Persisting Issue of Land Reform in Zimbabwe

Lured by the unfathomably low land prices and seemingly endless lush green hills of open space, thousands of white settlers came to call Rhodesia home in the early-to-mid 1900s.  

White immigration to what-is-now-Zimbabwe was facilitated by the passage of the Land Apportionment Act in 1930, which granted 49 million acres of land to white farmers and a mere 17.7 million acres to be shared between black and white farmers. In light of this, while white Zimbabweans accounted for no more than 4% of the population, they were entitled to the majority of the land. 

President Robert Mugabe ascended to power in a newly-independent Zimbabwe and vowed to rectify historic injustices in land ownership. He initially proceeded with a willing-seller and willing-buyer process with a target of resettling 162,000 black families. However, he only resettled 71,000 families, meaning the initiative was unsuccessful because the government failed to acquire enough farms.  Additionally, the government could not provide the necessary expertise and equipment to adequately train new farmers. 

In order to quickly fulfill his promise to fairly redistribute the land, Mugabe amended the constitution in 2000 to allow for the expropriation of the land of white farmers without compensation. Land seizures were often violent, with farmers beaten, tortured, and even killed in many instances. Following the act’s enforcement, the number of white farmers dwindled from around 4,500 to 200. Though Mugabe promised to redistribute the land to the war veterans who fought for Zimbabwe’s liberation from colonization, he often transferred it to political allies as bribes. An investigation from ZimOnline found that “a ‘new, well-connected black elite’ of about 2,200 people controls nearly 40% of the 14m hectares seized from white farmers… These range in size from 250 to 4,000 hectares in ‘the most fertile farming regions in the country.’” 

Another issue impeding the progress of the transfer of land was the lack of resources from the Zimbabwean government. Even after receiving land, black farmers often lacked the necessary resources to farm productively andt the government did not possess sufficient funds to support them. Others were not trained to operate large-scale operational farms and therefore were unprepared to farm on the distributed land. Given that seized large-scale commercial farms largely went to individuals not qualified to run them, the country’s food production levels tumbled sharply. Zimbabwe began importing food staples, like maize, that it previously exported to other countries. 

Zimbabwe officially plunged into a famine in 2004. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers writes in the December 2003 issue of The Atlantic that “Maize farming, which yielded more than 1.5 million tons annually before 2000, is this year expected to generate just 500,000 tons. Wheat production, which stood at 309,000 tons in 2000, will hover at 27,000 tons this year. Tobacco production, too, which at 265,000 tons accounted for nearly a third of the total foreign-currency earnings in 2000, has tumbled, to about 66,000 tons in 2003.” Foreign investors fled and inflation reached a peak of 89.7 sextillion percent in November, 2008. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe collapsed into a nation struggling to feed its people and forced to rely on foreign aid. In short, the country fell into a state of crisis and remains trapped in resolving the issue of land distribution. As of 2021, 60% of Zimbabweans struggled with food insecurity and the country remained heavily dependent on imports to sustain its citizens. 

There has been immense coverage regarding potential solutions to the issue of land distribution in Zimbabwe. Given the circumstances, I believe that establishing a government-sponsored program to train and develop skilled farmers as well as equip them with the necessary resources to cultivate their land would serve as the most effective solution. White farmers should also be incentivized to sell their farms by the state either through financial compensation or other forms of compensation. While this process may be slower, the horrific consequences seen in the past two decades proved that when only the short-term effects are considered, the results may be horrendous beyond belief. By compensating those it expropriates, the government would likely regain the people’s trust and confidence in its objectives of alleviating poverty while ensuring that the land will be well cared for. In substance, this program would institute government-supported vocational schools that not only offer world-class education but also sufficient resources to support the emerging generation of black farmers.

While this is not a perfect solution by any means, this alternative proposal would be much more well-received by the remaining farmers in Zimbabwe than what previously occurred. Many white farmers were resistant to Mugabe’s seizing of their lands on the grounds of inequity because the 75% had legally purchased their land after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. By ensuring that their land would be fully compensated for would alleviate the financial instability that riddled them for years. 

A potential point of resistance may be the extraordinary corruption of the government. As of 2001, Zimbabwe ranks 157 out of 180 on the World Corruption Index. To hold the government accountable, Zimbabwe should be given 10 to 15 years more of receiving aid before it is forced to rely solely upon its own tax payer money. By recent accounts, Zimbabwe received close to 1 billion USD in foreign assistance. The amount of aid would increase based on the productivity of the farms directly run by students who benefited from the program as well as on the number of candidates in a given year. Any unlawful confiscation of land would result in an immediate end to the foreign aid. 

The goal is for Zimbabwe to eventually have a sufficient number of farmers who are knowledgeable about the agricultural sector and can feed the country, thereby ending its long standing reliance on foreign relief and reinstituting trust in the national government. 

Ultimately, it is essential to prioritize the needs of those who will be directly affected by these policies.Thus, the best course of action is to train individuals to farm and to provide them with land that is not expropriated based on their ability to cultivate land. Zimbabwe’s heartbreaking story is a lesson for other nations seeking to redress historic injustices to tread carefully lest they end up plunging their nation into a twenty-year crisis of political, social, and economic instability. 

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