Land: not a simple question

Whenever anyone is shouting, I ask what they are trying to hide. We’ve heard more shouting about “wars for our land” than any other issue, so everyone is probably trying to hide something. Don’t be surprised if they have all confused themselves. Going slowly through the story might help us disentangle the confusion.

One undeniable fact is that black people were driven off or excluded from large tracts of land by successive settler regimes. The aim was to leave them no choice but to work for the settlers in order to survive. Because of this, “land for the people” was a powerful slogan in the struggle against colonialism.

If we are honest, we must admit that many people became disillusioned after independence.

The Lancaster House agreement laid down that land could only be taken for resettlement if it was bought on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis, but it also stated that, if the ownership of any farm changed, the government should have the right of first option to buy it. In many cases government allowed the transfer. It was not a “willing buyer”.

As a result, by 2000 nearly every white farmer had a letter stating that he had been allowed to buy his farm because the government did not want it. That was true even if the farmer inherited the land from his father. This gave farmers who were displaced after 2000 a legal claim that brought them some foreign sympathy. The farmer was not the one who had stolen the land – he had been allowed by the government to buy it after independence.

The British government had set aside money to help government buy commercial farms for resettlement. So why did ZANU (PF) not buy more farms? One reason was that they didn’t know how they would resettle people. The Riddell Commission on prices, incomes and conditions of service in 1980 pointed out that large parts of most commercial farms were unused.

The commission suggested that unused land could be resettled as co-operatives in which the commercial farmer would be a member. His barns, tractors etc would be put at the service of all members of the co-op. If this plan had been accepted, it might have offered the quickest way of helping resettled small farmers to make a living from farming. This met with resistance from commercial farmers and government seems to have become reluctant to divide working commercial farms.

Even in the biggest resettlement areas of the 1980s, stretching from Headlands to Mutoko, people were resettled mainly on land that had been abandoned by commercial farmers during the war or on unused State land. A few collective co-operatives were set up, but government did not have people with the experience of this kind of living or commitment to make it successful.

The few successful co-operative farms were run by war veterans, mainly from ZIPRA, who invested their demobilisation pay to buy their farms. They included a core who were ideologically committed to making co-operatives succeed, though they were often hampered rather than helped by the Ministry of Co-operatives. Ministry officials lacked their commitment, knew nothing but their rule book and imposed it without understanding what inspired co-operators.

Even in the early years, a number of commercial farms were given to prominent ZANU (PF) officials. Because these farms were not going to the landless peasants for whom the independence war was supposedly fought, the British government stopped giving the money. The Brits were not angels, but this decision was justified. The corruption that prompted it also fed prejudices in Britain against independent Africa. Although the British had withheld the funds, our government did not dare to offend Britain any further.

Clearly ZANU (PF) had no clear policy on how to distribute land for the benefit of peasants who needed resettlement. If those resettled in the ‘80s have succeeded in farming profitably, they succeeded in spite of unnecessary regulations, like the rule that settlers were not allowed to have any other source of income apart from farming.

So the story up to 1990 tells of mistakes and mixed motives on all sides. How this affected further developments will need to be discussed in another article.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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