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Zimbabwe's Controversial Land Reform Program Started 10 Years Ago

  • Ish Mafundikwa

Militants led by veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence force more than 4,000 white commercial farmers off their land

This month marks ten years since the beginning of Zimbabwe's land-reform program.

In February, 2000, Zimbabweans rejected a government-backed draft constitution in a referendum. It was the first time President Robert Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, was defeated at the polls.

One of the provisions of that draft would have allowed the government to expropriate white-owned agricultural land for the resettlement of landless blacks.

The proposal would only compensate the farmers for improvements on the farms, such as buildings and equipment. The former colonial power, Britain, would pay the farmers for the land they had lost. The British government denied that responsibility.

The rejection of the draft constitution set off what became known as the fast-track land-reform program. It was called the Third Chimurenga, or revolution in the Shona language.

The government argued that white settlers had seized the land from blacks and it was correcting a historical wrong.

Under the program, white commercial farmers were forced off their farms by militants led by veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence.

The president of the mostly white Commercial Farmers Union, Deon Theron, tells VOA that, of the more than 4,000 white commercial farmers at the beginning of the exercise, only about 300 are still working the land.

"Very few of those 300 are operating fully. Most of them are down 50 percent, down to about 25 percent," Theron said.

He acknowledges that land reform was necessary but laments what he calls the politicization and "racialization" of the exercise.

The former-opposition Movement for Democratic Change supports the redistribution program. But it says the exercise should be carried out in an orderly and non-violent manner.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC, told VOA recently that the program should also benefit more people.

"In principle, we have all agreed that a land audit is the first step before we can rationalize the mistakes of the land-reform program, not the reversal of it but multiple farm ownership, [the] partisan nature of land distribution, unproductive use of land, all those things have to be dealt with so that we have a permanent solution to the land problem in this country," Tsvangirai said.

Critics of the exercise have dismissed it as a disaster because the new farmers have failed to maintain production. But Professor Sam Moyo, of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, says ten years is too short a time to judge the success or otherwise of such a large undertaking.

"There are very few countries in the world where you have had such a major land re-distribution. However, it has a number of contradictions here and there and many issues still remain to be resolved," Moyo said.

He says that, although the distribution has opened up the land to more Zimbabweans, a small group he describes as the black elite has benefited more than the majority.

He says members of this elite have taken over large white farms - some of them more than one - which was one of the complaints directed at the former white landowners.

Moyo dismisses the oft-repeated line that agricultural production has plummeted because the new black owners lack farming skills. He says that, before land redistribution, small-scale black farmers produced the bulk of Zimbabwe's food needs.

"The real constraints are up the chain, in the supply of inputs and services to farmers because industry and some of the service sectors in the economy have been affected by the economic crisis. At the macro level you also have a major constraint in terms of financial flows which affect the broader stability of the economy. Interest rates are too high, 60 percent," Moyo said.

Theron says that, although some white land owners still hope they can be involved in farming in Zimbabwe in one way or another, others just want to be compensated for their losses and move on.

Moyo believes the one-year power-sharing government presents an opportunity for the compensation issue to be debated and eventually addressed, with the involvement of the international community.