaps long into the future, students of history and politics will study the ideas that Mugabe represented during his long political career and tenure as President. As they will, perhaps, the ideas that his nemesis-in-chief, Morgan Tsvangirai represents.

The idea of command

In this essay, I wish to focus on one of these ideas in our politics, partly drawn by its high currency in the moment but also because the person most associated with it, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is regarded as having a good chance of succeeding the current leader, President Mugabe. This idea is Command Agriculture but I am more interested in the broader ideology that informs it and its possible implications. Is it just limited to agriculture as has been suggested or does it represent a resurgence of a commandist approach to the economy and to governance generally? Is the future command? Would a Mnangagwa presidency be one of command (and control)?

As I have already stated, the commandist approach draws interest from the fact that its principal driver is VP Mnangagwa. No person has championed Command Agriculture as he has done. In fact, he has managed to eclipse his boss, President Mugabe, as the face of Command Agriculture. Of course, this is not necessarily a smart thing to do, as it goes against one of the laws of power, which is that the subordinate must never outshine the master. He could argue in defence that he has done what any able deputy ought to do, which is to represent the boss so well. But it does demonstrate an important aspect that is often missing from the succession discourse. It is that, at least in the realm of ideas, it is Mnangagwa who is already leading ahead of his rivals. This is not the same as saying it is a great idea but that the idea that he represents is certainly the one hogging the agenda.

Although Command Agriculture has been mired in corruption-related challenges, it has enjoyed the good fortune of abundant rains during this farming season. Some might credit nature’s benevolence. Others might say it is pure luck. But luck is usually an underestimated factor in the course of events. If Command Agriculture is pronounced “successful” it will obviously yield more than a good harvest as it will also bring political profit to Mnangagwa. More importantly, it might give him the confidence that a broader commandist approach to governance actually works. If so, this could see the commandist approach being extended to other areas of governance. This alone graduates it into an important point of intellectual enquiry, one that should also exercise the minds of media practitioners and political strategists and analysts.

Interestingly, there has been a paucity of rigorous debate on this issue. While there has been sporadic dismissal of commandism from opposition circles, there has been no coherent or sustained policy critiques on this approach to economic governance. Former Finance Minister, Tendai Biti has been a critical voice, ridiculing the idea of command economics. Ironically, the most visible critique of Command Agriculture has come from within ZANU PF itself via the agency of Professor Jonathan Moyo. It could be the sign of a Cabinet that is vibrant or one that is divided. But such public spats over policy are not new to this government, which is increasingly demonstrating signs of dysfunctionality, a ship without an alert skipper. Not long ago, there was a loud and messy policy discord between two Cabinet Ministers over the controversial indigenisation policy. In the end, Mugabe stepped in but the damage had already been done. On Command Agriculture, it is still a subject of enquiry whether Moyo’s critique is ideological or factional. But those who remember their history will recognise that Moyo’s critique of commandism echoes a similar critique of the one party state agenda during his younger days is academia at the University of Zimbabwe. I shall return to this point later in this essay.

What is certain is that opposition parties would be doing themselves a disfavour if they do not pay attention to the emerging discourse on Command Agriculture and commandist approach to governance more generally. Command Agriculture could be to ZANU PF and, in particular, to Mnangagwa what land reform and indigenisation were to Mugabe – flagship policies that formed the backbone of his populist political campaigns. It is important to focus on electoral reforms, but this should not forestall the need to deal with policy issues. People are genuinely interested in so-called bread and butter issues and policies that ensure their delivery are important.

Command economics

The core element of a command economy is the central role of the state in the allocation of goods and services and in the decision-making processes in economic governance. In a command society, the economy is centrally-planned by government. The allocation of resources and prices of goods and services are set and controlled by government. Command economies are often associated with communism and authoritarianism. However, non-communist states that have authoritarian tendencies also often have an orientation towards commandism, controlling most, if not all, aspects of society. Commandist states tend to be highly intrusive, interested in controlling private lives.

The opposite of a command economy is the free-market economy, in which decision-making is generally left to the choices of private citizens and is governed by market forces. The laws of demand and supply, rather than state diktats, determine economic processes and prices of goods and services. The market is seen as the most efficient allocator of resources. Free market economies are often associated with liberal democracies although formerly commandist states like China have been moving from centrally-planned command economy to a system that is oriented towards the market. Still however, even in China, the state retains an important role.

Each of these approaches have their merits and demerits but it is not the purpose of this article to interrogate these. Whereas command economies are generally characterised by a lack of individual choice, free-market economies are accused of generating and increasing inequalities. Even though it is said there is more freedom in market economies, they are also not immune from state intrusion. For example, while technology and social media have opened up new spaces of engagement and interaction, this has also come at a cost to privacy. Even the most liberal states carry out extensive surveillance of citizens. Perhaps the most accurate description of modern economies and societies is that they are neither purely commandist nor free-market-based but often contain a mixture of both. The only difference is the extent to which a state lays emphasis on one or the other.

Resurgence of commandism

In analysing the meaning and implications of the apparent resurgence of commandist approach to governance and in particular, the role of the state in the economy, one must acknowledge that there is a deep and complex history to it. It would not be the first time that the state has assumed a central role in the economy. The colonial economy was most certainly not guided by communism, in fact, one of the things that the colonial state claimed to be fighting was the fear that the nationalists wanted to introduce communism. But it is also fair to say that the colonial state was a dominant and active player in the economy.. In response to economic sanctions and war pressures in the 1970s the colonial state was heavily involved in import-substitution industries in order to meet local demand. The state had a key role in the steel industry, in the meat and dairy industries, the provision of public transport, the marketing of agricultural products, mining, manufacturing, media and much more.

According to Ronald Libby in The Politics of Economic Power in Southern Africa, one of the reasons why the Rhodesian economy grew after UDI was “precisely because of the state support for use of industrial manufacturing excess capacity, which had remained underutilised since the break-up pf the Federation in 1963. The state provided tariff protection to guarantee a local market for Rhodesian manufacturers and assisted firms to expand into products that were no longer imported because of UDI.” According to Libby, the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation also helped to source foreign loans for private manufacturers. “The state became heavily involved in providing economic infrastructure, cheap energy and transportation for manufacturers,” writes Libby.

Thus the state had a key role in the provision of goods and services, but this was also in response to a crisis brought about by UDI and the war. This was the state and economy which the newly independent Zimbabwean state inherited in 1980. It was, however, unable to sustain its role and most of the state-owned companies gradually went bankrupt and began to survive on taxpayers’ support. It is one of the Mugabe government’s great failings, that it squandered its inheritance to the point of bankruptcy.

The socialist experiment that never was

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the new ZANU PF government espoused a Marxist-Leninist ideology, with the avowed aim of eventually establishing a one party state. In one of his rare personal writings for the 1982 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the then Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe cited “socialism” as “the guiding philosophy of the present government.” At the first Congress after independence in 1984, ZANU PF resolved to establish a Marxist-Leninist socialist state. This was also repeated in the Unity Accord signed between ZANU PF and PF ZAPU in 1987. One of the terms of the Unity Accord was that “ZANU PF shall seek to establish a socialist society in Zimbabwe on the guidance of Marxist-Leninist principles” Another was that “ZANU PF shall seek to establish a one-party state in Zimbabwe”

The 1984 Congress and the Unity Accord also adopted a Leadership Code, whose rules commanded party leaders to lead a frugal life. A term of the Unity Accord read, “leadership of ZANU PF shall abide by the leadership code”. The Leadership Code described ZANU PF as a “Socialist party” and sought to “impose on leaders a strict code of behaviour with a view to assuring the advent of socialism in Zimbabwe”. The Leadership Code sought to command various aspects of leaders’ lives. It was an ambitious project based on commandist ideology. A look at some of the terms of the Leadership Code is instructive. The Leadership Code stated that every ZANU PF leader:

“shall not:

4. Be seen or found drunk in a public place. 5. Commit acts of immorality, 6. Be repeatedly dressed in a slovenly or in appropriate manner thereby failing to maintain personal neatness and cleanliness.”

As is evident the Leadership Code sought to extend control over the leadership to matters including their personal appearance.

The Leadership Code also focused on corruption stating that “ZANU regards corruption as an evil disease destructive of society.” Consequently, it proscribed various acts of corruption. The Leadership Code prohibited leaders from engaging in capitalist enterprise and even owning property. It stated in part:

“ZANU believes that a leader who concentrates on acquiring property or who personally engages in the exploitation of man by man rapidly becomes an ally of the capitalists and an enemy of socialism, and of the masses of the population.”

The Leadership Code went further to state that,

“Except as provided in this section and except as required by his official position, a leader may not:-

a. Own a business, a share or an interest in a business organised for profit, provided that this shall not be interpreted as prohibiting such petty sideline activities as chicken-runs, small plots and gardens on one’s residential property …”

Other things that were prohibited included, receipt of more than one salary, serving as a director of a private firm or business organised for profit, own real estate or other property or an interest in real estate or other property from which he receives rents or royalties; own more than one dwelling house except as dictated by family requirements, but additional houses for purposes of earning rents were prohibited. Leaders were also not permitted to charge interest on loans - “No leader shall indulge in Chimbadzo” the Leadership Code stated. They were also not allowed to own or have beneficial interest in more than 50 acres of land. The prohibitions covered ‘relatives’ who were defined as “a wife, son, a daughter, grandchild or any other relation of the family” and “friends” who included “acquaintances”.

All in all, the Leadership Code demonstrated a commandist approach which the ZANU PF government espoused but never followed. One notable exception was Maurice Nyagumbo, who, in compliance with the Leadership Code gave up a farm that he owned. He had been given the task of enforcing the Leadership Code. However, most ZANU PF leaders never obeyed the Leadership Code and in 1988, a big corruption scandal was unearthed when it was revealed that senior ZANU PF officers were unlawfully and corruptly buying and selling motor vehicles from the state vehicle assembly company, Willowvale Mazda Motor Industries.

The Willowgate Scandal demonstrated the futility of the commandist Leadership Code and showed that even ZANU PF was unable to command its own people. Meanwhile, many other had already begun to amass wealth in different sectors of the economy. The fact of the matter is that while ZANU PF espoused commandism, its leaders were really capitalists at heart, without commitment to the principles they expressed.

Throughout the 1980s, the ZANU PF struggled to reconcile its socialist rhetoric with the actual market economy. In his article for Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mugabe offered an explanation, saying although socialism was ZANU PF’s guiding philosophy “upon the attainment of independence, however, the government made it clear that its programs would occur in a socioeconomic context in which the historical, traditional, and objective circumstances of the country were recognized. Outright nationalization of the various sectors is not a feasible proposition, given the lack of technology, managerial skills, business experience, and even ideological consciousness among the majority of the people. The working class must first develop worker consciousness in terms of its roles, needs, and duties. Similarly, the workers’ technical and managerial skills must be substantially developed before any self-management programs can be undertaken.” These were words of a leader who was struggling to reconcile socialist ideology with an economic reality which he was reluctant to disrupt. ZANU PF struggled with this tension throughout the first decade, with leaders saying one thing in public, and doing the complete opposite in private.

Failure of the one party state agenda

Nevertheless, by the end of the first decade, ZANU PF’s plan to establish a one party socialist state had gone up in flames. There were many factors, both internal and external. As already stated, ZANU PF leaders had never shown commitment to the socialist ideology they preached. They were as keen to accumulate private wealth and power as their counterparts in other African countries had done twenty years earlier when they gained independence.

Secondly, events on the international scene signaled the decline in the fortunes of socialist ideology. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the collapse of communism. The Soviet Union was also disintegrating. The one party authoritarian regimes across Sub-Saharan Africa were also disintegrating in the face of these historic processes. This was the period when most African dictatorships began to embrace multi-party politics and adopting new, more liberal constitutions. It made little sense for Zimbabwe to go where others were leaving.

Thirdly, there was severe domestic pressure against the establishment of a one party state. Academics, students, unions, churches and various groups put up serious resistance against the idea of a one party state. Among the academics at the frontline of the debate on the one party state agenda were the likes of Ibbo Mandaza, Jonathan Moyo, Kempton Makamure, Welshman Ncube, Masipula Sithole and Lloyd Sachikonye. These intellectual debates were a critical part of the one party state discourse and helped influence the tide of events. University students also played an important role as did Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement, formed in the wake of his expulsion from ZANU PF.

A combination of these and other factors meant the idea of a one party socialist state was no longer tenable and with it also went the idea of a command economy. Instead, after 1990, Zimbabwe was forced to adopt a new economic structural adjustment programme. The economy needed support and the International Monetary Fund-backed ESAP was adopted under the leadership of the then Minister of Finance, Dr Bernard Chidzero. ESAP was based on neo-liberal market-based approaches to economic governance. It required the state to retreat from economic activities such as running businesses and the provision of social services such as education and health.

ESAP demanded the privatisation and commercialisation of state-owned enterprises which the government had inhetited from the colonial state but was struggling to run and sustain. Ideologically, it demanded a decline in the commandist part the economy in favour of the free market. This would mean government losing control of vital sectors and it was not quite prepared to do that. Due to the impact that the resulting austerity measures caused on the workers and ordinary people, ESAP faced serious resistance. Just as the state had not been bold enough to implement its Marxist-Leninist ideology in the 1980s, the state took a half-hearted approach to ESAP in the 1990s.

By 2000, when the Fast Track Land Reform Programme started, the government had gone back to its rhetoric but this time it was couched not as socialism but as empowerment and social justice. But one might get a clue from what Mugabe wrote in his 1982 piece in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “In the view of the ZANU PF government, the struggle for independence must operate on the basic economic struggle of principles of Marxist-Leninist socialist principles. When our government finds itself in conflict with the established capitalist system, it must, in due course, assert its paramountcy and find practical application, again through popular support in replacing the latter. Independence is therefore a starting point of a new national struggle”.

Command politics

However, to analyse commandism from an economic perspective would only provide a partial view of the otherwise bigger picture. There is in fact a more consistent line of commandism in political governance. To use legal philosopher John Austin’s statement of command theory in relation to law, a command as “an intimation or expression of a wish to do or forbear from doing something, backed up by the power to do harm to the actor in case he disobeys.” The person to whom the command is directed has an obligation to obey the command and failure to obey results in harm to the person, also referred to as a "sanction."

As has been previously discussed on these pages, the new Zimbabwean state inherited a repressive machinery from the colonial state. It was an intrusive state and on account of the war it became extremely invasive and commandist. We have already observed that due to similar pressures, the colonial state was already heavily involved in the economic sector, particularly in manufacturing. Law was an important instrument in keeping society under command and control. Young white men were commanded to join the war to defend the colonial state. Peasants were forced away from their homes into “protected areas”, with their freedoms heavily restricted. Emergency laws since the 1960s continued well up to 1990, ten years after independence.

Therefore, a commandist and repressive approach to political governance established in the colonial era continued after independence. This was partly because there was continuity in the personnel and training methods from the colonial era. In addition, pre-existing laws from the colonial era were protected from constitutional challenge for the first 5 years of independence. With an increasingly vulnerable ruling party after 2000, facing a stiff challenge from the then newly formed MDC, ZANU PF strengthened its commandist approach to governance. New laws restricted individual freedoms. Prime examples include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which did immense harm to media freedom. Another was the Public Order and Security Act, in effect a re-enactment of the notorious Law and Order (Maintenance) Act from the colonial era, which restricted political rights. These and other laws were designed to command and control individuals in the exercise of their civil and political freedoms and rights.

In the past year, the state’s commandist tendencies have been visible in the wake of the citizens’ movement which swept across Harare and a few other urban spots. Using a variety of threats, arrests, statutory instruments, draft laws, and raising cost of access to internet data, the state has tried to command and control people’s choices and behaviour in cyberspace. Social media became a new zone of contestation, with the state keen on asserting instruments of command and control.

Mnangagwa and command politics

It is against this historical background that Mnangagwa has emerged as the new poster boy for Command Agriculture and a commandist approach to governance. If Command Agriculture earns positive yields, he will happily take the credit. Agriculture has a direct impact on the rural population, which is the biggest voting constituency in the country. Any success in that area, however fortuitous, is bound to be exploited for political benefit. Mnangagwa’s political star could rise on the back of Command Agriculture. The man widely ridiculed by critics as lacking electoral appeal might find himself with a captive audience.

However, a more important task is understanding the meaning and implications of Mnangagwa’s apparent devotion to a commandist approach to governance. What does his championing of Command Agriculture and command economics say of him as a leader? From an ideological point of view it places him closer to China, which whom he already enjoys a healthy relationship. Among the big powers, it was the Chinese who first invited him not long after his appointment as Vice President. It was also to the Chinese that he gave his first televised interview when he visited the country. Mnangagwa’s background is in the security sector. He was a security man during the war and his first job in government was also in the security sector. Apart from that he has also managed the defence ministry. His mentality is therefore steeped in the security/military traditions. It is hardly surprising that he has a strong orientation towards a commandist model to governance.

But how sustainable is a commandist approach to governance?

From an economic point of view, it would mean a state that is heavily involved in planning the economy, in the allocation of resources, in the running of businesses and even in the setting of prices of goods and services. In fact, the flip side of any success in Command Agriculture is that it will probably convince them that commandism works for everything. Already, state media is making noises about broadening the command economy. This could be a sign of things to come. Yet, even for countries like China their economic success has been based on an approach of gradually moving away from a purely commandist economy. It is important that they don’t let any claimed successes of Command Agriculture get to their heads.

A commandist approach to governance is unlikely to provide a healthy environment for the protection of human rights and freedoms. Command and control suggests a paternalistic state, which limits individuals’ freedoms and choices on the basis of what it presumes to be for the individual’s own good or benefit. Under such a system, the paternalistic state claims to know what is good for the people and plans their choices accordingly. Fundamentally, this clashes with individuals constitutional rights and freedoms. In extreme cases, a commandist approach would mean banning religious freedom and therefore the religion that people must believe in and banning all others. We have already observed how, from a human rights perspective, the Zimbabwean state has behaved much like its colonial predecessor, suppressing rather than promoting and protecting human rights. A commandist approach to political governance is likely to represent continuity rather than change.

Overall, commandist approach to governance is likely to restrict, rather than promote freedoms. It is unlikely to promote development. This is not to say that the state does not have a role to play. It certainly does, as China’s development has shown. Indeed, even in the most liberal democratic states, the state still plays an important role, particularly during times of crises. However, as impoverished countries like North Korea have demonstrated, a purely commandist approach has serious drawbacks. Cuba has recorded some important successes in health and education, but it is an exception rather than the rule. China’s economy has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 30 years and taken millions out of poverty thanks to broader economic reforms.


While critics are quick to say Zimbabwean politics centers too much on personalities, perhaps it is because the intellectuals, media and stakeholders have not done much to identify and debate the policy and ideological issues that politicians represent in their conduct and speeches. The notion of commandism is an important ideological standpoint that has deeper roots in our history. While commandism has been prominent as an agricultural policy, it seems to me that it represents something bigger in terms of commandist approach both to the economy and politics. The fact that it is championed by the man who has more than a chance to become Zimbabwe’s next leader should make it an even more important topic of policy debate.

I have argued in this essay that it is wrong to suggest that Zimbabwean politics is completely bereft of ideas and policies. There are there. There have always been. People just choose to ignore them and focus on personalities instead because that is easier and cheaper to talk about. Intellectuals and the media should be drawn to the re-emergence of commandism and its implications for political and economic governance. As for the opposition, it would be a tragedy if they do not confront the command approach head-on.


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