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Land Reform and Property Rights in Zimbabwe

Info: 5465 words (22 pages) Essay
Published: 10th Aug 2018 in History

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The purported discrimination against minority groups in terms of land entitlements and other rights is not a new concept in Africa, as well as other countries around the world. With the legacy of apartheid in South Africa still rife in various parts of the African continent, the rights of the minority population have never been more prominent in the media and the like. Zimbabwe has experienced a similar plight during recent times, with President Mugabe implementing radical land reform measures so as to “equalise” the land ownership demographic in Zimbabwe. Take for example the Abuja Agreement on Zimbabwe Land Reform, dated 6 September 2001 which states (in part):

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Zimbabwe has agreed…to end all illegal occupations of white-owned farmland and return the country to the rule of law, in return for financial assistance.” The Agreement goes on to state that, as a result of the historical injustices, the Zimbabwe land situation endangers the stability of both southern Africa, and the whole continent, and that is why a land reform program in Zimbabwe must adhere to “human rights, the rule of law, transparency and democratic principles.”). The Zimbabwe delegation promised (1) that no more farms will be occupied; (2) to remove farms that do not meet set criteria from the lists and move squatters on those farms to lands acquired legally; (3) to speed up talks with the U.N. Development Programme; (4) to reinstate the rule of law; and (5) to invite the delegation to visit Zimbabwe and see the current situation. The United Kingdom also promised to contribute significantly to fund the land reform program, and encouraged other international organizations to do the same.[1]

It is the purpose of this brief to analyse the various methods with Zimbabwe have sought to implement, both pre- and post-independence, in order to ensure that land is not only distributed fairly among the population, but also in such a way that ensures the overall economic sustainability of Zimbabwean industry. Notwithstanding this, this paper will also explore the current precarious economic position of Zimbabwe as well as the somewhat selfish and unstable political administration, in order to determine whether this has any impact on the land reform policy and the Zimbabwean society at large.

Pre independence Land Reform

By 1898, Britain required the British South Africa Company (BSA) to create communal areas for the Africans. The Communal Areas were developed and despite the limitations the Communal Areas created there was still adequate land. The BSA realised that agriculture in Rhodesia could be highly profitable and embarked on a route of divesting Africans of lands and giving it to white colonists.[2] In 1925 the Morris-Carter Commission appointed to ensure white land domination determined that the best way to put the economy on a sound footing was landholding patterns.[3] The Land Appointment Act of 1930 broke land up along racial lines. Race groups were not allowed to own land in each other’s designated areas. In terms of this Act, 50.8% of land was reserved for white settlers and the African majority was allocated 30% of the land. The remaining 20% of the land was owned by commercial companies or the colonial government or was reserved as conservation areas.[4]

The land reserved for the white settlers was situated in the arable central highlands and the land reserved for the Africans along the plateau sloping down into the Zambezi Valley and mountainous escarpment. This land was designated as African Reserve Areas. The colonial government adopted the following legislation that relegated Africans to infertile reserves known as communal lands:

  • The 1913 Natives Land Act
  • The Land Apportionment Act of 1930
  • The Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951
  • The Land Tenure Act of 1969

The result of these policies led to a highly skewed land ownership. One percent of the white farmers owned more than half of the available agricultural land and over seventy percent of all fertile lands.

At the time of independence, the two racial groups each owned about 40% of the land in Zimbabwe. The population density was however vastly different with far greater number of people living on African land. The population density for white farm land was 1 per square mile and that of African farm land 46 per square mile. The white settlers further had the pick of the land and were also supported by massive state intervention in the development of a farming economy. The state provided extensive communication and marketing infrastructure in commercial farming areas, and made subsidies and loans available to white farmers.

The inequality of land allocation and the support to white agriculture were continuous areas of conflict and contention. The first rebellion took place in 1896 but the African people were defeated by the superior military might of the colonial forces. The second rebellion (“Chimurenga”) began in the 1960s and was led by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the now defunct Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Both ZANU and ZAPU were committed to radical land reform on coming to power. The dispossession of Africans was still a living memory for many of the elders in Zimbabwe who had lived through the first Chimurenga. Both ZANU and ZAPU elicited a lot of support from the peasants. Most of the supporters lived in rural areas and the war was largely fought in rural areas. It was guerrilla fighters and peasants who fought against a modern army of the white regime.

The Lancaster House agreement brought about a ceasefire and new elections. The colony reverted back under British rule. It further provided for a new constitution that implemented majority rule and at the same time protected the rights of the white minority. The parties agreed that the country will be named Zimbabwe. The subsequent elections in 1980 saw Robert Mugabe win and form the first government, post colonialism. Because the land issue was the main driving force for Prime Minister Mugabe’s campaign, he promised that his government would investigate for ways to reverse past discriminatory policies in land distribution, education, employment, and wages.[5]

The fundamental aim of Zimbabwe’s land reform program today is to redress the inequalities within the existing tenure system that denies the African majority access to fertile lands.[6]

Background to conflict

Zimbabwe has approximately 12 million people and the land area is approximately 386669 square kilometres. The land tenure system in place today is the remains of the colonial system. The colonial system created the inequalities and that is what the current Zimbabwean government is trying to overcome with land reforms.

The civil war lasted until the late 1970’s when a settlement was negotiated that led to the Lancaster House Agreement and independence for Zimbabwe. At that time the inequalities were very visible with the population density where the African people lived being three times those in the commercial farming area. The land was still divided along racial lines with about 6000 white farmers owning 42% of the country.

The land reform experience in Kenya played an influential role in the search for a workable solution for the land crisis in Zimbabwe. The Kenyan problem was similar to that of Zimbabwe, they also had a guerrilla warfare and dispossessed peoples which fuelled the conflict. The British tried to defuse the crisis by buying out white farmers. The amount the British Government made available to buy white farms in Kenya was ï¿¡500 million. The parties hoped that a similar solution would be available for Zimbabwe and during secret negotiations in the mid seventies the negotiating parties promoted an Anglo- American Development Fund for Zimbabwe. This idea received broad support and was even backed by the then ZANU/ZAPU Patriotic Front (ZANU/ZAPU PF). The British Government agreed to contribute $75 million and there were hints from the United States that it would contribute an extra $200 million. The money was going to be used to buy out the white owned farms.

The Lancaster House negotiations started in 1979 with Ian Smith, Abel Muzorewa and the ZANU/ZAPU PF all took part in the negotiations. By the time the negotiations took place, Britain had a new government. During the Lancaster negotiations the so called Development Fund was used as bait to get the liberation movements to reach an agreement with the Rhodesian Government with Abel Muzorewa as the prime minister and Ian Smith representing the white minority. The offer of the fund was withdrawn and the British Government offered a compromise. They were very concerned about the white farmers and in exchange for a promise by the liberation organisations that they will not take away the land from the white farmers for a period of 10 years unless it was on the basis of a willing seller and willing buyer and to guarantee landholding the British Government will underwrite half of the costs of resettlement with the Zimbabwean Government required to provide the other half. In 1980 the British Government put up an initial amount of ï¿¡20 million. For the Zimbabwean Government resettlement was the key issue in the transfer of power to an independent Zimbabwean regime. The only way that land could therefore be redistributed was on the basis that white farmers will sell their land willingly. Those who wished to continue farming was free to do so and the government was not allowed to carry out mass expropriation of land from white farmers.

Although the Zimbabwean Government retained the right to expropriate land for public resettlement purposes, the compensation it was required to pay had to be paid out in foreign currency. Article Sixteen of Zimbabwe’s Constitution allowed the Zimbabwean Government to expropriate land that was not being utilised. During the guerrilla ware many farmers abandoned their farms and these were taken by the new Government. The Zimbabwean Government thus was in a position to move forward with redistribution of the land by expropriating land for the public good. Today this is what President Mugabe is saying to justify this controversial land acquisition program. The frontline states in Southern Africa placed tremendous pressure on the liberation organisations to accept the proposed settlement and, in the end, they capitulated and an agreement was reached. The critical capitulation created the breeding ground for future unsatisfied expectations of the war veterans and the landless Africans. The hands of the Zimbabwean Government were tied. They could not carry out their goal of redressing the inequities of the colonialism and the vast majority of the farm land remained in the hands of the few white farmers.

Following the war an urgent need for reconstruction existed and measures were required to address the mass displacement of the peasant people in Zimbabwe. Since the ware was mostly fought in the rural areas the peasant agriculture collapsed and because the government could not expropriate white owned land 90 percent of all marketed food in the country was produced by the white farm owners. This fact strengthened the white farmers’ position both economical and politically. The restrictions imposed through the Lancaster House agreement remained a constant theme in Zimbabwean land reform in the decades following independence.[7]

By 1997 a high number of more fertile agricultural lands remained under the control of a few thousand white farmers. It was now 17 years since independence and although the Government changed the constitution in 1990 (after the 10 year period) to make it easier for ti to expropriate land the vast majority of displaced Africans and the war veterans who fought on the land for the land was still landless. The population of a lower class labourer in the so called tribal reserves increased. President Mugabe has on many occasions said that the British Government reneged on the agreement that was reached at the Lancaster House. Yet, Britain that reneged on the Lancaster House agreement to pay compensation to its indigenes in Zimbabwe on their lands to be redistributed, for equity, could brazenly cry foul and deploy its immense media power to demonise Mugabe.[8]

Zimbabwe’s Political History

Cecil John Rhodes became rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams through his companies, De Beers Consolidated Mines and Goldfields of South Africa. The first company exploited the diamond fields in the Northern Cape and the second one the goldfields on the Reef. His biggest dream was to establish a continuous strip of British Empire from the Cape to the mouth of the Nile. The terms of incorporation of his mining companies included the right to invest in northern expansion. Rhodes formed the British South Africa Company (BSA) to expand into Africa beyond South Africa without involving the British government. BSA was also looking for gold fields and the first white settlers settled in what is now known as Harare in 1890. Gold was indeed discovered in the Zimbabwe highlands. In 1891 the area is declared a British protectorate and from 1895 the region up to the Zambezi is known as Rhodesia.

The gold that was discovered in Zimbabwe was not as concentrated as on the gold reef in South Africa and nearly impossible to extract profitably. The company encouraged white settlement of Zimbabwe for farming purposes as an alternative means of generating an income for it. The direct result of this policy was a greater need to dispossess indigenous peoples of their land and force them into labour on the settler farms.

Since the Zimbabwean highlands were not very fertile, the white settler farmers struggled to make a living. The result was that the BSA did not make any profits. Lobengula who was the king of the Ndebele people granted Rhodes the mining rights in part of his territory in return for 1000 rifles, an armed steamship for use on the Zambezi and a monthly rent of £100. He tried to maintain good relations with the British but many of his tribe were eager to expel the white people. Leander Jameson who was administering the region for Rhodes started waging war against Lobengula and easily defeated Lobengula who had his headquarters at Bulawayo. There was a strong tribal uprising against the British in 1896 but thereafter Rhodes’s company brought the entire region up to the Zambezi under full control. Because BSA was not making any profits it wanted to get out of the territory and the white settlers were asked to vote on three choices. On 12 September 1923 Rhodesia becomes a self-governing crown colony. The colony is prosperous and successful with the white population growing to 222,000 thirty years after the referendum.

By 1953 Rhodesia has been a self governing colony for thirty years and the African people remained disenfranchised. In 1957 a tiny B roll is established providing for a small number of African voters. Between 1953 and 1963, Rhodesia was part of a colonial federation with two other colonies namely Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. During the early 1960’s African politicians in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland won more power in the legislative councils and pressure grows on the British government to break up the federation. All three colonies were also demanding independence and the federation is formally dissolved on 31 December 1963.

During the years of federation the parties are formed which will subsequently fight the bitter struggle for the future of an independent Rhodesia. Joshua Nkomo, the first African leader in the new era, is elected as president of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1957. The ANC is banned and he is the founder member of the National Democratic Party in 1960 which in turn is banned. In 1961he replaces it with ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union). Robert Mugabe and the reverend Ndabaningi Sithole are both members of this ZAPU. In 1963 Mugabe and Sithole split from ZAPU and form the rival ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). The United Nations supported the African majority in their quest for political suffrage and this support combined with the political pressure from the African majority forces the federal government to introduce a new constitution in 1961 allowing for African representation in parliament. A direct result of this move is the establishment of a new political party by Ian Smith known as the Rhodesian Front. The Rhodesian Front was committed to white supremacist policies and offered an independent Rhodesia governed by the white minority.

The new party is the surprise winner in the elections in 1962. The party in power at the time was the more moderate United Federal Party. The new prime minister is Winston Field and the founder of the party, Ian Smith becomes his deputy. Ian Smith replaced Field as prime minister in April 1964and becomes prime minister of Rhodesia. At this stage Rhodesia is once again separate self-governing colony. Ian Smith ordered the arrest of Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe as his first act in office. They remained in detention until 1974. Reverend Sithole joined them in November 1965. Pursuant to Smith’s promise of independence he now tries to persuade the British government to grant independence on the basis of white minority rule. The British government refused the request and Smith decides to take matters into his own hands and on 11 November 1965 he publishes a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).

Harold Wilson embarked on quiet diplomacy and there followed meetings between Smith and Wilson. Two of the meetings took place on warships (the Fearless and the Tiger) off Gibraltar in 1966 and 1968. Smith is unmoved by the quiet diplomacy of the British government.

In 1968 the United Nations imposes economic sanctions against Rhodesia with the approval of the British government. The sanctions do not work immediately and takes a long time to become effective. Guerrilla warfare by ZAPU and ZANU is more effective. They attack Rhodesia from across its borders. Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo also buried the hatchet and in 1976 they formed a united front namely the Patriotic Front (PF). By 1978 Smith realises that the white minority will have to grant concessions to the African majority and he comes to an agreement with a moderate African leader bishop Abel Muzorewa, leader of the UANC (United African National Council). Multi racial elections are held in 1979 but the Patriotic Front is banned from the elections. Bishop Muzorewa emerges as the prime minister. The agreement between Smith and Bishop Muzorewa entails guarantees securing white political and economic interests

Smith underestimated the tenacity of the Patriotic Front and it continues its guerrilla campaign against Rhodesia. The fact that the PF was banned meant that there were no real democratic elections and the UANC was shackled to the agreement it reached with Smith in exchange for the right to participate in the elections.

In December 1979 all three African leaders attend a meeting in London. UDI is overturned and Rhodesia reverts briefly to the status of a British colony. The parties reached an agreement which is now commonly known as the Lancaster House Agreement. When Kenya became independent the British government promised £500 million to assist Kenya with its land reforms. The PF negotiated with the British government for a similar concession. At the time of the Lancaster House Agreement the British government agreed to provide funds to the Zimbabwean government to assist it in redistributing the land on the basis of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’.

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Post-Colonial Land Reforms

Following the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 the government and administration has sought to implement various measures in an attempt to reform the land conflict and address the fact that the most viable and valuable land in Zimbabwe is owned by white farmers, which forms a very significant minority of the Zimbabwean population. As one author puts it:

The land division in Zimbabwe now is horribly inequitable. Of the country’s 11.4 million people, the white minority, comprising one percent of the total population, owns over one-third of the farmland. The British fully realized the need for some measure of land reform when they granted Zimbabwe its independence. But, during the first two decades of autonomy, the Zimbabwean government has moved slowly to address the land scarcity issue. The situation is aggravated now because a minuscule white minority owns most all of the large commercial farms that support Zimbabwe’s agriculture-dependent economy.[9]


The unfortunate irony is that the very land the Zimbabwean government wants to expropriate belongs to white farmers whose land provides employment for many Africans, whose products are vital to the country’s financial health, and whose crops feed not only Zimbabwe, but also its neighbors. Nevertheless, Mugabe has marked around 4,900 white-owned, commercial farms (about ninety-five percent of the total number of white-owned farms) for appropriation as part of his “fast track,” land redistribution plan.[10]

The above passages demonstrate the difficulties which post-colonial land reforms face in the Zimbabwean context, particularly in an economic sense. The white-owned farms which are being marked for appropriation under the new “fast track” land reforms implemented by Mugabe contributes significantly to the economic sustainability of Zimbabwe, given the fact that it provides employment for many of the black Africans, as well as providing an export market for Zimbabwe to other countries. The theory, according to Nading, is that if this land is taken away from the white farmers, it places Zimbabwe in an even more precarious economic position than what it is currently experiencing. Contrary to this argument, is important to note the current economic situation in Zimbabwe is not good. Zimbabwe’s inflation is astronomical, and the government is quite clearly broke. The government also continues to fund what is described as an “ill-informed troop deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo”.[11] In October 2001 the Zimbabwean government sought US$360 million in international aid from the United Nations Development Program.[12] These factors tend to demonstrate that Zimbabwean government has a history of not being particularly responsible with its funds, often directing funds to places where they should ordinarily not be directed. Therefore questions need to be asked in relation to the proposed ‘fast track’ land reforms and whether they actually make sound economic sense in the Zimbabwean context. While, in a social sense, the proposed scheme is to succeed in theory in equalising land ownership in Zimbabwe and negating the concentration of land ownership among the minority white population, the statistics show that the land owned by white farmers under the previous schemes (and, in turn, in current times) comprises much of the economic integrity of Zimbabwe. However, conversely, Zimbabwean government does not have a history of sound political integrity and raises questions over this policy in an economic sense.

It is a well-known fact that much of Zimbabwean Pres Mugabe’s support comes from the black Zimbabwean population. In this regard, it is clear that one of the political justifications of the Fast Track reforms is to look after Mugabe’s own political self interests, and not necessarily to advance the social welfare status of Mugabe supporters. However it would also appear that the Fast Track reforms are veiled in such a way so as to create the impression that Mugabe is looking after the black population of Zimbabwe, however the facts indicate that this is not the case. As one author puts it:

Mugabe began his “fast track” campaign in earnest against the minority, white farm-owners and the opposition group, the MDC, following voters’ rejection of Mugabe’s proposal for a new constitution on February 15, 2000.

Through this constitutional referendum, Mugabe sought to extend his office of the presidency for another six years.[13]

This essentially demonstrates Mugabe’s selfish political nature, with Mugabe firstly seeking to extend his office of the presidency by another six years and, after this was rejected by the people in a referendum, he then sought to implement a land reform scheme which purported to favour the black majority so he could, in theory, propose his constitutional amendment again and have it passed at a second referendum. It also demonstrates the flaws in the Zimbabwean political system, in the sense that it does not operate to promote true democracy and representation of all Zimbabwean citizens, but rather to preserve the political self-interest of the ruling class and taking the vote of the less educated, but majority, black Zimbabwean voters for granted. It will be difficult to submit to there is an ultimate social welfare aim behind these proposed land reform measures, as the facts indicate that Mugabe has a history of being self-centered and power hungry in his political ideologies and views. Therefore the overall integrity on both an economic and social front, as well as the political motivation of same, is questionable at best.

In summary the post-Colonial approach to land reform in Zimbabwe does not present substantial merit in its aims and objectives so as to justify disenfranchising white landowners in favour of the “disadvantaged” black Zimbabwean population on a number of fronts. As one author puts it:

Moreover, these [land reforms] reinforce a state-centric view of rural Zimbabwe that leads to a naive faith in the government’s current ability or future possibility to (re)order rural life for the betterment of all. Given the checkered history of state policies toward land in colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, such faith inspires more concern than relief.[14]

The above passage perhaps summarises this chapter perfectly, in the sense that this policy inspires false hope in the Zimbabwean government to deliver a policy which is beneficial for all Zimbabweans. The facts appear to indicate that this policy only serves to benefit the ruling class, and not the majority black population as it purports to.

Are the Land Reform Provisions Justifiable?

There is little ability to dispute the fact that the land reform provisions which have been put in place since the independence of Zimbabwe provide for a significantly increased rate of land reform and the measures that were previously put in place. However the real question that this paper must answer is whether or not the most recent provisions are a positive step for the people of Zimbabwe, particularly the black minority population, or whether they serve as more of a burden upon the Zimbabwean population as a whole. This paper has analysed both the pre-and post-independence land reform provisions in the context of the social, political and economic merits thereof. The fact of the matter is that post-independence land reform provisions in Zimbabwe have not appropriately addressed the challenges which Zimbabwe faces in these areas. As one author puts it:

Zimbabwe has found the redistribution of land to peasant farmers particularly difficult to achieve: in ten years the government has been able to relocate fewer than 60,000 farmers, in spite of earlier promises to resettle 162,000 by 1985. Following passage of the Land Acquisition Act in March 1992, the country’s commercial farmers face compulsory acquisition of their land by the government, including those farms located in lucrative tobacco growing areas. Although the government will pay compensation, farmers will be unable to appeal established compensation levels.[15]

In other words, the currently land reform provisions severely prejudice those who already own land in such a way that grants an unfair advantage to those who do not, such as the majority black population. More importantly, compensation which white farmers will receive as a result of the Zimbabwean government’s compulsory land acquisition is inadequate and is not subject to any formal review. This means that farmers do not have any ability to challenge him out of compensation they receive, leaving them significantly out of pocket as a result of the government’s land reform proposals and with a limited ability to make income from the skills which are probably all they have in terms of plying their trade.

Zimbabwe is a very spotted political history, particularly in relation to looking after the best interests of its people. President Mugabe also has a proven track record of looking after his own self interests before looking after the interests of his electors. In this regard one must question the political motivation of the Zimbabwean land reform policies and whether in fact it sets out to achieve what it purports to be its aims and objectives. It cannot be disputed that the policy does seek to empower black Zimbabwean population; however this paper suggests that it does not have adequate regard the economic consequences of disenfranchising white farmers, who own most of the profitable land in Zimbabwe. It is this factor that cast doubt over the policy as a whole, however regard need to be had for the current economic situation in any case. Inflation is through the roof, and one needs to consider whether hurting the already crippled Zimbabwean financial sector is a sensible approach in the long run.


In summary, and in consideration of the above points, it is clear that the land reform policy Zimbabwe post-independence is not one which the government should be proud of. This paper has presented evidence which suggests that British colonisation of Zimbabwe had a view of equal land distribution, but also a view of economic prosperity, in the sense that the most prosperous land was distributed to those who have the skills and knowledge to appropriately deal with and generate profit from that land. Even when Zimbabwe became independent in 1979-1980, the British government continued to allocate funds to Zimbabwe in an attempt to redistribute land, however this distribution occurred on a ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ basis. This demonstrates the fact that, when the British government had a role in policy forming in Zimbabwe, it always had Zimbabwe’s interests at heart. Since Zimbabwe gained independence, the administration of its affairs has been tainted by greed, fraud and deception and the people of Zimbabwe are the ones who have suffered in this regard. To sum up the current land reform policy in Zimbabwe:

“Since 1890 up to today, the land question has singularly had the most significant impact on Zimbabwe’s political and economic history.” Most recently, the Land Resettlement Program, developed after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, has had mixed reviews. One position is that the program has “resulted in one of Africa’s most successful examples of land redistribution.” The other position is that the land reform program in Zimbabwe has been disastrous to the country and its economy. According to some sources, a total of over 3.5 million hectares of land have been resettled. But, “[t]here is considerable controversy on the number of people who have [actually] been allocated land.”[16]


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