Are new farmers winning?

In 2000, President Robert Mugabe launched a controversial fast-track land reform, seizing the majority of the 4,500 farms held by mostly white commercial farmers. More than a decade on, while some of the new farmers are doing well, others have found that if they cross the ruling party, they face losing their new land.

Shadrach Rwafa, a beneficiary of the land reform programme.
Shadrach Rwafa, a beneficiary of the land reform programme.

Shadrack Rwafa stands outside the home he has built. He is one of Zimbabwe's 170,000 new farmers, the proud owner of Land Hunger Farm. A short, muscular man, he has worked hard to grow crops on this dry, unforgiving soil, which used to be a cattle ranch.

It took two months just to dig a well, and he is proud of the clean, fresh water it produces.

"It's like milk," he says.

Rwafa is no ordinary farmer. He is a war veteran who fought against the white minority rule which ended in 1980. In the intervening years he has been a sculptor, painter and miner. But after Mugabe inaugurated the Fast Track Land Reform Programme in 2000, Rwafa saw his chance.

Life-long dream

He joined the invasion of a white-owned farm in the area in the south-east of the country. Many of the commercial farms were seized violently, but Rwafa says his case was different.

"We didn't just come without talking to the then farm owner. We asked 'can we share the land' and that's how we came here," said Rwafa. "He accepted and there was no violence at this place. We even helped him to put his sheep on the truck and he left us some fertilizers and we parted nicely."

The farm is the fulfilment of his life-long dream. Today he grows peanuts, beans and maize and says his life has improved dramatically. A ranch that once raised cattle has been split into 252 separate units, each farmed by a family growing a range of crops as well as raising some cattle. Rwafa says it is far more productive than it was when it was commercially farmed.

The farm's former owner was not available for comment.

The progress of Rwafa and his fellow new farmers in Masvingo Province has been recorded by a 10-year research project, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, which followed 400 new farmers.

How are they doing now?

Around 10% of the new farmers have abandoned the land altogether, 33% have kept the land, but are only involved in limited production. A further 21% are supplementing their income from other sources, like teaching, gold panning or from remittances from relatives. Only 35% are really making a go of farming and beginning to accumulate some wealth.

It is one of a number of studies which challenge popular perceptions that Zimbabwe's land reform programme has been an unmitigated disaster. The Sussex University study does, however, accept that the process has had setbacks. Only just over a third of the new farmers are doing well, about a fifth are supplementing their income by other means, and the rest are struggling, are not using the land for active production, or have given up altogether. Even this sober view is challenged.

Economic consultant, John Robertson, suggests that agricultural output is only around 50% of the level it was before the land invasions began in 2000.

"Most of the new people involved who are farming the land that was confiscated from the large-scale farmers are producing enough for themselves and not much more," said Robertson.

Land invasion not over

A white farmer recently lost the land he was born on. He did not want his name to be mentioned, but he seemed almost resigned to what had taken place.

“You didn't have to be a genius to work out that we weren't going to be there for the rest of our lives,” said the farmer. “One supposes they could stop it now, but I think they do not want to see a white on the land.”

Robertson believes the entire land redistribution exercise was meant to create a system of patronage, through a pool of voters who were dependent on the ruling Zanu (PF) party.

"If you display your loyalty to the ruling party, you will get a free piece of land. If you show any disloyalty to the party, guess what… you'll lose it," he said.

Not even high-ranking Zanu (PF) members are necessarily secure. Tracy Mutinhiri was deputy minister of labour and social welfare until the middle of this year. She was also a beneficiary of land reform, with one of the biggest farms in the country. Then she began to get too close to the MDC.

"When we got into the inclusive government, I wanted to work with everybody. That's how it started: building up and building up, and then one day they decided to come and invade my farm," said Mutinhiri. "If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody else.”

The real losers

But the real losers in this process have been the 500,000 workers who were once employed on the commercial farms. Many were seen as potential MDC supporters, and were therefore not allocated any of the redistributed land.

"Sometimes we are getting by on just $10 a month," said one woman, a former farm worker, now living in a disused tobacco barn.

The farm workers' official minimum wage is $44 (£28.80) per month.

"We are really suffering, and we don't know how we're going to live. This land reform must be reversed, and maybe our life can change."

President Mugabe's land reforms have had a mixed outcome, with at least as many farm workers losing their livelihoods as there are new farmers working their own land.

The country is also now a net food importer where it once exported grain to the region. The United Nations World Food Programme is appealing for $42m to help more than one million Zimbabweans get through to the harvest early next year. – First published on Crossing Continents, BBC

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