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Zimbabwe Under Siege 11/13

The Struggle Over Land Reform

Since the triumph of the 1980 revolution in Zimbabwe the promise of land reform has gone largely unfulfilled. For ten years the nation was saddled with constitutional restrictions imposed by British negotiators. Nevertheless, during the 1980s three million hectares were redistributed to about 70,000 families. This was followed immediately by the adoption of ESAP at the urging of the West. Little could be done in the context of the neoliberal agenda to rectify the inequity of the land ownership pattern inherited from the apartheid Ian Smith regime. Investment was offered primarily to white owners of large commercial farms, while the structure of land ownership changed little. Under terms of the Lancaster House Agreement, Great Britain was obligated to provide certain levels of funding to support land redistribution. By 1996, when Great Britain ceased payments, it had only contributed slightly more than half the promised funds. The $45 million contributed by Great Britain paled in contrast to the billions it expropriated from the people and land throughout the colonial period. By emphasizing that land be held in so-called "capable" hands, British officials encouraged the continued dominance of the agricultural sector by white commercial farmers. In 1997, Zimbabwe finally abandoned the "willing buyer, willing seller" formula which handcuffed efforts at progress, particularly given Great Britain's parsimonious attitude.

By 1998, growing frustration and resentment over the slow pace of land reform induced rural workers, impoverished by ESAP, to take matters in their own hands and occupy land on several large white-owned farms. In many areas, local officials gave their support to these actions. Land occupations, while variable and small in scale compared to the massive land expropriation of blacks under colonial rule, served to put land reform at the political center stage in Zimbabwe. According to one study, "land invasions is the generic term used to denote a negative view of politically organized 'trespass' of farms led by war veterans. Invasions involve temporary visits of a few days and sporadic repeat visits. They do not entail the extended stays." The number of farms experiencing occupations peaked at around 800 in 2000, falling to around 300 the following year. A total of approximately 300 occupations over the years were marred by violence, often the acts of opportunistic criminals engaged in extortion. Several case studies conclude that where grievances existed against specific landowners, their farms tended to be marked for occupation. Landowners who had mistreated workers, paid excessively low wages or exhibited racism were much more likely to experience occupation of sections of their farms. To a certain extent, the recent acceleration in the pace of land reform is a response to the pressure exerted from pent-up anger by the landless. "Past studies had all predicted that inadequate land delivery would precipitate violent confrontations," points out a Zimbabwean economist. "There has been an instrumentalization of violence although the scale of it has been exaggerated and it has been wrongly made the focus of the whole land reform issue. In fact, compared to rural and urban violence in South Africa, Ireland or Brazil, the level in Zimbabwe has been quite low." (85)

A total of around 2,900 white-owned commercial farms were earmarked for redistribution in the latest round of land reform. Owners of listed farms were notified to stop farming within 45 days, and given an additional 45 days to move from their farms. Land subject to acquisition comprised the following categories: unused land, underutilized land, land owned by absentee owners, land owned by a person possessing multiple farms, land exceeding size limits (varying by region), and land contiguous with communal lands. Owners of farms marked for redistribution will be compensated for improvements made on the land, but not for the land itself, as this land was stolen from its original owners in the colonial era. (86) The government of Zimbabwe has repeatedly stated that those landowners whose only farm is being taken will be given another farm of suitable quality. "All genuine and well meaning white farmers who wish to pursue a farming career as loyal citizens of this country will have land to do so," reiterated President Mugabe recently. (87)

Western reports repeatedly charge that land reform is an exercise in rewarding President Mugabe's "friends and cronies." With over 125,000 families settled through February 2001 and an additional 100,000-some expected to receive land in the current phase of land reform, one can only conclude that President Mugabe is an extraordinarily popular man to have so many friends and close colleagues. Nor do Western reports have an explanation for why many of those receiving land are members of the opposition MDC. Another oft-repeated myth is that land reform spells ruin for the agricultural sector. Aside from the temporary dislocation caused by land reform, Western reports assert that the break up of commercial farms will lead to a loss of production, subtly, or in some cases not so subtly, implying that black farmers are ignorant and incapable of knowing how to farm efficiently. Aside from anecdotal stories about withering crops without mentioning drought conditions, little evidence is offered.

One of the popular assertions in Western reports is that land reform is the cause of the drop in maize production, without pointing out 70 percent of Zimbabwe's maize crop is grown by small-scale black farmers. While it is reported that commercial farmland devoted to growing maize has declined due to land reform, what is never mentioned is that the overall level has grown. According to the WFP, "The area planted to cereals actually increased by 9 percent over last year, with maize increasing by 14 percent, mainly due to expansion in the communal and resettled areas." This is a far cry from the arrogant picture we are usually offered of inept black farmers not knowing what they are doing, and either botching the process of farming, or simply sitting idle and confused on empty land. (88)

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