Zimbabwe’s land crisis – lessons for South Africa

Zimbabwe ‘s land crisis and economic woes have received extensive media coverage in South Africa and abroad. Woody Aroun spoke to John Blessing Karumbidza, about the land crisis in Zimbabwe and lessons for South Africa .

What lessons can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe ‘s land crisis?

The land question in Zimbabwe and South Africa borrows from the same history. Land was a resource that was the basis for political and productive systems in pre-colonial and pre-capitalist Africa . As European settlers invaded Africa they claimed land by conquest and in other areas by ruthless means leading to the death of many people. Thus above all else, the land question, be it apartheid South Africa or Zimbabwe , embodies all that was expropriated through colonial conquest and dispossession.

Are there any other parallels between the history of the land question in Zimbabwe and South Africa ?

A second and more important part of the land question for Zimbabwe and South Africa is the issue of black peasant agriculture. In spite of its disintegration and disruption through racially enforced policies, the ability of black peasant agriculture to come back and claim its place, its niche in the economy to uplift the roles and lives of rural communities is significant. Any analysis of the land question or land reform process must take into account the extent to which the peasantry, the rural and landless poor will fill the gap that is presently being occupied by large scale producers in a capitalist economy.

So what can we learn as South Africans from how the land issue has been handled in Zimbabwe ?

South Africa must learn from Zimbabwe ‘s mistakes. At independence the Zimbabwean Government responded positively – take the land and give it back to the people in line with a socialist paradigm. But then Zimbabwe ‘s macro-economic outlook shifted from the pronounced goals of socialism towards a tendency – a drift to the right, where people started to talk about large units of land and so forth. By the end of the ’80s the land reform process had completely slowed down. South Africa should take note of these developments and implement mechanisms to avoid a similar occurrence.

Concretely how did the land reform programme work in Zimbabwe ?

Zimbabwe ‘s land redistribution programme followed closely on the heels of similar projects in Korea , China and the Soviet Union . The key principle underpinning policy at the turn of independence was the collectivisation of agriculture through cooperatives . The Zimbabwe Cooperative Ministry became one of the most popular ministries in the country and received widespread public support and endorsement.

What worked well? What were some of the limitations?

Self-contained co-operatives had a better chance of success. These schemes were well co-ordinated by a resettlement officer and an agricultural extension officer. The development of skills in areas such as dams, irrigation, fencing, disease control and research did a lot to improve infrastructure. But there were limitations. The most problematic was the issue of land tenure. Ninety-nine year leaseholds made it difficult for farmers in these resettlement areas to access cash loans from the private sector. There was always the problem of collateral. The agrarian question was also made more complex by the class composition of farmers. Those representing middle class, urban values were more skilled and had access to resources, while farmers at the bottom end of the ladder, representing mainly rural communities, were not so fortunate. The Zimbabwe ‘s Farmers Union paid more attention to middle and upper end producers, those who had skills and money. But the lower level resettlement farmers were the hardest hit. They did not have the capacity to organise politically, they did not have the voice to speak and their concerns often went unnoticed. Gradually the land reform process lost sight of its objective with transfer of land becoming nothing more than an extension of the old reserve system. Important agrarian questions linked to land and its contribution to the bread basket of the economy was being replaced by new policy objectives. And this severely hampered development, particularly amongst rural communities.

Any other lesson?

South African policy makers and stakeholders must also take stock of the need for land. People acquire land for different reasons. Some want land just for the sake of acquiring land – economic status, while others want land for productive purposes – for development that would benefit the majority of dispossessed and the poor. The latter are driven by a desire to improve their social and economic conditions. So the land reform process should be a two or three tier programme that identifies the different needs for land. Right from the onset mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that needs are prioritised and conform with a progressive land reform strategy – this is important at the level of the first tier.

What has been the attitude of big commercial farmers to land reform?

Around the mid 80s, 84/85 to be precise, these farmers realised that Mugabe was not a bad communist as he was thought to be. So people who owned property relaxed. They tended to say that he (Mugabe) is a good guy, and land became more expensive. There was no effort on the part of this propertied class to engage government, to say proactively what it is they could do in partnership with government to address the land issue. So you find that there is a continuation of a white commercial owning fraternity and a black commercial owning fraternity, belonging to different unions. They do not see themselves as one group and there is no effort to link with government efforts toward land reform. South African farmers need to know that if they do not participate with government and make land available, then they are sitting on a time bomb.

Did rural communities play a meaningful role in the land reform process?

In a sense South Africa has been a bit more proactive in the area of people’s participation because there is a history of civil society involvement. In Zimbabwe , Mugabe introduced Village Development Committees and Provincial Development Committees. These were new party structures aimed to reach out to the people, but ended up marginalising many traditional leaders.

A final word of advice for South African policy makers and to all those who share an interest in SA’s land problems?

As I mentioned it is difficult to talk of land on its own because land is only a sector within a vast economy that includes the mining industry, manufacturing, commerce and so on. So one has to be careful and avoid being prescriptive, that this is what should happen to the land, because land should relate to other sectors. One must also be wary of saying just transfer land because the people want land .

You need to think about it within a wider land and agrarian reform transformation process. And this was one of the weaknesses in Zimbabwe . I think what happened was a continuation of the status quo where large scale commercial farming was not destabilized and it was the continuation of a dual process where black is synonymous with small, disintegrated and subsistence oriented at best; while white is large, organised and very productive and fulfilling to the market. My advice for SA is to take to heart the interests of local people and slow down on wanting to please the West and wanting to make SA globally competitive. Transformation must embody political, social and economic justice and this is possible. We can work together and we can build a SA that we are proud of!

* John (Blessing) Karumbidza is a Ph.D. Candidate whose Doctoral research focuses on Agrarian Reform and Rural Transformation with the Economic History and Development Studies Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban Campus). He is a Zimbabwean national.