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Lessons from Zimbabwe's failed land reforms

- William Gumede

Giving communal land to individual households, rather than mostly corrupt traditional overseers, will unlock real value, energy and entrepreneurship.

Zimbabwe's failed populist-based land reform is a salutary lesson for South Africa on how land reform must be pragmatic, safe-guard commercial agriculture and focus on boosting ordinary subsistence, small, medium and emerging black commercial farmers already committed to farming. 

In 2016, then Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe declared a state of disaster for agriculture, a declaration which allowed international donors to help. This declaration was also a clear and very public admittance that land reform had failed. 

The effect of Zimbabwe's failed land reform programme is clear. According to the United Nation's children's agency, UNICEF, around 3 million Zimbabweans need regularly food aid. Around 40% of Zimbabwean households are hungry.  

"We have not seen these levels of malnutrition in more than 15 years," said Jane Muita, UNICEF's Zimbabwe representative.  

The World Food Programme (WFP) reckoned that over a million people in Zimbabwe's rural areas will face hunger during the 2018 and 2019 dry season, which is between October and March.  

China has donated US$5m to help starving Zimbabweans in the rural areas over this year's dry season.  

Ironically, in 2015 Mugabe maintained there was "no suffering" in his country. Mugabe, who addressed a Zanu-PF women's league meeting in Harare asked angrily: "But what is that the people are suffering from? Didn't we give them land?"  

Giving back land a cathartic imperative 

A decade ago Mugabe, with the country facing economic collapse and his own leadership being challenged within Zanu-PF, launched a populist land reform programme to strengthen his own waning position within the governing party, which saw white-owned land being expropriated. The land reform boosted his and Zanu-PF's popularity, particularly in the rural areas. 

Because the act of colonialism started off by forcefully taken African land, the act of returning the land is an almost existential, deeply emotional and cathartic imperative, to undo, so to speak, colonialism. 

This means that land reform can easily be used by opportunistic leaders to bolster their support among blacks – as Mugabe did. Furthermore, it also makes land reform susceptible to populism, revenge and ideological reasons.  

For another, redistribution strategies are by their very nature highly prone to corruption, rent-seeking and manipulation – this is often one of the main reasons why redistribution strategies in almost all African and developing countries fail. All of this means that land reform will have to be done honestly, pragmatically and to expand, rather than destroy, the industrial base of a country.  

In Zimbabwe, land reform was absolutely necessary to address past land injustices, but Mugabe's land reform was simply exploiting the necessity of land reform for purely selfish gain. 

Last week new Zimbabwe president Emmerson Mnangagwa promised compensation to white farmers who lost their land during the disastrous expropriation of land by his predecessor. The white farmers are owed US$9bn in compensation for improvements made on the farms before they were expropriated.  

However, Lands and Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri, responding recently to opposition member questions in parliament said it is not the state that will be paying the compensation, but individuals who received the expropriated farms, will be expected to do so. 

Shiri said: "It makes common sense that instead of labouring the tax payer, the person who is directly benefiting from those improvements contributes towards the compensation of the former farmers." He added: "The policy is that the new farmer pays for the improvement on the farm and that money is used to compensate the white farmer, and that is government's position." 

Land reform undermined agricultural productivity 

Before the land reform, the country was agriculturally almost self-sufficient, but land reform collapsed agricultural productivity to such an extent that the country now imports most products. 

The land reform focused exclusively on taking successful commercial farms. This almost immediately undermined agricultural productivity. This meant Zimbabwe's exports income was immediately and devastatingly cut. Its food production was also immediately disrupted as productivity plummeted.  

Although some of the land was transferred to poor blacks who had basic farming skills, a lot of the best land was transferred to Zanu-PF politicians. Even the ordinary Zimbabweans who got land and who had real farming skills often lacked the commercial management skills which modern commercial farming now demands.  

But most importantly, land reform in Zimbabwe did not empower the genuine subsistence, small and medium and emerging commercial black farmers. It did not upscale them, give them access to finance, help them to adopt new production methods and diversify their products, or secure markets for them.  

The Zimbabwean land reform failed, like black economic empowerment in Zimbabwe and in South Africa; because it did not transfer land rights to blacks already in business, especially in the SMMEs sector – the real black entrepreneurs – but transferred commercially successful assets to political capitalists with no business inclination or skills whatsoever. This undermined, rather than added value. 

Land reform in Zimbabwe was not part of a long-term industrialisation strategy, which aimed to create entirely new commercial black farmers, develop a manufacturing sector aligned to it and establish industrially relevant technical higher education institutions to produce new agricultural related skills. 

Assets not secure 

The expropriation undermined market confidence in the credibility of the government's policies; it undermined the value of property and disrupted the financial system – because it disrupted the system of seeking credit based on one's assets. Foreign and local investors moved their money out of the country – and started divesting because their assets were not secure. 

There was a jobs bloodbath in the commercial agriculture sector. This not only caused unemployment within the agriculture, but within the sectors that feed into the commercial agriculture economy. 

The destruction of commercial agriculture also damaged the manufacturing sector aligned to agriculture. The sectors provided the inputs to commercial agriculture – which created jobs – which meant over and above the jobs on the commercial farms, jobs in the manufacturing sectors aligned to agriculture were also lost. 

But as importantly, the populist, chaotic and vengeful land reform also undermined the financial system underpinning the economy, market confidence which is needed for new local and foreign investments and the credibility of the government's broader economy policies. 

Zimbabwean economist John Robertson puts it succinctly: "By destroying the collateral value of a vitally important national asset, government removed billions of dollars' worth of collateral value from Zimbabwe's economy." 

Competent public sector needed 

Land reform is complicated and demands complex coordination and management of market perceptions. It therefore needs a competent public sector to manage it. 

The state institutions, whether state development finance institutions or agricultural marketing boards, that were supposed to provide new finance or skills transfer to black farmers were all at near collapse, because incompetent Zanu-PF cronies were appointed to run them. The money for development of black farmers was corruptly siphoned off. 

Zimbabwe's land reform did not include building housing in urban areas. Again, any meaningful land reform programme must include providing mass housing. A housing programme must be part of the industrialisation strategy – building a manufacturing sector, expanding industrially relevant technical skills and fostering technology development based on producing the materials for the built programme. 

As importantly, in the rural areas, land controlled by traditional leaders through customary law remained untouched. This means that the vast majority of rural dwellers are still living as second class citizens, with little rights of tenure, on communal controlled by traditional leaders as if they personally own the land.  

Although they technical "own" land, they cannot invest in it, use it for commercial purpose or to secure finance, because their property "rights" can be taken away from them the moment they disagree with the traditional leader or the Zanu-PF party or leader. 

Giving communal land to individual households, rather than mostly corrupt traditional overseers, will unlock real value, energy and entrepreneurship not only in Zimbabwe, but across the continent. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor in the Wits School of Governance. This article was first published on News24.