An Introduction to the Situation in Zimbabwe

Dinoj Surendran


Comments to

[The views expressed here are the author's and not those of the non-existent imperialist power that makes large and urgently needed deposits to his non-existent Swiss bank account. Neither are they those of the University of Chicago, where he is a graduate student. Sources have been given where possible, but if you happen to think any facts reported here actually aren't. please contact the author. This essay is incomplete. It supersedes an even more incomplete version which appeared in August 2002.]

  • Effecting Regime Change An opinion piece by Tapfumaneyi Nyawanza, a friend of mine. We were in the same year at Kutama, where he was Head Boy.

Kutama College When I was in high school, former students often came to visit their alma mater. Sometimes it was to see their sons now studying there, sometimes it was to show their wives where their personalities were made, sometimes it was because they were from the surrounding rural area and happened to be visiting home. One member of the last group was particularly visible when he turned up, two or three times a year, since he would come with a dozen black Mercedes and army jeeps packed with the requisite armed soldiers. Sometimes he would speak to the students. He is an excellent orator, and we hung on every word. The school was Kutama College, the country Zimbabwe, the alumni Robert Mugabe.

Bob visiting Kutama College. Behind him is the then headmaster of the school, James Chinamasa. I have mixed feelings about the man. I admire his intellect -- not many people have half a dozen university degrees in administration, education, economics and law, some of which were earned by correspondence while languishing in prison for political activities. I admire his policies of reconcialiation and major public spending on education and health when he became leader of Zimbabwe in 1980. I would also like to see him out of power as soon as possible. This view is not uniquely mine by any means; even his nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai, said in a BBC interview that in 1980 he "would have died for the man".

There are bigger problems in Zimbabwe than land reform

Let's be frank here: the main reason Zimbabwe caught the world's attention was because of its white farmers, a handful of whom were killed. But as Zim-bred writer Doris Lessing pointed out recently, "Initially, the only stories that were reported were about the white farmers. But the black population of Zimbabwe had things a thousand times worse."

How much worse? What most black Zimbabweans worry about are rising prices, unemployment and possible famine, not land. In a survey by the Helen Suzman Foundation in late 2000, only 6% of them thought that land was the most important issue facing the country. The corresponding figure in the same poll amongst those who said they supported the ruling party was only 14%. The figures are unlikely to have risen since then.

Inflation was well over 110% in mid-2002, and is probably higher now. One source placed it at over 170% by November 2002. One Zimbabwean dollar was worth sixty-seven US cents in late 1979. In 1999, one US dollar was worth Z$40. In August 2002, the figure was about Z$700. It doubled in the next three months, to about Z$1500 in October 2002.

  • BBC, 10/30/2002: Zimbabwe dollar plunges on the black market. Note that there are two parallel currency exchange markets in Zimbabwe, the government one (which says US$1 = Z$55) and the unofficial black market one, which is closer to the truth, for most definitions of 'true'. This article also quotes an inflation figure of "nearly 140%".
  • BBC, 11/14/2002: Zimbabwean government to crack down on black market. An interesting article which also notes that the Herbert Murerwa, the Zimbabwean Finance Minister directly appointed by Robert Mugabe, "admitted that the country's economy would contract by 11.9% this year, after shrinking by 7.3% in 2001. Mr Murerwa's announcement undercut even economists' most doleful predictions of a 10% contraction. The problem, he told parliament in Harare, was the drought afflicting most of southern Africa - coupled with 'the necessary uncertainties associated with the land reform programme'. "

There are regular queues for bread, sugar, salt and maize meal, the staple food. In some rural areas people struggle to have a meal a day. Food riots, at various levels of spontaneity, size and violence, have been happening since 1998.

And that's not even getting to the scourge that has reduced the average life expectancy from 70 to 35 years. One in four Zimbabweans is HIV-positive, there are 2000 AIDS-related deaths each week, and the country is projected to start suffering negative population growth in 2003. Neighbors Botswana, with a 36% infection rate, and South Africa join it as the first developing countries to ever experience this phenomenon. Its population of 10.4 million in 1992 only grew to 11.6 million in 2002, owing to a decreasing birth rate, high death rate owing to both AIDS and a collaping/collapsed health care system, and emigration.

One more statistic: the 'Gini' index is a rough measure of the inequality of a society. The ten most unequal countries in 2001 were Swaziland, Nicaragua, South Africa, Brazil, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia and Zimbabwe. Note that the Gini index tends to be lower (indicative of more equality) for countries with larger populations.

An excellent summary of Zimbabwe's situation today is offered by Eric Bloch, a very sharp Bulawayo-based economist. Well worth reading.

Why is the world suddenly so interested in Zimbabwe's problems?

Many Africans, from ordinary folk to leaders, feel that it's very unfair of the world to focus on Zimbabwe when there are worse things happening elsewhere in the world that receive far less attention. In January 2002 Mozambique Foreign Minister Leonardo Simao accused western countries of waging a propaganda war against Zimbabwe.

The implication is that the West only focuses on places where whites get killed, not blacks. Examples aren't hard to come by - consider the world's reaction, or lack of it, to the last time Mugabe 'dealt' with a minority group in Zimbabwe.

"Gukurahundi", a Shona word meaning "the rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains", was the nickname of the Fifth Brigade, a special army unit loyal to Mugabe. In the early 1980s, it terrorized and killed thousands of Ndebeles in their part of Zimbabwe, Matebeleland. The whole thing was hushed up, but word trickled out.

Donald Trelford, the editor of the British newspaper The Observer, was one of the few outsiders who managed to enter the no-go areas of Matebeleland soon afterwards. The stories he heard were chilling: "They began beating us with sticks and guns, bayoneting us, burning plastic against our skin while our hands and mouths were secured. They tore curtains, put cushions into our mouths. We were tortured for about four hours." Trelford printed the story, Mugabe denied it (he has since acknowledged it), and Trelford was forced to resign by the owner of the newspapers, Tiny Rowland. Rowland had substantial business interests in Zimbabwe and wanted to be on Bob's good side. The Tory British government of the time felt likewise and ignored the whole thing. The truth is out now, but how many times has he been castigated for it in the world's press? (Or in the African media above the Limpopo for that matter.)

All this sudden media attention has played into Mugabe's adept hands, allowing him to be portrayed as an enemy of neo-colonialism and racism, a defender of his nation's sovereignty against foreign imperialism, a David refusing to be pushed around by the Goliaths Britain and the US, a victim of a massive smear campaign - distracting attention from more pertinent issues. He gets bonus points whenever some Western newspaper, apparently over-eager to publish an anti-Mugabe story, has to make an embarassing retraction when its sources prove less than reliable. Or when he gets compared to Hitler or Pol Pot, since any foreign journalist who could make such an exaggeration makes it easier to say that all foreign journalists do so. Mugabe may be "bonkers", as Desmond Tutu suggests, but he's still sharp.

But it is silly to say that Mugabe is on the right just because the West isn't exactly angelic. Just because someone you don't like says there's a problem doesn't mean there isn't one. This isn't some kind of weird Heisenbergian situation where the problem disappears as soon as people start watching it. Look at Zimbabwe and make up your own mind. If things are okay, why are there an estimated one million Zimbabweans in neighboring South Africa? Why do many Zimbabweans jokingly call London Harare? Has Zimbabwe become something of an African Ireland?, with its primary export being people? (If that's the case, then Zimbabwe should have an economic boom in the 2090s. And half its current population.)

And even though the white farmer angle was an important factor in the attention received by Zimbabwe, it is not the only one. Potential investors want to know if what's happening in Zimbabwe now could happen in countries with similar problems, namely Namibia and South Africa. Many South Africans worry that Mbeki's soft stance on Zimbabwe is going to reduce the amount of foreign investment there. It certainly hasn't helped the slide of the SA Rand in the past couple of years.

Another reason is that Africa has been viewed by many as a basket-case, that the only thing a black African government is capable of doing is making things worse. Where is an African success case? In 1980, especially after Bob announced his policy of reconciliation, Zimbabwe was viewed as one of the best hopes for one. The present situation has caused many African sympathisers to sigh and shrug their shoulders while giving her detractors another chance to say "I told you so." So while worse things are happening in Congo and Sierra Leone, the world isn't too concerned about them because they were lost causes in the first place.

Incidentally, right next door to Zimbabwe is an African success story - Botswana. To quote The Economist,

Botswana ... was, at independence in 1966, one of the world's poorest countries. One British official called it "a useless piece of territory". To begin with, aid financed virtually all government investment and much of its recurrent expenditure too. Then prospectors found diamonds under the Botswanan desert. Unlike many African governments, Botswana's did not squander the windfall. Diamond dollars were ploughed into infrastructure, education and health. Private business was allowed to grow; foreign investment was welcomed. Aid projects were approved only if they were sustainable and did not duplicate the work of others.

From 1966 to 1991, Botswana's economy grew faster than almost any other in the world. It helped that its government was unusually honest and competent. Cabinet ministers did not award themselves huge pensions, mansions and public contracts. In Zambia, government bigwigs drive Mercedes limousines. Those in Botswana choose locally-assembled Hyundai sedans. Even the president, Festus Mogae, has been seen doing his own shopping.

Alright, back to Zimbabwe.

The other extreme is to assume that everything that Mugabe says is a lie. That's not true either. He blames Britain and the white farmers for the current land situation, and there is an element of truth here. And while he played a large part in ruining Zimbabwe's economy, he had some help, and I don't mean just his cronies. But when it comes to the way dissent in Zimbabwe is dealt with - let's just say Johnny Cochrane would have a tough time defending him.

In general though, the truth is that Mugabe has to bear a huge - not 100%, but 80% is still huge - share of the blame for the pitiful state of his country today. Argue about percentages and scapegoats all you want, it's not going to help Zimbabweans.

Land Redistribution

This section focuses on the history of land in Zimbabwe from 1890 to today. It is a history of suffering, inequality, whole- and half-hearted attempts to rectify inequality, and more suffering. With the odd success story here and there. No side -- Mugabe, his party/government, Britain, white farmers, the land invaders -- is blameless or completely evil.

This section is only as long and detailed as it is because of the focus on this issue by the media and others. This focus has distracted from Zimbabwe's real problems. On the other hand, it is an important issue and people will argue about it. In which case they had better argue with facts. This section aims to provide lots and lots of facts.

I highly recommend the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) September 2001 document Land, Housing and Property Rights in Zimbabwe. It far and away the most comprehensive document on the land issue that I've found, with many statistics. It's practically compulsory reading. I'll refer to it many times, and will just call it the COHRE document.

Zimbabwe had several names between 1890 and 1980. All had the word Rhodesia in them, so that name is taken to refer to Zimbabwe in this period. An accurate one-page summary of Zimbabwe's political history from pre-1000 AD to 1992 is given at this somewhat unusual source.

Land in Rhodesia

The first white settlers arrived in 1890, and the land grabbing began soon afterwards. Over the next few decades, thousands of blacks had to leave their homes. One of them was Ephraim Nyakujara, who recalls

"I have been through another land grab half a century ago. I remember the Rhodesian government driving my family away from our land at Muchenangumbo village ... We were given one year advance notice, and no compensation.... My family left peacefully, carrying the belongings by oxcart and on our heads. Those who resisted saw their huts torched, their furniture stacked up and damaged by rain while waiting for army trucks. They had guns, they were powerful, what could we do?"

Legislation ensured that the most of the prime land went to whites and that areas set aside for blacks had poorer soils and/or less rainfall. There was also simply not enough of the latter, resulting in serious overcrowding. White agriculture was subsidized, black agriculture was mostly ignored.

Some educated blacks formed political parties to protect their interests. These parties were soon banned, and two major ones resorted to armed struggle. ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo, was primarily an Ndebele party, and ZANU, led post-1976 by Mugabe, was primarily a Shona party. (Nearly all of Zimbabwe's black population is in one of these two tribes, with the Shona:Ndebele ratio of about 4:1.) The resulting civil war was extremely vicious, marked by horrible scenes of brutality from both sides. It eventually forced the white government to give up its hold on the country. Without this armed struggle, or Chimurenga as the Shona call it, the status quo would likely have remained for much longer.

Handing over power: The Lancaster Conference

In 1979, Britain invited Rhodesian leaders and the Patriotic Front (PF = ZANU + ZAPU) to London for talks regarding how Britain would grant the country independence. With such a divergence of opinion between the parties, no-one expected a mutually satisfactory settlement. However, one was eventually reached - albeit after 14 weeks - thanks to pressure on the PF by its African supporters and the diplomatic crafts/brinksmanship of the British mediator, Lord Carrington. The countries in question were Tanzania, Zambia and in particular Mozambique. The latter two, being Rhodesia's neighbors, desperately wanted the war to stop - it was ruining their economies, they were supporting too many refugees from the civil war, and were often the victims of strikes by the Rhodesian Army trying to eliminate PF guerilla bases in their territory.

The PF was understandably unwilling to sign because of all the conditions that had been put in to protect the white minority, These "sunset clauses" were set by the Rhodesians (when asked by Carrington) as conditions for them being willing to relinquish power. Examples of the less contentious clauses were the freedom of parents to send their children to schools of their choice and increased autonomy of the Attorney-General.

[Time for a quick personal comment on these two clauses: soon after 1980, there was an exodus of white children from state-run schools, that were now opened up to black students, to more expensive private schools that few blacks could afford. The growth of the black middle and upper classes reduced the percentage of white students in the latter schools to around 50% (depending on the school -- I don't have any stats on this) by the mid 1990s. My parents never thought of sending me to them owing to the cost, so I can't comment on what life was like there. Reports of racism in some of them, e.g. "the headboy has to be white", were not unommon. On the other hand, such schools offered a much more multicultural experience than most state-run schools.

As for the second clause, it's long been shot to hell, with the Zimbabwean judiciary increasingly being government-appointed. The current Justice Minister in Mugabe's cabinet, Patrick Chinamasa, was formerly the Attorney-General. ]

Other clauses were more distasteful. 20% of parliamentary seats to be elected by whites (2% of the population) for the first seven years of independence. Quite democratic, n'est-ce pas?

The most distasteful clause regarded land. The settlement said that in the first ten years, the Zimbabwean government would only be able to get white-owned land by buying it from willing sellers at market price using hard currency that could then be taken out of the country.

The PF, particularly Mugabe, threatened to leave the talks. To placate them, Britain offered help with land resettlement. To quote Jeffrey Davidow, a US diplomat who followed the talks closely, "Carrington told Mugabe and Nkomo that Britain would be prepared to grant financial assistance for land resettlement and redistribution schemes than an independent Zimbabwean government might undertake." The exact amount of help was NOT specified, according to the British government. It is hard to believe that the PF did not ask for details and easy to believe that Britain refused to give any.

Some sources say Britain did promise an initial grant of 30 million. It certainly did provide 44 million over the next ten years. David Anderson of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London says that 75 million in aid had been mentioned in an attempt to draw the PF to Lancaster in the first place. I have not found this figure anywhere else, but it's certainly not out of the question by any means. If anyone knows more about it, especially about whether it was put in writing, please let me know.

The United States' Carter Administration was more of an observer than a participant at Lancaster. Here it stepped in. To aid weight to Britain's vague promises, it made some equally fuzzy promises of aid as well.

Meanwhile, the PF was under huge pressure from African allies such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, to settle. Samora Machel of Mozambique told Mugabe near the end that if he didn't agree to it, Machel would give him a nice beach villa where he could write his memoirs -- in other words, no more Mozambiquan support for ZANU fighters.

If the PF had walked out, then elections would probably have been held without them, resulting in a black-figurehead-led-but-white-run Zimbabwe with international recognition and no sanctions. The civil war would likely continue, but with far less support from other African countries. It might not succeed, and even if it did, the damage to country and region would be immense. A few distasteful sunset clauses was an acceptable price to pay for peace and winnable elections.

The PF therefore signed. They made a statement that the British and American assurances to "assist in land, agricultural and economic development programmes ... go a long way in allaying the great concern we have over the land question..."

In short, Mugabe and Co. accepted vague promises under a lot of pressure, including from their African neighbors.

  • The Lancaster House Agreement - part of it at least, namely Annexes A,B and C. These contain the list of delegates, opening speeches and the original Zimbabwean Constitution.
  • A Peace in Southern Africa - The Lancaster House Conference on Rhodesia, 1979 by Jeffrey Davidow. Westview Special Studies on Africa, 1984. An insider's view of the diplomatic intricacies of the negotiations. I read it from cover to cover in a single sitting (a rare event). It's a gripping tale and a short book. It also goes into some detail about the disunity within the PF, which I have not mentioned for space reasons.
  • From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe - The Politics of Transition, by Harry Wiseman and Alastair Taylor. International Peace Academy, 1981.
  • David Moore, in a book review in 1991, describes the talks, pointing out that Britain only tried to bring about majority rule in Rhodesia when it absolutely had to - but also points out that this was finally done by one of its most reactionary governments in recent history.

Britain's Obligations to Zimbabwe

As far as Britain is concerned, it has no such obligation. According to its Minister for International Development, Clare Short, "we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe."

  • 12/22/1997 Mail and Guardian (SA): "Blair's worse than the Tories, says Mugabe". Short said this in a letter to the Zimbabwean Minister of Lands and Agriculture. As quoted in the HRW Report mentioned previously.

There are two possible obligations here: legal and moral. Many would say Britain has the latter. Supposing this to be the case, consider the question of how much help the new Zimbabwean government could have expected from Britain.

Decades previously, the British government had helped with land redistribution in Kenya, spending 500 million (when converted to today's money). They did not plan to spend that much money this time, especially since Kenya's resettlement programme was widely seen as a failure.

The way the Kenya scheme worked was that the white farmers would say how much their farms were worth (overvaluing them in many cases), and then Britain would pay part of the purchase price. The individual black farmer buying the farm (or part of the farm) would have to pay the rest within 30 years. Many farmers couldn't do this (why? price too high? poor farming? lack of infrastructure? I have no idea), and sold out their land to richer (and better?) farmers. Landlessness is still rife in Kenya.

One lesson from Kenya was that for resettlement to be done properly, infrastructure in addition to land had to be paid for. A British official I emailed said Carrington made it clear at the time that the scale of reform envisaged by the Zimbabweans was beyond the means of any one donor country.

That said, the question remains as to how much land needed to be redistributed. A 1977 German study said 75% of white land would need to be transferred to both reduce pressure on communal areas (where blacks had been restricted to by Rhodesian laws) and to maintain large-scale agriculture's contribution to the economy. Presumably this figure was known to the Lancaster parties.

The following remarks of Garfield Todd, the former Rhodesian PM who lost power for being too pro-black (see the first two paragraphs of the Mhanda interview) should also be noted. He told Lord Carrington in Obtober 1979 that "Land provisions should be designed to facilitate the distribution of land, not to frustrate both white land owners and black farmers who wish to co-operate. Your suggestions are not designed to meet the real needs of the country."

  • Riddell, Roger, "Zimbabwe's Land Problem: The Central Issue" in W. H. Morris-Jones (ed.), From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe: Behind and Beyond Lancaster House; Frank Cass and Company Limited, Totowa, N. J., 1980 (pp. 1-13). As quoted in an article by R. Y. Adu-Asare in Riddell quotes the German study.

Now for the question of legal obligation.

Many critics of Britain have said that she wanted to preserve white domination in Zimbabwe for as long as possible. The Thatcher Administration (and it is hard to see how any other British Administration would have done differently, in principle anyway) definitely wanted to ensure the safety of the white minority in Zimbabwe. The "willing buyer, willing seller" principle has always been part of their policy, since property rights is such a cornerstone of British Common Law.

Unfortunately, the Law makes the implicit assumption that it was always in place. Here we have a case where land was taken from its original occupants before such a Law was applicable. In the bad old days, this was justified by saying that Lobengula, the Ndebele king, had signed over such rights to the British crown in the late 1800s. This is inapplicable for two reasons: first, much of Zimbabwe was inhabited by Shona, not the Ndebele ruled by Lobengula. Second, he had been tricked into signing, and sent a group of representatives to London to protest soon afterwards. If there had been a United Nations around at the time, it would have sided with him. There wasn't and superior British armed forces won the day.

This kind of argument generally meets with the response "That was then, this is now", or no response. Mugabe himself has stuck to the line "They stole the land without paying, so why should we pay?" In this sense, he has the moral upper ground, and it is not sure where the legal ground is.

Suppose then that we conclude that Britain is obliged to help. Now what? There's the rub.

The trouble with all these finger-pointing arguments is that it does not help Zimbabweans today. A lot of Africans, African leaders and liberal First World-ers may do so, but they are simply being moronic if they think the issue ends there. Looking back in history is good, but those who do it should do it properly, by looking at the history of different countries and groups. There they will find many examples of countries and groups that have improved their lot without external assistance or by being selective of the kind of assistance received. Saying that the West isn't helping merely confirms the accusation of cynics who say that Africa's is a beggar economy, always reliant on Western aid. That may be true of lots of countries, but it did not have to be true of Zimbabwe.

History is full of examples of groups abusing other groups. It is inexcusable, but it's part of life. Who said life was fair? Some of the victimized groups keep moaning about it, others pick themselves up and move on, others stay down and die, and so on. Now, if you were a donor, which group would you feel like helping?

A lot of progress could have been made by the Zimbabwean government if it had been serious about it, without Britain's assistance.

But money which could have been spent on land reform was instead spent on luxury cars, mansions, way too many overseas trips by Bob and his ministers, fighting in the Congo and general corruption. University of Zimbabwe students referred him to as "Vasco da Mugabe" and joked about him being the only person who would travel from Harare to the Namibian capital Windhoek via London.

There were plenty of donors (including countries other than Britain which had nothing to do with Zimbabwean history, such as Kuwait and Denmark) willing to help. But, amazingly enough, they found it hard to say yes to a request along the lines of "Could you give me a few million to resettle my people? After buying a new fleet of Mercs for my cabinet ministers last week, I really can't afford it."

While it is not be relevant to the Zimbabwean question, I should mention something here for the benefit of those who feel that all donors are always altruistic. Many countries do give aid with the intention of development, but not all. Cases of country X donating something to country Y just when Y is trying to decide whether to give a large contract for housing/defence/whatever to either a company from X or a company from a third country are - alas! - not uncommon. And the less said about conditions that can come with World Bank or IMF aid the better.

Land Reforms in the 1980s - progress

In 1980, 17 million hectares or 42% of Zimbabwe's land, including 75% of prime land, was owned by white farmers. A quarter of this, or 1300 farms, were acquired by the government in the next ten years, and two years ago the figure was 29%, of which half is prime land. The other half is classified as poor land, but is often turned productive with irrigation. (Large scale farmers with lots of collateral find it easier than small scale ones to get loans for irrigation schemes.) For example, sandy soils result in the "poor land" classification, but are great for Zimbabwe's main cash crop, tobacco.

The Zimbabwean government wanted to acquire 8 million hectares for resettlement and resettle 162 000 families in the first five years. This figure came on the recommendation of the Riddell Commission in 1981, and has been described as overly optimistic and not well thought out. It was certainly the most ambitious voluntary resettlement program ever in sub-Saharan Africa. (Nyerere's Tanzania had a larger one, but it wasn't voluntary.)

It was constrained by the Lancaster Agreement to a willing buyer - willing seller scheme. "There was a sufficient supply of vendors", and the real limitation was money. (Some sources disagree, saying that not enough farmers were willing to sell.) There are quite plausible reports of some farmers overstating the market values of their farms, and that most of the land bought was poor and scattered since this was the first thing farmers preferred to sell.

In 1985 the policy was legally changed (how did they manage that?) so that a fixed price was paid, and that the payment could be in domestic (i.e. not hard) currency.

About half of the funding for this program came from foreign donors: Britain, the European Community, Kuwait and the African Development Bank. Britain over the decade gave Zimbabwe 44 million. Other than the EC, donors required the Zimbabwean government to pay first and then apply for reimbursement. This proved to be a bottleneck for some reason (not enough foreign currency in government accounts? you mean Mercedes-Benz accepted payment in Zimbabwe dollars?).

All in all then, in the first ten years of independence farmers sold 2.7 million hectares to the government by farmers and 52 000 families were resettled. This was a non-trivial achievement and one could still say that Mugabe's government was interested in redistributing land. After, this was already a larger land area than had been redistributed in Kenya. But questions were already being asked about whether peasants were really benefiting from it.

Donors pull the plug

Britain stopped payments, saying::

"This resettlement programme was evaluated in 1988. The report concluded that the programme had contributed to post-war reconstruction and stability. However, the record on improving incomes in communal and resettlement areas was patchy, and some settlers, especially women, ended up in poverty.

The UK therefore decided to support new and improved resettlement schemes. After the 1981 Resettlement Grant expired in 1996, the UK Government identified new ways that the UK and other donors could support resettlement. The UK proposed to concentrate upon schemes to benefit the rural poor and with arrangements for them to be fully consulted about the scheme. It also suggested a round table conference at which the Zimbabwe Government could explain its plans, consult the people concerned and identify donor support."

However, indications went both ways, since the same study showed "signs of potential success in the resettlement program", according to the COHRE document (p18). And ten years seems premature to judge a scheme so quickly, unless things were grossly wrong. A study by Bill Kinsey much later, in 1997, indicated that the quality of life of resettled peasants was better than those in the communal areas they had left behind.

However, quality of living was not the only problem in the scheme. The list of problems can be inferred from a look at the proposals of a Donors' Conference much later, in September 1998:

  • More focus on poverty alleviation
  • More transparency
  • More consultation with those involved
  • Integrating the resettled people with the national economy, e.g. providing a way for them to get produce to market
  • Implementing the proposals of the Rukuni Commission (see next section)


Cronyism in farm redistribution was (and still is) probably the most worrying factor for many donors. The first official signs were in 1993/4 when it became known that 98 previously white-owned farms had been leased to senior government officials for a minimal charge.

More proof of this practice can be found in a list compiled by long-time opposition figure Margaret Dongo from government documents showing to whom acquired farms were allocated. A large fraction of names on this list have government connections and often little farming experience.

However, ordinary Zimbabweans who apply for land are also getting it, and sometimes using it as well as its previous owners.

Donors are unlikely to be willing to help as long as misdistribution occurs. Which it still is - in the past year there have been several reports in the independent press of government chefs taking over large white farms and evicting those present, be they the original farmer or landless peasants who invaded the farm previously.

Land Reform from 1990 to 1997 - little progress

From 1990 to 1997, only 0.8 million more hectares were acquired, and 19 000 more families resettled. Yet the restrictions of Lancaster had been lifted. What happened?

The major reasons were a lack of both money and political will. Donors were less willing to place money in the hands of an increasingly colanderous government. The government didn't seem particularly interested in spending money on resettlement either, as reflected in its budget. In one year for example, the amounts budgeted for resettlement, a new State Guest House and telephone expenses for the Department of Defence were Z$10, 40 and 35 million respectively. In late 2000 Zimbabwe Finance Minister Simba Makoni told parliament that the country's involvement in the Congo had cost US$200 million so far and was hurting the economy. And that's US dollars, not Zim dollars. Whether this figure is an underestimate or not, remember that the last Zimbabwean troops in the Congo only left in late 2002.

Furthermore, the government had turned its interest from giving land to peasants to leasing it to larger-scale black farmers. By this time there were 750 large scale black commercial farmers, 350 of whom had bought their own farms and 400 of whom were leasing 0.4 million hectares of state-owned land. Maintaining agricultural production had become more important than land distribution. Especially since the World Bank thought so.

The question of whether large scale farming is more productive than small scale farming is a major one, and crucial to the entire debate. But even if small scale farming can be as efficient, it can only be so after certain conditions have been met, such as training and the financial capability to buy things like fertilizer.

But while little resettlement was actually going on, laws that aimed to speed up the process were being passed. In 1992, the Land Acquisition Act permitted the government to seize farms and compensate the farmers with an amount it felt was fair. The existing law remember, permitted the government to buy lands for an amount it felt was fair, but only if the farmer was willing to sell. The next two years would see it list a handful of farms for acquisition, but not acquire any as it did not follow its own procedures for acquisition correctly and farmers could and would stop the acquisitions in court. The scale of attempted acquisition was small since it hadn't budgeted enough money to pay for more, even at its own definition of a fair market price.

In 1994, the government formed a Commission of Inquiry into Appropriate Agricultural Land Tenure Systems headed by Mandiwana Rukuni of the University of Zimbabwe. Its report made several recommendations on how to proceed with land reform, such as introducing a land tax, speeding up the procedure by which farms were subdivided into plots and granting titles to those receiving the land. The report was generally considered to be a concrete and viable plan of action. [If anyone knows where to find this report online, please let me know.]

The Rukuni report was completely ignored by the government. One reason was that it favored decentralisation of the process. In his own words (from a later paper): "Highly centralized systems of government were judged as the most serious threat to tenure security for land users under all types of tenure in Zimbabwe."

Unfortunately, governments tend to like centralization. Therefore, under the Zimbabwean Government's current Fast Track Land Reform programme, resettled farmers do not actually own the land, but lease it from (and are therefore at the mercy of) the state.

------------To be continued...----------------

To come : Agreements between the Zim government and donor agencies in the 1990s (basically, the donors laid down conditions for resumption of aid - such as a return to law and order in the country - the ZG didn't meet them), the treatment of opposition parties in Zimbabwe, more on everyday living conditions, human rights violations, food availability (low), ...

The following sites give regular reports on Zimbabwe.