Zimbabwe’s New Land Reforms Don’t Go Far Enough

Zimbabwean commercial farmer Rob Smart inspects irrigation pipes for a potato crop at Lesbury Estates farm in Headlands east of the capital Harare on February 1, 2018 days after Smart was allowed to return to his land. When the riot police arrived, Zimbabwean farmworker Mary Mhuriyengwe saw her life fall apart as her job and home disappeared in the ruthless land seizures that defined Robert Mugabe's rule. Mhuriyengwe, 35, watched as police carrying AK47 rifles released teargas to force white farmer Robert Smart off his land in June 2017 -- perhaps the last of 18 years of evictions that helped to trigger the country's economic collapse. / AFP PHOTO / Jekesai NJIKIZANA (Photo credit should read JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert Boswell, a white commercial farmer in Zimbabwe, lost 500 hectares of land during the country’s controversial land reform exercise in the early 2000s. More than 4,000 white commercial farmers like him were evicted from their farms in the violent and bloody land reform program that started in 2000, which then-President Robert Mugabe’s government argued was necessary to correct a colonial imbalance in which a few white farmers owned most of the country’s arable land.

Fewer than 300 white commercial farmers are estimated to have remained in agriculture, mostly as dairy farmers. Under Mugabe, who ruled the country from independence in 1980 until he was deposed through a military coup in November 2017, some white farmers were spared from the land acquisition program if they were dairy farmers—because dairy was considered a strategically important economic sector.

Boswell is one of the few lucky white farmers who retained some land, about 279 hectares, because he operated a dairy farm. “After our farms got taken, we decided to go into dairy. … Then we got the new dispensation—and you could survive on a farm without having a dairy farm as long as you were export-oriented,” Boswell said from his farm in Burma Valley recently. “We … decided to get rid of the dairy altogether after the new dispensation, and where we had the dairy, we are growing macadamias and coffee.”

Today, Boswell, 50, is among some white commercial farmers relishing a climbed-down land reform position under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who rose to power first via a coup and then through a disputed democratic election in July 2018.

Since assuming power, Mnangagwa’s administration has made a number of changes around land ownership, marking a departure from the tough, unyielding, and anti-white stance that characterized land reform under Mugabe.

Mnangagwa’s administration has made a number of changes around land ownership, marking a departure from the tough, unyielding, and anti-white stance that characterized land reform under Mugabe.

White farmers can now survive on the land as long as they farm for export.

Mnangagwa has publicly said white farmers are free to apply for land because landholding was no longer based on a person’s skin color but on one’s ability to produce. While the decision is influenced by the need to ensure that farm land is productively utilized, it also reveals ideological differences between Mugabe and Mnangagwa.

In July, his cabinet stopped the eviction of a Chipinge commercial farmer, Richard Le Vieux, an exporter of coffee and avocados to Europe. Manicaland’s provincial minister, Ellen Gwaradzimba, had ordered Le Vieux off his farm so she could give the farm to her son until the central government intervened. Sporadic cases of land invasions still occur to this day.

Other changes include the extension of 99-year land leases to white commercial farmers, a benefit that was previously the preserve of black farmers. During Mugabe’s time, white farmers were given only five-year leases. (Farmland in Zimbabwe remains state property, and farmers rent the land.) After about two decades since the land invasions, the government has also begun in earnest to compensate white farmers and recently allowed black farmers to lease their farms.

Ben Gilpin, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union, which mostly represents the interests of white former farmers, said his union wants to see the lease process opened up and access to land given to all genuine productive farmers, not simply those on the land already but also those who would like to farm.

White farmers are skeptical about the bankability of the leases and argue that the leases, in their current structure, would not help farmers secure the kind of money they need to operate because banks require collateral and these leases can’t be used to borrow.

Although land compensation to white commercial farmers started under Mugabe, it was at best erratic. But in an overture that signals a departure from the past—because Mugabe dithered when it came to paying compensation—the new regime has undertaken to compensate white farmers in line with the country’s constitution, which says that “no compensation shall be payable for [agricultural land acquired for resettlement purposes] except for any improvements effected on such land before it was acquired.”

Source: Foreign Relations Policy (FRP)