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Great potential of Zimbabwe land reform limited by violent state?

23 March 2011

Land reform recipients achieved success almost entirely on own efforts

Report of a book launch summarised by Rebecca Pointer

Myths about land reform in Zimbabwe abound: the process is frequently described as a total failure, favouring political elites and cronies instead of the poor, lacking investment in new settlements, creating chronic food insecurity, and leading to the collapse of the rural economy. But do these media-perpetuated ideas bear any resemblance to reality?

Introducing Zimbabwe Land Reform: Myths and Realities at the South African launch on Thursday 10 March 2011, DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies and Senior Professor at PLAAS Ben Cousins, said the book is a study of  400 households located in one province in Zimbabwe — Masvingo — which has a relatively wet climate in the north and an extremely arid climate in the south. The research formed part of the PLAAS co-ordinated three country study Livelihoods after Land Reform, undertaken in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe study focussed on land reform beneficiaries of all three types of Fast Track Land Reform scheme: small A1 villagised settlements, A1 ‘self-contained’ settlements, and medium-sized A2 farms. The research project sought to understand the impact of land reform on of those receiving land, and on the local economy, and explore the different meanings of ‘viability’ which underpin land redistribution policies in southern Africa.

In Zimbabwe, the researchers found that the international media discourse on Zimbabwe land reform had little substance: the process was not a total failure, land had not all (or even mostly) gone to political cronies, investments were being made in new settlements, significant levels of crop production were taking place, and while rural economies were changing and adapting, they were not in total collapse. As one audience member described at the launch, the book ‘creates a platform for small, local narratives to be heard’ as it examines diverse experiences of land reform beneficiaries.

Ben Cousins

Ben Cousins went on to explain that in fact, there is no single, simple narrative of land reform in Zimbabwe. While challenging many widely-held beliefs, the book does not present a completely rosy picture of Zimbabwe land reform — there are also many problems: agricultural production for export has crashed, land tenure security after land reform remains somewhat tenuous, the government has done little to support people after transfers of land, and the input supply system has often suffered from corruption. Not everyone has engaged in successful farming, and new forms of social differentiation are emerging on the redistributed farms. However, the extraordinary resilience, and their willingness to experiment and innovate is also clear.

The first discussant at the launch, University of London Professor Henry Bernstein, a political economist of agrarian change , pointed out that the book is not pro-Zanu-PF and its evidence shows that some land reform recipients have achieved some success almost entirely through their own efforts and initiative, as the government has done little to support them. He said:

The book shows the complexity and contradictions of land reform in Zimbabwe (and the rest of southern Africa), including the differentiation of those who receive land.

The necessity for land reform derives from, first, a history of violent dispossession and, second, the kinds of agriculture that developed subsequently. After dispossession, rural southern Africans typically relied on combinations of wages and ‘subsistence’ farming for their reproduction. Access to more and better land at least reduces the pressures of reproduction for some of them.

The book also presents the challenge of proposing alternatives to the current model of large farms/agribusiness, and illustrates how elements of an alternative are disclosed, albeit unevenly and incompletely, by the studies in Masvingo. Moreover, it does so in a nuanced way, differentiating farmers not only by class, gender and off-farm activities and income, but also by the changes and varying fortunes of different branches of production, for example, maize and livestock. The book also highlights the South African impasse where the rural landscape inherited from colonialism and apartheid has changed little since 1994, and land reform is constrained by overly legalistic methods of transferring property rights, and by a post (re-)distribution project framework that often ties those who get land into ostensibly ‘efficient’ commercial business models, driven by or appended to white commercial farmers.

Henry Bernstein

The second discussant, Zimbabwe scholar Brian Raftopoulos and co-editor of a new History of Zimbabwe, said given the scope of Fast Track Land Reform in Zimbabwe, it would have been a surprise if all of it was a total disaster. However, this book is only the beginning; more detailed, analytical studies of land reform in the region are needed to establish how generalisable this study really is. Brian Raftopoulos went on to contextualise the book in terms of the current Zimbabwe and regional milieu.

He was critical that the authors avoid discussing the authoritarian nature of the Zimbabwe state in the book, since the focus was on recipients, and therefore elements of coercion are missed by the study. While the book shows much potential for Zimbabwe land reform to truly transform livelihoods for rural Zimbabwe populations, Brian Raftopoulos argued that this potential was mostly unrealisable due the authoritarian nature of the state:

it is highly unlikely that the accumulation from below depicted in the study can be sustained under the current regime.

The political elites have tentacles in all aspects of the economy, Brian Raftopoulos explained, limiting the possibilities for smallholder producers to develop further without running into a system of elite control and patronage. However, he also argued that — and many don’t want to admit this — that land reform in Zimbabwe had served to increase Zanu-PF’s power as the party has a substantial support base in rural areas (even if this is to some extent a result of coercion). The MDC had for the most part failed to address the land question and it has also not been able to translate its election victory into state power because of blockages created by the country’s military-economic complex; similarly, its stance on sanctions has largely worked in Zanu’s favour (so that Mugabe is currently using it as his sole election position, just as he previously used land reform as his single platform).

So in the next while, we are likely to see an increasing normalisation of Zanu control in Zimbabwe, Brian Raftopoulos argued, as Zuma’s interventions in Zimbabwe have been less effective than Mbeki’s were and there is a growing international fatigue on the Zimbabwe question. Internationally and regionally, role players have failed to understand the resilience of Zanu and the way it uses land reform debates to hold onto position in the region (where all other SADC countries face many of the same issues), thus displacing Zimbabwe land reform problems onto the region.

At the launch, some of the audience criticised the (pro-Zanu) impression the book title gave but others indicated that it was refreshing and welcome to have a more nuanced approach than the demonising discourse of western media. However, concerns remained about the ability of land reform recipients to deliver on food security; Henry Bernstein pointed out that the highly aggregated data of the Food and Agricultural Organisation are often inaccurate, requiring subsequent ‘adjustments’ by as much as 20 to 25% and Ben Cousins described how he had seen full grain silos on land reform farms at a time when the World Food Programme was reporting food shortages.

Similarly, Ben Cousins said, reports on ‘collapsing food systems’ often get presented alongside stories of South African farmers not being able to export stable crops to Zimbabwe because it has bumper crops. Reports of the demise of agriculture in Zimbabwe are often exaggerated. In terms of non-food production, 15% more cotton was produced in Zimbabwe in 2008/9 than before land reform. Henry Bernstein pointed out:

Under the radar of the state — even the local state — new economic connections are being established and new markets are being created.

Brian Raftopoulus

Brian Raftopoulus said that while Fast Track Land Reform did disrupt commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe, this was accompanied by long-term drought which created huge problems for farmers, and input supply problems which are still ongoing.  He added:

While Zimbabwe’s economic woes have in some quarters been blamed almost entirely on Fast Track Land Reform, the economic collapse also resulted from inequality, poor state choices and structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank.

This study shows that land resettlement has not been purely destructive and portrays a nuanced picture of local politics — one that will be familiar to many working in research in rural southern Africa. Despite its many problems, Henry Bernstein said Fast Track Land Reform has  subverted the agrarian regime  established by violence and dispossession,  and that it  is probably unrealistic to expect that this process could occur entirely peacefully and smoothly. The book is convincing that there is no way back to  the old  agrarian model in Zimbabwe  and informs possible futures, however uncertain they remain, because of the Mugabe regime and what might replace it. In this sense, the policy recommendations in the final chapter of the book remain somewhat gestural unless there is a very different political dispensation in Zimbabwe to take them seriously. Brian Raftopoulos added that the biggest obstacle to building on the existing potential of agrarian change in Zimbabwe is still Zanu-PF, and much depends on the nature of the Zimbabwe state.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 July 2011 6:39 pm

    ” While Zimbabwe’s economic woes have in some quarters been blamed almost entirely on Fast Track Land Reform, the economic collapse also resulted from inequality, poor state choices and structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank. ”

    What is not being taken into account is the wilful destruction of the Zimbabwe Dollar, by the Bush Administration and the national Democratic Party.

    What Happened

    Fast Track came into effect in 2000. Throughout 2000 and 2001, the economic effects were negligable, in fact the export surplus grew from 2000 to 2001. Then the Bush Administration stepped in.

    ZDERA was sponsored in the US Senate, by Bill Frist, and co-sponsored by then senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold and Jesse Helms.

    Through the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA), the Zimbabwean government was starved of credit and foreign currency, from Jan. 1, 2002 onwards. As international trade is done on credit, this led to drastic falls in tobacco exports, a reversal of the $322 million export surplus in 2001 to a trade deficit of $18 million in 2002, and a greater fall of the Zimbabwe Dollar against the US dollar in 2002, than in the previous 6 years combined.

    The Result

    The sudden absence of credit and foreign currency for the importation of goods not manufactured in Zimbabwe, led the Zimbabwean government to print local currency to save their foreign currency. This led to hyperinflation of the currency. This hyperinflation was also aided by a solidarity campaign by foreign (British) owned businesses, who wrote up their prices in Zimbabwe Dollars (not US Dollars), by merely adding zeros.

    These shenanigans by foreign governments and diamond interests (Anglo-American De Beers, which owns 90%of the trade and mining of diamonds – Zimbabwe has the potential to export $1 billion in diamonds a month) were intended to sabotage the Fast Track land reform program, by making it impossible for the Zimbabwean government to support the New Farmers with enough inputs.

    For all the data from unimpeachable sources, on what happened to Zimbabwe’s economy and why (something you will never find on CNN or the BBC), check out:

  2. mutapiri permalink
    11 April 2011 4:57 pm

    I have come to realize the complexity of the ZImbabwe land reform program. Much of history about land reform and the reason for struggle are left out when media talks. I believe in this book to bring another picture of the program

    • 13 April 2011 9:57 am

      Even the book cannot cover every aspect – however, I do believe it is an important contribution to the debate! Particularly since it directly takes on the media myths.

  3. Roger Roman permalink
    24 March 2011 10:00 am

    The book sounds great, and should go some way in countering the trite nonsense that the SA media dish up as coverage on land reform in Zimbabwe in the hopes of staving off ‘another Zimbabwe’. Is the book available in Johannesburg yet?


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