Zimbabwe: Reaping the harvest?


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Introduction: Historical Overview

When Zimbabwe obtained its independence from Britain in 1980, it inherited an inequitable pattern of land distribution. The unbalanced pattern of land allocation was characterised by a small minority of white large-scale commercial farmers owning vast amounts of the most productive agricultural land while the majority of the population, made up exclusively of black Zimbabweans, were relegated to crowded lands in the lower rainfall and poorer soil areas. Some 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 15.5 million hectares of land, another 8,500 small-scale farmers possessed 1.4 million hectares. The remaining indigenous communal farmers, comprising roughly 700,000 households, subsisted on 16.4 million hectares, which represented less than half of the country's agricultural land.2

This highly skewed, and largely racial-determined, distribution of land was the direct consequence of the European settler colonisation in the 1890s of what later became known as Rhodesia. White settlers, acting with the encouragement and protection of Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, dispossessed the African inhabitants of the prime areas of the newly "acquired" territory, reducing many of them to become landless labourers for the newcomers. An attempted African rising in 1896, known as the Chimurenga, failed in its efforts to expel the white invaders, who subsequently set about the consolidation of settler rule. At one stage this course seemed destined to end with the incorporation of the territory into the Union of South Africa, but Afrikaner political domination of Rhodesia's southern neighbour persuaded the mainly Anglophone settlers to pursue their own interests, and in 1923 they rejected the idea of being formally included in an expanded Union.

Thereafter, Rhodesia's settlers took swift steps to consolidate their position of privilege and power over the indigenous people of the colony. The Land Appointment Act of 1930 divided up land along racial lines, both in terms of quantity and quality. Thus, 51% of the land was reserved for white settlers, the bulk of it in the arable central highlands. As pointed out by Chitsike, "the African population (the vast majority) was allocated 30% of the land, which was designated as African Reserve Areas (now known as communal areas). The remaining 20% of the land was either owned by commercial companies or by the colonial government (Crown Land)".3

From 1930 to 1980, the year in which Zimbabwe became independent, the area held by whites decreased from 51% to 41%, and the land available to Africans grew from 30% to 40%. However, due to the different population sizes (there are very few whites relative to Africans), the population densities in the African areas remain extremely high through to the present day. In 1951 the Native Land Husbandry Act was passed. Central to this legislation (and also common to many other British colonies in Africa at the time) was the limiting of livestock numbers and the introduction of soil and water conservation methods and technology.4

Data from the 1960s indicates the continuation of a high degree of segregation, in which the African population suffered. "The whites had much more land, in the more fertile regions, and received state support for their agricultural development. The land belonging to black people remained abandoned by the state, receiving no support."5

It was quite apparent from the time before Zimbabwe became independent that there was an urgent need for land reform. In the mid-1970s the second Chimurenga rebellion erupted, led by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). Both liberation movements were committed to carrying out radical land redistribution if and when they took power. According to Sachikonye, "the principal motive for the rebellion was to repossess lost lands - in other words, it was a struggle on the land and for land".6Above all, it identified racial segregation at the root of the land problem in Zimbabwe.

The new constitution that emerged in 1979 after the Lancaster House negotiations on Zimbabwe's independence, however, did not allow for a comprehensive land reform programme. This was primarily because the constitution contained explicit clauses protecting private property, including land, which essentially meant that the land reform process would have to be carried out using the relatively expensive "willing seller, willing buyer" system. As the late Vice President of Zimbabwe, Dr Joshua Nkomo pointed out, the cost constraints involved in this market-based reform process significantly restricted the government's room for manoeuvre on the land question in the 1980s.

...we said that the new constitution should permit government to expropriate land if it was not being properly used. The British said 'fine', so long as we paid the full market price, but we knew that vast acreage were lying idle and therefore without a market price in the areas formerly reserved for white ownership. To buy areas adequate for resettling the many land hungry African farmers, who had been confined to the former tribal trust land, would be beyond the financial ability of the new state.7

The restrictions imposed at Lancaster House were to remain in place for 10 years and as a result of this the new Zimbabwean government found its hands effectively tied in respect of agrarian transformation. This state of affairs ruled out the possibility of any significant redistribution of land. These constitutional restrictions were exacerbated in that following Zimbabwe's liberation war there was an urgent need for reconstruction, and measures to address mass displacement and the collapse of peasant production. Moreover, as "a result of the collapse of peasant agriculture, 90 percent of the country's marketed food requirements were being produced by white farmers".8Ironically, the course of the war itself had placed white farmers in a strong position both economically and politically by the end of the conflict. In the years since independence, the restrictions imposed by means of the Lancaster House agreement have remained a constant theme in the issue of Zimbabwean land reform.

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