Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, turned heads in July by signing an agreement to compensate white farmers with ties to the British colonial era for the government’s seizure of their property nearly 20 years ago. The catch: Zimbabwe’s government doesn’t have the cash to pay up. So it is turning to the international community in an effort to mend broken ties and shore up the economy. Lenders should not to take the bait unless they can convince the government to simultaneously recognize the property rights of the country’s majority of Black Zimbabweans.
Zimbabwe in recent decades has gone from one of Africa’s most fertile breadbaskets to an economy on the brink of collapse. Land reform was at the heart of this transformation. The country’s long-standing former strongman, Robert Mugabe, electrified supporters and outraged much of the international community by expropriating the land of white farmers en masse in the early 2000s. Land expropriation was one of Mugabe’s most divisive and high-profile policies. His controversial moves coincided with the waning of the United Kingdom’s influence over Zimbabwe’s laws and policies, which it had retained for a time after the formal end of its colonization of Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, in 1980.
Mugabe followed the expropriation of white farmers’ land with the nationalization of the country’s farmland. The Black Zimbabweans who were settled on the land therefore largely did not own it.
Instead of title deeds, they mainly received long-term 99-year leases to the land. And they were long prohibited from subleasing that land out to others if they decided to engage in other economic activities. Mugabe’s land reform helped to isolate Zimbabwe from the West and drive its economy into the ground.Zimbabwe’s economy is again spiraling. Mnangagwa, a former right-hand man of Mugabe who ousted him in a coup in 2017, is facing major political challenges. Opposition groups have exposed government corruption and gross human-rights violations. The government’s inept handling of the coronavirus, including an alleged scheme by the health minister to buy supplies at inflated prices from a shadowy foreign firm, has placed these issues front and center.
Mnangagwa is adopting a two-pronged strategy to face these challenges. The first is cracking down on opposition. The government shut down the capital of Harare on July 31 in order to halt planned opposition protests. And it has used the coronavirus as a pretext for clamping down on civil society.
The second part of the strategy is to try to shore up the economy with a lifeline from the international community. This is where the compensation of expropriated white farmers comes in. The government agreed to compensate white farmers $3.5 billion for the improvements and infrastructure on their former property. It is now seeking to issue long-term government bonds and to approach international donors jointly with the farmers in order to fund the proposal.
Recognizing white farmers’ ostensible property rights through compensation is controversial within Zimbabwe not only because this was a privileged group formed during the colonial era—that benefited from land expropriated from Black Zimbabweans—but also because the majority of Zimbabweans face heavily restricted property rights under the system implemented by Mugabe.
Research I have conducted in Latin America suggests that this is a common tactic of authoritarian regimes that conduct land reform. Such regimes redistribute property from elites to ordinary citizens but then deprive citizens of property rights over their land. Sometimes beneficiaries are forced into collective or cooperative farming, as in the Soviet Union, much of Eastern Europe, China, and Peru during the Cold War. In other cases, such as Zimbabwe’s, beneficiaries do not receive land title deeds.
In Zimbabwe, for instance, the lack of land titles means that land cannot reliably be used as collateral to access bank loans. While the government has tried repeatedly to come to an agreement with Zimbabwe’s financial institutions to make 99-year leases bankable, banks still largely refuse to accept these leases as collateral.This makes it hard to access the capital necessary to make productivity-enhancing improvements in land and to afford expensive mechanized equipment for harvests. It is also illegal to sell land if a farmer wants to change occupations or retire elsewhere and invest the proceeds of a property in their family members.
These complications create a dependency on the government for the basic tools for survival. Land reform beneficiaries have to turn to the government for many of the inputs that they need to produce; they need government approval to lease their land. And many are relegated to remaining in rural areas since they are loath to give up their most valuable asset but also cannot entirely rid themselves of it. These dependencies are hooks that a government can use to manipulate beneficiaries for political support, to forestall their active opposition to the government, and to keep them in rural areas where they are easier to control than if they moved to urban centers.
The international community should not fall for it. Wealthy countries should not return to financially supporting Zimbabwe just because it recognizes the property rights of white farmers through compensation. It should also insist on broader property rights for rural Black Zimbabweans. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have successfully pushed for broader rural property rights through land titling programs in places such as Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru. They should use their leverage to do the same in Zimbabwe. As is the case elsewhere, land titles should be accompanied by commensurate rights—including the ability to freely lease and mortgage land.
Even if the government won’t allow full land transferability rights, it could construct a framework to sell land use rights to users for specified periods of time —perhaps at heavily subsidized rates for the rural poor—and make these use rights transferable. That could empower rural Black Zimbabweans, bringing them greater upward mobility and potentially a chance to challenge the government’s authoritarianism in the future.