Module Thirty, Activity Three

The Land Question

In February, 2000 CE, twenty years after Zimbabwe won its political independence, thousands of Zimbabweans led by men (and a few women) claiming to be veterans of the war of liberation (or war vets, as they are commonly known) occupied hundreds of large commercial farms controlled by Zimbabweans of European descent. On a few farms the occupation did not result in physical violence, but on some farms, houses were looted and burned down, farmers and their farm workers were severely beaten-up. Tragically, a few white farmers and a larger number of African farm workers were killed.

As so often happens in the news coverage of Africa, the violence and struggles surrounding the occupation and subsequent expropriation of almost all of the farms owned by European farmers was widely covered in the European and North American press between 2000 and 2003. While this press coverage was quite comprehensive in providing details of the farm occupation and accompanying violence, the coverage was generally not comprehensive in its analysis of the historical, social, economic, and political context of the crisis.

What were the factors that led to the occupation and subsequent expropriation of European owned farms? Was land an issue of importance for most Zimbabweans, or was it an issue exaggerated and politically exploited by government leaders?

In this section we will try to offer answers to these questions by providing the historical and contemporary political contexts of the land issue in Zimbabwe.

Historical Context of the Land Issue
According to government data published in 1999 at the outset of the current crisis, nearly 20 years after Zimbabwe’s independence, some 4, 400 Zimbabwean farmers of European descent and their families owned 32% of Zimbabwe's agricultural land - around 10 million hectares, while approximately one million black Zimbabwean rural families farmed 16 million hectares or 38% of the land suitable for agriculture in Zimbabwe. What led to this huge disparity in land distribution in Zimbabwe? To answer this question we have to return to the early history of Rhodesia.

You will remember from the discussion of the history of Zimbabwe in the previous learning activity that Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called) was colonized in the 1890s by the British South African Company (BSAC) on behalf of Britain. Cecil Rhodes, the founding director of the BSAC, and its other shareholders were primarily interested in making a profit for the Company and themselves as shareholders. That is, Southern Rhodesia (and Northern Rhodesia to its north) was viewed as an investment; it was colonized not just as part of larger British imperial vision, but just as importantly to make money for the Company’s shareholders.

Initially, as you will remember, the Company thought that Zimbabwe had rich deposits of gold and other valuable minerals. The Company itself was not interested in prospecting for and mining the sought after minerals. Rather, the company recruited European immigrants, or settlers, as they were called, to move to Zimbabwe to prospect for and mine minerals. To attract European settlers the BSAC publicized reports of the potential mineral wealth of Zimbabwe and promised each settler 15 mining claims and large tracks of land (3,175 acres per settler) on which to prospect for minerals. Minerals found and mined by the settlers would belong to them, but they would have to have to pay royalties (taxes) to the Company on all mined minerals. Within twenty years of the formation of Southern Rhodesia it became clear to both the Settlers and to the BSAC that large deposits of gold or other important minerals were not likely to be found in Zimbabwe. Both the Company and the European settlers were desperate to find alternative sources of income and wealth. The most reasonable alternative was agricultural production.

Having failed at mining, why did the BSAC and settler community think that agriculture was a good alternative for wealth production? Indeed, what is needed for a successful agricultural industry? Think about the answer to these questions. Write down a list of things that you think might be necessary for successful farming.

The high-veldt area of Zimbabwe, particularly in the north-central and north-eastern part of the country and the Eastern Highlands generally had sufficient rainfall and the land was fertile enough to support large scale production of crops. The high and middle veldt areas in the south and western part of the country were more suitable for cattle ranching.

Zimbabwe Relief Map
Map One: Relief of Zimbabwe

In the 1910s and 1920s European settler agriculture concentrated on cattle and maize (corn) production. There was a growing market for these food commodities in the rapidly expanding urban areas in neighboring South Africa and the Copperbelt mining towns of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). In the 1930s and 1940s European settler farmers expanded into tobacco production and by mid-century tobacco was the largest and most important export from Rhodesia.

You will remember from the previous activity how European settler farmers were able to meet their need for inexpensive labor through a system of taxation. Beginning as early as 1896 the BSAC exacted a tax on each house in every village (the tax was referred to as a “hut” tax). Each village chief or headman was expected to collect the tax from the families that occupied the houses. Zimbabweans were not allowed to pay the tax in kind, that is in items they produced (crops, cattle, metal tools, etc.), but were required to pay the tax in British currency. Some Zimbabweans were able to raise money to pay the tax through selling agricultural products that they produced, but many were forced to “sell” their labor to European settlers to earn money with which they could pay their taxes.

As we pointed out, these taxes were very unfair. The BSAC had occupied Zimbabwe and established a government without any input from the indigenous Zimbabwean peoples. As such, the un-wanted tax amounted to taxation without representation!

All of the major factors necessary for commercial agricultural production have been accounted for, with the notable exception of land. The important question is, how did European settler farmers gain and maintain control over the land that they believed they needed to expand commercial agriculture in Rhodesia? First, there is the question of who owned the land. Traditionally, the Shona and Ndebele peoples of Zimbabwe did not have a concept of personal land ownership. Among Shona land belonged to the community collectively; land for cultivation was distributed by a village chief or headman to each family unit based on the size of the family, the number of wives in the family, and the availability of labor to make effective use of the land. Grazing land for cattle, sheep and goats was “owned” and used collectively.

Among the Ndebele, land was controlled by the king who divided the land among chiefs and sub-chiefs, who in turn distributed land among families based both on need and also on “merit,” judged by how effective of a warrior a young man had been during the time that he was part of an age-regiment. Brave, successful warriors were awarded cattle. Land use rights, in turn, were distributed based on the number of cattle a family owned. When they moved in Zimbabwe from South Africa in the mid-19th century the Ndebele claimed control (ownership) of the land where they settled base on their conquest of the Kalonga and other Shona speaking peoples whom they found living in south western Zimbabwe.

In 1890 when the BSAC moved into the eastern and northern part of Zimbabwe they made claim to all of the land based, as you will remember, on the Rudd Concession that the BSAC had tricked King Lobengula into signing. Conveniently, but with absolutely no basis in fact, the BSAC claimed that all of current day Zimbabwe had been under control of the Ndebele, consequently, they argued, all of the land belonged Lobengula who gave permission to the BSAC to do “anything necessary,” including claiming control of the land, to prospect for and mine minerals in Zimbabwe.

When in 1893 the BSAC and its European mercenaries (civilians paid to fight) defeated the Ndelele regiments, resulting in the death of King Lobengula, the Company claimed ownership (not just control) of all of the land in Zimbabwe! They based this ownership claim on the “rights of conquest.” Based on their occupation, the defeat of the Ndebele armies, and the suppression of the 1896-97 rebellions, the BSAC claimed ownership over all land in Zimbabwe! Consequently, the Company did not many any money to the indigenous population for the land they claimed to own. Indeed, based on this assertion they claimed the right to distribute land to European settlers, again without compensation to or discussions with the original indigenous inhabitants who continued to live on their ancestral lands until they were forced to move into native reserves/Tribal Trust Lands, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the Company, and subsequent settler government, claimed the right to move Africans off the land on which they had lived for generations and re-settle them in reservations comprised of less fertile and less well watered land.

Beginning in 1893 after the defeat of the Ndebele, and continuing for the next 70 years, was a dual process of land alienation (taking land from the original and rightful owners) and moving the original Zimbabwean inhabitants to less well watered and less fertile areas into newly established native reserves—which later were called Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs). On the one hand, this process provided land for European settlers (and for towns, cities, roads, railroads, national parks), at first through outright gifts of land to settlers and later through the sale at very low prices of choice farmland. On the other hand, the process took land away from Shona, Ndebele and other African Zimbabweans, gradually moving them off land reserved for Europeans and into ethnically designated TTLs.

Land Alienation:
From in 1894 (immediately after the defeat of the Ndebele) through 1977 there were seven Land Commissions established by the various governments of Southern Rhodesia to address the issue of land distribution in the country. The first land commission in 1894 specifically dealt with the aftermath of the defeat of the Ndebele. As a result of this defeat the BSAC claimed ownership of all of land occupied by the Ndebele. Remember that the BSAC had promised members of it volunteer army that when the Ndebele were defeated each European “soldier” would receive 3,000 morgen (that is, 6,350 acres) of high veldt farm land, in addition to mine claims and a share of the cattle confiscated from the defeated Ndebele.

The end of the war and the confiscation of Ndebele land in the high veldt raised the question of what would happen to the Ndebele peoples who where dispossessed of their land. This, at first, was not an urgent issue since very few if any of the victorious European soldiers were ready or able to take control of and farm the land that they had been awarded. Consequently, they did not need to have the Ndebele moved off “their” new farms. However, there were political arguments for expulsion of the Ndebele from the high veldt. The BSAC had respect for the military skills of the Ndebele. They felt that the best way to reduce threats from the Ndebele was to physically remove them from the high veldt region.

In 1894 the first land commission in Rhodesia was set up with the goal of allocating land for the Ndebele who were to be expelled from the high veldt region of south-western Zimbabwe. The commission recommended the establishment of two reserves (reservations) for the displaced Ndebele. In 1895 two reserves, Shangani and Gwaii were established in a dry, semi-arid region hundreds of miles north of the center of the defeated Ndebele kingdom.

The decision on where to locate these first reserves was based on two primary factors. First, they should be far enough away from the area of potential European settlement that the Ndebele would not be a threat to the settler community. Secondly, the reserves should not in an area that might be attractive and suitable for future European settlement. Both of these criteria were met in the selection of the semi-arid Shangani and Gwaii reserves. Clearly, in making this selection, the first land commission was not concerned about the economic and social well-being of the Ndebele people.

As you will remember, the forced removal of Ndebele to Shangani and Gwaii, and the hardships of living in that harsh environment, were among the primary causes of the 1896 Ndebele rebellion. Indeed, in his meeting with the leaders of the Ndebele in 1897 Cecil Rhodes promised to halt the forced removal of people to the reserves. However, the end of the first Chimurenga war did not put an end to the land alienation and the establishment of African reserves.

Ndebele Reserves Map
Map Two: 1895 Ndebele Reserves Map

In 1898, four years after the BSAC claimed control of Southern Rhodesia, the British government formalized BSAC rule with an official document that detailed the conditions of this control. Along with many other issues the 1898 Order in Council (as the document was called) addressed the issue of land for the indigenous people of Zimbabwe. Article 81 of the Order in Council, stipulated that “from time to time” commissions should be set up to look at the land needs of the African population, guaranteeing that they had access to land “sufficient for their agricultural and pastoral requirements including in all cases fair and equitable portions of spring and permanent water.”

Article 83 of the 1898 Order in Council asserted that Africans would have right to “acquire, hold, encumber, and dispose of land in the same manner as a person who is not native.” In other words, according to this stipulation Africans would have the same right to land ownership as the European settlers.

At first, these two articles were not challenged by the BSAC or by the European settlers since they seemed of little consequence. However, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century when the settlers realized that their economic future was dependent on commercial agriculture control over the land became an important issue and they challenged Articles 81 and 83 of the 1898 Order in Council.

Why do you think that the settlers wanted to legally nullify (cancel) these articles? Think about this question and then write down your answers on a piece of paper. Perhaps your teacher will allow you to discuss this question in class.

1902 Land Commission
In 1902 there was a second land commission established under pressure from some missionaries and the London based Aborigine Protection Society. Why did these groups want another land commission? They were concerned that African Zimbabweans might lose control of all land suitable for agriculture. They wanted the second land commission to establish new reserves for Africans, thus guaranteeing some arable land for Zimbabwean Africans. As a result of the 1902 commission 80 reserves were established in Mashonaland (in the northern and eastern part of the country). These were the first reserves allocated for Shona speaking peoples. In the south and western part of the country 16 new small reserves were created for the Ndebele peoples.

Map Three: 1902 Land Commission
Map Three: 1902 Land Commission

Four things should be noted about the 1902 process. First, no Africans (Shona or Ndebele) were asked to share their opinions in this process—whether they wanted reserves and where the reserves should be located. Secondly, almost all of the new reserves were located outside of the more fertile and well-watered high veldt, guaranteeing that these areas would remain under European control. Thirdly, the land commission did not directly address the issue of land for European settlement. The assumption of the commission was that all land outside of the newly established reserves— vast majority of Rhodesia’s land space was open for potential European settlement. Fourthly, the commission did not establish a process for moving Shona and Ndebele unto the reserves. Consequently, until the 1920s few people were moved unto the reserves established in 1902.

Map Four: 1920 Land Allocation
Map Four: 1920 Land Allocation

1914 Land Commission
The next land commission, the Native Reserve Commission, was formed in 1914. At this time the political and economic situation in Rhodesia was much changed from 1902. By 1914 the BSAC and the 20,000 European settlers who lived in Southern Rhodesia realized that the future of the country was not in minerals, but in agriculture. Moreover, the BSAC had become disillusioned about the profitability of their venture in governing Southern Rhodesia. Governing Southern (and Northern) Rhodesia was costing the Company more money than the Company was gaining in revenues. As a commercial company they could not continue to govern with an economic loss. Consequently, they were interested in handing over control of the two Rhodesias to either the British government, to South Africa, or directly to the European settlers. In this political environment, allocation and control of land was a very important issue.

The Company and the settler community, by 1914, strongly believed that if Southern Rhodesia was to develop its commercial agricultural potential they would have to attract new European settlers who were experienced farmers. In order to attract the needed new settlers they believed that it was necessary to guarantee that arable, fertile, and well-watered areas in Rhodesia would be reserved exclusively for European ownership and use. The 1914 Native Reserve Commission was meant to address this agenda.

Given these conditions it is not surprising that the Commission recommended that Article 81 of the 1898 Order in Council be nullified. Remember that Article 81 required that the BSAC guarantee that the African populations be provided with arable land with access to water necessary for their subsistence. The Native Reserve Commission calculated that each Zimbabwean African family would need between 15-20 acres of land, depending on the fertility of the soil and rainfall in the area. The 1914 Commission also recognized that the African population of 1.5 million was growing at a rate that was likely to double every 20-25 years doubling the amount of arable land necessary to keep compliance with Article 81.

The Commissioners strongly felt that the on-going allocation of more land to the Zimbabwean Africans was an insurmountable obstacle to the development of commercial agriculture in Rhodesia. Consequently, they recommended that Article 81 be nullified and that permanent “Native Reserves” (later called Tribal Trust Lands) with fixed sizes and boundaries be established for the Zimbabwean African population. Moreover, consistent with past practice, the commissioners recommended that the “Native Reserves” be established, for the most part, off the high-veldt, reserving the more fertile and well-watered high veldt land for European controlled commercial agriculture.

The Native Reserve Commission was not concerned that fixed reserves might become over-crowded and that they would not be able to provide basic subsistence for their Zimbabwean populations. The Commission assumed that the Zimbabwean Africans who would be not have access to sufficient land for themselves would be able to find work on European farms or in developing urban areas in Rhodesia. This assumption on the part of the Commission turned out to be ill-conceived. By the late 1930s most “Native Reserves” were severely over-crowded and there were few employment opportunities for landless Zimbabweans.

Agricultural historians also question the settlers’ and Company’s assumption that only Europeans were capable of developing commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe. These historians point out that up until 1920 African farmers (not European farmers) were providing the majority food consumed by the European population in Rhodesia. Moreover, the African farmers did not benefit from special government programs that supported settler agricultural production. Rather, these farmers were responding to market demand for food. Additionally, historians demonstrate that European farmers, up until the 1930s, in spite of governmental support, were less efficient in production than their African counterparts.

The geological, environmental and economic realities of Rhodesia made agricultural development an absolute priority for the development of the country. However, it was the racist perspective of the BSAC and the European settler community and its commitment to create a country in which they had complete hegemony (absolute control) that led to the land policies that were enacted.

Due to problems related to World War One (1914-1918) the 1914 Native Reserve Commission’s recommendations were not adopted until 1920.

However, the BSAC did not wait until 1920 to begin efforts to create a European commercial agriculture sector in Rhodesia. As early as 1908 the Company instituted two Acts that were meant to stimulate this sector.

First, the Private Location Act limited the number of African tenant farmers who could live on land owned by a European. By 1908 over a third of the land in the high veldt regions of Zimbabwe was “owned” by Europeans. However, only a very small percentage of this land was actually farmed by the Europeans who “owned” (had title to) the land. Indeed, most of the “owners” were absentee land-lords who did not live on the land they owned; quite a few absentee land-owners did not even live in Rhodesia! The absentee and non-farming land-owners, most of whom had been granted land by the BSAC, made money by charging the original owners-occupiers of the land—the African farmers—rent to remain on what had been their own land for generations!

The Private Location Act instituted a tax on of the tenant farming families who lived on the land “owned” by a absentee land-owner. Unlike the taxes that the Africans had to pay themselves (discussed in the previous activity), these taxes had to be paid by the absentee landowner. The Company believed that by instituting this tax, absentee landowners would force the African tenant farmers to move off “their” land to one of the established reserves. This, the BSAC anticipated, would encourage absentee landowners to begin to develop their land through larger scale commercial agriculture.

A second Act in 1908 was meant to encourage European commercial agriculture in Rhodesia by establishing the Estates Department of Rhodesia. The sole purpose of this department was to recruit European farmers to farm in Zimbabwe. The Company did not want additional absentee landowners—people who were interested in owning land in Zimbabwe as an investment but who had no intention in actually farming the land. To make sure that potential European farmers were really interested in farming they had to demonstrate that they had experience in commercial farming, either in South Africa or Europe, and they had to have 700 (British pounds sterling) that they were willing to invest in buying land. If they met these requirements the Estates Department was willing to provide a low-interest loan of 2000 (pounds sterling) for land purchase.

Let’s add some perspective. What did this mean in terms of the ability to purchase land in Zimbabwe? Under BSAC rule, the land market in Rhodesia was not an “open” market. That is, sellers and potential buyers could not set the price of land based on supply and demand. Rather, the BSAC established a set price for agricultural land that depended on the characteristic of the land: i.e. if it was on the high veldt, if it was in a high rain-fall zone, and how close the land was to the rail-line—very important for transportation of crops. In 1908 the Estates Department set the price of land on the high veldt within 25 miles of the line of rail at three shillings and nine pence an acre. This was a little less than $1 an acre! By comparison, land in even the most remote areas of South Africa sold for four to six times this amount in 1908.

So, with 700 pounds ($3,500) of their own money and an additional low interest loan of 2,000 pounds ($10,000) from the Estates Department, newly arrived European farmers could purchase quite a large farm of around 4,000 acres and have sufficient funds to build farm buildings, purchase equipment, buy seeds, fertilizers, and animals, and to hire labor! Needless to say, Africans were not allowed to participate in this scheme.

These two Acts of 1908 seem to have served their purpose, by 1914—the year of the Native Reserve Commission—two thirds of the prime agricultural land on the high-veldt that was within 25 miles of the line of rail had been purchased by newly arrived European settler farmers.

Morris-Brown Commission and the 1930 Land Apportionment Act

You will remember that in 1923 the BSAC voluntarily gave up its control over Southern (and Northern) Rhodesia handing over power to a government completely controlled by European settlers. Just as a reminder—in 1923 there were 35,000 (less than 10% of whom had been born in Zimbabwe) European settlers in Southern Rhodesia. By comparison, there were approximately 1.4 million Zimbabwean Africans in Southern Rhodesia. In spite of this huge disparity in population the 1923 arrangement supported by the British government gave near absolute political control to the tiny minority settler population.

It is also important to remember that the majority of the European settler population at this time lived in urban areas the largest of which were Salisbury and Bulawayo. However, the new settler government recognized that the economic future of Southern Rhodesia was dependent on expansion of commercial agriculture under the complete control of European farmers.

As we have seen, land commissions prior to 1923 had established “Native Reserves” (later called “Tribal Trust Lands”) with the aim of eventually restricting Zimbabwean African residence to these areas—except, of course, for the Africans needed to work for European settlers. The Land Apportionment Act of 1920 had nullified Article 81 of the 1898 Order in Council that had guaranteed the indigenous population “land sufficient for their agricultural and pastoral requirements including in all cases fair and equitable portions of spring and permanent water.”

The new settler regime was not satisfied with conditions set by the 1920 Land Act. In addition to restricting African residency to Native Reserves the regime wanted to enact legislation that would set aside land to be for the exclusive use and ownership of the European settlers. In order to do this they would have to nullify article 83 of the 1898 Order in Council that guaranteed Zimbabwean Africans the right to “acquire, hold, encumber, and dispose of land in the same manner as a person who is not native.”

With this agenda in sight the newly established Southern Rhodesian settler government in 1925 established a new land commission headed by William Morris-Brown (hence the commission was called the Morris-Brown Commission). The primary purpose of this commission was to investigate the land needs of the various populations in Southern Rhodesia and come up with a “permanent” solution to the land question in the country.

Unlike earlier land commissions the Morris-Brown commission interviewed members from all major groups in Southern Rhodesia, including traditional leaders—chiefs and headmen—from the Shona and Ndebele communities. However, as we will see, the commission in its recommendations did not take their perspectives into consideration in their final recommendations and report.

Although the Morris-Brown Commission completed its investigations and made its recommendations in 1925 these recommendations were not enacted into law until the 1930 when the legislative assembly passed the Land Apportionment Act.

There were two major outcomes of the Land Apportionment Act (1930). First, while earlier land laws had resulted in the creation of “Native Reserves,” the 1930 act divided all the land in Rhodesia by racial and use classification. As the following table demonstrates Rhodesia was divided into six distinct land classifications.

Table One: Land Classification According to the Land Apportionment Act, 1930

Land Allocation Table The second major outcome of the Land Apportionment Act, 1930, was the nullification of Article 83 of the 1898 Order in Council that had guaranteed Africans the right to purchase land anywhere in Rhodesia. The Morris-Brown Commission disingenuously argued that Zimbabwean Africans who were able to buy land could not possibly compete with European land-owners. Consequently, the commission argued for the establishment of a special category of land that would be set aside exclusively for purchase by Africans. They termed these areas “Native Purchase Areas.”As a result of the 1930 Land Apportionment Act just over half of all the land in Zimbabwe was reserved exclusively for European settler use—although in 1930 they made up less than two per cent of the total population of Southern Rhodesia! One the other hand the indigenous population (98.5% of the population) was restricted to less than a third of the land!

Map Five: Land Apportionment, 1930
Map Five: Land Apportionment, 1930

It is important to remember that in the “native reserves” Africans were not allowed to own land. Land in the reserves was divided by traditional tenure practices that we outlined above.

The central issue of the Land Apportionment Act, 1930 was the intended permanent and very unequal division of land based on race. Of almost equal importance was the issue of whom—which race—got what land. Not all the land in Zimbabwe was equally valuable in terms of soil fertility, rainfall, and location in relationship to rail and road transportation networks.

The government of Southern Rhodesia established a major survey of all of Southern Rhodesia. The primary purpose of this survey was to “map” the entire country by soil fertility, topography (hilly, flat, marsh, etc) and rainfall. As a result of this survey all Zimbabwe was divided into five “natural regions” based on the agricultural potential of each region. (See Map Six below)

Region I: comprising only 1.6 per cent of the country in the Eastern Highlands of the Zimbabwe experienced more than 25 inches of rain a year. The relatively fertile soils, good rainfall, and altitude made the region one ideal for vegetable farming, and the cultivation of coffee, tea, fruit production (primarily temperate climate fruit: apples, peaches, etc.)

Region II: comprising 18.7 percent of the country, almost exclusively in the high-veldt region in the north east of the country. With good soil fertility and an average rainfall of 20-25 inches a year, this region is excellent for intensive cash crop production including tobacco and grains.

Region III: comprising 17.4 percent of the country. Rainfall in this region averages only between 16-20 inches a year. This region lies mainly in the middle veldt areas of Zimbabwe and is suitable for the cultivation of drought resistant cash crops and rearing of livestock.

Region IV: comprising one third (33%) of the country. Rainfall in this region is low averaging between 12-15 inches a year. Season of below average rainfall is common in this region. Only highly drought resistant crops can be grown in this region, but suitable for livestock ranching. This region falls mainly in the mid-and low-veldt areas of Zimbabwe.

Map Six
Map Six: Natural Regions of Zimbabwe

Region V: comprising 26.2 per cent of the country is semi-arid. Located primarily in the south-west and west of Zimbabwe, this region is sparsely populated and is suitable for only very extensive live-stock production

Your Turn

Based on what you have learned so far, in what natural regions do you think the Land Apportionment Act placed most “native reserves?” Why do you think they were located in these natural regions? Conversely, which group (Africans or Europeans) were given control over most of natural regions one and two—the most productive agricultural land? Why?

Check your answers by viewing the maps and table here.

What about the land set aside of “native” purchase? The nullified Article 83 of the 1898 Order in Council was meant to guarantee the right of Africans who could afford to purchase land—in spite of all the political and economic obstacles placed in their way—would be able to buy land and become productive farmers. The 1930 Land Apportionment Act, took away the right of Zimbabwean Africans to purchase land anywhere in the country. The Act replaced that right with an opportunity to purchase land in specially designated Native Purchase Areas. 

Where were these designated purchase areas located? Were they located in natural regions one and two that are good for agricultural production? To answer this question take a look at the four maps that you used for answering the previous question. Now look at the information in Table 2 below that shows the percentage of the Native Purchase Areas in each of the five natural agricultural regions.

Table 2: Agriculture Land in the designated Native Purchase Area According to Natural Agricultural Regions

Agricultural Land in Native Purchase Area Table The poor condition of the land in the areas set aside for African purchase was only one of the major obstacles placed in the way of Zimbabwean Africans who wanted to develop commercially viable farms. As with the was the case with European farmers, African farmers needed access to loans and credit in order to purchase land, buy basic equipment, livestock, seeds, fertilizer and to development farm infrastructure—most import to dig water wells. You will remember that the government set up a Land Bank and an Agricultural Finance Company to provide low interest loans for European settlers who wanted to become farmers. No Africans were allowed to participate in these finance programs!Less than 20 percent of the land designated for African purchase was in areas that were considered to be suitable for intensive agriculture, while more than a third of the allocated land was in agricultural region IV, an area considered not suitable for any agriculture other than livestock production. Indeed, when we add in purchase areas allocated in region V, nearly 44 percent of the land allocated for African purchase was in areas considered to be very marginal for agricultural development.

Everywhere in the world commercial farming is dependent on readily available credit and government subsidies. Without these government support programs even the most skillful and hard working farmer will not prosper. Such programs were readily available to European settler farmers after 1924, but they were not available to African farmers.

Transportation infrastructure, particularly roads that allow truck and bus traffic all year around—won’t get flooded in the rainy season—is essential for successful farming. Without adequate roads farmers are not able to get their produce to urban markets. In the 1930s and 1940s the government spent millions of pounds developing a network of all-weather roads in areas of settler agriculture. However, the government spent almost nothing on developing all-weather roads to remote areas or within the Native Purchase Areas.

In case these obstacles were not severe enough to keep African small scale farmers from competing with European farmers the government passed two different acts in the 1934 that discriminated in favor of European farmers. The Maize Control Act set up two different prices for maize (corn), which is the staple food crop in Zimbabwe. Under this scheme European farmers were paid a governmental guaranteed price for their maize. African farmers were not eligible for this price support. The price they received was set by the open market—a price that averaged in the 1930s and 1940s between 20 and 30 percent below the government support price paid European farmers.

The Cattle Levy Act placed a special tax on each head of cattle sold by African farmers. European farmers were exempt from this tax! The effect of these two government programs was to increase support for European farmers while purposefully discriminating against African farmers.

Given all of these obstacles it is not surprising that Zimbabwean Africans did not flock to and purchase land in the Native Purchase Areas. Indeed, by 1936 only 548 farms had been purchased. By 1944 the number had grown to 1,785. By the late 1970s less than 10,000 farms had been purchased. This number should be compared to an estimated 675,000 farming families who at that time lived in Tribal Trust Lands. 

Where Did All the People Go?

If, as we have seen, deliberate government policies kept Zimbabwean Africans from purchasing land in the areas that the 1930 Land Apportionment Act set aside for African farmers, where did they live? There are three possible answers to this question. First, some Zimbabwean Africans chose to move to and live in growing urban areas. If this choice was not available to them they could move to or remain in the established reserves, which were by 1930 called Tribal Trust Lands. 

There was a third alternative. European farmers needed cheap labor to work on their farms. As commercial agriculture expanded in Rhodesia the demand for workers increased dramatically. If you were a Zimbabwean African farmer in the 1930s and 1940s where would you chose to live? You might, of course, argue that you really didn’t have much of a choice. After all, as we now know, government policy made it very difficult for Zimbabwean Africans to make a living in the Native Purchase Areas. 

What about moving to a town or city? In Europe and North America at this time many young adults from rural areas were moving to urban areas attracted by new job opportunities and by the excitement promised by the bright lights of the city. Where were towns like Salisbury, Bulawayo, Fort Victoria, Gwelo and Umtali located?

They are all located in areas reserved for European ownership. Accordingly, Zimbabwean Africans were not allowed to own land or settle permanently in urban areas. Did this mean that the settler government wanted no Africans to be in towns and cities? Of course not! After all, just as the European farmers needed African workers, so did the owners of new businesses and industries that were developing in urban areas. Indeed, European settlers living in urban areas also wanted Zimbabweans to work as domestic servants in their homes.

However, they wanted to keep urban areas as “white” as possible. Consequently Europeans wanted to control the number of African Zimbabweans who lived in urban areas to just the number that would meet current labor needs. To control the movement of Zimbabweans to urban areas the government passed two pieces of legislation. The 1935 Native Registration Act required all Zimbabwean Africans to be registered in the Tribal Trust Land (TTL) to which they were assigned—even if they had not previously lived there.

This Act was followed in 1936 with the Native Pass Act. Upon registration every African adult was given a registration book (almost like a passport) that contained personal information—name, gender, ethnic affiliation (tribe), birth date, and the Tribal Trust Land to which they were assigned. The Native Pass Act required that every Zimbabwe adult have their registration book with them whenever they traveled away from their assigned TTL and, more importantly, that they have permission from the local district officer (a European government official) to travel. Permission to travel to or live in an area outside one’s home area was called a pass. Passes (almost like a Visa) were written and stamped inside the registration book—very much like visas are stamped inside passports allowing us to travel to other countries.

To travel to and live in an urban area a Zimbabwean African had to get a pass. Only Africans who had employment in urban areas were provided with passes. If a Zimbabwean was caught in a town without the proper pass in her or his registration book they could be arrested and sent back to their designated Tribal Trust Land. 

Given these restrictions most Zimbabweans did not have a real choice of living in urban areas. As indicated above, Zimbabwean Africans had a third choice some of them could become workers on large commercial farms owned by European settlers. In the 1930s and 1940s relatively few Zimbabwean Africans chose this option, preferring instead to work in urban areas, if they were given permission, or to remain in the Tribal Trust Lands.

If Zimbabweans were not willing to work on the European owned farms, how did the settlers get workers for their farms? They actively recruited workers from neighboring countries, particularly from Malawi. Between 1930 and 1960 tens of thousands of labor migrants moved to Rhodesia from Malawi, and to a lesser extent from Mozambique. These workers settled in Zimbabwe, married, and raised families. By 2000 CE, when the Zimbabwean government began to take over European owned farms, there were more than a million men, women and children living on these farms. Many of these farm laborers, while born in Zimbabwe, are descendants of migrants who originally came from Malawi, Mozambique and other neighboring countries.

What Happened on the Tribal Trust Lands

As a result of the policies of the Southern Rhodesian government, by the 1940s a significant majority of Zimbabweans were living in Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs). What were the consequences of these policies for the natural environment and the people who were forced to live in the TTLs? The following satellite maps provide a partial answer to this question.

Map Seven:
Map Seven: Satellite Image of Zimbabwe (2000)
Map Eight:
Map Eight: Satellite Image of Zimbabwe with Communal Area Districts (2000)

These are photographs taken by a NASA Landscat satellite in the year 2000 CE. In Map Eight the rural districts of Zimbabwe are drawn in. The smaller districts are now called communal areas. Before independence in 1980 these districts were incorporated into the Tribal Trust Lands. The larger districts in the center of the map are in the high veldt areas that were reserved for European ownership before 1980.

These maps do not have color keys, but you probably know what the green and brown represent. That’s correct. The areas in green (light and dark) represent areas where the natural vegetation has not been destroyed. With the exception of the dry and less populated areas of western Zimbabwe, all of the green area is in the regions formally controlled by European farmers.

The brown areas represent land on which the natural vegetation has been destroyed. All of these areas are in the former Tribal Trust Lands, or communal areas. If we had satellite images from 100 years ago the vast majority of the currently brown areas would be a lush green. What do you think caused these areas to become brown? In two words, over-population.

The land policies of the settler government combined with policies that restricted most Zimbabweans to TTLS result in the over-population of areas that were from the beginning marginal lands, incapable of supporting large numbers of people. In the 1930s the Southern Rhodesian government estimated that in an “average” reserve a Zimbabwean family would need an average of 8-10 acres of arable land to provide a subsistence living for the family. This estimate is down from the 12-15 acres per family recommended in 1902. In addition the family would need up to 20 acres of common grazing land for their cattle. Now, you already know that there was a disparity in the quality of land in the TTLs, so in some TTLs more than 8-10 acres would be needed to provide/produce just subsistence—enough food for the family.

By the mid-1930s when the government began to forcefully move Zimbabwean families into TTLs, there was not adequate land in the TTLs to provide 8-10 acres of arable land per family. As shown in Table Three, by 1945 most of the TTLs were severely over-populated. What were the results of over-populating the TTLs?

Map Nine:
Map Nine: Population Density

Map Nine: Population Density:

Information provided in Table Three demonstrates that the land crisis in the TTLs got worse as time past. By 1977 throughout the Rhodesia TTLs were severely over crowed. In Victoria (now Masvingo) province, the most populated rural province in Rhodesia, the TTLs on had a population that were on average almost four times their carrying capacity!

Table Three: Recommended and 1977 Average Acreage per Farmer in TTLs by Province

Recommended and Average Acreage per Farmer Given what we have learned about the land issue in Zimbabwe it should not surprise us that land became a central issue in the struggle for majority rule and independence. At the time of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 Black Zimbabweans (more than 80% of the total population) were largely restricted to rural areas; long-term employment opportunities in industry and commerce were limited by racist policies that restricted the movement and economic activities of Zimbabweans. Yet land dispossession and removals to over-crowed and ecologically fragile Tribal Trust Lands provided no real opportunity for economic and social advancement for the vast majority of Zimbabweans. At the same time nearly 70% of the prime agricultural land in areas reserved for European occupation lay idle and was not being used for production.Land and the Struggle for Liberation

In the pervious section of this module that dealt with the history of Zimbabwe we learnt that the expropriation (taking) of land by the British South African Company and related tax and labor policies directly resulted in the Chimurenga war of resistance in 1896-97. Similarly, Rhodesian land policy that resulted in extreme shortage of land for the vast majority of Zimbabweans whose livelihood and very economic survival depended on access to agriculturally viable land was used by ZANU and ZAPU to gain support among rural Zimbabweans for the nationalist struggle for independence and majority rule.

Land, however, was not only import for its economic value. Land in Zimbabwe, as in agricultural societies in every world region, had, and continues to have, important cultural and spiritual significance. You will remember from the last section the important role played in the Chimurenga by the spirit mediums of Nehanda and Kaguvi. These mediums disseminated the message that their god, Mwari, called upon the people to resist the European invaders, who through their invasion spiritually desecrated the land. Given the spiritual significance of land, such actions, if left unchecked, would result in increased suffering among the Shona peoples. So important were the spirit mediums to the Chimurenga, the resistance was not ended until the spirit mediums were arrested and hanged by the BSAC authorities.

In the nearly thirty years since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 the actual role that land—that is the shortage of land—played in the second Chimurenga has been debated among historians. Almost all historians of Zimbabwe agree that in land was important to the struggle; they differ, however, in the importance that they give to the land issue in generating and sustaining support for the second Chimurenga among urban and rural ZimbabweansMany historians continue to claim that the land issue was the most important issue in the minds of the vast majority of rural Zimbabweans who strongly supported the struggle for majority rule. Other historians point out that the land issue was not uniformly the most important reason for supporting the struggle amongst the rural districts in Zimbabwe. For example, the strongest support for ZANU soldiers came from districts that were near the Mozambique border but which had not been as directly impacted by the dispossession of their land by European farmers.

Regardless of this debate, there is no doubt that the issue of land alienation (dispossession) was key to the quality of life and economic opportunity for the 80 per cent of Zimbabweans who lived in rural areas and whose livelihoods were directly related to agriculture. Consequently, the issue of land availability, land reform, and land re-distribution, were vital issues that confronted the new Zimbabwean government at independence in 1980.

Land Issue in Post-Colonial Zimbabwe  The post-independence government headed by then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was faced with multiple political, social, and economic imperatives. Politically, the new government had to respond to the legitimate demands by the previously disenfranchised, exploited and discriminated against African majority who desired redress, economic opportunity, and social services long denied them, while concurrently, attempting to reconcile all racial groups into a united Zimbabwean nation. Economically, the new regime was committed to removing discriminatory policies and practices, increasing economic opportunities for the African majority, provide needed social services (health care, housing, water/sanitation, education) long denied the majority, but do so in a manner that would not disrupt Zimbabwe’s commercial sector (mining, manufacturing, agricultural) which was among the most advanced and productive in Africa.

This meant that the new government led by the ZANU-PF party—a revolutionary party—had to balance its historic commitment to radical change (a two decade commitment to socialist principals) with a pragmatic recognition that radical intervention in Zimbabwe’s economy could result in the destruction of a productive system that provided revenues necessary to fund their commitment to provide economic opportunity and needed social services (housing, education, health care, etc.) to the Zimbabwean people. This balancing dilemma was most keenly manifested in the rural areas around the issues of land redistribution and agricultural productivity.

The post-colonial government was further constrained by political and economic restrictions imposed by the Lancaster House Agreement (1989) that set the conditions for the political settlement that lead to independence in 1980. On the political front the Agreement guaranteed that Zimbabweans of European descent would have 20 (out of 100) seats in the National Assembly until 1987. This concession meant that three precent of the population had effective veto power over constitutional amendments that required 80% parliamentary support. This provision guaranteed that the newly democratically elected government would not change the constitution to allow for the expropriation of European held farms.

A second restriction imposed by the Lancaster House Agreement stipulated that the new Zimbabwe government would for ten years adhere to a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis for acquiring land for resettlement or redistribution. In practical terms this meant that the government had little power to implement a radical land redistribution policy. At least until 1990 when this protocol ended.

In 1980 nearly 80% of the population of Zimbabwe still lived in rural areas. Most of these rural dwellers lived in 30 communal areas (new designation for the Tribal Trust Land) which were, as demonstrated above, severely over-crowed with an average land-holding of two hectares, considerably less that the minimum of five hectares necessary for minimum subsistence for a family of six. Indeed, in 1980, thirty percent of the households in communal areas had access to less than one hectare of cultivatable land. The dire situation of rural dwellers was the focus of the 1981 Riddell Commission that demonstrated that while communal areas at the time were home to 780,000 family units, the maximum carrying subsistence carrying capacity for of the communal areas was 325,000 families. This stark statistic raised the central question of how the country was to deal with the 425,000 “surplus” families who could not live economically productive lives in their home communal areas.

The assumption, in 1981, of the Riddell Commission was that a sizable (perhaps 50%) of this “surplus” rural population could be efficiently, if slowly, absorbed into a growing urban economy over the coming decade. This optimistic projection, however, still meant that over 200,000 families (approximately 1 million people)—with no access to land-- would have to be productively engaged in rural Zimbabwe.

Moreover, the rural population was considerable greater than the 780,000 family units who lived in the communal areas. In 1980 it was estimated that there were between 300,000 and 400,000 farm-workers and their families (total approximate of 1.5 million people) lived and worked on the more that 5,000 large-scale commercial farms located in previously European designated areas. Any plan to address economic productivity and land needs of the rural population would have to take into consideration the needs of the large population of farm-workers in addition to the very real needs of the landless in the communal areas.

Your Turn

Model Land Policy Conference Given these realities, what were the options open to the new government to address the issues of rural poverty and landlessness among rural dwellers? Divide the class into four groups. Each group will represent one of the major stakeholders in debate over land reform in post-independence Zimbabwe. The stakeholder groups are:

  • The government of Zimbabwe
  • Large scale commercial farmers who produced the majority of agricultural exports and much of the food consumed in urban Zimbabwe
  • Residents of rural communal areas (former Tribal Trust Lands)—subsistence farmers and landless peasants.
  • International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and foreign aid organizations.

Each stakeholder group should develop a land-policy for newly independent Zimbabwe that they will then share at major conference that seeks to develop workable land policy for Zimbabwe. Each stakeholder group will be given time to share their recommendations to the model land conference. After each stakeholder group has made their presentation the conference delegates (class) will attempt to draft a policy that takes into considerations the interests of all stakeholder groups.

One option would be to institute a program of radical land reform and redistribution. This would have been a popular option among many landless rural dwellers and supporters of ZANU-PF’s traditional commitment to radical redress and the restructuring of the Zimbabwe’s economy. This option, however, was not seriously considered in the early post-independence years due two factors. Firstly, as discussed above the new Zimbabwean government was legally constrained by the Lancaster House agreement signed by ZANU-PF in 1979.

This stipulation, if adhered to, precluded the option of radical land reform/re-distribution in the first seven years of Zimbabwe’s independence. Of course, once independence had been achieved in 1980, the new government could have rejected the restrictions of the Lancaster House agreement, with the argument that the inherited system of land ownership was grossly unfair, and proceeded to undertake a program of radical land reform. However, if Zimbabwe had pursued this option, it would have paid a considerable price in terms the disruption of its domestic economy and of international support.

This relates directly to the second major obstacle to an attempt at radical land reform in 1980. There is now a near consensus among contemporary scholars analyzing the first two decades of Zimbabwe’s independence regarding the government’s decision to forgo radical land redistribution in the 1980s. These scholars assert that in spite of radical rhetoric the new ZANU-PF government recognized that they inherited an economy that was one of the most developed and diversified economies in Africa. Commercial agriculture, which provided more than 50% of Zimbabwe’s foreign exchange and employed more Zimbabweans than any other sector of the economy, was central to this economy. Consequently, initiatives that would dramatically change the existing economic system would almost certainly threaten Zimbabwe’s prosperity and its chance to expand the economy on a more equitable, if still flawed, basis. The decision of the ZANU-PF government to work with white commercial farmers is demonstrated in the appointment of David Norman (a leading European farmer) and head of the Commercial Framers Union in 1980 to be the first Minister of Agriculture in independent Zimbabwe.

Moreover, the land issue was not the only imperative facing the new government of Zimbabwe. The vast majority of Zimbabweans anticipated that independence would result in rapid and vast improvements in social services, so long denied them, particularly in education, health, care, housing and sanitation. Improvements in these areas required large infusion of government revenues. The new government was pragmatic and realized that revenues to meet these legitimate, popular aspirations could not be realized if the inherited economic system, with its commercial agricultural foundation, was seriously disrupted.

There is an additional factor that some contemporary scholars of Zimbabwe highlight in explaining the decision to forgo radical land reform and redistribution. These scholars argue that the majority of landless rural dwellers were probably not interested in gaining access to land in rural areas as a means of livelihood. Their aspirations were more orientated towards gainful employment in the commercial or industrial sectors and access to education that would provide the means to obtain the desired employment.

Land was not unimportant, in this perspective, but it importance is more symbolic than material. The alienation (forced removal) of land by European settlers in the early 20th century was a powerful symbol of the political disfranchisement and economic exploitation and impoverishment of the African population by the Rhodesian settler regime. Consequently, challenging the continued European settler control ownership monopoly of the most productive land in Zimbabwe was of great symbolic value, even though there was no widely supported demand for or a concerted attempt to radically redistribute land in Zimbabwe prior to the late 1990s. This interpretation, proponents assert, is supported by the historical evidence. They point out that attempts by the government only seriously addressed the issue of land re-distribution just before the end of the five-year election cycle. Each election year ZANU-PF politicians would revisit the need for radical land reform, but prior to 2000 little action was taken once the elections were conducted with overwhelming victories of ZANU-PF.

This does not mean that the issue of land was not important and was not addressed by the government in the first twenty years after independence. There were concerted efforts to address the issue of land ownership and land use in rural Zimbabwe during this time period, but the emphasis of land policy and programming was not significant land redistribution, but land re-settlement.

The land policy debate in post-colonial Zimbabwe had two major components, one is the issue of access to land that raised the question if the government would move to radically redistribute land in the formally white controlled commercial farming areas. With the exception of rhetorical flourishes, the government prior to 2000 did not act on redistribution. The second major component, on which the government did act was the issue of land use.

As detailed above, the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 had allocated nearly half of the agricultural land in the country to the exclusive use of European settler farmers. However, by the mid 1970s (before the disruption of European faming by the liberation struggle) when settler agriculture was at its productive peak with just over 6000 commercial farms, only 1.5 million hectares out of 9 million cultivatable hectares in the commercial farming area was under effective cultivation. Consequently, experts assessed that European commercial farmers were only maximizing one quarter of the agricultural potential of the area under their control. Not surprisingly, the new Zimbabwean government was very interested in fully utilizing this potential in order to promote continued economic growth in the country.

The land policies implemented in the first two decades of independence were orientated to addressing this land use issue through the development of re-settlement schemes aimed at resettling productive (not necessarily landless) small-scale farmers from the communal areas onto small-to-medium scale commercial farms developed on the underutilized lands in areas formerly reserved for European commercial farming. The resettlement programs initiated by the government were often publicly presented not just addressing the land use issue but also the equity issue through providing underprivileged rural dwellers with a new start in life.

Accordingly, the Land Acquisition Acts of 1985 and 1992 did not provide a blueprint for massive redistribution of land, rather these acts established a policy framework for (i) identifying and assessing farming areas that were not being efficiently utilized, (ii) for determining the a fair price for compensating the current (primarily European) owners of under-utilized land, and, (iii) for selecting rural dwellers who would be provided farm steads in the resettlement areas.

In 1980 the government set a target of resettling 18,000 families by 1985. By 1981 the target increased to 54,000 families; 1982 there was a new target of 162,000 families. The 1985 Five Year development plan called for resettlement of 15,000 families per year up to 1990. However, by 1985 only 35,000 families had been resettled and by 1993 only 58,000 families had been resettled on three million hectares of land, or just 16% of former white owned, but underutilized farms.

These statistics raise the important question as to why the government was unable to meet its target objectives for re-settlement. Based on the evidence presented so far and what we have learned in the previous activity (on the history of Zimbabwe) how would you explain the inability of the government to meet its target for resettlement?

Scholars who have studied the land issue in Zimbabwe indicate that there are multiple factors in explaining the lack of success in the land-resettlement schemes. Perhaps the most important factor is the lack of finance. The Land Acquisition Acts (1985, 1992) guaranteed owners fair compensation for taking over of underutilized farms. That is land would not be expropriated without compensation. [Are there reasons that could justify expropriation without compensation?]. At the Lancaster House conference in 1979, the United Kingdom and the U.S. governments had promised to provide funds for land reform, provided that land would purchased only on a willing buyer, willing seller basis.

There is a general consensus among experts that external funders were reluctant to live up to these obligations, making it difficult for the Zimbabwean government to pay the market rate for farms designated as underutilized through the procedures established by the Land Acquisition Acts. Moreover, finances were not just needed for the purchase of land; resettled farmers needed support for the development of farm infrastructure. And, funds were needed to develop needed services (credit, seeds/fertilizer, transportation, education) that were central to the success of resettlement schemes. The inability of the government to supply these services was a deterrent to African farmers who were otherwise anxious to participate in resettlement schemes.

In addition to the issue of lack of adequate finances to fund the resettlement project, there are two other factors that help explain why Zimbabwe failed to achieve the numerical goals set for the project.  First, in the immediate post independent era European commercial farmers were determined to protect their land rights, but were generally pragmatic indicating a willingness to work with the government to address the issue of land use.  The Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe (CFUZ), which represented large-scale commercial (hence primarily European) farmers paid lip service to the government’s intention to resettle qualified African farmers on underutilized European farms.  However, up until 2000 the CFUZ and its members often submitted court challenges when farms were designated as underutilized and targeted for purchase.  These legal challenges had the effect of slowing down the process of resettlement.

Finally, on this question, scholars point out that new government of Zimbabwe, particularly its Ministry (department) of Agriculture and Lands, did not have the bureaucratic capacity to effectively organize and implement the ambitious resettlement plans announced in the early 1980s.

Land and Political Crisis in Zimbabwe, 2000 – Present
We knew and still know that land was the prime goal for King Lobengula as he fought the British encroachment in 1893; we knew and still know that land was the principal grievance for our heroes of the First Chimurenga, led by Nhanda and Kaguvi.  We knew and still know it to be the fundamental primes of the Second Chimurenga and thus the principal definer of the succeeding new Nation and State of Zimbabwe.  Indeed, we know it to be the core issue and imperative of the Third Chimurenga which you and me are fighting, and for which we continue to make such enormous sacrifices.  (Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, 2001)

    • The story of land in Zimbabwe is a tale of lost opportunity and all too frequent tragedy.  For too much of the post-independence period, the international community, white commercial farmers, and the Mugabe government ignored the plight of the country’s permanent underclass: the residents of the communal areas, and farm workers.  Vandalisation of the economy by President Mugabe and the ZANU-PF has ensured that the land issue will need to be revisited in a comprehensive fashion.      

While it would be easy to dwell on the losses of the last years, there should also be a sense that hope exists.  The people of Zimbabwe have remarkable strengths and skills and are well positioned to re-invent and restore their commercial and subsistence agricultural sectors once political transition occurs.  The international community should offer full support for this endeavor, not simply to right historical wrongs, but also to recognize the tremendous potential that country still possesses.  (International Crises Committee Report. Blood and Soil: Land, Politics and Conflict Prevention in Zimbabwe and South Africa, 2004: p. 131)

At the start of the new millennium in January 2000, in spite of numerous programs for land re-settlement and redistribution in the first two decades of Zimbabwean independence there were still 4,500 white commercial farmers (compared to nearly 6,000 at independence in 1980) occupying 11 million hectares of land and producing 70% of commercial agricultural output.  However, by 2008 the number of white owned and operated farms had dramatically decreased to approximately 500 farms. Moreover, while fewer than 70,000 families had been resettled on formerly while owned land during these decades (1980-2000), between 2000 and 2008, as a result of the newly instituted Fast Track Land Reform an additional 160,000 family units were resettled.  How can we explain this dramatic millennial change?

Again, there is consensus among the experts, regardless of whether or not they support the state actions that resulted in the radical restructuring of land ownership in Zimbabwe.  The primary factor driving this change was not a pent-up desire on the part of landless rural Zimbabweans for land, but rather the explanation lies in the significant economic recession experienced in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, the resulting strong popular demand for political reform, and the Zimbabwean government’s (and ruling party’s/ZANU-PF) response to this threat to it monopoly of political power.

The first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence—the 1980s – witnessed considerable economic growth, and as the result of government policy, significant and impressive expansion of educational and health services that benefited the majority of Zimbabweans.  This expansion in education and health care was unprecedented in post-colonial Africa. The 1990s, however, was a different story as Zimbabwe suffered from economic recession exacerbated by a multi-year drought in the early 1990s and by the implementation of an Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) on the strong recommendation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  As a consequence the majority of Zimbabweans experienced a significant decline in their standard of living that stimulated increased political dissatisfaction that was articulated, for the first time since independence, at the ruling ZANU-PF regime.

The government, which during the first two decades of independence was a de facto one-party regime, reacted harshly to new challenges to its political monopoly by resorting to dual strategy which it would institutionalize in the crisis of the new millennium: the use of violence and intimidation against real, but mostly imagined, opponents, and through the manipulation of public opinion by “playing the land card.” In the late 1990s the regime brought back to life a number of government sanctioned Acts that had been inaugurated and used by Ian Smith and the Rhodesian front regime in the 1970s to suppress the liberation movement.  Ironically, the liberation party who was the target of these repressive Acts, in the 1990s and 2000s resurrected these Acts (which had never been expunged from the Zimbabwean law-books or constitution) to suppress legitimate opposition.

In the concurrent use of soft power, the Mugabe regime attempted to buy public support through raising the land issue publicly denouncing both European farmers for holding onto land that had historically been taken from Zimbabwean Africans without compensation, and the United Kingdom for reneging on its promise to provide funds to purchase commercial farms for resettlement.  In the second half of the 1990s the government stop using the rhetoric of land re-settlement (i.e. of resettling farmers on under-utilized land in former white areas) switching to the rhetoric of land redistribution—the expropriation of white owned farms to be redistributed to landless Zimbabweans in just compensation for historical injustice.

Zimbabwe’s dire economic situation at the turn of the millennium was further exacerbated by President Mugabe’s decision in 1998, backed by his leading military generals, to engage Zimbabwean troops in an ill-fated incursion into a civil war in the Congo (begun as a struggle for control of the Congo after the death of Congo’s long term dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko).  Commentators assert that the decision to engage Zimbabwean troops in this military incursion was based on three factors.  First, Mugabe and his generals believed that Zimbabwe’s engagement would position Zimbabwean businesses to take advantage of the Congo’s significant mineral wealth once the civil war was over, thus economically benefiting Zimbabwe.  Secondly, these commentators argue that Mugabe believed, as a number of U.S. presidents have, that involvement in a foreign war would result in a significant rise in patriotism and support for his regime domestically.  Finally, Zimbabwe’s economic troubles and the incredible international prestige of the newly post-Apartheid South Africa (1994) under the leadership of then President Nelson Mandela, resulted in a considerable loss in status of Zimbabwe in the international arena—particularly within the southern African region.  Mugabe may have felt that a successful intervention in the Congo would reverse this trend and result in a significant increase in Zimbabwe’s regional and international status.

The Congo “adventure” (1998-2000), unfortunately for Zimbabwe, was a disaster, resulting in the loss of both the lives of Zimbabwean soldiers and to Zimbabwe’s treasury exacerbating Zimbabwe’s economic decline and increasing the intensity of political opposition to President Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government.

It is in this volatile economic and political milieu that the most formable political opposition party in Zimbabwe’s history was formed in 1998.  The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) provided the first serious political challenge to the ZANU-PF government since independence in 1980.  The MDC was (and continues to be) comprised of a coalition of different interest groups, the most import of which are trade unions.  Indeed, the first and current secretary general of the MDC is Morgan Tsvangirai who had been the leader of Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions throughout the 1990s.

It was in this political context that early in 1999 two constitutional forums were set up—one by government/ruling party the other by grassroots democratic civic organizations which they called the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).  The NCA held a series of “town-hall” type meetings throughout the country in which they solicited citizen input on a new constitution.  The process ended with a document that pressed for a more democratic constitution that would reduce the power of the president, increase power of the National Assembly, protect the independence of the judiciary, and guarantee basic human rights—including the right to own property.

Not surprisingly the government ignored the NCA and its constitutional recommendations.  Instead it pushed ahead with its own constitutional convention that submitted a constitution that, among other state powers, would allow for the seizure of land without compensation—stating that compensation was the responsibility of the “former colonial power.”  The proposed constitution also gave President Mugabe the right to run for two additional five-year terms; (the NCA draft constitution imposed a two five-year term limit on any presidency).  And, the government’s constitution proposal maintained the president’s power, establishing the executive branch as first among the branches of government.

A Referendum on the government’s constitutional proposal held February 12-13 2000.  In spite of violence, intimidation the Zimbabwean peopled handed Mugabe his first ever electoral defeat voting to reject the government’s proposed constitution by a 55%-45% margin.  The electoral defeat took the government by surprise.  President Mugabe and his top supporters had clearly misjudged the depth and breadth of dissatisfaction and opposition among Zimbabwean citizens.

However, instead of accepting the electoral defeat as an indication that significant economic and political reform was necessary, President Mugabe and the leadership of ZANU-PF, made the deliberate decision to use force and intimidation to maintain their control of political power regardless of the social and economic consequences.  Moreover, following prior practice land—that is control and ownership of land—was intentionally targeted as the central ideological in assuring continued political hegemony.

The first year of the new millennium witnessed the invasion and occupation of just over 400 European owned commercial farms.  These invasions—popularly referred to as the Jambanja (violent argument in ChiShona)--perhaps not overtly organized by the ZANU-PF government, were clearly sanctioned by the state.  The majority of the individuals who occupied European farms claimed to be veterans of the struggle for independence—the Second Chimurenga war.  Indeed the war veteran groups justified their occupation by asserting that two decades after independence ordinary Zimbabweans had not realized a primary goal of the struggle for independence—land restoration to the rightful owners of the land.  Not surprisingly, they referred to their farm invasions and occupation as the Third Chimurenga.  

However, it is clear that many of the young men (and a few young women) who participated in the farm invasions and occupation were far too young to have participated in the struggle for independence in the 1970s.  Expert observers contend that these participants were recruited long-term unemployed, disaffected, and disgruntled youth from both over-crowded rural communal areas and high density urban communities who were easy recruiting targets for government and party officials who supported and encouraged the farm invasions.

Assessing the impact of the Jambanja in terms of its influence on subsequent land policy and practice during the first decade of this century is not easy.  However, with the exception of hard-core supporters of President Mugabe and ZANU-PF, there is a strong consensus that the farm invasions were accompanied by unconscionable state sanctioned violence and human rights abuses targeted primarily at innocent Zimbabwean farm workers, as well as at European farm owners.  Unfortunately, the European farmers who were killed or severely beaten (less than 20) got far more attention in the international press than did the more than 100 farm workers who were killed, the thousands who were beaten up and tens of thousands who lost their homes and the vast majority of their material possessions as a result of the invasions and occupations.

While assessing the impact of the Jambanja violence on subsequent (2002-2010) land policy and practice in Zimbabwe is not easy or without ambiguity, it is clear that the violence used in the farm invasions presaged state sanctioned violence used widely in the political and civil arena between 2000 and 2008, particularly in the lead-up to the 2002 presidential and 2008 general elections. The extent of popular dissatisfaction with the Mugabe/ZANU-PF government was reflected in the 2000 parliamentary and 2002 presidential elections.  In spite of widespread violence that overwhelmingly targeted MDCs supporters and well documented intimidation of potential voters, MDC parliamentary candidates won nearly half of the elected seats in the 2000 election.  However, their strength in parliament was limited by the constitutional provision that allows the president to appoint 30 of the 150 members of parliament.  This provision provided the ZANU-PF government with the two-thirds majority that it needed to consider and potentially pass amendments to the constitution that would enhance their control of the Zimbabwean state.

The 2002 presidential elections witnessed even greater levels of violence and intimidation.  Again, in spite of the pre-election intimidation and violence Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC presidential candidate, officially received 42% of the vote, a much higher percentage of the popular than any opposition candidate had received in an election since Zimbabwe achieved its independence in 1980.

The 2000 and 2002 elections tell us something about the land issue in Zimbabwe.  In both campaigns ZANU-PF made redistribution of European owned commercial farmland its central issue.  Yet, even with the violence and intimidation and the highlighting of the presumably popular land issue, the government was unable to capture the overwhelming support of the Zimbabwe voters.  [It should be remembered that prior to 2000 ZANU-PF normally won in excess of 80% of the popular vote in both parliamentary and presidential elections.]

After twenty years of ambiguity on the land issue, in April 2000 the government pushed through parliament a constitutional amendment that removed some of rights of commercial farmers to legally challenge the acquisition of land by the state.  Immediately after this passing this constitutional amendment, the parliament passed the Land Acquisition Act of 2000 that provided the guidelines for the new Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) that allowed for the rapid acquisition of European farms and their re-distribution into re-settlement schemes.  The government’s ability to acquire and redistribute land was further strengthened in 2005 by yet another constitutional amendment that negated private land tenure, placing all non-urban land under state ownership.  However, the Mugabe government did not intend to use this legal arrangement to establish state farms, rather it used this power to redistribute land to farming families on the basis of long-term leases (99 year) that provided farmers with the security that they needed to invest in farm improvement: buildings, equipment, irrigation systems, etc.

As a result of the FTLRP by 2010 over 90% of the 4500 farms that were still under European ownership in 2000 had been acquired and re-distributed into 160,000 smaller farming units.  Before proceeding, it is important to point out that this massive redistribution of land did not impact many of the large commercial sugar, tea, coffee and citrus estates owned by British and South African based transnational corporations.

The group most negatively impacted by the FTLRP policy were the 300,000 commercial farmer workers and their families (totally nearly 1.5 million individuals).  They were not only the primary recipients of violence during the period of the farm invasions, 1999-2002, the fast track land reform led to massive unemployment among these farm workers, the vast majority of whom were landless, had no land claims in a communal area to fall back on, and virtually no prospects for urban based employment.  Moreover, only 8,000 of the 160,000 families who received land as result of the FTLRP resettlement scheme were former commercial farm workers.  These families remain among the impoverished and disadvantaged in contemporary Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately the actual implementation of the FTLRP did not result in a reduction in political conflict, a return to democratic governance, nor did it result in economic growth and development.  Indeed, on the economic front the period between 2000 and 2008 was disastrous for Zimbabwe.  A combination of factors including severe government mismanagement and bad economic policy, drought, and international sanctions, led to a downward spiral of Zimbabwe’s economy.  By 2006 the Gross Domestic Product of the country was 47% below what it was at the country’s independence in 1980.  Whereas an average of 50% of Zimbabweans lived at or below the Poverty Datum Lin between 1985-1990, this percentage had grown to 87% of the population in 2006.  Employment in the formal sector in the post independence era peaked at 1.4 million, but by2008 less than 900,000 individuals were formally employed, but, fortunate as they were, their income was of little value as the country suffered from an escalating inflation rate that reached an incredible 230 million per cent in early 2008.

Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe’s economic collapse resulted in increased political tension as the MDC and civic organization increased their pressure on the government for meaningful political reforms.  The government reacted by increasing levels of intimidation and state sanctioned violence.  The most egregious manifestation of state violence occurred in May 2005 when Zimbabwe security forces carried out a major assault, which the government dubbed Operation Murambatsvina (translated “clean out the filth”) on the urban informal sector (micro businesses) in the high-density areas of Harare and Bulawayo.  A UN report estimated that between 650,000 and 700,000 people were directly impacted by this operation, and an additional 1.7 million were indirectly negatively impacted by the economic impact of the operation.

Renewed violence occurred in the run-up to the national elections in March 2008.  In spite of intimidation in the parliamentary elections the MDC upset ZANU winning 109 seats to ZANU’s 97 seats.  In the presidential elections, MDC’s candidate Morgan Tsvangiria won 47.9% of the vote to Mugabe’s 43.2%, with the remaining votes going to a third party candidate.  Although this was a stunning upset, under Zimbabwe’s constitutional requirement for a 50% plus one vote victory in a presidential race, a run-off election was scheduled for June.

In the interim between March and June 2008 the government and ZANU-PF un-leased an unprecedented campaign of violence and intimidation (even by recent Zimbabwean standards) against suspected MDC supporters throughout the country. The intimidation was so intense that Tsvangaria withdrew from the election in early June, asserting that under the existing conditions it was impossible to have a fair election.  However, the election proceeded with only one candidate—Robert Mugabe, who claimed victory and fifth full term as president of Zimbabwe.

Political tensions remained at a feverous level in the post-election period, spurred on by the continued rapid downward spiraling of the economy, a cholera outbreak, and a drought that threatened to increase hunger and malnutrition throughout Zimbabwe.  The Zimbabwean hyper-crisis in mid- 2008 dramatically increased external attempts to mediate a political settlement in Zimbabwe which was seen as an essential first step to addressing the country’s economic collapse.

The African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) of which Zimbabwe was a founding member, led the external mediation initiatives.  Neighboring countries were very concerned that the Zimbabwean crisis would impact their own economies.  South Africa as a regional leader was particularly concerned, not least because the Zimbabwean crisis had lead to a massive, and illegal, wave of Zimbabwean immigrants into the country.  Estimates of between 200,000 and 1.5 million Zimbabweans crossed the porous border between the two countries between 2002-2010.

Regional and international pressure resulted in an internal agreement called the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in January 2009.  The GPA led to a government of national unity in which Mugabe remained as president and Tsvangarai was given the newly created post of prime mister (head of government).  Under the agreement the president remained in control of national security (police and armed forces) and foreign policy, whereas the prime minister, as head of government, was given control over economic policy and social services (education, health, housing, etc.).

As a consequence of economic reforms instituted by the new government of national unity, the downward spiral of the economy has been reduced but not turned around.  In spite of improvements in the economy and a reduction in political violence, tensions remain high, with both parties threatening to withdrawal from the GPA.  Many Zimbabwean experts are convinced that political tensions and a real economic turnaround are not possible as long as President Mugabe remains in power.

Concluding remarks on Land Issue in Zimbabwe:

Land ownership, use-rights and control, was clearly a central issue in colonial Zimbabwe that witnessed the alienation of the most productive agricultural land from African control to private ownership of 6000 (at its peak) European settler commercial farmers.  The loss of ancestral lands and economic hardships that were a consequence of land alienation were major grievances in the struggle for independence.  In the euphoria and economic, political, and social transformation of the first decade of political independence did reduce the salience and potency of the land issue.  However, land use, control, and ownership continued to be an important political and economic issue that gained in currency in times of political uncertainty and economic stress.

It is clear that the ruling ZANU-PF, Mugabe led government has exploited the land issue as an instrument to secure its political hegemony in Zimbabwe.   However, regardless of the political motives and egregious political and human rights abuses that the regime employed to maintain political power, and the disastrous economic consequence of these actions, it is important that we do not simply dismiss the land reforms efforts of the past decade (2000-2010) as equally disastrous to Zimbabweans and to the economy at large.

Ian Scoones, from the University of Sussex, recently led a team of Zimbabwean and South African researchers who carried out an exhaustive review of all research literature on the implementation and impact of the Fast Track Land Reform Program.  In addition this team carried out its own research project that examined the impact of the FTLRP in several key districts in the province of Masvingo—the most densely populated rural province in the country.  The team came up with surprising results to their studies.  Contrary to what they expected and counter-intuitive given Zimbabwe’s political and economic conditions, they found that the FTLRP was not disastrous, indeed they conclude that the program was a net benefit, particularly to the 160,000 resettled families whose standard of living and life chances improved as a result of their accessing land as part of the FTLRP.  The Scoones team published their finding in a book manuscript, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities in November, 2010.

In concluding this section, it is helpful to quote at length the Scoones team’s own conclusion to their study:

:  “Land reform [in Zimbabwe] has unleashed a process of radical agrarian change.  This was not just a modes process of transfer to black beneficiaries as in past attempts at resettlement, and has been the case in other land reform efforts elsewhere in the region.  Because of its scale, it fundamentally changed agrarian structure, livelihoods and the rural economy.  There are now new people on the land, engaged in new forms of economic activity, connected to new markets and carving out a variety of livelihoods.  New socio-economic processes are unfolding, creating new patterns of class gender, and generational differentiation.  New social, political and institutional processes are evolving generating new identities and identifications linked to new senses of citizenship, territory and belonging.  As control was imposed in the new lands following the invasions, contests over legitimacy and authority have erupted, with major implications land governance and the role of the state.  This was not a replication of the past, but a radically new scenario, one that remains highly variegated and dynamic across space and time.” (p 233) “The configuration [of resettlement peoples, patterns, processes]of interests is complex and contradictory, with multiple class, gender and racial-ethnic divisions.  Zimbabwe’s land reform has been neither a populist revolution by the peasantry nor a corrupt take-over by elites and political cronies.”  (p 236)

Your Turn

Do one (or both) of the following projects:

Divide the class into four groups.  Each group will be responsible for carefully reading one of the four listed media looking specifically for reports, articles, and commentaries that deal with: the land issue in Zimbabwe; economic issues; the relationships between the two parties in the coalition government, ZANU-PF and MDP; issues related to health and schooling/education. 

  • Electronic Media Project:  This exercise provides you with the opportunity to engage Zimbabwean voices/perspectives on contemporary issues in Zimbabwe.  Below is a list of pro-and anti-government media.

Take careful notes on each of these topics.  Once each team has completed the reading assignment the class should reconvene and systematically compare the perspectives of each media site on each of these topics.

  • Zimbabwe Herald Online (leading government controlled daily newspaper that is thought of as the voice of the ZANU)
  • Zimbabwe Situation or the New Zimbabwe media outlets of Zimbabweans in exile in the UK and South Africa:,
  • Movement for Democratic Change website.  Official site of the MDC—coalition partner/opposition party.
  • The Financial Gazette a newspaper that focus on business interests in Zimbabwe:
  • U.S. and U.K (United Kingdom) perspectives on Zimbabwe.

The U.S. and U.K have had a complicated history of relations with Zimbabwe.  Using the search mechanisms on the official websites of the United States Department of State and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, investigate official positions on Zimbabwe, particularly related to land reform and current political issues.

Go on to Activity Four or select from one of the other activities in this module.