Zimbabwean land reform: Implications

Harry Mashabela thinks there is a case for Mugabe's land reform efforts.

Summary - In a sense, president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was speaking for black people worldwide when he addressed the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year. The standing ovation he received showed appreciation for his courage in trying to resolve the critical land issues facing his country. Yet the British government has imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, persuaded the Commonwealth to suspend Zimbabwe’s membership, and provided financial aid to groups that seek Mugabe’s downfall. Britain and the US profess to be concerned about human rights violations and bad governance in Zimbabwe but the real reason they want to overthrow Mugabe is that he is taking back land from white settler farmers and giving it to indigenous Africans. They considered Mugabe to be a ‘great African statesman’ until he started addressing the land hunger issue in earnest in the 1990s. Land resettlement in the 1980s was governed by the Lancaster House Agreement, which stated that it must be on a willing buyer/willing seller basis. Britain subsequently reneged on her obligation to provide financing, and consequently less than a third of landless black families had been relocated by 1990. When the war veterans invaded white farms after 1997, Mugabe refused to hold them back and the west heaped venom on him. But the veterans, according to economics professor Sam Moyo, are ‘completing the unfinished struggle’ of which political liberation was the first step. ‘Economically, we are still an occupied country,‘ Mugabe told the World Summit last year. ‘Accordingly, my government has decided to do the only just… thing – taking back land and giving it to its rightful indigenous black owners, who lost it in circumstances of colonial pillage.’ What are the implications of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme for South Africa? Whenever this question is asked it stems from a realisation that our own policy is woefully inadequate. Land distribution here is just as skewed in favour of whites as in Zimbabwe, and land hunger is equally severe. Yet little has been achieved in ten years. President Mbeki states categorically that what has happened in Zimbabwe will never happen here. But it is wishful thinking to suggest that land-hungry black South Africans who have witnessed events in Zimbabwe will not challenge the half-hearted, if not sell-out, land reform policy in this country. A Zimbabwe-style explosion may be delayed by the lack of purposeful leadership, but that it will happen one day is beyond question.

In a sense president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was speaking for black people worldwide when he addressed the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year. This was sharply illustrated not only by the standing ovation and enthusiastic applause he received as he stepped off the podium, but also subsequent public comments on his speech. The applause and standing ovation were a tacit expression of appreciation of the courageous stand Mugabe has taken in trying to resolve the critical land problems facing his country.

Yet in the eyes of London and Washington DC, Mugabe remains a pariah and a liability for his country. So much so that in 1992 London established an organisation called the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to provide financial assistance to Zimbabwean groups, political parties, NGOs and the so-called independent newspapers that are hellbent on bringing about the downfall of the Mugabe regime.

The British government and their allies successfully campaigned for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth after Mugabe won the presidential election last year, under the pretext that the election was not free and fair. Economic sanctions have also been imposed against the country.

What, you may ask, is the root cause of all these efforts which are intended to destroy a legitimate, sovereign state? The land reform programme the Mugabe government pursued taking back land from white settler commercial farmers and giving it to the indigenous Africans constitutes the sum total of Mugabe's problems. Not human rights violations, not absence of the rule of law and not bad governance as the British and American governments would like us to believe.

It should be remembered, too, that the Zimbabwean president was considered a 'great African statesman' even by London and Washington before the 1990s when he started addressing in earnest the question of land hunger among his brethren, the majority African people. Before then, Mugabe was bound by the provisions of the Lancaster House Agreement not to tamper with the land issue within the first decade after political independence in 1980.

Whatever land had to exchange hands between white commercial farmers and the Zimbabwean government had, in terms of that agreement, to be on the basis of the willing seller, willing buyer principle, with Great Britain and the USA providing the fledgling Zimbabwean government with the requisite funding. Owners of nationalised farms had to be paid, again in terms of the Lancaster House Agreement, in foreign currency - a matter which limited in no small way the scope for land redistribution by the poor young African state.

Consequently, only 52 000 families out of 162 000 landless African families were relocated during the ten year period. Inadequate funds was the main problem, as Great Britain had failed to honour her obligations to provide the necessary finance.

The pervasive venom being heaped on Mugabe from a variety of quarters in the western world had been building up over the years because he wouldn't hold back the quest for more land, and refused to browbeat the war veterans as they invaded white farms throughout rural Zimbabwe.

In a magazine article, Sam Moyo, professor of economics at the University of Zimbabwe says: "Land occupations have been an ongoing social phenomenon in both urban and rural Zimbabwe before and after the country's independence. They represent an unofficial or underground social pressure to force land redistribution to be taken seriously."

"Compulsory land acquisition," he explains further, "was instigated in 1997 by war veterans, who are few in number in terms of their political base, but whose cause has a broad rural social basis and potential for mobilisation. It is this broad rural base, constituted by the existing hardships and marginalized political grievances, that has been mobilised towards the so-called Third Chimurenga, a process viewed as completing the unfinished struggle." (New Agenda, Issue 9, First Quarter 2003)

Another Zimbabwean, David Hasluck, former director of the white Commercial Farmers Union, blames Tony Blair's Labour government for "messing up in Zimbabwe," saying a Conservative government would never have done it, ie renege on an agreement made by another British government.

Hasluck criticises Blair's Labour government for "not recognising the colonial wrongs over land acquisition in Zimbabwe, and in the process, precipitating the current political and economic crisis". Hasluck has had 400 hectares of a 1300 hectare farm in Manicaland on the border with Mozambique repossessed by Mugabe's government and distributed to landless Africans. But he is not bitter.

"Things started getting difficult in 1995 because by now Mugabe had seen that the land reform programme had not gone on as quickly as his government had hoped," Hasluck says.
"So Mugabe made an extraordinary decision, together with his Zanu-PF party, to take the land issue out of the institution of government and make it a party issue. We had worked well with the government. To them, there was never enough land available. But we (white farmers) always said there was as much land available as they had money to buy, that finance was a constraint. That is why the government maintained that the British didn't fund the land programme adequately." (New African, February 2003)

And Mugabe himself has denounced as false allegations that his government was depriving white farmers of their land. He told the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last September: "We have said even as we acquire land, we shall not deprive the white farmers of land completely. Every one of them is entitled to at least one farm, but they want to continue to have more than one farm - more than one farm indeed. Fifteen, twenty, thirty-five (belonging to) one person!"

"Economically, we are still an occupied country, 22 years after our independence," Mugabe added. "Accordingly, my government has decided to do the only just and right thing - taking back land and giving it to its rightful indigenous black owners, who lost it in circumstances of colonial pillage. This process is being done in accordance with the rule of law as enshrined in our national constitution and laws."

By the end of 2002 about 500 000 African commercial farmers, let alone landless families, had been settled on thousands of farms in Mugabe's controversial land reform programme after two years of troubled implementation and imposed economic sanctions. (New African, January 2003)

In political discourse, the question is sometimes asked: What are the implications of the Zimbabwe land reform programme for South Africa? A question which, in my view, stems from the realisation that South Africa's policy of land reform through land redistribution, land restitution and land tenure reform is woefully inadequate.

Land redistribution in South Africa merely makes it possible for an individual African household to buy land with a R15 000 grant from the government while restitution gives Africans the legal right to apply to the Land Claims Court for the return of land from which they were forcibly removed under the Apartheid system after the land acts of 1913 and 1936.

Land tenure reform, on the other hand, protects, at least theoretically, black communities who for years lived and are living on white farms - mainly farmworkers and labour tenants - from being unfairly or illegally thrown out by the landowners.

With 87 per cent of the total land surface of South Africa historically allocated to the minority white population, while a mere 13 per cent was set aside for the majority black population, in terms of the 1913 and 1936 laws, land distribution is just as skewed in favour of whites as in Zimbabwe, if not worse.

Then there is the constitutional "property rights" clause which guarantees white ownership of the 87 per cent of land they unjustly grabbed from the indigenous people in the period leading to 1913 and 1936, allowing them to claim only land from which they were forcibly removed much later in the history of dispossession. Talk of closing the stable after the horse bolted. There couldn't be a clearer illustration.

In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, land hunger among the indigenous peoples is severe. Land redistribution is based on the principle of willing seller, willing buyer. However, there is a marked difference in approach in dealing with the problem.

While the Zimbabwean government is the active willing buyer, acting in the interest and on behalf of the landless majority, in South Africa individual African families and communities are the willing buyers. The government has merely provided the legislative means for them to use in their attempts to get more land.

The problems facing Africans in South Africa are, moreover, further compounded by the Communal Land Right legislation which seeks to privatise communal land which constitutes part of the 13 per cent belonging to tribal authorities and to government itself. This is a move that attracts even some Africans, especially the business community. But it is likely to aggravate further the spectre of landlessness with most of the 13 per cent of land ending in the hands of a few moneyed individuals.

Needless to say, the land tenure reform legislation brought about fear and insecurity among farm workers and labour tenants as some landowners, believing that the government would interfere in the running of their farms through the implementation of that law, victimised African communities on their farms, especially the elderly and their families, by evicting them.

After almost ten years of democracy, very little has been achieved in terms of land redistribution and restitution. The cost of living is hitting the roof, unemployment is more that 40 per cent and poverty is unbearably high. But our president, Thabo Mbeki, has been categorical: what is happening in Zimbabwe will never happen here, he has been repeatedly quoted as saying in the media.

To suggest that land hungry black South Africans, who are witness to the spectacle in Zimbabwe, may never ever challenge the half-hearted, if not sell-out, land redistribution stratagem is plain wishful thinking. Sporadic incidents of land invasions (remember Bredell in Kempton Park) are already happening, albeit on a small scale, as hundreds of Africans migrate from rural South Africa to towns and cities in industrial centres as far afield as Gauteng and the Western Cape in search of non-existent jobs, and ultimately, shelter for their families.

The occurrence of the Zimbabwe-style explosion in South Africa over the land issue may be delayed mainly due to the lack of a leadership which articulates the prevailing social and economic grievances and mobilises people against them. But that it shall happen some time in the future is beyond question. Nobody foresaw the June 1976 Soweto uprisings that revolutionised the liberation struggle and thus increased the pace for political independence.