A recently evicted, elderly white farmer in eastern Zimbabwe was told by a cabinet minister and a provincial governor this week that he and his family could return to his land, while another, in a different part of the country who had survived since invasions began in 2000, celebrated a few days ago when “squatters” were moved off his land by government officials.
So has new president Emmerson Mnangagwa changed Zimbabwe’s extraordinary land story? No, not really. But it will be easier.
In Mnangagwa’s own words, the Fast Track Land Reform programme, which began in 2000, is “irreversible”. That is what he said at his inauguration and there is a background to this as Mnangagwa has protected a few white farmers, some of them dairymen, in his own constituency in central Zimbabwe for more than 17 years.
The land programme was a mortal blow to an economy dependent on tobacco, grown mainly by white farmers, which for years brought in more then 40% of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency. Unlike former president Robert Mugabe, he is not obsessed with race. Statistics tell the story of why the land deal will not be undone. Land resettlement began two years after 1980 independence. It was haphazard. Much land for resettlement was on white-owned farms abandoned during the liberation war, far from heavily populated communal areas and infrastructure.
The British paid for half of the land bought from white farmers or from their estates, for resettlement in the willing-seller willing-buyer agreement which the constitution dictated would last until 1990.
People were often dumped into remote parts of the country with a bag of mealie seeds and some fertiliser. They had to quickly build a house, feed themselves, plough and plant. Many abandoned that land and returned to the communal areas. About 70000 families did remain in some areas closer to infrastructure and created productive small farms which survive.
Some middle-class blacks were allocated state land for which they paid tiny rentals and had to invest in the land – as happened for years for whites, but the main thrust of resettlement for the poorest stalled.
The British stopped supplying money to help buy land claiming corruption an that poor people were being ignored for resettlement. The economy began to deteriorate with Zimbabwe’s entrance into the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the unbudgeted payout in 1997 of cash to thousands of war veterans.
As the economy contracted, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged and became popular in urban areas. Mugabe suffered his first political defeat at a referendum in early 2000 and war veterans and others were agitating for land as poverty increased. So the war veterans launched ferocious land invasions.
Within four years Zanu-PF supporters took about seven million hectares and forced about 4000 white farmers off their land. Judges were forced out of their offices and the law was changed to make this land grab legal.
So the statistics seem to be that about 20000 families were resettled on larger pieces of land and were intended to be the new “commercial” farmers. About 200000 poorer families were allowed onto small pieces of land.
Many hope Zimbabwe can re-engage the international community to raise loans to pay evicted white farmers at least some of what they have claimed to legally conclude the land revolution.