Skip to main content

Zimbabwe's Agrarian Answer: The Rhetoric of Redistribution

Eric; Rutherford

"Five generations have lived on the same soil and so bad is the land now that we are having to use pick axes to till the land...The bordering farms [in contrast are] rich in thick soils and water resources with ample space for polocross games...It has taken us 18 years to be given land, the primary factor wich forces us to go to war. We have decided that we should camp here until the government allocates us land because we are tired of empty promises."

-Rose and Johannes Chihuri, Svosve Communal Area farmers who, together with over 300 others, occupied commercial farms near Marondera, Zimbabwe during June and July, 1998.

At century's end and only 20 years after the successful struggle for Independence and black majority rule, Zimbabwe is teetering on the brink of social and economic chaos. In mid-January, 1998, the streets of the normally peaceful and prosperous capital, Harare, were filled with rioters, outraged by further increases in the price of milled maize and other staple foodstuffs. The national army was soon dispatched to the center of unrest with live ammunition. Within three days, 2,500 people had been arrested and as many as ten had died. Only a few months later, scores of peasants from Svosve and other Communal Areas (known during colonial days as "reserves" or "tribal trust lands") invaded large-scale freehold farms owned by whites and demanded that the ZANU-PF government make good on its long unfulfilled promise to return lands alienated since the colonial occupation that began in 1890.

These events, alongside wild currency fluctuations and national strikes, present a specter of disorder familiar to most African post-colonial regimes, yet nevertheless shocking to residents and observers of Zimbabwe. At their core are long-simmering tensions arising from social asymmetries in access to land and food, particularly as they are refracted through the historically and symbolically potent prism of race.

The idea that all will be well in Zimbabwe once the historical legacy of racially-based land allocation, congruent with the dual system of tenure is overcome, has been a mainstay of political rhetoric since Independence in 1980. Perhaps that is the primary reason why a meaningful land distribution has been endlessly deferred. The actual reallocation of commercially held farm land would threaten to expose deep contradictions in post-colonial society -- contradictions that link class privilege with corruption, and exclude large numbers of black Zimbabweans from holding a stake in the country's future as fully enfranchised citizens. Frustrated by the government's unfulfilled promise to resettle them on what they perceive to be their own land, it is hardly surprising that people are now choosing to settle matters on their own.

Land in a Racialized State: The Colonial Past in the Present

Current land conflicts in Zimbabwe have their origin in the racially-based class structure of the settler colonial period. As speculative mining ventures collapsed in the early 1900s, the directors of the British South African Company, charged with administering what was then Southern Rhodesia on behalf of the British government, sought to rebuild the colony's economy and core political constituency around European settler agriculture. At the time, European commerce in Southern Rhodesia still depended upon African agriculture for food. Most of the land was farmed by African communities whose agricultural output grew to satisfy the increasing food demands of the new settler-controlled mining and administrative towns.

By political decolonization in 1980, the situation had become dramatically reversed: white farmers accounted for approximately 75% of total agricultural output and 96% of agricultural sales. Over the eight intervening decades, successive settler governments used land legislation and discriminatory marketing policies to reposition a tiny minority of white farmers along the backbone of the agrarian economy. The vast majority of black farmers, meanwhile, were reduced to farming on relatively infertile and drought-prone reserves. Barely able to provide for their own subsistence, blacks came to depend on cash remittances from household members working in towns, mines, or on white farms to pay taxes and to purchase farming inputs and consumption goods.

Several key legal instruments facilitated this doomed attempt to consolidate a racially divided and radically unequal society. The 1930 Land Apportionment Act divided the colony's land area more or less equally between two major categories of right-holders. The population's minority, classified as "European" were allocated exclusive access to freehold farms on the best soils and nearest to markets and transport infrastructure. "Africans" -- more particularly men who could claim membership in a `tribe' recognized by the colonial state as being indigenous to the colony -- were granted usufruct rights in reserves. A small number of specially qualified Africans were given the opportunity to hold long-term leases on commercial land in designated Purchase Areas as well.

Native reserves were generally demarcated in areas of poor rainfall, weak soils, and uneven terrain. While land use and access in these areas was nominally under the jurisdiction of local headmen following customary law, it was in fact the colonial administration that ultimately defined the content of customary tenure and that determined the boundaries and membership of the land-use communities themselves. Colonial magistrates acted as the final arbitrator in land disputes, and native commissioners had the authority to relocate African communities at will in an attempt to `balance' the racial division of land.

It is important to note that the racial basis for land division was justified through an evolutionary discourse that presumed a dichotomy between Europeans -- assumed to be already `civilized,' and `tribal' Africans who needed to be `modernized' through state-controlled development. Virtually every subsequent legal measure, state policy, and administrative practice relevant to the distribution of access to land and its use was predicated on this racial division and the evolutionary assumptions that underwrote it.

The colonial state sought to facilitate the expansion of European agriculture by selectively granting heavy subsidies (including the supply of cheap, largely foreign, African labor), securing domestic and international markets for produce, and working actively with self-governing white farmer groups to formulate agricultural and land policies. It also sought to encourage European immigrants to settle the lands and live in the expanding cities. In contrast, African immigration was limited to those who would work for Europeans, particularly on the farms. Unlike their European counterparts, African immigrants were prohibited from acquiring their own land. In the reserves themselves, the colonial administration limited the expansion of cash cropping and commerce among African farmers and used legislated coercion to control farming and land use practices in the name of conservation and `African development.'

Liberating the Country, But Not the Land

Not every African acquiesced to this patronizing colonial strategy of `assistance' under conditions of deliberately structured inequity. By the 1950s, African nationalist groups began focusing on the racialized land question. When settler governments not only ignored their pleas, but actively suppressed them -- especially after Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 -- the nationalists took to the `bush' and started to wage a liberation war. After more than a decade of guerrilla insurgency, majority rule was finally negotiated in 1979 under a British sponsored peace settlement at Lancaster House in London.

Upon winning the 1980 national election (and every subsequent one), the former African nationalist liberation group turned political party, ZANU-PF, made settling the `land question' a major priority Yet it soon became apparent that the new government had inherited more than the racially based division of land. The policy discourse around which the land question had been framed -- including many of its assumptions about the inherent `modernity,' superior efficiency, and thus indispensability of the European large-scale commercial farms -- proved to be an equally tenacious inheritance as well.

In the 1980s, the government made grand plans to redistribute land from white farmers to landless and land-poor Africans: in 1983, for example, it promised to resettle 165,000 households on 5 million hectares. The beneficiaries of this exercise were to be landless and land-poor residents of communal areas, excombatants, and people displaced by the liberation war. Such plans aimed to fulfill ZANU-PF's liberation war promises and to appease their rural constituencies, some of whom had been taking over abandoned or occupied commercial farms on their own initiative and, on occasion, with the support of local party branches. But these promises failed to fully materialize. By 1990, less than 50,000 households had been resettled and government land acquisitions for resettlement had stalled at 2.8 million hectares, slightly over half of what was required.

While accounting for the slow pace of land redistribution in the 1980s and deliberating over future plans, the arguments of officials, politicians, and donors have circled around two entangled and sometimes contradictory arguments. One locates problems in constitutional constraints (since expired) that drove up the costs of land acquisition. The Lancaster House agreements stipulated that land transfers take place on a "willing buyer-willing seller" basis and that they be paid in the currency of the seller's choice. The lack of hard currency subventions from donors, despite pledges made in support of resettlement in 1979 through 1980, left the government without resources to plan and carry out the program on the scale originally envisaged.

The second argument centers on the widely-expressed caveat that poorly planned and rapidly executed resettlement, in the absence of consolidated rural development programs and perhaps the institution of private tenure, would only jeopardize agricultural output and thus endanger both export earnings and national food security. This argument has been most strongly advanced by donors and domestic critics of government such as the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), the group representing the largely white commercial farmers. In their view, existing resettlement schemes can be deemed `failures' because they have not achieved adequate levels of agricultural productivity. A related demand is that existing Communal Areas be `modernized' before `backward' agronomic practices are extended into formerly productive commercial farmland through resettlement. It is assumed that modernization in all areas of African settlement will take place largely on the colonial model of top-down decision-making and bureaucratic control over agrarian practice.

Readjusting Resettlement: Bureaucratic Authority and the Discourse of Indigeneity

The government has recently sought to address both of these concerns. In seeking to reduce the prohibitive cost of resettlement, the government passed the Land Acquisition Act in 1992. The Act permitted government to make compulsory purchases of land in local currency at prices set by a valuation committee. At the same time, it has become even more insistent that donors -- especially the British-underwrite a massive land redistribution program as a means of rectifying historical injustices for which they still bear responsibility.

In response to criticisms of hasty or inadequate planning, the government has sought to retain control over production and marketing in the name of efficiency and development, thus imposing plans unilaterally without consultation and defining where people can farm and live. The bureaucratic imperative reminiscent of the colonial period of state-making, has prompted officials to relocate thousands of families to make way for new dams, mines, expanded business centers, wildlife schemes, and to evict those who are deemed "illegal squatters" since they bypassed official channels to acquire land. On the other hand, the neoliberal rhetoric of the structural adjustment policies adopted in the early 1990s has been selectively adopted in order to justify the priority resettling rich black farmers (deemed to be `qualified' and `efficient') and to advocate replacing white commercial farmers with blacks in the name of promoting `indigenous' entrepreneurship.

Resettlement Deferred: Corruption and Disillusionment

Land redistribution in the last five years has been marked by scandals, grandiose plans, and intense politicking. Revelations that the government is leasing out land designated for resettlement to senior politicians, party members, and bureaucrats has undercut its claim to be returning the land to poor black Zimbabweans. Indeed, an increasingly vocal lobby of black businessmen have helped to convince government leaders, many of whom also own commercial farms, to assist `indigenous' (meaning black) large-scale commercial farmers and not only land-poor peasants. The government also used the Land Acquisitions Act to acquire farms from opposition politicians or publicly disliked individuals, which raised questions about the transparency and apolitical pretensions of the process.

During the past year, efforts have seen an intensified to reduce costs and generate change by bureaucratic fiat, resulting in much confusion, anxiety, and growing anger. On November 28, 1997, the government gazetted a list of 1,471 commercial farms, or nearly 4 million hectares, for compulsory acquisition with the expressed intention of resettling over 100,000 African families. Ignoring its own 1992 Act, government ministers declared that the government would pay only for improvements of the land and not the value of the land itself, as it had been stolen from their ancestors. Since then, there have been contradictory ministerial statements and numerous questions concerning the criteria for selecting settlers (war veterans, land-poor peasants, indigenous commercial farmers, ZANU-PF members), the selection of farms for redistribution (over 600 farms have been de-listed due to `mistaken' identification, including church and educational properties), the method of selecting itself (local government structures, traditional leaders, politicians), and donor support for the program.

Given the ambiguity of objectives and the inconsistency in applying rules for targeting present owners and future beneficiaries, it is hardly surprising that both the CFU and the donors have jointly called for greater transparency in executing the current resettlement policy. Those that truly need land, they argue, should actually acquire land -- not politicians and their families. Nor is it surprising that at a major donor conference held in mid-September, 1998, the government failed to receive anywhere near the over 20 billion Zim it was seeking in support of land acquisition and resettlement. Instead, implementation will be postponed while the government, together with donors and other stakeholders, carry out a two-year inception phase intended to generate a cost-effective and transparent model for land redistribution and rural development. While officials, donors, and commercial farmers wrangle over and continually defer the latest `solution' to the land question, many rural Zimbabweans are continuing the struggle by visibly occupying land and by attempting to define legitimate land claims on their own (rather than official), terms.

Urban workers are not immune to the ongoing tussle between a government increasingly oriented toward aggrandizing politicians and black capitalists on one hand, and the remaining white farmers and multinationals on the other; nor are they powerless in adjusting the shape of things to come. The threat of further urban food riots has once again highlighted the contradictory nature of the donor demanding that government liberalize the food sector while respecting the current distribution of capital ownership. Thus, reimposing price controls on maize meal and other staples this past summer at a time of runaway inflation immediately drew the wrath of multinational companies that still control the processing and distribution of basic foodstuffs. Meanwhile, grain marketing remains under state control, eight years after the initial `adjustment,' ensuring that the government can balance political risk by shifting the distribution of subsidies between farmers of all colors and categories and the urban poor. As one might imagine, the International Monetary Fund is displeased about continuing price intervention and state ownership, thus threatening the second phase of balance of payments support in danger.

The resettlement program, like ZANU-PF itself, may soon be a casualty of the government's unsuccessful attempt to walk the tightrope between the claims of the domestic political bourgeoisie, the external financial sanctions imposed by donors, and the actions taken by increasingly outraged workers, unemployed youth, and unsettled peasants.


Alexander, J. 1991. "The Unsettled Land: The Politics of Land Distribution in Matabeleland, 1980-1990." Journal of Southern African Studies. 17 (4).

Lan, D. 1986. Guns and Rain: Guerillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moore, Donald. 1998. "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." Cultural Anthropology. 13(3): 344-81.

Moyana, M.V. 1984. The Political Economy of Land in Zimbabwe. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Moyo, S. 1995. The Land Question in Zimbabwe. Harare: SAPES Trust.

Palmer, R. 1977. Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia. London: Heinemann.

Ranger, T. 1985. Peasant Consciousness and Guerilla War in Zimbabwe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rukuni, M. and Eicher, C.K., Eds. 1994. Zimbabwe's Agricultural Revolution. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Press.

Rutherford, B. 1997. "Another Side to Rural Zimbabwe: Social Constructs and the Administration of Farm Workers in Urungwe District, 1940s." Journal of Southern African Studies. 23(1):107-126.

Worby, E. 1995. "What Does Agrarian Wage Labour Signify? Cotton, Comoditisation and Social Form in Gokwe Zimbabwe." Journal of Peasant Studies. 23(1):1-29.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.