Land reform has dominated news about Zimbabwe for the past four years under President Robert Mugabe. But, land ownership has been a contentious issue since the advent of colonialism in the late 19th century when British settlers started displacing blacks who were on the land.
As British colonists took over what became known as Rhodesia, blacks were pushed into what were called native reserves. The blacks waged an armed struggle against white rule for 16 years until independence in 1980.
The black population, overcrowded in semi-arid pockets of land, was deeply unhappy with the pace of land reform. Sporadic farm invasions started soon after independence. The government discouraged the invasions and assured some four thousand white commercial farmers that they would not lose their land.
Professor Sam Moyo, the executive director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, says while there were genuine grievances about the slow pace of land reform, other forces were at play. The economy was performing poorly and liberation war veterans were increasing pressure on the ruling party.
“We saw that in 1997 going to 1998 we were stuck in this position where increased internal pressure within the ruling party, emergence of a more active labor movement and social protests in the urban areas coupled with a failure to agree with the international community a model of ameliorating the difficulties that had arisen,” he said. “With the failure to find compromise through dialogue a certain degree of political opportunism emerged.”
And lacking any serious sign from white farmers that they were willing to share the land, the government included land seizure without compensation in a draft constitution.
The draft constitution was rejected in a referendum, but a few weeks later, in early 2000, former independence fighters teamed up with peasants and embarked on country-wide farm invasions. Authorities stood by as the invaders besieged and forced whites off their farms. Farm workers were also targeted and some had their homes burnt down.
The government quickly created a legal framework for the invasions as the “fast track” land program. Almost all of the white farmers were forced off their land. They were told compensation would be paid only for improvements to the land, not for the land itself.
Fast track has also cost 350,000 farm workers and their dependents a livelihood. Thousands of black families were resettled under the small-scale scheme of the program while those with the means took over some of the large farms. A government-appointed committee found that some senior government officials have helped themselves to more than one farm. President Mugabe has said this is unacceptable and efforts at land reclamation are under way.
After the land invasions began, Zimbabwe then experienced two successive droughts. Once known as the region’s food basket and a net food exporter, millions in the country now rely on imported food aid. Poor agricultural production resulted in a drastic fall in foreign currency earnings. Professor Moyo says while the large-scale commercial farmers focused mainly on cash crops, black communal farmers grew the bulk of the staple maize.
This year, the government claims a bumper harvest. This is heavily disputed by aid agencies and members of the political opposition. The opposition says the government is trying to politicize food ahead of the March 2005 elections.
Renson Gasela, the agricultural spokesperson for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, says if his party came to power, it would carry out a land audit and ensure that real farmers and not speculators benefit from reform. He said white farmers who have lost farms would be compensated with the assistance of the international community.
There was no need to racialize the land issue,” he said, “you still could have resettled many more people without disrupting agriculture by dividing the farms and leaving the commercial farmer with a small potion of land that will still be profitable for him to operate but also distributing the balance of the land to the landless blacks.”
This point of view is however not shared by John Worswick, a spokesperson for Justice for Agriculture, a group demanding compensation for farmers who lost their land. Mr. Worswick believes there is still a role for white farmers in Zimbabwe but that the size of farms should not be an issue.
“I don’t believe that there should be a size factor involved, in every other economic endeavor whether it’s in hotels or the transport industry one isn’t limited to the number of trucks or the number of hotels one has,” he said. “I think it has to be the ability of the farmer to productively farm that piece of land that needs to be focused on.”
Professor Moyo on the other hand agrees that once Zimbabwe’s political and economic problems are solved small intensive farming units are the way forward.
These divergent views show that there is still some work to do before Zimbabweans agree on how land reform should be handled in the country.